While working on the article from which this series of posts are being taken, I was amassing more and more data to test and develop my arguments, reworking the sentences and paragraphs over and over to tease out the meanings I was trying, and often failing, to communicate. In the midst of this process, I began to have a worrisome thought. The debate I was entering into centered around Lanza, Sandy Hook, and whether or not autism could in any way be connected to planned acts of psychotic violence. My approach has been to take this connection seriously and not to dismiss it outright; because even if it were 100% unfounded, it still exists in people’s minds, and there must be a reason for that besides simple ignorance. (No one is attributing Lanza’s acts to the fact he has large eyes.) My approach is not merely to refute or contest a mistaken belief, because that is never enough. My approach has been to seek the reasons behind that belief; but seeking and finding those reasons may lead to the discovery of some fragment of truth there, however small (and the small is often more, not less significant for being so). While reading over this present segment, I started to wonder if, by digging so deep into socio-psychological areas, I was inadvertently presenting an argument for the other side, or at least providing raw material for people who wanted to make this argument. In other words, the opposite of my intention.
This is unavoidable. If we try to argue a point, we will always summon the counter-point, and if our exploration is honest and thorough, we will be the ones to make it. There is a connection between autism and violence, because there is a connection between everything. As Rene Girard presents his three basic principles: the self can only exist in relationship to another self; there is no self independent from others; all of social science must be radically reinterpreted based on this premise. Autistics cannot be understood separately from neurotypicals, and vice versa. To insist that there is no connection at all between autism and acts of premeditated violence is an understandable response to sloppy “science” or unethical journalism that tries to establish a false connection. But is it really helpful? If autism is (criminally) misunderstood by society, and as a result autists are experiencing repeated rejection, hostility, interference disguised as support, contempt, suspicion, bullying, control, and the violation of their inner worlds, it would be remarkable if this didn’t lead to a vengeful or spiteful reaction once in a while. The proof of just how non-violent autists are may be in how infrequently this happens (as opposed to tantrums, which are entirely self-protective). So if there were a proven incident of an autistic individual being driven to premeditated acts of violence of the kind seen at Sandy Hook, we would first need to take into account the social circumstances that led to such a reaction. And if we took those circumstances into account, we might see that the wonder would be that it doesn’t happen more often. That’s the wonder that I wish to focus on.
Behaviors communicate and make up a social language. Earlier I wrote that kids might act in ways that are “against their will.” The desire to fit in is one of the most powerful social drives there is; with very few exceptions, everyone tries desperately to find a niche to match and convey their inner state. Most people are looking for some way to express who they are and to impress others. If the only glove that fits is the glove of sociopathic schoolyard shooter, it may seem preferable to being totally alienated. Being scapegoated, after all, is a way to be noticed. If Rene Girard is right, it’s even a way to be an essential part of the community! Culture seems to implicitly acknowledge this fact when killers, or alleged killers, receive a barrage of media attention and become “somebodies” for their acts. The scapegoat has a social function in Girard’s model: the most essential one of all.
Humans are biologically programmed to function as part of a tribe, whether the tribe of the family or the greater tribe of society. To attempt to exist outside of a tribal system is dangerous to the point of being life-threatening. The risk is doubled because (as previously discussed) groups generally view outsiders as a threat and treat them accordingly. For children on the way to adulthood, the pressure to fit in with their environment, to find a place and purpose within it, is immense. But what if some individuals can’t find their tribe? What if there are individuals whose “type” isn’t recognized — either by their family or society — except as a form of aberration, a medical or criminal class? What recourse would they have?
People on the autistic spectrum (which may include many people who don’t know it) are like humanity’s ugly ducklings. They, or we, are society’s anomalies, identity-deprived organisms in a world where lack of a clearly-defined identity is tantamount to non-existence. As such, they may have little choice but to accept whatever social description they can find, and submit to some kind of categorization, just in order not to be marginalized out of existence. Where psychological, and sometimes physical, survival is at stake, no matter how unappealing the social glove being offered may be, or how uncomfortable a fit, there is a near-irresistible temptation to wear it.
Choosing the role of misfit at least allows for some kind of relationship to the group, even if only in opposition to it. There is a reason killers become celebrity figures, and even cult heroes (an element usually included in the Hollywood narrative too: in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kevin gives a little speech about it). It has to do with how the alienated youth-turned-killer is unwittingly volunteering to be the sacrificial other, or scapegoat, thereby strengthening the solidarity of the group. Perhaps this is because they are acting out the deepest, most disowned (because unsafe) desires of the group, to reject the safety of belonging and forgo the need for group identity so as to individuate from it (if necessary by violence)? And perhaps this is why the heroic impulse towards autonomy is always “shadowed” by the psychopathic urge to destroy (and self-destruct).
This, I think, is the underlying “message” of both real-world events (at Sandy Hook and elsewhere) and fictionalized ones like We Need to Talk About Kevin. Since no one is talking to the other (Kevin), since no one is even trying to learn its language, the other is going to talk to us. When the other adopts society’s language, like an autistic child trying vainly to imitate the strange neurotypical rituals it sees, the result is a monstrous howl of incomprehension that, at the very least, makes an impression. These individuals, real or fictional, don’t represent the autistic nature — on the contrary. But they may just represent the autistic experience.
If autists represent to neurotypical society the part it has disowned (the shadow), then the actual nature of autism is by definition unknowable to it, hence irrelevant. It is always going to be obscured by the dark “mirror image” that society projects onto it, the image of its own pathology. In Freudian analysis, this is known as “the return of the repressed,” and it’s the theme of all good horror movies. It’s there, I think, that the true overlap between autism and sociopathic behavior exists, neither in fact nor in fiction, but in the strange twilight zone between the two. I am not suggesting that Adam Lanza or the other alleged shooters were autistic. I am not even affirming that they are the actual culprits; these remain unknowns. What I am suggesting is that the systematic scapegoating of autists may well be experienced by autists in a similar way to how society views Adam Lanza and other alleged shooters: as an unprovoked siege on their worlds.