Being Cruel To Be Kind

Several years ago now I had a student in my translation class with quite severe Asperger’s syndrome. I had a special training session from the disability unit along with all the other teachers and tutorial staff who would have regular contact with her. The essential thing was to maintain a strict routine in class and to explain with great clarity not only what we were doing, but why we were doing it. And it was also extremely important not to mention the student’s condition in public, and to treat her like anyone else.

Adapting the class procedure was much easier than I expected; in fact it benefited everyone to have our aims and intentions spelled out to them, and it made for a very polite and controlled atmosphere to insist on raised hands before a student could speak. But it was really quite tricky in the early weeks to keep a strict silence over the student’s condition. I had to exert a great deal of energy to hold the class together, when the others were so aware that something was strange about their classmate, and their immediate reaction was to giggle or stare or say something mean. Many times I wished the student herself would just say ‘I have Asperger’s’, and that would have been an end to it. But we all persevered in our different ways, and towards the end of the first term everyone settled down and class began to go more smoothly. The student’s encyclopedic knowledge of vocabulary, her tendency to take more than her share of class time unless checked, her unusual manner melded into the character of the class as a whole, and she was teased and encouraged and accepted just like anyone else.

But she wasn’t just like anyone else. Reports filtered back of trouble at her college, hostile or violent behaviour towards other students, often late at night, which caused all kinds of disciplinary headaches as the student herself was unable fully to comprehend her own reactions. In class, in a calm and organized atmosphere, I never saw her anything other than cheerful and engaged, but a student’s life cannot have all tension organized out of it, and there were problems.

I thought a lot about this experience while reading Poppy Adams’ dark thriller, The Behaviour of Moths, which focuses on the life and concealed character of Ginny Stone, world-famous lepidopterist, recluse and distinctly odd person, whom we meet for the first time as she stands at the window of Bulburrow Court, her stately family home, waiting for her sister to return to it after a fifty year separation. The point of the novel is Ginny’s unreliable narration – which seems to be very unreliable indeed. There’s an incident she recounts near the start of the story, about a fall her younger sister sustained from a high turret that almost caused her death and left her sterile. Did she fall or was she pushed? Then there’s her mother’s suspicious death and the gradual realization that the family’s profound unhappiness is blamed, in a way Ginny finds quite incomprehensible and unfair, on Ginny herself. But we are under no illusion that Ginny’s rational processes can be trusted. When her sister, Vivi, does arrive at the house, she is shocked to find that there is no furniture in it. Ginny cannot understand Vivi’s feelings, and is offended that Vivi does not understand how much Ginny prefers an empty house. She spends the rest of the day waiting for Vivi to apologise for her excessive reaction.

Gradually, this narrative releases its secrets, the terrible history of Ginny and Vivi’s relationship, the disintegration of their parent’s lives, and the reality of Ginny’s nature. The action takes place over a long weekend, and is much padded by detailed descriptions of the behaviour of moths, creatures entirely without consciousness whose development is controlled by the mysteries of their DNA at every point in their natural lives. Ginny has certain set ways of describing her character, and refers to herself repeatedly as having a highly scientific and rational mind, which is why the intricacies of other’s emotions seem opaque to her. But the analogy is held out to reader, should s/he wish to take it; that Ginny is herself acting without any consciousness of what she does, and that the language and rationalizations she places on her behaviour have very little, in fact, to do with it. By the end of the book, one message detaches itself from the rest and is offered up as a provocation: Ginny should have been made aware of her own deficiencies, but instead, the urge to make her feel normal, to diminish her sense of being different, has caused more problems than it has solved. Is it not justifiable, the narrative subversively asks, that we should all be held responsible for the consequences of our own flaws, even when we are not actively, consciously responsible for those flaws in the first place? Or, to put it at its most brutal: to what extent should we shelter the disabled from the reality of their disabilities?

This is a harsh question indeed, and one entirely against the flow of contemporary ideology. And that made this an intriguing book for me. I was not sure about the ending, as I felt it tilted the question more towards one direction than another, and its very ambiguity was what seemed most engaging. Is it possible to ‘improve’ the behaviour of someone who is entirely unaware of their own behaviour? Are we squeamish for the sake of the disabled or out of our own preference to pretend that all is well? But this was a good, gripping read, entertaining and engaging, even if there was a bit too much of the moth-information for my taste. It’s described as darkly comic, and whilst it did have a few funny lines, I can’t honestly say I found it amusing in that way. Its central dilemma was very provocative, though, and made me think back to that student of mine. I don’t have any answers, but if we are to take any of this book’s premises seriously, then it is a question we should try to consider, in a way that reassures us we are not doing any member of the human race a disservice.

