Trigger warning: discussions of misogyny, rape, and murder
In high school I was once offered a ride home from an older classmate with a bit of a reputation. I didn’t know what to make of it–the fact that awkward little ol’ me registered on his radar at all totally floored me–I’m not good being put on the spot, and I didn’t like what I knew of him. I fell back on a line my parents, had they known, would have approved of: “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to stay after for math help. I’m really not supposed to ride with other kids anyway. Thank you for the offer, though.” Later I found out through a mutual friend that he had been angry.
“I was just trying to do her a favor. What’s her problem?” Yes. A favor. A favor I hadn’t asked for, hadn’t wanted, and was now being socially punished for rejecting. I didn’t know I remembered that until I sat down to think about writing this. I do remember that I had no idea what autism was then. I do know he wasn’t autistic. He was just a guy.
I am still literally losing sleep, wondering if or when that transformation is supposed to happen. I know logically it will not happen. I know I have no interest in hurting anyone. I know the statistics on who actually commits this sort of violence. I know my history is not going to magically impart a knowledge of guns or explosives or a desire to hurt a large number of people. My anger and hurt do not manifest that way, they never have, and that is not going to change.
But now autism is the scapegoat du jour. Now every time someone does something violent, they are speculated to be autistic. And, just as some killers who were speculated to have crappy home lives actually did, just as the Columbine killers actually were bullied, there is a possibility that there will be a mass shooter who is Autistic.
But that does not make all of us dangerous. The immediate speculation makes my blood run cold.
It brings bile to my throat and a panic to my chest.
Have we learned nothing? Have the bullied children and abused children and medicated children and other scapegoats who have done no violence learned nothing? Passing the hot potato is a relief, but it is wrong.
In college we knew the places to avoid–the fraternities that had been kicked off campus, “rapey” fraternities, as if not going to their house parties was insurance against assault. An acquaintance left school our first year after a half-hearted suicide attempt following an assault; after she had her stomach pumped we took her mom up to her room to read the statement to the university that the young woman had written. As far as I know nothing ever came of it. I don’t know where she is today. A neighbor of mine was berated and yelled at by a clinic doctor less than 24 hours after her rape after she told him, still in shock, that she didn’t know about pressing charges. Rather than try to understand how huge that would be on top of the monstrous assault on her body–her life paraded out for judgment and that moment relived in a he said/she said courtroom hell–he chose to dismiss her as a creature worthy of contempt, beneath him. That was never about autism either.
In the end, I’ve started asking different questions. It’s less often, “Why did this mass tragedy happen?” and more often, “Why do people insist that the only people capable of committing such horrible crimes must be an Other?” and “Why do we treat specific instances of mass tragedies as both more important and more horrible than the continuous and brutal violence against marginalized people?”
I don’t mean to belittle the real victimhood of people killed by mass murderers or the pain for their living loved ones. I don’t mean to belittle the internal struggle that must happen for anyone who finds out someone they loved or knew well was responsible for those killings either.
But the questions are worth asking because they, too, carry life or death consequences. They carry consequences for my life and my experiences, and they carry consequences for those of so many of my friends and colleagues too.
I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they have to worry about whether their teachers or bosses will peg them as the next mass shooters if they just happen to be loners, socially awkward, interested in violent games, autistic, or mentally ill. If my children are autistic or mentally ill or both, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their humanity is questioned every single day, or where police brutality based on their disability status could end their lives.
Lydia Brown, Autistic Hoya. “I am Autistic and I am obsessed with violence”
A childhood friend of mine is on trial for murder, which the prosecution believes occurred during a rape. I met Seth in karate class when we were both kids; fifth grade, maybe? We knew each other through early high school and lost touch after I quit. Sitting proudly, I was there when he took his black belt test; we used to work together in sparring matches. He wasn’t a monster then, I don’t think, but I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure that the seeds of entitlement, dominance, and ownership over women had not yet been planted. His ex-girlfriend spoke of his past sexual violence. If one believes everything in the media and trial reports, his poisonous appetites escalated until it ended with him dumping a young woman’s body into the Piscataqua River.
For the record, I believe the prosecution. Also for the record, I don’t believe the DSM has a word or a condition for what he is. “Monster” is not a formally diagnosable condition; neither is “evil.” I believe he knew right from wrong and didn’t care. I believe that he came to believe that he was owed, by virtue of his own imaginings of his dominance and superiority, female playthings to use and discard as he saw fit. That his playthings were human stopped mattering to him–if it ever mattered. It’s comforting to try to make a human monster into an Other, an aberration. While Seth is terrible, he isn’t, I’m sorry to say, uncommon. And it has nothing to do with mental illness or autism–neither of which describe him. It’s just that some people decided they can own women, and people don’t try very hard to stop them.
75% of women who are murdered by their batterers are killed when they leave or after they leave the relationship. – Domestic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys
“What if I told you the Friend Zone was bullshit, and that women are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out?” – Internet meme seen on Pinterest
Elliot Rodgers wrote down and filmed exactly why he wanted to kill. He did not have a diagnosis. What he did have was a community that backed up his entitled misogyny and a home in a society that is willing to let a thousand–a million–small aggressions go unchecked until they absolutely are forced to deal with the fact that women have the right to bodily safety and sovereignty. It was not about autism.
Recent media reports have attempted to suggest a link between individuals on the autism spectrum and violent behavior. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is concerned by the proliferation of misinformation which may contribute to increased stigma and discrimination against Autistic Americans. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit acts of violence. People with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. There is no link between autism and violent crime. Similarly, there is no link between psychiatric disability and violent crime.
Maggie has become interested in the idea of death. Age-appropriate enough, really–she’s five, starting to understand what happens to the villains at the end of Disney movies, starting to wonder why family members who appear in photographs don’t appear in person, starting to understand that she has three grandparents instead of four, that flowers die in winter, and so on. She had a dream that her dad died, and it scared her so we talked about it. But she is also autistic, and with that comes communication challenges. Pronouns, past/present tense, and synonyms are challenging enough for any five year old, so when she said “I’m gonna kill Dad” I took a HUGE breath and patiently helped her dissect her thoughts. The distinction of “kill” versus “die” was tough to understand. Do I think we have a burgeoning We Need To Talk About Kevin situation here? Absolutely not. But that didn’t keep me from being relieved that she said it to me and not someone who wasn’t able or willing to parse out what she REALLY meant–that her dad died in a dream in her mind, and it upset her.
For me, the usual everyday fright that a parent of a daughter feels knowing they’re walking around in a society that gives mere lip service to her rights has been compounded by terror of Othering–she’s Autistic. She is not a monster. She is not some Other. She is more at risk for being the victim of crime than a perpetrator. But a society unwilling to examine its own misogyny and entitlement problems cannot see that; they need to pretend that the Elliot Rodgers of the world are cut from a different cloth, Not Like Them. And friends, that just isn’t going to do.
My stories are true. Our stories, women’s stories, the stories of a million aggressions and hurts and assaults, are legion.
They were never, ever about autism.
Please–don’t make them about autism.