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Welcome to the Unmasquerade
On mental health, identity, and knowing what we want
I take it for granted that living in a civilized society means not acting on a good share of our desires. If I’m sitting at a red light and don’t want to wait anymore, I can’t just plow through the intersection. Doing so would deprive others of their use of the intersection and, depending on how careless I was, might result in a wreck. In exchange for the benefits of a decently ordered road network, I give up the autonomy to freely express my desires that run contrary to the rules of the road.
If only all the rules were expressed as clearly as road signs.
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Much of our lives are spent wondering which of our desires to express, and which to hide. Revealing that I’m ready to leave a boring event could either let me leave early or alienate the people I’m with. Sharing an ambition might open a path for me to achieve my goal, or it might arouse insecurity in the people I share it with. We never know exactly what the outcome of disclosure might be, and there’s sure to be missteps. Taking the risk is both how we bond with others and get our desires met.
What makes this so complicated and risky is that our desires feel like an expression of who we are. Acting on a desire to run a red light is a reflection of some part of who a person is: inattentive, self-centered, or impatient. Even if we follow Rene Girard in believing that our desires aren’t innate, but reflections of who we want to be, it’s not clear how to separate who we are from who we want to be. Even in a relatively rigid society, individuals can make some choices around who they want to be. My selection of a model whose desires I would (says Girard) imitate is an expression of who I am — a kind of meta-desire.
I recently read The Autists: Women on the Spectrum by Clara Törnvall, which is simultaneously a memoir of Törnvall’s journey towards her own diagnosis of autism and a brief history of women with autism or probable autism. Autism has historically been underrecognized in women and girls because it tends to present differently from males. For a while, it was even thought that autism always went together with intellectual disability in girls — a girl with a normal or high IQ was thought to be incompatible with a diagnosis of autism. The book’s history of how these blind spots were overcome through greater standardization of diagnostic tools was all pretty interesting, as were Törnvall’s brief biographies of famous women who have or likely had autism: Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf, and Daryl Hannah among others.
It’s not clear to me how Törnvall first came to suspect that she had autism, though she mentions having seen multiple therapists as an adult and having been labeled with a series of unhelpful diagnoses and treatments, and so it seems like it might have arisen as a diagnosis of exclusion:
Since the age of 18, I have seen six different therapists, been on two different kinds of antidepressants and various anxiety meds, read piles of books and articles about mental illness and spent a weekend at the psych ward. Nothing has helped. None of what is said or written fits.
By the time we join her story, though, she’s just come out of a failed marriage and is being evaluated specifically for autism. (Funny enough, the autism inventory seems to be based around ambiguous questions of the kind that tends to irk people with autism — I don’t know if there’s diagnostic value in the patient’s asking for clarification.) Törnvall clears the diagnostic threshold by a mile and starts the process of trying to understand what it means for her. This brings her, in turn, to trying to understand how others — especially other women — have adapted to their autism diagnoses.
She’s exposed to the concept of masking and its inverse, unmasking, through YouTube. Masking is the autistic person’s way of blending into social situations, and higher-functioning people with autism are higher-functioning precisely because of their facility with masking. Occasionally this might mean feigning understanding in situations where you’re actually completely befuddled, but it seems in large part to refer to hiding stimming behaviors. Törnvall writes:
“Stimming”, or “self-stimulation”, is a way of expressing emotion. It can be smelling or touching pleasant things, making certain body movements, dancing, singing, repeating words, chewing on something, studying patterns, or listening to sounds. Autists stim in order to process and balance their sensory experiences.
While masking is useful, it’s also exhausting. It feels untrue to the person with autism, but at the same time, it’s become engrained in their behavior as part of a survival mechanism. Thus, the process of unmasking: that is, stripping away the facade they’ve built up as a way of fitting in. Unmasking takes on enormous importance for some people with autism:
Tyla and other autists on social media refer to their life strategy as ‘unmasking’. Her goal is to quit masking and adapting entirely. She wants to live a true and authentic life. But changing one’s behaviour is difficult and requires practice. Another YouTuber, the American 27-year-old Jesslyn Craner, offers advice on how to unlearn and stop masking. With openness and ease, she shares concrete advice on how to realise whether one is masking even in front of oneself.
Now, I want to be careful about how I say this, because I don’t want give the impression that I think neurodivergence is fake and I certainly don’t want to be cruel. But, why do Tyla and Jesslyn and Clara Törnvall all think they’re the only people on earth who can separate the mask from the self? Nobody else can.
