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.

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

  1. I am leading a book group discussion tomorrow and thank you for your revelations about the book and the unlikely aspects of authenticity. I am also (retired) a licensed professional counselor and my wife a retired pediatric (LCSW) social worker and I have not consulted her regarding this article or my response to it. She is also in the book group.

    I have read a lot of non fiction in my life but not a lot of fiction (except as a kid-all volumes of The Hardy Boys, even Nancy Drew and Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. I enjoy reading fiction and while I learn a lot from fiction, I do not rely upon fictional accounts to be a test of reality. I use others who write about these books to help set the record straight when it comes to the research of the author. I would never use any info in a psych-drama to add to my practice (Been through old type approaches- TA, Rogerian, Reality Therapy, CBT, Gestalt, Family practice and that’s about it.)

    No matter the type, the most important factor in therapy is the therapist, not the technique. At least I found the therapist to be genuine in her desire to help. I was amused by the “empty chair” which I have used in the past with some degree of success. Left out was the client then moving to the empty chair to respond (as Mummy) to Eleanor.

    I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant and experienced emotional response. I do not think it offensive to anyone who has to deal with trauma in their lives. Seek a qualified therapist, not the best seller list for help. Those of us blessed without serious trauma can still enjoy fiction and emoting.

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  2. OK… look, I’m really not sure what the point of your comment was. I say very little about the therapist and her techniques, so what was the point in trying to explain that stuff to me as though you were countering an argument? The therapist might well have been great for Eleanor. Never said she wasn’t. That changes literally nothing.

    Well, dear God, no, I wouldn’t expect you to use psych-dramas to inform yourself as a professional. Do you want a pat on the back for that? What point are you making here? None of this is about you personally, and you need to understand that. Whatever you personally do to get facts (especially in a field where YOU ARE REQUIRED TO LEARN THE FACTS) is totally irrelevant.

    I’ve heard this a lot from people: “I don’t expect to get the truth from fiction” with the implication that nobody does, so why would anyone complain? Firstly, that’s really not true: everyone who absorbs fiction absorbs information from it, whether they realise they’re doing so or not. It’s not an entirely conscious process. Secondly, this is a line I generally hear from people who have no idea how lucky they are that their lives haven’t been negatively affected by misinformation that people have picked up from fiction. In this post I’ve explained some ways in which fiction has been very damaging to autistic people. That’s true whether or not YOU happen to get your ideas about autism from fiction. It’s not about you personally. So yeah, people do think that they’re learning facts from fiction. Often they actually do learn facts. Other times, they pick up misinformation that affects their attitudes and actually harms people. This is why the US military pours funding into big budget movies that make the life of a soldier look badass and much more fun than it really is. Everyone knows that movie’s fiction, right? But the line between which bits are accurate and which are done to make an exciting movie is blurred.

    “Fiction” is distinct from “lies.” We expect a fiction writer to tell us an account of something that didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean that we expect no kind of accuracy from a story whatsoever. A story that didn’t care about making anything real at all would have no appeal to anyone, because it would be totally unrelatable. That’s why we require that people behave like people, even in a space opera, and that people writing historical fiction don’t just invent a whole new history in order to suit the narrative (unless the book is marketed as such). Fiction requires that some things are not true, it lays out (not explicitly, but by implication) which things are not true, and then authors spend sometimes years researching in order to make the rest as accurate and consistent as possible. If we’re talking about SFF, there will be a lot that is invented. In a story like EOiCF, it’s written very close to real life. It’s the kind of story that is presented as “this didn’t happen, but it COULD happen.” The truth is that no, it couldn’t, for a great many reasons and the author would know that if she had done the research which should be part of her job.

    As for “I don’t think this is offensive to-” that isn’t your call to make. I’m pretty much over all the talk of “offense” because the word has somehow turned into this way to blame people for having feelings, or for being hurt by someone else’s actions. But ignoring that for a moment, offense is an individual reaction, and it’s not something that you can hand wave away for anyone other than yourself. This is why I haven’t honed in on offensiveness per se. I don’t want to turn the spotlight onto other people’s reactions. I want to keep it where it needs to be: on the actions that are harmful in the first place.

