My Neurodiversity And Other Animals

This is a story about stories.

This is also a story about autism.

And, I think, this is a story I’ve never told, but it feels like a thing right now.

When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Gerald Durrell. My father started me off with My Family and Other Animals when I was, I don’t know, seven or so (I should see if we have a copy and lend it to Oldest, I expect she’d love it like I did), and I read all the stories he told about his childhood, and eventually moved on to reading more of his adult work, talking about his work as a naturalist, trying to trap animals for zoos, and so on. I worked my way through everything.

One day, I found a Durrell I hadn’t read before. The Picnic and other Inimitable Stories, it was called, and from what I could tell from the jacket summary, it was a collection of stories from various times that were too unpleasant in some fashion to wind up in his other, lighter books. The eponymous “The Picnic” story involved the family setting up for a picnic lunch in the shade of a boulder that turned out, when sun-warmed, to be a dead horse or something of the sort.

These days Amazon has it marked under “Literature and Fiction”. As a child of perhaps nine (I had to have been younger than ten) I did not notice, and most of the stories seemed entirely plausible as outtakes from his other autobiographical work.

The last story in the book is outright supernatural horror. With a light bit of lampshading to suggest that certain of the events were plausibly real, and others were the derangements of a hallucinating madman turned murderer.

I knew Gerry as an autobiographical writer.

It never occurred to me, burgeoning fiction writer that I was, that he also might make up stories. Gerry Durrell wrote autobiography; Gerry Durrell wrote about finding the notebook with that story; the notebook was real. The status of the brain-eating monster in the mirror as described in the notebook was left ambiguous, but when Gerry Durrell finished reading about it, he hung a towel over the mirror just to be safe.

My bedroom had an antique bureau in it, with a mirror that was some three feet high and five feet wide, which faced my bed.

My parents found me at some unearthly hour of the night, barricaded into the bathroom closet behind laundry hampers, out of line of sight of the bathroom mirror (high, small, and aimed elsewhere), frantically reading Pogo books. I tried to explain that I had read a story that scared me and was somewhere I felt a bit safer, and … I don’t think they understood more than superficially, how deeply afraid I was, how profoundly unsettled.

(It is a common trait of people on the spectrum that they take people at face value, and assume they are telling the truth. Gerry wrote autobiography. Therefore….)

We moved. (This is how I know I read this when I was younger than ten.) I tried, at one point, to talk to the psychologist I saw in my mid-teens about it, who I was seeing for issues with social adjustment and integration. She offered the possibility that I, as living avatar of the “Me, an intellectual” meme, was upset by the creature in the mirror because it attacked brains, and I could not explain that this was a completely ridiculous notion and I shut down and maybe I never talked to her about anything real in my head again because if she couldn’t understand this thing what could she understand? We played Mastermind. I solved it algorithmically and got irritated that I couldn’t construct a puzzle that required more than about half the track to solve (why is that track even THERE?).

I had a lasting phobia of mirrors. When I was under bad stress, just a mirror would do it. Picture me, in a bad emotional place, staying in a hotel where the elevator to go up to my room had facing mirrors, and me wedging myself into the hollow where the doors were to get away from them, to not have to face the infinite reflections of infinite mirrorness. On good days, it was a twitch and a shrug, only bad when it was a mirror in a darkened room, especially one that reflected a doorway where something might lurk and snatch.

The book lived on the bottom shelf of the upper floor of the library in my father’s house, and I twitched every time I saw it. Occasionally, as I got older, I considered picking it up and reading it again, in case it might help desensitize me. I was never that brave.

(We went looking for beds, once. One of them had a mirrored headboard. The “ha ha ha ha ha ha no” went on for about ten minutes.)

I went through EMDR therapy. A lot of things got better. (Driving got easier. Still terrible, but easier.) The mirror thing didn’t really budge. I just… had a phobia. One whose entire etiology I thought I could trace: I read a scary story when I was young, and it stuck with me in weird ways. Brains are funny.

The mirror in the bathroom, well, it faces the door. If I went to pee at night I’d mostly-close my eyes and put the light on. A small adjustment to a bit of glitchy brain wiring, an appeasement to the demon spirits of phobia.

When I figured out I’m likely autistic, a whole bunch of things cascaded, a whole bunch of things happened, and it took me months and months to solve them, and I’m still solving them. All the things where I could say “Okay, this isn’t going to change for me expending more effort on it, I can stop trying now and do something that might work” are still finding their new normal.

But one of the things that I didn’t expect at all was that the mirror phobia has quieted down to a dull roar. I never consciously sat down with myself and said, “Look, you were an autistic kid, and you trusted Gerry Durrell to tell you the truth, with all the naiveté of childhood and all of the earnest gullibility of neurodivergence. When you learned that story could be fiction a few years ago, it was a bit of a shock, but you never really wrapped your head around why it got you like that. And that’s because you trusted him, and you knew him as an autobiographical writer, and it never occurred to you he might do something else for fun.”

But apparently, somewhere in me, that child-self wound healed, because finally I knew why it was there.

I go into the bathroom at night, and look at the door behind me, and twitch a little, but I don’t always turn on the light. I don’t need to anymore. That story has settled in my brain a bit: I took it that seriously because. The shape of it fits this way, not that way, and I know how to adjust.

This is a story about stories. The story we have for why we are the way we are, that matters, and when it changes, that can make a difference. Even in unexpected places, like a remembered story, a horrorshape, a lingering nightmare in the corner of a mind.

Also, if you like supernatural horror, that one’s really fucking creepy, and I can’t recommend it for reasons I hope you understand, but I can point you in that direction. You do you.

1 comment to My Neurodiversity And Other Animals

  • kiya

    I will add that Wikipedia has The Picnic listed in the autobiographical section of Gerry Durrell’s work so you know. It’s a thing.