John Culkin, describing the thought of Marshall McLuhan, wrote that “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” We live in an era built on heaps of interconnecting tools. Those of us who’ve lived in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have lived in a time where hunger and diseases have vastly diminished in importance compared to their haunting ever-presence for literally all prior humans. We shaped the internet and then it shaped us. We first shaped easy car travel, then easy flight and then they shaped us. We shaped the idea that we’re all unique individuals and that expressing that individuality is of the utmost importance — and then it shaped us. Are we any less ourselves because we’re not feral children?
I get wanting to have a relationship with the world that feels authentic. The feeling of authenticity is tricky, though: what feels like a discovery is just an emotion without truth value at all. Evolution developed the emotion of authenticity as a mechanism to make us act more pro-socially. Specifically, feelings of authenticity are highest when acting in accordance with well-defined social roles and expectations, rather than the way you might describe how you’d prefer to act.
The idea of unmasking autistic traits could also be a way of hacking people’s feeling of authenticity as a way of creating community. The challenge for creating a community around autism is that its members are generally not visible, and solidarity within a community works best if you can easily pick out members of your tribe. This is one reason why so many religions require specific uniforms: if you see a man with a turban, a beard, and a knife somewhere on his person, you can be pretty certain he’s Sikh.
The equivalent of religious garb for autistic people might be stimming. From somewhere in the community, the meme starts that autistic people, say, splay their fingers and sway side to side (descriptors Törnvall uses). Individuals are encouraged to practice this behavior: “Embrace stimming and do it more at home, [one autistic YouTuber] says, extending her arms in a beautiful arc. Stim with me, she encourages her audience, streaming live on Instagram from her bedroom floor, surrounded by stim toys.” Shape a practice of stimming and then let it shape you. Is it authentic? If it wasn’t before, it’ll become authentic after a while, and the feelings of discomfort that might accompany early attempts can be explained as the lingering effects of masking.
A good analog might be gay voice. One of the prevalent theories of why gay men tend to speak differently is so that we can pick each other out in settings where it might not be (or might not have been) acceptable to openly declare one’s homosexuality. At the same time, gay men can modulate the degree of gayness in our voices — in certain settings, we’ll use specific voices and slang that emphasize our membership in the LGBT community. This is usually an entirely unconscious modulation, although the inverse often isn’t true: sometimes it’s best to anxiously self-monitor and blend in as best as possible.
So is gay voice authentic? I think it’d have a good claim to the conventional use of that term if it persisted across time and culture in a recognizable fashion. From what I understand though, what counts as gay voice is actually exceptionally malleable, since for a long time it had to shift whenever it became too easy for potentially hostile outsiders to detect. The increasing adoption of stereotypically gay voice by heterosexual men also challenges the idea of its authenticity. Whatever signaling might be underway in that phenomenon, it’s not about sexual orientation, and it means that going from the middle of the country to the west coast requires a recalibrated gaydar.
We could endlessly scrutinize every banal urge — to stim, to speak in gay voice, to always pick mint chip ice cream versus any other flavor — but rather than obsessing about these urges’ authenticity, maybe instead we can make peace with their just being useful. The pull of these desires is actually a way of helping us to identify people with some shared trait, no matter whether those desires came from some particular arrangement of this gland and that lobe, or from a gradual acculturation into the community. Maybe we should just settle for mentally substituting this explanation when people passionately explain that some action is an expression of their true selves.
The issue is that this claim to authenticity places an obligation on others. It asks them to arbitrate the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a way that no single person should be asked to do — to thread the needle between the value of being authentic and being potentially disruptive.
There are a lot of silly norms out there that need to be updated. It seems like the argument from authenticity, though, is a kind of mugging. Nobody wants to be the person who stifles someone else’s authentic self. At the same time, it’s a mechanism through which new communities are formed, as might be happening among people with autism. One alternative might be an argument from rights, perhaps via some concept like a right to expression. This sidelines the question of the motivation for what someone expresses, but it opens its own hornets’ nests of conflicting rights and of how rights get discovered.
I find myself feeling like a deontological approach might fit here. Rather than asking whether a behavior is authentic or whether there’s a right to do it, it might be best just to ask whether a group of people can accomplish its goals if everyone were to perform that behavior. This would allow for most forms of stimming, but would shut down anyone who claimed that striking a cowbell was an expression of their authentic self.
It also allows for norms to evolve, while the concept of authenticity is strangely conservative. By viewing our urges and behavior as contingent on a huge number of cultural and technological variables, we open up a lot of space for those things to change. Authenticity, meanwhile, limits itself to attributes that are innate. This might be suitable for the creation of communities built around health issues or neurodivergence, but it seems like an unfortunate stricture for building society-wide institutions.
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