Tuesday, 23 March 2021
New Extract: Growing Up on the Spectrum with Hans Christian Andersen
The following is a 2,500-word excerpt from the opening chapter of Doomscrolling, in which I discuss my journey of learning I was on the autism spectrum and how the life story of Hans Christian Andersen gave me a literary and biographical framework for making sense of it. I hope it will dispel some of the mystery surrounding autism and illuminate what it’s like to be a person with ASD. Later chapters won’t delve as deeply into my own life, but I wanted to use this one to give the reader a sense of who I am. Thanks to everyone who’s pledged so far, and to everyone who’s thinking of pledging.
Chapter 01: Growing Up on the Spectrum with Hans Christian Andersen
I didn’t always know I was on the spectrum.
From a young age it was clear that there was something “different” about me. I was a compulsive reader almost from the moment I learned how to read, and when I discovered encyclopedias on a trip to the mall at the age of six, I demanded the whole set. But I struggled with performing the most basic tasks. My parents labored for a year or more to teach me the mechanics of tying shoelaces, before ultimately giving up and buying me a pair of Velcro slip-ons. My attempts to ride bikes typically ended in wailing and bruises. Swimming was never an option—I would simply cling to my dad’s neck and claw at his face like a frightened cat. Even something as simple as buttoning a shirt proved onerous: I would invariably miss a button on the way down and have to start over.
Socially, I didn’t exactly fit in with my classmates. I wanted to talk about dictionaries or globes or whatever my obsession of the day was; they, being seven years old, were not interested. At the age of nine or ten someone handed me a pocketbook of quotations, and for the next two or three years every word that came out of my mouth was a line from Shelley or Keats or Coleridge. (I’ll never forget the gym teacher who looked at me sideways and said in a tone of disgust, “What are you, some kind of poet?”). Teachers and parents thought I was deliberately flouting social norms; the truth was, I didn’t know what those norms were. I had never learned them. As I grew older and entered college, this placed a certain degree of distance between me and the people I aspired to be friends with. I sometimes felt as though everyone I knew had been given a big book on how to behave socially, and they were all reading it behind my back and not telling me.
Growing up in rural south Texas in the mid-1990s, I didn’t know much about autism. At no point in my twelve years of schooling did anyone sit down with me and say, “We think you might be on the spectrum and would like to recommend you for an autism diagnosis.” At the time the public perception of autism was hazy and skewed, having been shaped by films like Rain Man (1988), about a socially inept savant (Dustin Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance) who can count the number of toothpicks in a box of toothpicks simply by looking at them. I wasn’t particularly gifted at math; when I watched the movie at the age of six or seven, the loneliness of the protagonist resonated with me, but not much else. I didn’t see myself reflected in any of the portrayals of autism coming out of Hollywood.
It’s only in the last ten years that the children who were diagnosed during the first great wave of diagnoses in the nineties have grown up and begun sharing their stories, and the old notion of autism as an affliction of math geniuses has softened into something more nuanced. It’s more widely understood that people on the spectrum are not mechanical, unfeeling creatures but that we feel very deeply—perhaps even more deeply than neurotypical people. The intensity of our emotions makes them difficult to express, which explained why I had so often been accused of being aloof or inattentive even when I was glowing with fascination.
When I learned that I was on the spectrum in the summer of 2018, it was like the solution to a riddle which I had been earnestly seeking for fifteen years or more, and it made sense of the whole rest of my life. “This explains why I’m so hyper-focused,” I found myself thinking, “and how I could spend a whole summer typing up notes on a textbook for ten hours a day.” “This explains my random and ever-changing special interests.” And it explained so much else: why I was constantly exhausting friends with my passions and fascinations; my inability to conform to prescribed social conventions or gender norms (growing up I had been bullied for being “effeminate” and “girly,” and I still buy all my sweaters in the women’s section); my face-blindness; my poor motor skills and lack of hand-eye coordination; my aversion to eye contact; my weird habit of becoming the scapegoat figure in any group (those of us on the spectrum have a way of inadvertently triggering people’s fear of the Other).
