Two years ago today, after catastrophizing over the possibilities, I savaged the most recent novel by Richard Powers, saying that it seemed an “argument that being autistic is a bit like being artificial: dropped down halfway and so not worth the living”.
Today I sat down to read a few of the interviews Powers gave at the time, something I’d mostly avoided. They only reinforce my dim view of his own views on the book.
In his Time interview with Elijah Wolfson for example, while he says of Robin that “he’s an intense and an unusual child, what we would call neurodivergent, but his ability to directly confront all of the adult evasion that he sees in the world, and to give it a name to call its bluff”, the interview doesn’t engage the fact that Robin is like this before the magical “empathy machine” gets his hands on him.
Then he says this:
Robin, through the course of his engagement with decoded neurofeedback, opens up and transcends his own fury and his own frustration and finds a way of being that’s almost religiously transcendent, and it’s a great source of inspiration to the adults who see him as he’s developing these capacities.
The only thing Robin discovers through his treatments to experience his dead mother’s sense of “ecstasy” is that if he behaves more like neurotypicals do they will actually listen to what he has to say about what’s wrong with the world—an understanding he’d already had before the treatments. (Powers himself, weirdly, seems to understand this elsewhere.)
As for this “fury”, it’s true that Robin has lashed out, physically and violently. Never grappled with in ot by the novel, however, is the autistic reality that our nervous systems simply are built differently. If we reach the point of meltdown, there’s a reason for it. The discussions should be about why are we letting them—or helping them—get so overloaded in the first place, what can we do to help them avoid that, and are there any self-regulatory tools they might be able to use.
Instead, Powers and his novel jump straight to the idea that Robin just doesn’t understand other human beings and so let’s subject him to an untried, experimental therapy.
I think the book holds open the possibility of a more joyous and a more rewarding way of being in the world. It’s a way that the great religions of the world have always advocated for. You mentioned the word ‘empathy,’ and in the book, I describe this decoded neurofeedback training that Robin goes through as a kind of empathy machine. To watch this boy become a joyful person, as he discovers himself beyond himself, as he discovers the reciprocal interconnections between himself and other living things and other humans, is to raise in the reader the possibility of a life that’s more meaningful and more rewarding than the life of accumulation has ever been.
Here we again encounter Powers’ allegiance to the discounted idea that autistic people suffer from an empathy deficit, whereas the reality is more closely aligned to the so-called “double empathy problem” in which the issue lay not in the autistic but rather in a mismatch between autistic brains and allistic ones.
What we also have is Powers treating autism as mere metaphor to describe our collective neglect of our interconnectedness, a neglect that’s degrading ourselves and each other and destroying the planet. Autistics, though aren’t a metaphor for you to use, especially if you get it wrong. Autistics have as much a natural variety of desire and capacity for interconnectedness as any other kind of human being.
(This is neither here nor there, but you have to love The Booker Prizes referring to Robin as “non-neurotypical”. You know, I think there’s a word for that?)
[W]hatever we know about aggregate diagnostic categories and certain components or behaviors that correlate strongly, statistically, with some of those categories, it’s important not to mistake the diagnostic category for the individual. You have to particularize, you have to allow a character to be his own collection of unusual traits—sometimes contradictory, sometimes not as strongly correlated with the condition that he supposedly partakes in.
This is Powers trying to have it both ways. He specifically and deliberately in the novel evokes the specter of autism but then wants you to take in Robin as an individual—all while (ab)using that very neurodivergence as a metaphor for the fatal disconnection Powers believes everyone is experiencing.
At the end of my review of Bewilderment, I spoiled the ends of both it and my favorite Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. Thinking about that again today, I started to view the latter yet earlier book in a different light. It seems now to be a novel about disability, using a “dropped down halfway” artificial intelligence as the operating metaphor. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.
What I do know is that I still make of Bewilderment what I made of it before: a ham-fisted attempt by someone who doesn’t understand autism or autistic people to use us metaphorically to argue that humanity is killing itself and the planet due to disconnection.
The irony here is that it’s Powers’ own underlying disconnection from the lived experiences of autistic people that defines the book’s own moral failure. He needed to choose: to particularize Robin, or to use him as metaphor. Once you do the latter, it necessarily implicates the rest of us who are autistically neurodivergent.
We all deserved better.