Eleanor Oliphant’s story, and why it doesn’t belong to the author who wrote it.

Make yourself a cup of tea, buddos. This is going to be a long one.

My last post examined the “not your story” issue from the position of having white privilege. Now I’m going to look at it from the position of someone who is marginalised. This isn’t going to be about male SFF writers who can’t write women worth shit, although there are a fair few of them around – less than there used to be. Nor is it going to be about queerness. I’m going to talk about being autistic, and dealing with the rash of books with autistic, or autistic-coded, protagonists. More specifically: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

You heard me. I’m all about those posts that will annoy the hell out of people. Especially with this particular book, which seems to have a remarkable lack of non-fans. Everyone’s read it. People whose opinions on books I respect have read it. It has won awards. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. If you love this book, I’m not shouting into your face or suggesting that you’re a bad person. I can understand why people might love it. I don’t, and this post is my explanation of why that is. Am I some kind of cynical, snarky curmudgeon? You know that I absolutely am. But I do have a bit of a point to make here.

You might be thinking: “Hold up, Cantatrice. The author has stated outright that Eleanor isn’t autistic.” Indeed she has. But then, the creator of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper has also said that he isn’t autistic. And Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has stated that his character isn’t autistic, which is a bit odd because earlier editions said on the back cover blurb: “Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome.” Graeme Simpson, author of The Rosie Project, initially demurred about his protagonist being autistic but later confirmed it. This pattern of writers creating a character who fits a carbon copy mould of what autism looks like in the public imagination, and then insisting that that isn’t what they’ve done, is a bit trying. I have a feeling that publishers now encourage authors to say straight out that their character isn’t autistic, or some fudge along the lines of “well he’s certainly quirky and odd, but lots of people are! We don’t need any labels for people who just march to the beat of their own drum!”

Is the character of Eleanor Oliphant representative of what autism really looks like? No. Is it what the stereotype looks like? To every last detail except one: she’s female. But she interprets what everyone says literally. She’s completely unable to have a social interaction that doesn’t turn weird. Nobody likes her. She lives her life to a rigid timetable that never changes. She’s fussy about food and eats the same thing for dinner every night. Her thinking is entirely black-and-white and everything is either good or bad. She is quite brilliant with numbers, however, and a crossword wiz. So the question of whether or not Eleanor is supposed to read as autistic is one that isn’t going to go away. If you look through reviews, at least half of them assume that she is. For my part, I think that the author did intend to make her autistic and is being a touch disingenuous when she says that she didn’t. But let’s look at this from two angles. The “Eleanor is really autistic” angle and the “Eleanor is really just traumatised and lonely” angle.

It’s very trendy, at the moment, to write characters coded as autistic. There have been several hits in books, films and television, that feature a particular kind of character. Usually, though not always, male. Usually, though not always, with savant-type abilities in some suitably nerdy subject. If not a savant as such, they are still very academically gifted. They are socially inept to the point of being flagrantly offensive and oblivious to it. They have no understanding of sarcasm or irony. Usually these characters are written by someone who isn’t autistic. Sometimes they admit that the character is supposed to be autistic, and sometimes they don’t. Claiming that the character isn’t autistic seems to be a good defence against irate autistic people like me saying “can you not with this terrible representation and encouraging people to laugh at us? You know it’s ableist, right?”

The level of research is usually fairly minimal. Let’s consider the wildly successful Rosie trilogy by Graeme Simpson. Like EOiCF it has been extremely successful. Like EOiCF it has been lauded by people who aren’t on the spectrum for its incredibly positive portrayal of autistic people looking for love. It’s possible for autistic people to be loved, too! Who knew? (As a spectrumite who’s been extremely happily married for seven years, FUCK. YOU, you patronising motherfucker.) Anyway. Like EOiCF, it has not been well-received by Actually Autistic people.

And the writer, who is not autistic, has not bothered to research the topic in much depth.

Did you do a lot of research on Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism?

I did read a couple of technical books and a couple of memoirs but their influence on the character of Don Tillman was minimal… Don is not a bunch of symptoms – he’s a quirky guy who probably would be diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum – but I don’t claim to be an expert.

WELL THAT’S OK THEN. NO REAL RESEARCH OR EXPERTISE REQUIRED TO WRITE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A PERSON WHO IS MARGINALISED BECAUSE THEIR BRAIN WORKS IN A DIFFERENT WAY FROM YOURS.