What I was still missing was a role model, a fictional character or public figure who convincingly embodied what life on the spectrum is like. I watched a recent film which attempts to portray a man on the spectrum sympathetically, but the film accidentally conveys the message that men on the spectrum have violent meltdowns and it’s best not to marry one, which is neither true nor helpful. I dug through classic literature seeking characters whose behavior might have coded them as being autistic before the condition was recognized. I came up with Mr. Collins from Pride & Prejudice—his lack of social awareness and fascination with stairs and closet shelves are certainly suggestive, but Mr. Collins isn’t exactly heroic. Where, I wondered, were the positive autistic role models?
In the summer of 2019 a couple of things changed, however. First: climate activist Greta Thunberg became a prominent public figure, thereby drawing widespread attention to the positive aspects of autism; and second: I discovered the life story of Hans Christian Andersen.
* * *
Important caveat: it’s impossible to say with 100 percent conviction that a historical figure suffered from a given condition—particularly a neurological disability such as autism—because we can’t sit them down and subject them to examination by a licensed mental health expert. The best we can say is that a person behaved in certain ways that are consistent with said condition, based on what we know of them from their own diaries and records and contemporary accounts of their life.
That said, here’s what we know about Hans Christian Andersen.
He was born in Odense, Denmark in April 1805 to Anne Marie Andersdatter and Hans Andersen, a shoemaker. From his mother, a superstitious peasant woman with a fondness for schnapps and snow-white linens, he inherited his deep religious fervor and his love of fairy-tales about trolls and ghosts. From his father, a dreamy, impractical soul, he inherited a passion for literature and a lifelong crisis of self-confidence that bordered on neurosis. He had a half-sister who would later become a prostitute and die in poverty, and a grandfather who went insane and fled into the woods wearing crowns made of twigs and golden paper, pursued by shrieking children. Both functioned as cautionary tales for the young Hans Christian (he went by “Christian” or “Hans Christian” but never Hans): he would spend the rest of his life worrying that he was either going to die penniless and homeless like his sister or lose his sanity altogether like his grandfather. It was this feeling of perpetual crisis, of a soul on the brink, that would imbue his fairy-tales with their electrifying tension. There is nothing particularly “nice” about them: like the writings of Lewis Carroll, his nearest English equivalent, they resonate with children because they grapple with social ostracism, relational discord and the threat of death.
In the numerous autobiographical accounts of his life, Andersen would later recall his childhood prior to his father’s death as an idyllic time. But while he had a gift for winning the sympathy and admiration of adults, other children considered him a curiosity and a nuisance. “I never played with other boys,” he would later recall, “I was always alone.” Incurably clumsy, he was baffled by the boyish enthusiasm for skating and playing ball, and spent long hours engaging in puppet theatre, sewing clothes for his dolls, or stringing strawberries around on a long stalk. He fared better with girls than with boys, though his attempts to befriend them were frequently sabotaged by his social naivete: when a little Jewish girl named Sara kissed him and said she wanted to marry him, Andersen informed her that he secretly belonged to a royal family, and that when he came into his inheritance he would take her away to his castle—to work as a dairy maid. He was crushed when Sara ran away yelling, “He’s mad just like his grandfather!”
His social struggles only seemed to worsen as he grew older. When Andersen was beaten up at school for being effeminate, his mother withdrew him and sent him to a Jewish school. The experience of being a perpetual outsider gave him an uncommon empathy towards and affinity for the marginalized: relations between Danish Jews and the greater public were so bad that a pogrom broke out just two days before he arrived in Copenhagen for the first time at the age of fourteen, but Andersen is rare among nineteenth-century writers in passionately defending the dignity of the Jewish people. But the bullying and ostracism of those early years affected him in other ways, too. He compensated for the loneliness of having few friends and no siblings by convincing himself—as Dickens would also do—that he was destined for literary greatness. Later he would tell people that as a boy he visited a fortune-teller who predicted that one day he would illuminate all Odense. Andersen’s autobiographical accounts are notoriously unreliable and prone to exaggeration, but the story is important for what it tells us about his mental state as he prepared to leave Odense and seek out his fortune in the capital: he was unshakably convinced that he had a special vocation to make art, and that this art would raise him out of poverty and bring him unending fame.