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14 thoughts on “Being Cruel To Be Kind

  1. I always get fussed at for saying this, but I find it frustrating how in many families, a disabled child is allowed to get away with ANYTHING. Not just to get away with anything, but to expect that other people will always do things for them. This makes for very aggravating adults. Like I said, this isn’t a popular thing to say, because everyone’s so obsessed with political correctness and they don’t want to say stuff like this even though it’s true (of people related to me).

  2. This was a great book. Thanks for reminding me of it. I’m starting to ponder my best of the year list, and this is one I should consider (although I’m still cranky at the appalling title and cover change for the U.S. version).

    You make some interesting points about the conceit of the book–that Ginny would have been better off knowing her condition. I was recently talking about this very topic with my sister (who happens to be a counselor). There are so many conditions, like Aspergers, that we didn’t know about years ago, and I’m sure it’s very helpful for many people that these conditions can now be identified and treated. But then there are many people in the past who probably had these disorders who learned coping mechanisms and got along fine.

    When I read descriptions of what young female Aspies are like, I’m pretty well convinced that my 10-year-old self would fit the description–at least a mild case. As a kid, I was considered odd and awkward, but I managed; if I were 10 today, I might be given a diagnosis that warrants special treatment. Would that be better? I don’t know. Would a diagnosis just given me an excuse to wallow in my oddities or to feel that I *couldn’t* learn to interact with others? And is our need to diagnose and treat every oddity a way of narrowing our definition of normal? Or does it expand it? Tough, tough questions.

  3. LL, that book sounds positively creepy… there’s something really spooky about a house that’s devoid of furniture; it gave me a little shiver.

    This is a very complicated thing, but I don’t think the excesses of political correctness over the past couple of decades have really helped. It’s sort of paralysing, this insistence on everyone’s being the same when they’re patently not. People with Asperger’s – my nephew included – not only face certain challenges but present them, and it’s unhelpful, I think, to pretend at an administrative or bureaucratic level that it’s not the case. Everyone seems better off when there’s transparency and education about the condition in question.

  4. What a creepy sounding book and what interesting questions it raises. Does the woman in the book have Asperger’s or is it never really clear what is the cause of her behavior? We have a student in the law school who has Asperger’s and sometimes he can be very nice and other times he is rude and demanding, but always he has this series of strange ritualistic movements he will suddenly start doing for 30 seconds to a minute or two. It is one of the oddest things I have ever seen and incredibly hard not to stare. I never see him with other students though everyone is nice to him and says hello.

  5. I thought this was a gripping read as well, but I wasn’t sure what to think at the end either. It’s a tricky question–whether the behavior of someone can be improved if they don’t understand it themselves. And should or how they might be held accountable for their actions. I can’t remember if Ginny was even ever aware that she was in some way different. In any case it was clever of the author–something I hadn’t really expected at the beginning but she challenges the reader very subtly in their thinking.

  6. A family member has what was diagnosed as Emotional Developmental Delay. Some of the symptoms he shows are seen in those with Aspergers – very focused interests, vocalizing most internal thoughts, compulsive behaviors are a few. A sweeter young man (now in his 30s) you would have trouble finding. However, he was and still is “different”. His parents did not allow him to use his diability as an excuse. They were candid with him about his disability, and cut him very little slack when it came to proper social behavior. They believed that if he was to fit into society, he had to be armed with the truth – as blunt as that may be. There were times I thought they were a little too unrelenting. But I was wrong. They called it right. Today he is happy and functioning. He will never be “like everyone else,” but I’m not so sure normal is all its cracked up to be.

  7. Oddly enough your account made me think of Lolita by Nabokov, a book I never finished, but which also challenged boundaries, though very different ones. Perhaps it was the link with butterflies and moths that did it.
    In real life this kind of thing, Asperger’s, etc., brings up the problems with a prescriptive system like legal requirements, political correctness, which are abstract and the there and then actuality of the situation which confronts people. I have had various pupils with disabilities and their difficulties over the years and sympathise with your situation regarding that student. The centre of the problem is the refusal for systems today to allow for judgement – some “universal” rule must be applied regardless. No one is to be trusted, experience is irrelevant, square rules must be applied to whatever shape the problem.

  8. Oh, interesting. I’m not sure I want to read the book exactly, but it does raise issues that are good to think about. Hobgoblin had a student with Asperger’s, and let’s just say that I heard an awful lot about her and we both were grateful when we got to a semester when she wasn’t taking a class of his. As much as Hobgoblin wanted to be sympathetic, she was a real challenge, and she put Hobgoblin in a very tough place. If he wanted the other students to have a good classroom experience, he needed to be pretty harsh with her, which was hard.

  9. Tricky question. I think any diagnosis (Aspergers, Depression, Autistic spectrum, alcoholism) can be helpful if it is seen as a guide rather than a restrictive (and judgemental) label. I wonder what would have happened if a counsellor had sat down with your student (and maybe her parents) and explained how telling people (in her own way and own time) about her condition could have helped her.