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  3. I don’t believe she is autistic. I think her unemotional responses and attempts to hold onto logic at all times are a defense against emotional pain. Due to her tragic upbringing she has not learnt interpersonal skills and how to have relationships. Toward the end of the book she is coming out of that. My only criticism is that it felt a bit too fast.

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    1. The problem with this interpretation is that we do, unfortunately, have a lot of children around who have been through this kind of experience: something went horribly wrong with a birth parent, and they were then passed around foster carers and children’s homes until they aged out of the system. I don’t like dismissing any child’s upbringing as “tragic.” Individual events can be tragic. Years of negative experience are *traumatic.* You can heal from trauma. You can’t heal from tragedy.

      So my point here is that these children exist. If they have problems with social skills – and a lot of them do – this isn’t what those problems look like. They’re in survival mode. They’ve got an amygdala going wild, and a frontal cortex that hasn’t developed properly. This likely manifests as constantly vigilant behaviour, a lot of bad and risky choices, impulsivity, and a fierce temper. This brain situation is one of the reasons why so many of these kids end up homeless, in jail, in a gang, and/or struggling with addiction. They may push people away, or they may cling to anyone who seems to care for them, or some on-off combination of the two. But what they’re not doing is calmly working out the logic of a situation at all times. That behaviour is hardcore frontal cortex stuff. Neuroplasticity is a marvellous thing, and I don’t write anyone off. But a well-developed frontal cortex for Eleanor would come after healing, not before.

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  4. As a mental health nurse reading this book I assumed Eleanor had borderline personality disorder. Early childhood trauma. Difficulty maintaining relationships. Black and white thinking. Need for routine. Dissociation. People personality disorders are often diagnosed as having autism and vice versa.

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    1. I mean… maybe? Honestly BPD is a problematic diagnosis in itself, as are the other cluster Bs. What you missed here is that it’s not autistic people as a group who get misdiagnosed with BPD. It’s autistic *women* and I could write a whole thing about the institutional sexism that leads to this.

      I think it’s a stretch, anyway. People with BPD have difficulty in interpersonal relationships, but not because they respond, as Eleanor does, with impolite politeness. It’s because they get so emotionally tangled in relationships that it becomes unhealthy and people back away. It’s not so much that they have a rigid NEED for routine, as Eleanor does – more that routine helps if they can manage it.

      She doesn’t have the key symptom of BPD, which is wildly intense emotions all over the damn place. Her emotions are dulled. Yes, underneath it all she’s depressed and doesn’t realise it, but she’s not constantly fighting the urge to scream at people, then declare her love, then cry, then get excited, then terrified…

      So if she is intended to be written as someone with BPD, it’s still bad writing.

      Like

  5. I saw Eleanor as a woman who experienced PTSD and mental illness and not autism. Maybe if you look at her that way you will like the book better?

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    1. Nope. Exact same problems. In fact, I’m pretty sure I covered that. PTSD would explain her basic fear of fire but that’s about it. She doesn’t show other symptoms of PTSD. Also I’m not sure what you mean by “PTSD and mental illness” because PTSD is a mental illness. You can’t tack on “and mental illness” as a handwaving “and that’s why she’s weird” thing. Mental health is a whole complex field. There are diagnoses with distinct patterns of symptoms.

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  6. I’ve only started reading the book and felt a little uneasy with it. I suppose that’s why I googled it, and what can I say? You absolutely nailed it! You made all my intuitions about the style, the perspective, the alleged “not autism but something else” explicit. This really is a great analysis, thanks a lot. I’m now considering if I really want to keep reading. It’s so damn obvious what Honeyman is aiming at even at page 70. So I should probably also thank you for saving some of my time!

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    1. Thank you! I’m aware that there are a good many novels written by autistic people (in fact I have my own in draft, although it’s been put to one side in order to work on my main writing project. I don’t have any to recommend, I’m afraid, but ownvoices is a big area of growth in publishing. I personally would prefer to see more books by autistic authors where the book isn’t just ABOUT being autistic and nothing else. There are a lot of memoirs about what a struggle it is. It’s like that with every marginalised group, of course. It’s a lot easier to get a book deal if your trans character is facing a hellish storm of transphobia and oppression, than if they’re just a character who is trans. But try googling autistic ownvoices novels and see if something promising shows up.

