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.