  10. Lilian – it IS tricky – and as ever, literature is the only place where the tough stuff is readily brought out to be looked over. What would we do without it?

    Jenny – if we honestly believe that the disabled are fundamentally no different, then we really should treat them just the same when it comes to the fundamentals. I’m sure they are as in need of boundaries as anyone else – they’re essential to growth.

    Teresa – how interesting and I think you pose those tough questions brilliantly. That is exactly the crux of the matter – what effect does our behaviour actually have on children, not what effect would we like for it ideally to have, and what effect can we bear to be responsible for?

    Doctordi – I do agree. I particularly like what you say about the paralysis that comes from sameness. Quite. The beauty of the human race is that we are all differently skilled and differently flawed. And thank goodness for that. Education is helpful – I needed those sessions with the disability to unit to know how to proceed, or class would have been a nightmare.

    Stefanie – it is indeed a spooky book, and no we are never told for sure what Ginny suffers from. But the cover parades lots of comparisons to Mark Haddon, so… you get the picture. My student sounds a lot like yours – and you know what, students are pretty much always good hearted and accepting in my experience. They ARE nice, and can be trusted with more information and responsibility than we often allow them.

    Danielle – I thought you’d read this too, but quite a while ago now? I couldn’t remember. It was good and the way Adams portrays Ginny is really good – subtle and clever and insidious. The ending was a bit ‘every mentally damaged person is capable of mass murder’ which was probably not really what the author intended! But I applauded her courage for tackling a tricky subject in a tangential but gripping way.

    Grad – you really DO have the best stories. That is such an interesting anecdote and my complete respect to those parents who took the disability on the chin and decided their child could take a full education. As for ‘normal’, my goodness, I certainly don’t tick that box. :)

    Bookboxed – I could not agree more. I wondered whether you would have come across this before, and figured it was likely. That refusal to judge is problematic, isn’t it? Because at the least it’s too idealistic. People are always judging and it is much better to teach them how to make honest, realistic, sensible judgments than try and avoid them altogether. We’re in too much of a grip of political correctness at the moment to embrace that sort of subversive thinking.

    Dorothy – now that’s fascinating too, and I’d love to swap experiences at some point. It is exactly as bookboxed says – the difference between theory and practice. And the classroom situation is a tough one at the best of times.

    Pete – now what you say about the diagnosis being a guide is a brilliant thing. That’s the right approach, isn’t it? A guide, that’s influenced by the person him or herself, by the situation, by the process as it goes forward. That seems the most sensible way to tackle the problem.

  11. I might suggest that our ‘normal’ assumptions of free will are no less warped and distorted. Different, yes, and so fall under normatively defined judgments and assumptions. We become responsible by acknowledging responsibility–and the ‘normal’ pattern is the one we learn–assuming that everyone else outside that pattern is either willfully deviant and ‘bad,’ or suffering from a ‘disability,’ as though it were an either/or: those in the fold are good or bad, those outside… just don’t know any better and are not capable of making ethical or moral distinctions. When the reality is far more likely that there are different ways of assimilating this necessary fiction of personal responsibility–and ways of adapting to it–which enable all of us, Normies.. and those outside the Normy fold, to some limited degree, to be capable of assuming some degree of responsibility.

  12. Being the mother of a 12-year old with non-verbal learning disorder (on the aspergers autism spectrum) i am saddened by just about every post here. Our life is full of people who don’t understand, and who somehow think that if only parents did “it” differently that all would be fixable. Some things aren’t fixable and can only be coped with and mildly improved in small bits on a daily basis.

    I’m not trying to get you in the “politically correct” handcuffs. I am asking that you each try to understand why people with disabilities still try to be in the world.

    I suggest this post to you, and hope that you’ll read one of the books on autism/aspergers by someone living inside this world.

  13. Openpalm – I’m truly sorry that you don’t find your views or your experience reflected here. Of course I fully respect the idea that people with disabilities want to be part of the world. My perspective here is to make them more so, not to create a separate universe where they are held in a kind of crystallised suspension, which might be understood or felt by some to be patrionising and limiting in its own way. All parents suffer from the feeling that we should be doing ‘it’ differently, and it matters not at all if your child is disabled or not – that sense of always getting it wrong is imprinted into the parenting experience. I don’t want to privilege a method or strategy here – I don’t believe it works that way. We do our best with whatever material our children present us with – and most of that can only be coped with, and mildly improved. I suppose I wrote this to close the gap between the idea of able and disabled children, not to widen it. Although really I only wrote it because a book took up a very unusual stance, and one that I felt it right to consider, along with any other perspective that comes my way, on all topics. I’m very sorry if the comments here have upset you, but I honestly don’t think I’m suggesting that parents are failing children or that the disabled need to be excluded. Not at all.

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