Portrayals in Pop Culture: Adam

In August the wife and I saw Adam, a romance featuring a person with Asperger’s Syndrome and a neurotypical. And it was really rather good, especially measured against other portrayals of autistic persons in popular culture. It is always astonishing how much of myself I see in depictions of people with AS, even when the wife isn’t nudging me and whispering “You so do that.”

It’s true, I do. I’m older than Adam and my (admittedly self-diagnosed but dude it really fits) version of the autism is a bit different than his. But we still share a lot of traits. Tinnitus, check. Visual distortions? Yup. Difficulty with officials and paperwork? Yes. Socially inappropriate questions? Oh deep fried shit on a stick yes. Rage? HULK MOIRA SMASH!

Of course, when I was a wee bairn, Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnosis hadn’t made it to the U.S. yet and wouldn’t until 1992. Autism, then, meant you didn’t talk and I talked like anything. I didn’t talk like a kid. My family still tells these things as cute baby stories: I taught myself to read by the time I was three and read compulsively. If there was a cereal box on the table I had to read everything on it. I would grab my crossed ankles and rock on my back for hours at a time. The day I found out what penises were I went around the neighborhood asking everyone if they had one. I did not know how to make friends. I sort of wanted to, but I was most comfortable in structured settings like Scouts or, later, role-playing games. It was (and remains) difficult for me to look people in the eye and to touch them and I was constantly being told to do that and to shake hands firmly. I needed to look more like I was paying attention in class. I actually was paying attention as was demonstrated every time a teacher asked me a question and I answered it correctly; I just didn’t look like I was paying attention and that made them angry.

When I am very upset I stop being able to talk. I pick compulsively at my skin. I don’t interview well — I’ve never gotten a job by applying and interviewing for it. Every job I’ve ever had I’ve gotten because I started as a temp and they kept me. I’m not good with figurative speech or most kinds of humor. If I get something in my head I want to say it will come out.

So, Adam. His is the version that has more externally-directed rage. (Mine is turned mainly on myself, hence the scars and the hospitals and becoming a veritable sommellier of psych meds.) It’s done very well. Hugh Dancy spends a lot of time with reddened, tearful eyes, but he has suffered a series of very large life-changing events. He does a pretty good job portraying a person with AS without making Adam a straight-up freak. It’s clear that Beth (Rose Byrne) loves him at least partly because of (and also in spite of–I know I’ve been difficult to live with at times) the way his brain works. Adam-the-character is rather luckier than most of us; he grew up upper-middle-class in Manhattan, inherited a fair amount when his father passed (before the movie even starts, it’s not a spoiler), he gets lots of interview coaching and gets his well-paid dream job.

It’s not exactly the median experience. It can and does happen, but many more of us work a series of low-end, low-paying jobs until our social difficulties get us asked to move on (which has happened to me, though it was also tangled up with transgender issues). My résumé is a very model of stability by AS standards despite the occasional long gaps in it.

Sorry. It’s hard to talk about the movie without talking about AS in general and about me. It’s a sweet movie. It’s nice to see someone like me as something other than a socially crippled freak or the larval stage of a serial killer. It’s just the movie version of an autistic person’s life: charmed and ultimately successful (socially, financially, romantically) despite occasional setbacks.

Of course I consider my life moderately successful and I’m looking at not working at all soon. I have a family. I’m loved. I’m still poor.

There’s one thing I’d change about Adam-the-movie: After Adam-the-character’s father dies, a guy named Harlan (Frankie Faison) fills in as father figure. The role edges into Magical Negro territory. It didn’t have to be this way. Harlan, you see, is a locksmith. He drives a beat-up green van and wears a gimme cap. He is the only working class character with a significant role in the film and the only person of color with a significant role in the film. I suspect that since Adam was given a folded flag at his father’s funeral (again, not a spoiler, it’s the first scene), Harlan knew Adam’s dad in some sort of uniformed service and stayed in touch after despite Harlan being a black locksmith and Adam’s dad being a white professor at Julliard.

I’d have made Harlan one of Adam’s dad’s colleagues from Julliard. A piano instructor or something. Put him on an equal footing with regards to social and economic class with the white people, instead of the working stiff they did. I can’t tell you how many books and movies I’ve seen the same damn thing in. Hey! Creative people of America! There are rich black people! They go to college! They teach at college! Put them in movies and TV shows and books already, you crypto-racist falsely-inclusive jerks

4 Comments

  1. I agree with you about Harlan.

    I didn’t like the film, though. I thought it was too much of a pity party. My analysis here:
    http://geniuswithaparachute.blogspot.com/2009/08/autistic-movie-review-adam.html

    I liked BenX better.

    I guess everyone’s going to get something different out of it, depending on where they’re situated themselves.
    .-= Anemone´s last blog ..Basics VI: Authority versus consent =-.

  2. I haven’t seen Ben X, but it’s in my Netflix queue now. And I really can’t disagree with your review, especially the call for roles to go to actors with autism spectrum conditions. It’d be awfully nice to see more roles of characters with disabilities to go to actors with disabilities, period. We’ve moved past male actors playing the parts of women and white actors playing the parts of people of color (though I note we still haven’t gotten to the point where we have trans* actors playing trans* characters, sigh); why the discrepancy here?

    (Rhetorical question. We know the answer. It’s too much trouble for casting directors to find actors with disabilities and for neurotypical/currently able-bodied actors and crew to accommodate other ways of movement, thought, communication.)

  3. Thanks for this review, kaninchenzero. I haven’t seen Adam yet, but plan to.

    One thing that disturbed me when the movie came out was an article where they interviewed the director, and he said something about seeing autism as a metaphor for the human condition. At least one autistic self-advocate expressed the same concern, but I can’t find/remember who it was right now.

    But I was like, For real? Can we talk about disability without it needing to have a Special Meaning for currently-abled people? Among other problems, I think the “Are Republicans Autistic?” meme is related to this Special Meaning phenomenon; Lindsay at Autist’s Corner examines this meme in “More Disagreeing by Diagnosing” and “Conservautism, Revisited.”
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  4. I am slightly less reluctant to go see the film now, and can go indulge my fancy for Mr Dancy. Thanks for the review. 🙂