What kind of art, though? He still had not figured that out. When he descended on Copenhagen in 1819 with only ten rixdollars in his pocket, feeling every bit like Aladdin entering the Cave of Wonders, he had vague plans of using his singing voice—at the time his only discernible talent—to attract the sponsorship of a wealthy patron. This wasn’t an entirely foolhardy plan: nineteenth-century Danish society was full of well-heeled philanthropists seeking a genius they could throw money at. The challenge for the fourteen-year-old Andersen was to find one before he ran out of cash and was forced to return home to Odense in shame. To this end he interrupted a party being held at the home of a famous choirmaster and sang so exceptionally that a teacher who happened to be present offered to give him lessons without asking for payment. Jenns Baggesen, a renowned poet who witnessed the incident, predicted that Andersen would one day make a great name for himself. He and the others present were charmed by Andersen’s air of rustic innocence, his naïve peasant simplicity unsullied by the rigors and compromises of cosmopolitan living—a persona which Andersen was already learning to play up, for he had taken the measure of his audience and realized that they were particularly susceptible to the narrative of the angelic waif, “sweet Eden’s child.” There was an element of truth in the performance—Andersen had little understanding of business or aristocratic mores, and survived mostly through luck and sheer cussedness—but even as a teenager he had sensed that if he wanted fame he would have to tailor himself to an audience, emphasizing the most appealing parts of himself and carefully concealing his more unsavory aspects.
* * *
What sort of man was he? English writer Elizabeth Rigby, meeting him in London during one of several visits after he became an established author, described him as “a long, thin, fleshless, boneless man”—fleshless and boneless!—“bending and wriggling like a lizard with a lantern-jawed, cadaverous appearance.” She might well have been describing Uriah Heep, the writhing, oily, cadaverous, conniving villain of Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (1851), who prostrates himself with an air of feigned, fawning submission and declares unctuously, “I am well aware that I am the ‘umblest person going.” The similarities might not be a coincidence: there is widespread speculation among Dickens scholars that Dickens may have modeled Heep on Andersen following their first meeting in the summer of 1847 (a visit that would leave Andersen with the mistaken impression that his affection for Dickens was mutual, thereby paving the way for future disaster).
In his home country, Andersen was better received. Reading contemporary descriptions of him written in his twenties and thirties, one gets the impression of a man beloved by women, a bit of a dandy, emotionally sensitive, easily wounded by rejection, a lover of animals, averse to conflict, possessing a rare gentleness, powerfully attracted to both women and men. Danny Kaye famously portrayed him onscreen as a spry, impossibly handsome spinner of whimsical yarns, but there is arguably more of the real Andersen in Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts films—a freckle-faced loner whose eyes are perpetually brimming over, a wiry and gaunt naïf who looks as though a gust of wind might end him.
Like Newt, Andersen embodied a sort of positive, non-toxic masculinity that makes him a source of continuing fascination and relevance in an era governed by red-pilled grifters and “macho” politicians playacting as John Wayne. He was the reverse mirror image of the American novelist Louisa May Alcott, who wrote privately, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body”; Andersen described himself without embarrassment as “womanly-soft” in his feelings. He battled for several years with a very conventional and authoritarian schoolmaster named Simon Meisling who forbade Andersen from writing fiction because he felt it was a frivolous and “effeminate” pursuit; Andersen retaliated by incorporating a trip to hell into his debut novel, Walking Tour (1828), in which it’s revealed that the infernal regions are filled with the souls of damned schoolmasters.
Book club gold