Who ARE You, Really?

Drama-MasksMark Stairwalt, one of the editors over at Shift Journal wrote an article (about me, or a previous post of mine), and brought up something I’ve been meaning to write about.  He writes:

Coincidentally, Clay has also recently made mention of Liane Holliday Willey’s Pretending to be Normal, an obligingly temporizing tome erected on the foundation of Asperger’s Syndrome.  He and I both read it when it came out a decade ago, but I’ve never had my own reaction to that book summed up so succinctly as when Clay wrote, “… it bored the hell out of me.”  Which is a shame, because the title has always deserved to be put to better use than Willey put it to.  The costs I’m talking about, the costs which Willey so obligingly painted over and swept under the rug, are the costs of pretending to be normal.

Not to be disrespectful to Ms Willey; she wrote her book, she told her story, but maybe the reason we were bored was because it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.  To me, (and apparently to Mark), the most important thing to say about pretending to be normal is the cost of that pretension.

Those of us who have been able to “pass”, have done so at a tremendous cost to the soul.  Always pretending to be someone we’re not, it’s very easy to lose track of who we actually are.  It’s a 24/7 job, this pretension, and if you do it at school, at work, at home, do you set out a time to be yourself—and how do you get there?  We’ve been role-playing since Kindergarten (or before).  These masks we’ve been holding out, and hiding behind, seem more real to us than that “still, small voice” inside who knows better, knows that we are not, in fact, the persona we have been attempting to portray to parents, siblings, school mates, work mates, all the people we know, and it knows that all these people don’t know who we really are, because we haven’t let them know.  We’re sure they would reject us if they knew.

Not without good reason; we’ve seen what they do to those who have more difficulties than we do.  Some of us were lucky enough to avoid being “low man on the totem pole” in school, at work, or wherever.  Some of us were smart enough not to join in on the teasing and making fun of whoever was the low man.  Few of us ever joined forces with the low man against the rest.  That requires courage, of the sort that I don’t think anyone is born with.  To take a stand against hatred, prejudice, injustice, one needs to at least be convinced that he is right, and that his opinion counts for something.  Aspies don’t typically get the kind of nurturing that leads to a positive self-image.

We all have relationships, and those relationships are the fabric of our lives.  Whether it’s with a parent, sibling, friend, lover or spouse, when these people tell us they love us, we don’t really believe them, because deep down, we know that they don’t know the real “us”.  We know we’ve been holding up this mask, this facade, and the person they think they know doesn’t really exist.  On a personal level, the cost of that is so high it would rival the National Debt!

I’ve known several men who, to assuage the pain caused by the stress of pretending, the results of pretending (that they’re aware of only in their inner psyches, when they allow such communication), had turned to drinking.  Yeah, that always works to anesthetize pain, for awhile.  It also leads to more relationship problems, and possibly legal problems.  Luckily for me, I never took that route.  I had seen my parents drunk too many times for me to fall into that trap.  I did, however, spend most of the 70’s being stoned on pot.  In a way, I regret the money and time spent on it, but I also credit it with opening my mind, and giving me a lot of relaxation, without the usual stress.  It also allowed some of the best moments of ‘friendship’ I’ve ever had.  I often wonder how much the cost of that has been, how much I’ve spent on getting stoned. I’m pretty sure that if it were all returned to me, I could buy a nice house.

Whatever that amount was, I can add it to the cost of “pretending to be normal”, because that was its purpose, to allow me to fit in with a certain subgroup of coworkers.  I was never so foolish to try other drugs, things like cocaine or meth, or ecstasy, those things that cause real medical problems and early burn-out.  One time, a “friend” gave me a joint that was laced with opium, not telling me that it was.  I realized something was up right away, as a feeling of utter bliss descended into the core of my being.  I started to get angry, but couldn’t say so, because it felt so good.  I did remember it though, and never trusted him again.  Friends don’t do that.

A real friend wrote, in a comment to that Shift piece:  “I don’t dismiss the difficulty in wearing that mask, in putting it on each day and navigating the social waters many of us have no choice but to swim in.  Some of us do this with far greater ease, but with no less a soul-cost.  And others find a way to be true to who they are and a place where they fit or are free not to fit.”

I would urge anyone who is still “pretending to be normal” to stop for a moment and take stock, do a little cost accounting, and tally up what it’s costing them, in the amount of stress they have, in the nature of their relationships, and in their own images of themselves.  To me, it was a bill that I simply didn’t want to pay, and found it much easier (and psychologically cheaper), to just drop the facade.

Who ARE You, Really? first appeared at Comet’s Corner.

on 03/15/10 in Autism, featured | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. I read “Pretending to be Normal” a little differently than you did. Discovering that she had Asperger’s changed Willey’s life dramatically for the better precisely because she no longer had to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. She writes: “I have finally reached the end of my race to be normal. And that was exactly what I needed. A finish-an end to the pretending that had kept me running in circles for most of my life.” Perhaps she could have gone on for a few more page about how amazing it felt to be free of this burden, but she may have assumed that many of her readers either were on the spectrum and had already lived this experience or were neurotypical and had the ability to read between the lines. There are things Willey left unsaid that might not be clearly implied-for example, she jumps from her problems with dating to moving to live with her husband in the space of a few sentences, without explaining why this relationship worked where so many others failed. But I don’t think the costs of pretending is one of them.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    I don’t know that Clay or I would disagree with you about Willey’s experience. Our point is that that experience of hers is the exception rather than the norm, and that the phrase “pretending to be normal” is a great hook for leading into an exploration of that norm. With Willey snagging the phrase for her book title, it sort of sucked all the oxygen out of the room for any other, more common or widespread meaning for those words. Willey was fortunate to have the sort of people in her life who made it easy for her to stop pretending (and relatively easy for her to be autistic even before her diagnosis), and while we should celebrate that with her, we shouldn’t let it obscure the fact that the vast majority of people like her are not so fortunate. Willey’s book had the effect of doing this, hence my boredom and frustration with it.

  3. Clay says:

    What he said, but I would disagree with you about relationships not being caused to flounder, and end badly, because of the dynamics of unreality interfering with real intimacy. Real day-to-day relationships have to be real, and most women have an intuition about this sort of thing. When “real, honest, intimacy” is lacking, they know it, because it is not satisfying to them otherwise.

  4. What I like to do, is to let people get to know me, before I tell them about the fact I’m autistic. If you just tell people up front, they start out thinking they need to pity you, or that you’re hopeless in the “real” world, or that you should only be taught what “you can understand” which is code for dumbed down math and science and such. I study history, and I’ve literally had teachers tell others that I knew as much or more about the subject as they did. But yes, I understand somewhat the “cost” of pretending to be “normal”, whatever that is. I mean, no one can define “normal” or “average”, in any meaningful way. Whenever people ask others to do so, they can’t! So if no one really knows what “average” is, then no one can really say what is sub-average! I mean, everyone seems to say they want to be “average”, except that average just means “like everyone else.” But people are all different, and that’s a good thing.

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