The Devastation Of ‘Eighth Grade’
Last week, someone on Twitter asked their followers what lines have stuck with them or even become part of their personal philosophies.
I came up with two right off the top of my head: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and “This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway.” (Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2).
The former can be too broadly read and misapplied to, say, defend tone policing, but really, for me, it simply speaks to a good place from which to start, and then let the reality of events dictate straying from the premise.
The latter I think can speak to or for anyone who feels as if they have been brought into a world that didn’t bother preparing a proper space for them.
There’s another line that’s stuck with me, a new one, that I didn’t bring up on Twitter because it’s been waiting for me to write about it at a bit more length. Several weeks ago I finally watched Eighth Grade, and it’s near the end, asked by Kayla of her father.
“Do I make you sad.”
It’s easily the single most devastating line I have ever heard uttered in a movie.
The dirty little secret of my midlife autism diagnosis is buried in the way I talk about how prior to that diagnosis, I’d spent the last decades feeling like a failure and a fuckup, as most everyone around me was navigating life in ways I repeatedly could not, with no one understanding that there were reasons and explanations, and potential routes of accommodation and mitigation had we only known.
Here’s the dirty little secret, to which I can almost guarantee they would not confess: my family thought I was a failure and a fuckup, too.
Every time, for instance, someone would bring up a skill or talent I’d been able to display in one, discrete (and usually self-directed) circumstance and ask why I can’t apply it to something else, or for someone else, or all the time, the subtext was, “What’s wrong with him?”
I don’t talk about this now, here, as a judgment or to levy guilt. I’ve written here before about guilt over the lack of diagnosis is useless.
Instead, it’s just that I need it to be clear: I felt like a failure and a fuckup, and the people around me thought that about me, too. Pretending otherwise also is useless.
Kayla in Eighth Grade clearly has something happening with her. The film’s text does not talk about whether it’s autism, or “just” social anxiety, or some other issue. I can’t believe it’s simply the process of growing up. There’s a disconnect between how she functions and how the world around her functions that just doesn’t seem to me to be a slice-of-life “coming of age” story.
It never addresses at all the idea that she might need help.
I had a nightmare the other night about my father, who died over a decade ago. I’ve had a few, now and then, since my diagnosis, because I’ve no way of knowing what he would have thought, or to what degree in the decades prior to his death he was thinking, “What’s wrong with him?”
What sticks with me about Kayla asking her father if she makes him sad is that I don’t believe his answer, but I also don’t know if it was possible for him to tell the truth.
Or, maybe she doesn’t make him sad today, but if she’s having the same struggles in five years, ten years, twenty years?
I dont think there’d be any truthful answer other than, “Yes.”