These characters follow a particular pattern. They are wedded to their routines, to the point of HILARITY. They are totally black and white in their thinking. They take everything you say completely literally. They are absolutely HILARIOUS in how socially inept they are. SO FUNNY, GUYS! It’s HILARIOUS how their complete failure to interact with anyone without offending them has made them friendless and miserable. Nobody loves them. Sometimes someone who’s a really lovely person puts up with being constantly insulted, as with the character Raymond in EOiCF. The reader is supposed to find them endearing and sweet in their inept flailing. Bizarrely, Eleanor is supposed to be 30 in 2017 but she thinks like a 90-year-old who might actually be dead. This woman has a job in an office, where she uses a computer every day. Don’t give me any bullshit about her not knowing the difference between a desktop and a laptop computer. Don’t tell me she knows nothing about smart phones.

As with the books I mentioned in my last post, which are written with the white reader in mind, these are written with the neurotypical reader in mind. “I’d be Eleanor’s friend,” you’re supposed to think. “I’d save her from this loneliness. I am such a good person, like Raymond. That’s who I am.” This is, of course, despite the facts that a) Raymond has no reason whatsoever to pursue a friendship with Eleanor. It’s not as though she’s nice to him – at least not for some time into the story and b) millions of people have read this book and no doubt identified with Raymond, but the reality is that if even a tenth of them were actually determined to befriend the friendless, there wouldn’t be any outcasts.

The books are often, but not always, written in close first person POV. This is really quite a ballsy thing to do. Another person’s brain wiring is so very different from your own that they have a total failure (apparently) to interact with your world and your culture in any way other than offending people and being bewildered all the time, and you think you understand them enough to write a close first about them? A problem that we autistic peeps have faced from the beginning is that people look at our behaviour, and make assumptions about what our inner worlds are like. They present those inner worlds as though they are accurate, but they absolutely do not understand what it’s really like. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t dwell on it now. But some of the things they miss are:

  • The anxiety. The intense, blistering anxiety that cuts into everything. I’ve written about our anxiety before, so I won’t go into too much depth here. The fear of living in a world that often rejects, that often doesn’t make sense, that isn’t set up for people like us. The fear that, however hard we try, everyone else is laughing at us. I know it looks like we just go around being HILARIOUSLY INEPT (oh my sides!) and not even realising we’ve missed anything at all, because that makes for dramatic irony and readers lap that shit up. So, so funny to laugh at another person’s constant misunderstanding. For the record, yes, we do usually notice when we’ve fucked up.
  • The sensory experience, which is probably what we ourselves would consider the defining element of being autistic. Our senses are weird. Sometimes they’re wonderful. Sometimes they’re too damn much. Neurotypical authors ignore them. Probably because they aren’t funny enough.
  • The fact that we can learn, and do learn. Yes, even that tricky social stuff. And then we perform neurotypicality. We put on masks. It’s exhausting but we do it. The typical (if such a person exists) autistic adult without additional disabilities does not make mistakes at the level that Eleanor does, because learning to fake neurotypical has been such a vital skill.
  • We do care about rejection, and we know that we care. Part of the unreliable narrator bit here is that Eleanor thinks that she doesn’t care. She is completely unaware of her own needs until someone else points them out. That’s not how autism works. It would be much more likely that an autistic character knows they want friends but has been continually rejected for being weird, off-putting, too honest; having odd body language.

Imagine for a moment that you’re autistic. Right, that’s probably all the research you need to do in order to put yourself into one of our heads and write a novel. Ahem. Imagine for a moment that you’re actually autistic. You’ve gone through life making mistakes and having people laugh at you. Teenage years were grim. You could almost wish that you were one of these characters, who screws up constantly and doesn’t even notice. But the fact is that you do notice the jeers when you get it wrong. You’ve become anxious about it, which only makes social interaction harder.

Imagine reading the scene in EOiCF in which Eleanor goes for a bikini wax because she’s developed a crush on someone and thinks that this is the next appropriate step. I’ve seen people say, over and over, that this is a humour high point of the book. She goes in, she gets everything wrong, she says completely inappropriate things, the beauty therapist attending is horrified, yada yada the funniest omg so great amirite. Of course she’s oblivious to how much she’s screwed up. Her feelings aren’t hurt. It’s fine to laugh at her.