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  7. Hey, I just wanted to say this is a fantastic analysis. I did actually enjoy the book as a light read on my commute, but something about Eleanor’s character just didn’t sit right with me in the end, and maybe this was it?

    I loved what you wrote about how unauthentic her headspace/narrative voice is. Are there any examples of stories about autistic people where this is done well?

    Thank you, definitely an eye-opening write-up 🙂

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  8. Agreed, there was much “suspension of disbelief” required with this book (for one thing I doubt the author has ever had a bikini wax). It was more enjoyable to read than, say, the probably more authentic “A Little Life”. But it did seem irresponsible to approach a traumatic childhood in such a lighthearted way. There should be trigger warnings all over this but the cover art and blurb treat it like a romcom.

    It did not occur to me that most readers would identify with Raymond. I very much could relate to Eleanor and I had assumed that a lot of the humor was in the exaggeration of feeling awkward and being in unfamiliar situations and those things we all find annoying. Like, do you really need to announce my name to the whole coffee shop when my drink is ready? I feel like most people can also relate to dulling intense emotions with both routine and alcohol. The horrific mother was over the top, but then you learn that much of that may have been Eleanor’s own self abuse. The way the mother was demonized was a bit black and white, as she clearly also suffered from her own poorly researched type of some mental illness.

    But your take opened my eyes. I guess I stereotype the people who find social awkwardness “HILARIOUS” as not big readers, but there is a movie coming out…and I see now that Raymond will be the hero.

    So what does it mean that l identify with a highly fictional character that misrepresents actual marginalized groups? That’s rhetorical but I am intrigued by your comments about BPD and autism misdiagnoses especially for women. Any resources on that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure the resources exist but I don’t have time to go digging for them. It’s just one of those things that’s… sort of known among autistic people. I know two AFAB people who’ve been diagnosed with BPD. One has now had that diagnosis changed to autism and the other is about to have an assessment for ADHD. BPD is a diagnosis that is massively skewed towards women, and that’s a problem because it’s also highly stigmatised.

      What does it mean that you identify with Eleanor? It means you identify with her. That’s not a bad thing. Any of us can find that a particular character really speaks to who we are – it’s part of the joy of fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi, as a neurotypical mother of an autistic girl, I really enjoyed reading your analysis. I read and enjoyed the book and thought it drew people’s attention to the fact there are lonely people out there and if you don’t know a person’s story be careful about judging them. However I immediately saw the autistic characature and found it lacking. After finishing it I googled if Eleanor was autistic and came across your analysis.
    Your thoughts clarified the undefined uneasiness I felt about the book and I agree with you that unrealistic or badly researched portrayals of marginalised people in all their forms are damaging. However, that throws up another dilemma. Should authors be denied the opportunity to write about things outside of their own limited sphere of experience? Writing is an art form and restrictions on art are not something that should be taken lightly. I don’t have answers to these dilemmas. Just felt that is something that needed to be considered within this very legitimate concern about misrepresentation of marginalised people in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Writers can write about things that are outside their own sphere of experience, but I don’t think that neurotypical writers should try to write a neurodivergent main character. For one thing, it’s inevitable that they will get it wrong. Autistic people in particular have a long history of people looking at our outward behaviour and making assumptions about what it is in our heads that’s driving it.

      When you’re writing about a character who belongs to a marginalised group you’re not in, ask yourself: is this book ABOUT being in that group? Does the world need this book? Would it be better written by someone else? People often complain about “censorship,” but saying “don’t do this because you’ll mess it up and there’s someone else who could do the job better, who perhaps isn’t able to do it because you’ve taken the job” isn’t censorship. If I got a job as a chef, I would be terrible at it, but I’m not railing at people taking away my God-given right to cook things badly.

      Anyway have a look at some of my other posts! I’ve blogged about this a fair bit.

      Liked by 1 person

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