Hot on the heels of that excellent NYT piece on the autistic boy whose family learned to communicate with him through Disney, there’s a really wonderful essay up on Medium by Rachel Edidin on storytelling, empathy, and the difficulty of communication. There are a lot of passages I’d be inclined to blockquote, but I’ll stick to just these two:
My homework this week has been to look at the very few relationships in which I feel comfortable talking about my feelings—especially negative feelings—and find common factors.
The answer, once I stumbled across it, was so stupidly obvious that I cracked up, and then I spent half an hour writing it down and tweaking the phrasing so I could be sure that when I told him he would hear what I meant.
The common factor, I tell my therapist, is cultural frame of reference. The only way I am consistently comfortable communicating feelings is via broad fictional allegory. The friends who know me best—not just likes-and-dislikes-and-interests, but things more fundamental and less articulable; the friends I’m willing to let see me fucked up; the friends I text at 3 AM when my world is falling apart; are the friends who read the same comics I do.
I’ve realized over the last few months that the experience I’ve always characterized as empathy is not, in fact, the same thing most of the people around me mean when they say “empathy.” Mine is more like very, very well-honed pattern recognition. I am a good listener. I give very good advice. I am very good at noticing and articulating patterns and motivations people don’t recognize in themselves.
I identify with very few of them.
Although Edidin struggles with mustering normal empathy for real-word people, she has a lot less trouble with fictional characters, and the essay uses Abed from Community as a lens on her own feelings and relationships. Abed, a character on the autism spectrum, is also intensely plugged into stories and tropes, constantly interpreting the world around him in light of narrative arcs (which is meta-level joke, as he has more reason to behave that way than Edidin or me, since he’s on a television show).
I’ve always liked metafictional stories or genre savvy protagonists both because the plotting tends to be clever and because I like reading about people who like to work with rules and pattern-matching more than they’re just moved along their arc by feelings or inertia. People in genre-aware or metafictional stories tend to be more analytical and deliberate about their actions. It’s not the only thing I like to read, but it’s always fun to find a good member of this genre-without-a-name. I thought I’d put together a list of some of the works in this domain that I particularly like, in case some of the blog readers share Edidin and my interests. In no particular order:
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon (possibly coming to a theatre near you this summer through NT Live)
- City of Glass – Paul Auster (the link is to the graphic novel, not the original story, on purpose)
- Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh – Jordan Harrison (I saw a matinee showing of this in college, and, on my way out of the theatre, bought a ticket for that evening’s show so I could see it again)
- The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde (once you reach the first sequel that frustrates you, stop)
- So You Want to Be a Wizard (books one and three are particularly good for my interests, and book six has an autistic main character, but, after that point, the quality declines)
- Sunday in the Park with George – Stephen Sondheim (previously discussed on this blog here and here, and particularly “Finishing the Hat” from this show)
- Books involving Granny Weatherwax, particularly Witches Abroad
- Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Aspergers – John Elder Robison (I read this around the same time I read Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, which didn’t do much for me, through I know other people like it a lot)
- “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World (previously discussed here)
- Fun Home – Alison Bechdel (liked the musical adaptation, but not the sequel)
- Arcadia – Tom Stoppard
Are there other works you like that seem to fall into this cluster?