Now imagine being actually autistic, developing a crush, wondering if it’s going to lead somewhere and what the expectations are if it does. You get frozen up with anxiety, because this seems like the kind of situation where you could get it horribly wrong and be laughed at. You don’t know which way to go with it. Is this just expected of anyone who wants to start a relationship these days? Do you really have to go and get your bits out for a stranger? What if you get in there and you don’t know what to do? What are you supposed to do? Oh God, how do other people cope with this? A stranger touching you, looking at your body… it could get really weird. What are you supposed to do? They’re professionals, right? They’ll know how this works, and set you at your ease. There’s no way that this kind of scene, and your social mistakes therein, would be played for laughs, is there?

Of course it gets played out for laughs in fiction, because your teenage years have never ended. Except that now the people laughing at the mistakes have persuaded themselves that they’re the good guys, who’d support this person and save her from her own life and HILARIOUS (medic! I think I’ve broken something!) ineptitude. This is what these books do. But it’s not really all that different, when it comes down to it, from laughing at a story in which a blind character is thrown into an unfamiliar room full of breakable stuff, and goes around accidentally crashing into things.

In an interview, Graeme Simpson of the Rosie trilogy gets asked directly and has an explanation for why it’s ok to laugh at autistic people’s social difficulties.

How do you feel about using autism / Asperger’s as a source of humour?

Don is a person with big strengths (high intelligence) and weaknesses (poor social skills). I see him as atypical rather than disabled. Most stories, drama or comedy, require the hero to overcome a weakness to achieve their goal.

No, most stories require a hero to overcome a flaw. Which can be that the character is angry, impulsive, jealous, suspicious, runs away from commitment, indecisive, self-absorbed, selfish, proud, holier-than-thou, overbearing… not fucking disabled. Of course Simpson doesn’t want to think of him as being disabled, because then he’d be a dick for making fun of those difficulties, right? Many autistic people don’t consider themselves disabled, and that’s their call, of course. I hold with the social model of disability. Right now, at home in my study, where everything is quiet and calm and predictable, I’m not disabled. Out there in the world, I am effectively disabled. Every day. When I was talking to a bunch of other autistic adults, something that one guy said stuck in my head. “What  neurotypical people don’t realise is that every time we leave the house, we know we’re going to be putting ourselves through some level of psychological distress.” It’s true. But we do it anyway, because we have to.

If you think that these representations don’t factor into how people treat us in real life, you’re wrong. When I was first diagnosed, people were generally quite happy to admit that they knew nothing about autism, and to listen to what I said. Now I come face to face with stereotypes from fiction all the time. I had one new colleague who said “Wow, you’re autistic! Are you some kind of maths genius? Do you not understand sarcasm? Is nobody allowed to touch you, ever?” and on and on, and when she got to “do you refuse to eat any food that’s yellow?” I finally pointed out to her that no, I am not Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Which should be obvious, because I was meeting her in the context of a full time job that Christopher would not have been able to do. That’s just one example of this. I have many others. Over and over I’ve heard other autistic people say that they wish people would stop comparing them to Sheldon Cooper.

We’ve lost control of the narrative. It’s become “oh you know those people. You know what they’re like.” So I have no attachment to Eleanor Oliphant as an autistic character. I’d be fine if she wasn’t, except that then she’d have to be something else instead, and exactly what would that be?

“She’s not autistic,” people (including the author) say in patronising tones. “She’s just lonely and traumatised. She had a terrible abusive mother, and then went through the care system, being misunderstood, and now she’s mentally ill. That’s why she is the way she is.”

Really?

Well, that’s okay then.

No, wait. It isn’t. You know who’s also a marginalised and misunderstood group of people? Those who’ve had abusive parents and been through the care system. And also people with mental health problems. So maybe we should give a damn about getting those characters right as well.

I was raised by my own biological parents and as such don’t have direct experience of being in foster care. But I used to work in a project that supported kids in the care system, and the ones who ended up being referred for our services were especially vulnerable. Most of the kids in care come from parents who love them but are unable to meet their needs, usually because of addiction or severe and intractable mental illness. Other kids have suffered abuse that is utterly sickening – I’ll leave it at that. Most of our younguns were aged 13-18, and they’d been through many different residential homes and foster homes. They were also trying to be ordinary teenagers and move on from the bad start they got in life. They constantly met people’s assumptions about who they were and where they were headed and, as I’ve said, fiction informs these assumptions.

