Stories of Our Lives

Although blogs have become very popular in the past few years, most blogs currently online are no longer active.  Sometimes that’s because a person starts a blog and then gets too busy to keep it going, but I think it’s likely that a lot of inactive blogs tell stories from which their authors have moved on.  Maybe someone writes about being in love and then breaks up, for instance; or the blog might be about a topic or activity in which the author is no longer involved, having moved on to other interests or developed new views over time.

Long ago, storytelling and the performing arts kept people connected to their history and community.  Through ceremonial dances and other rituals, they regularly enacted scenes that illustrated their traditions and their understanding of the world around them.  Bards recited familiar sagas that kept the villagers entertained on long winter nights while also providing stability and unity in their culture.

There’s a stereotype that autistic people are not interested in sharing stories with others and perceive the world as consisting simply of factual data, lacking social and imaginative content.  The recent explosion of blogs and other creative websites by autistic writers and artists ought to be sufficient in itself to rebut that claim, without need for further elaboration; but I think it’s instructive to take a closer look at what might have caused such a prejudice to exist at this point in time.

The psychological defense mechanism of projection, as discussed by Mark Stairwalt here on Shift Journal, involves attributing one’s own undesired traits to others who serve as scapegoats.  What might this mean in the context of storytelling?  Most of us are no longer living in the close-knit tribal communities where familiar stories brought comfort and reassurance.  Instead, the mass media routinely dish out celebrity gossip, mindless violence packaged as entertainment, and political diatribes masquerading as news.  One might say that the modern world is suffering from a collective failure of social imagination, a lack of meaningful stories to make sense of a confusing environment that bears little resemblance to the world our ancestors knew.

Perhaps it’s not altogether a coincidence that both blogging and exaggerated fears about autism spread through our society at about the same time.  When we blog, we’re trying to connect with others and to gain a better understanding of our experiences.  Maybe we can resolve a particular topic to our satisfaction before we move on to something else, or maybe not; but many of us are still left with an uncomfortable amount of free-floating anxiety and uncertainty about modern life.

It’s hard for anyone to cope with the problems we have these days, and it’s even more of a challenge to develop the maturity needed to recognize and own them.  There are some who may find it far easier to keep up a pretense of not being personally affected by the collective failings of our society—the lack of meaningful discourse, the lack of empathy and understanding, and the fear of being unable to fit into an increasingly complex world—and to conveniently dismiss all these issues as tragic symptoms of someone else’s mental disorder.  Nothing to do with us normal folks, nuh-uh.

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone did this intentionally.  As Mark explains in the article about projection that I mentioned above, there are very strong psychological forces operating at an unconscious level.  People don’t even realize when they are engaging in projection.  It takes time—and the creation of new stories about our lives—before they start to understand.

on 11/10/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Glad you tackled this. If we had a category for “Explains a Lot,” that’s where I’d file this one. For anybody who’s interested, Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow is a great plain-language primer on projection.

  2. Great post, Gwen. I’ve often felt that we autistics are like the canary in the coal mine: we respond to the dysfunction of the larger world in ways that others are able to keep hidden under a guise of normalcy. Then we get called out for it, and no one wants to talk about the fact that far from being disordered, we are responding sensitively to a world in disorder.

  3. Gwen McKay says:

    Thanks Mark. :)

    Rachel, I’d say that there are many non-autistics who respond to social dysfunction in problematical ways too, such as by self-medicating with alcohol and recreational drugs as a way of coping with their anxiety. But for the most part, society considers such people to be irresponsible or criminal, rather than disordered. Recent efforts to reframe substance abuse as an illness rather than a character flaw haven’t addressed the main problem because calling addiction an illness still locates the root cause in the individual, rather than in society.

  4. Gwen, you make an excellent point. I didn’t mean that we were the only canaries in the coal mine! What autists and addicts share in common is that our level of discomfort is turned up so high that we have to deal with it, either because we choose to as individuals or because other people tell us we must. But most people live with suffering that can be damped down to the point that the society sees them as being within the normal range (as Thoreau observed when he said that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”). A great deal of social discourse has to do with defining this range as normal, even if by other standards it’s quite dysfunctional. Those of us who cannot fit within this range become the problem, rather than the indicators that something is very wrong outside of us.

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