Blue Thread is a YA novel set in 1912 Portland, and follows the main character—sixteen-year old Miriam Josefsohn—in her discovery of, and growing involvement in, the women's suffrage movement. This isn't just historical fiction though—along with fighting for women's suffrage, Miriam travels through time using a prayer shawl handed down through the women in her family that contains blue thread from Joseph's Coat of Many Colors to encourage the Daughters of Zelophehad to petition Moses for women's right to inherit land in the absence of a male heir. It's in the Torah! Well, kind of.
It was inevitable that I would come down pretty hard on these books, but in my frustration I left out an important point: These guides are not "disgusting" works of bigotry. They're unassuming parenting guides right off the "Children with Special Needs" shelf of a mainstream bookstore. They're meant to help parents of autistic adolescents guide their children through the transition into adulthood, and in that regard they're perfectly well-intentioned.
The problem is that a text doesn't have to be overtly bigoted or hateful to exclude and become complicit in the oppression of gender non-conforming and non-heterosexual people.
In this blog series I want to look into "required reading," how it's taught, and what we (should/could) get out of it. Which classics take up the most space in the collective memory? Is there something worth remembering from the dudecentric classics of high school book lists? (I'm looking about you: To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Huck Finn, and Lord of the Flies) What about from Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved, and Pride and Prejudice? What makes literature unforgettable and important to fledgling feminists? And what new works should become required reading?
In this post and my next one, I'm taking a look at a selection of four parents' guides on autism and Asperger syndrome, to see how sex, sexuality, and gender are addressed. This is not a book review, but an overview of how these topics are presented in literature intended for parents of adolescents. Do these texts contribute to the erasure of autistic sexuality? What do the books have to say about gender?
Many of us have, at some point, asserted that we "don't feel like leaving the house." It may take a few days, several long naps, and many hours of Criminal Minds reruns, but eventually most of us manage to get out the front door and back to our regularly-scheduled lives. Sara Benincasa, not so much. You may know Benincasa from the spot-on Sarah Palin impression she perfected back in 2008, or perhaps from her take on a vlogging Peggy Olson. Perhaps you're heard the sex-and-relationship show she formerly hosted for Cosmo Radio on Sirius XMchannel, or tuned in to the more mental-health-focused "Sex and Other Human Activities," podcast she currently hosts with fellow funny person Marcus Parks. Or maybe you've seen her sharing a bathtub with luminaries like Margaret Cho and Donald Glover on her web chat show, Gettin' Wet with Sara Benincasa.
But, as revealed in Benincasa's new memoir, getting out in the world has been both more difficult and more mordantly funny than you might imagine. Based on her one-woman show of the same name, Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom is the story of how one girl's anxious, clenched-sphincter childhood blossomed into adolescent panic attacks and then, as a college student, into full-blown agoraphobia. Along the way, there's public embarrassment (Benincasa's panic attacks curtail a school trip to the beach, to the chagrin of a tanning-obsessed gaggle of New Jersey mean girls), family confusion (at the hight of a panic attack, she subjects her mother to four and a half hours of the same Dave Matthews Band song) and cereal bowls full of urine (at a particularly challenging juncture during college, she developed a fear of toilets.)
There's also a revelation: This is not a recovery narrative, and Benincasa isn't cured by a new medication, a folksy Robin Williams-esque medical figure, or the love of her life. She's here, she's got irrational fear, she's used to it.
In my last post, I took a look at the book Asperger's and Girls, a collection of essays that attempt to address the needs and concerns about girls with Asperger syndrome. I found the book to be a disappointment overall, but one chapter in particular stands out as especially heinous. In "Girl to Girl: Advice on Friendship, Bullying, and Fitting In," Lisa Iland, a non-autistic young woman with a sibling on the spectrum, dishes out "practical advice on dealing with the 'popularity hierarchy' and 'levels of relationship'; how to make yourself likeable; using MTV to your advantage; combating bullies; the positive role of gossip; and more."
Wait, MTV? Really? This book was published in 2006. Although it's true: when I read this chapter to myself I can't help but hear Quinn Morgendorffer's voice in my head.
In this age of literary Jonathans, I am always on the lookout for some good solid realism by women, about women's experiences, that doesn't feel like it has to scream from its pink and lime green cover, "WARNING: YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ A BOOK ABOUT A WOMAN." Thankfully, I have found Katherine Karlin's new book. Send Me Work is an extremely thoughtful and often funny collection of short stories about people who also happen to be women who also happen to work.
In my last post, I critiqued a chapter of Tony Attwood's The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. Now I'm taking a look at Asperger's and Girls, a slim collection of essays in which Attwood and others tackle the intersection of Asperger's and gender.
Or, rather, in which they attempt to take on that intersection.
Well, he tells non-autistic people to make lemonade, specifically. Guess who the "lemons" are in this metaphor.
Popular fiction both shapes and reflects cultural attitudes. In a previous post, I picked apart the film Adam and expressed concern over the film's troubling conclusion that people with Asperger syndrome—and by extension all autists, since Asperger's is thought of as a "mild form of autism"—are simultaneously too childlike and too threatening to maintain healthy romantic relationships.
This is a reflection of the attitude that pervades Tony Attwood's A Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, a popular nonfiction book that often serves as an introductory text to Asperger syndrome for lay readers.
Harry and Katniss are very different heroes because they live in very different worlds. But if I had to guess whether most people felt their world more closely resembled the private boarding school with clear-cut lines between good and evil, or the dystopic district with frustrated and struggling neighbors, I'd say there's a real reason Katniss's mythology has captured audiences as thoroughly as Harry did in his more prosperous heyday.