Being in care is hard. Kids often still love the parents who’ve hurt them. Through no fault of their own they’re now in a situation where adults in their lives are all paid to interact with them, and those adults come and go. The social worker they connected with goes on maternity leave and is replaced by someone else. They may be separated from siblings. They may end up moving from one placement to another, changing schools, not knowing what the future will bring. It’s not easy.

But the depictions in the book are so stupid. The papers that Eleanor finds from her records would have been from around 2000, I believe, when she was 12. These papers are a nonsense. There is no way that her foster carers would not have known about the fire: social services would have considered it a duty of care to inform them. Sure, this kind of sensitive information is handed out on a need-to-know basis. Foster carers are hella in the need to know category. They would likely have gone through training about the effects of trauma on children. They would likely be familiar with all sorts of triggers for troubled kids: the idea that they would want her to move on because “she refuses to carry out basic household chores like lighting the fire and clearing the ashes” is silly. (How much time does one household spend on these two things, that they represent what “household chores” mean to them?) Being argumentative, being anxious, responding in terror to being sent to her room as punishment (remember: the foster carers would KNOW that her mum used to lock her in a cupboard): these are not the kinds of issues that would typically cause a placement to break down. These are the kind of issues that foster carers expect to face. Being physically violent or sexually inappropriate with other children, trashing the house, sneaking out at 4am and hanging out in dangerous places, stealing or setting fire to things – these are the kinds of things that make placements break down. The foster carers have a duty of care to admit it if they can’t keep all the kids in their house safe.

So let’s check out some specifics.

By the age of 12, Eleanor would not have been excluded from the review meeting, only to have all the decisions made with no input from her. It’s far from empowering for a kid to be in a meeting with a bunch of adults who are ultimately going to decide where she lives, but she would at least be consulted, and her opinions noted. Eleanor would have been in psychotherapy to help with her trauma. She would have been supported by CAHMS and likely transferred over to adult mental health services at 18.

When the social worker visits her in the book, she introduces herself as “June Mullen, Social Work” which immediately makes no sense. I mean it would be more likely to be “Hi, I’m June, we spoke on the phone. Can I come in please?” But whatever. At the very least, “June Mullen from Glasgow Department of Social Services” would actually make sense. Then she hasn’t read the file. That wouldn’t happen. She doesn’t ask about Eleanor’s social life, which is something she definitely would do. She focuses on the details of the abuse of two decades earlier rather than on Eleanor’s welfare at the time of the visit. She says that Eleanor must miss her mother – that wouldn’t happen. She expresses no concern about Eleanor’s regular communication with someone whom June definitely knows is dead. She eventually wanders off without really achieving anything, which is unlikely. Social workers’ time is valuable: they’re only going to come round if it looks like this person is vulnerable, and if they’re vulnerable, they will discuss what the person’s needs are and how they can best be met. If there’s nothing to discuss, social services will begin to retreat from the client’s life. If it feels like I’m splitting hairs here, it’s because all of these little mistakes give the distinct impression that Honeyman never did bother to look into what one of these visits looks like.

Foster carers are indeed doing a job, with pay, and that can affect the relationship they have with the kids. Many different agencies can be involved in foster placements, so there are a range of different rules that they follow. But in most cases the carers get an allowance for the living expenses of the child, which is kept separate from the money that they earn. Part of this allowance will be pocket money which carers are expected to give to the kids: this is non-negotiable, because it teaches children about budgeting and helps them to have an active social life. Carers are not allowed to give the foster kids less favourable treatment than their own kids. The system is set up specifically to avoid the kind of situation where Eleanor frets that her foster carers are being paid to take care of her and they shouldn’t have to pay the expenses thereof from that money. Now look, I know that sometimes things go wrong; sometimes foster carers are bastards and don’t do what they’re supposed to. Sometimes social workers are useless. What bothers me is that I don’t think that Honeyman bothered to find any of this out. What she was interested in doing was setting up a Dickensian situation in which there was only pain for Eleanor. Accuracy be damned. My personal hunch about Eleanor’s particular brand of weirdness is this: I think Honeyman learned that children who’ve experienced neglect in early life can present like autistic kids, and away she went.

It’s true when we’re talking about young children. A toddler who hasn’t had much positive interaction with adults doesn’t know to smile at them or to make eye contact. The kid may scream when touched, not because of sensory overload but because of fear that the touch may turn into pain. If you don’t talk to a kid, cuddle them, care for them, their development of both speech and social skills is delayed. They may seem to be indifferent to human contact because they don’t associate it with being nurtured.

These kids often live with learning disabilities; often they struggle at school. There’s a condition called Reactive Attachment Disorder that can affect kids who’ve not been nurtured early in life and now don’t know how to bond with someone. They are anxious, aggressive, highly strung and have poor impulse control. It must be hellish inside the minds of these kids. It’s pretty rough for the carers too. Children who’ve been severely neglected or abused show delays in the development of the hippocampus, frontal cortex and the brain’s reward systems. The amygdala tends to be enlarged. These things can make abuse look like autism. IN YOUNG CHILDREN. Not in adults. And it certainly doesn’t look like the weird kind of autism that Eleanor seems to have. For one thing, it does not make for brilliance at school. A brain that is permanently wired into survival mode (and an enlarged amygdala will do that to you) is one that will struggle at school.

There’s a YouTuber by the name of Christina Randall who experienced severe abuse as a young child and was placed into foster care in Florida after being abandoned. As a pre-teen she began to fight with others, and her temper and lack of impulse control got her into trouble with the police all through her teens. She stopped attending school at 13, preferring to hang out in the streets with a dangerous crowd. She went from placement to placement in foster care and residential homes, and in and out of juvenile detention facilities. Eventually at 21 her record caught up with her and she took a plea bargain to get a sentence of three years in prison rather than 15. If you want to talk about a child’s developing brain and what happens to it when abuse and neglect occurs, this pattern is, unfortunately, much more likely to be the result. Fortunately, Christina has managed to turn things around in the years since her release from jail, and is now much happier.

Even if kids in care have great potential, they often have to deal with teachers whose expectations are rock bottom. The results are that the odds are stacked against the kids through no fault of their own. Care leavers are disadvantaged by every possible metric: more likely to become homeless; get a criminal record; experience addiction; enter an abusive relationship (these last two do happen to Eleanor). Only 4% of care leavers go to university, compared with 55% of non-care-leavers. That Eleanor was such an exceptional student would be cause for great celebration.

Let’s talk about Eleanor’s “mental illness,” which is described in vague terms. What is it supposed to be? PTSD? She has some symptoms. Borderline personality disorder? That would explain the feelings of emptiness, the obsession with someone she barely knows, and the suicide attempt when he disappoints her, but it sounds like this has never happened before. She doesn’t have the mood swings of BPD either. The voice of her mother: is that supposed to be hallucination or something she imagines? Those are very different things, and I’m not sure that Honeyman knows that.

Either way, she clearly experiences a depressive mood and high levels of anxiety. So she eventually gets friends, gives herself a makeover and goes to the doctor. There she refuses to accept medication (FINE). She gets to see a counsellor very quickly. Mm. Unlikely, with the current state of the NHS, but okay. Then she starts talking about things and her situation massively improves overnight. She abruptly stops drinking, after a significant dependence on alcohol. And suddenly she’s all smiles and social skills and feeling vastly better over the course of what can’t be more than a few weeks. That’s not how treating a lifetime of mental illness works. It’s a slog. It’s hard work, and often it feels like you’re getting nowhere. It’s not simply a case of acknowledging what happened, accessing the emotions you should be feeling, experiencing them and then it’s all better after that.

But this is a story of redemption. A neurotypical saviour steps in and starts the process of bringing Eleanor out of darkness and into smalltalk. Her inability to fit in is her character flaw. Not only is she coded as autistic, she’s coded as such because she’s damaged, and the process of healing from that damage magically makes her less autistic. I don’t dispute that most of us spectrumites would like to fit in better. But this narrative in which it’s all down to the kindly few to put up with being insulted by awful autistic-coded people, in the hope of making them less autistic, is not helping. Most of us work extremely hard to get along with neurotypical people. I get told that I don’t come across as autistic, which is probably true a lot of the time. I work incredibly hard to make it look easy. I would like others to meet me halfway, and when they do, we have a fabulous time. That a writer like Honeyman can misrepresent autistic people, mentally ill people, and children with experience of being in care, all to give the fuzzies to people who haven’t experienced these things, infuriates me.

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