Nipple play

Content: psychiatric abuse

I am thinking about a field. This field is filled with pinwheels. I stim in this field. Hands wrenching, full and swaying body movements, words that are cool and crisp, words like pulchritudinous, all echo-localized, parallelism is repetition but repetition isn’t always parallel, pinwheels, pinwheels, pinwheels.

I am lately working on a book project, a book project about the neurologically queer and how we crip rhetorical traditions. In support of my book project, I’ve had to read a great deal of psychiatric literature. By psychiatric literature, I mean the kind of literature that beholds the mentally disabled as though we are animal crackers. The gaze, the psychoanalytic gaze: Autistics are anthropomorphic cookies, and doctors will probe and digest our body parts, piece by piece.

Somewhere in the field, a pinwheel crumbles under the weight of painful metaphor.

Daily reading, part one. Ivar Lovaas constructs his shock room in the late 1950s. He lines the floor with electrodes. He sends in a child patient, a child patient with a flappy, swaying, stimming body. He flips a switch. The child convulses. She learns a lesson, until she stims again, until she finds her neuroqueer self wiggling and spinning in clinical spaces with shocking gazes.

Pamela, an autistic child, writhes from being shocked
Photo from Screams, Slaps, & Love, 1965, Life magazine

Daily reading, part two. Frances Tustin in 1972 declares that the nipple is an autistic object. I first read Tustin while in the field, my hands roaming, fingers tangled in rubber bands. “The nipple is an autistic object,” she writes. Several years earlier, Bruno Bettelheim analyzed drawings from his “feeble-minded” child patients, in search of nipples. Nipples he found. Nipples, and breasts, black breasts and white breasts, racialized interpretations of autistic drawings, nipples, finger paintings plentiful in nipples, oh, the rhetoricity of the nipple.

A child's drawing. The whole page is covered in dense, thatched black lines, except for an empty spot of white toward the top of the page -- what Bettelheim presumed was a nipple.
From The Empty Fortress. Bettelheim captioned the drawing with the following text: “Drawing probably symbolic of the ‘white’ breast — that is, the good one.”

I am stimming as I read of these things, clinicians and their autistic objects. Tustin suggests that stimming, that autistic gesture writ large, is a kind of psychogenic nipple play. Autistics are always searching for breasts, for that which we supposedly lost. While I ponder Tustin in the field, I channel SAT prep books. Breasts are to autistics as car keys are to neurotypicals. Analogies abound. I imagine Tustin rummaging through a pocketful of breasts, a fruitless search. I look at the dust jacket on my book, where a reviewer in 1995 notes that Tustin’s work is still relevant “today.” How long must we dwell in “today”?

Part three, 1967. Bertram Ruttenberg and Enid Wolf declare that echolalia — the repetition of words and phrases — is a kind of autistic autoeroticism. (Or, is autistic autoeroticism redundant?) Nipple, I mutter to myself. Nipple, nipple, nipple. I think about arousal and the so-called prison that is autism, a prison so-called by breast-obsessed shrinks and the proteges of B.F. Skinner. I think about rhetorical arousal, erotic rhetorics, autistic eros, the electric current that narrates our history and our present. I wonder about the nipple as an autistic placeholder: the meaning in movement, the queering of pinwheels in a field, where autistic objects of all sorts commune.

A field of pinwheels
Sexy pinwheels spin in a field. But maybe these pinwheels symbolize breasts. If they were taller breasts — erm, pinwheels — they might even make electricity.

Self-indulgent narratives

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately — and by stuff, I mean several articles that, per academic ritual, I should probably cite right here — stuff that deals with the role of the author in a narrative, with identity and positionality, with the influence of the researcher upon the researched, with authorial interpretation.

I’ve noticed a lot of theoretical overlaps between the readings from my independent study on autistic narratives/rhetorics and the readings from my Race & Literacy course. All of these readings, whether implicitly or explicitly, deal with issues of representation and community, as well as issues of authorship and subjectivity. To borrow a question from Jacqueline Jones Royster, who can/should/does speak for/with/about whom?

Royster’s question seems especially pertinent in the writings and conference presentations of Paul Heilker, who, in claiming that autism is a rhetoric, is careful to delineate between autism communities and autistic communities — the former composed largely of parents and charities, the latter composed largely of individuals on the spectrum. These two communities, as one can probably gather from the unrelenting snark that has come to constitute my blog, are “warring” factions. Both claim representation rights; both claim to be voices of/for/with/about autism. The Autism Society of America claims to be the voice of autism; Autistics.org claims to be the real voice of autism (Heilker, CCCC 2008).

Interestingly, the primary audience of most large autism charities isn’t the autistic individual: by and large, their audience seems to include everyone but the autistic individual. Parents, teachers, supporters, doctors, researchers, students, any NT with spare pocket change — these are the bodies that such organizations strive to reach. Thus, ASA, for example, assumes its role as the voice of autism, rather than the autistic voice, because they imply that autistics, whether speaking or non-speaking, cannot autonomously self-advocate — for autistics to do so would go against the DSM IV criteria, or somesuch nonsense. Moreover, in highlighting autistic testimonials on their home page, ASA suggests that individuals on the spectrum need an NT voice behind theirs in order to “function.” We autistics are high-functioning only inasmuch as we have NTs to brace us: note the lining up of ASD narratives next to narratives of NT mothers and NT speech pathologists. (Of course, I should here note that ASA is a lot more “ethical” in its operations and approach toward autistics than, say, Autism Speaks and other cure-autism conglomerates. Still, note the scare quotes around “ethical.”)

Voice and representation are likewise large issues in writings that concern race and literacy. Morris Young, in Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship, contends that the literacy narrative, as a genre, has the potential to allow Others to project their voices, to position themselves as individuals against their communities, to analyze the hegemonic functions of literacy, to “become minor” in the process of writing. The dominant theme in Young, as well as in John Duffy’s Writing from These Roots: Literacy in a Hmong-American Community, involves the relationship between self and society.

Autism is derived from the Greek word autos, which means self. Kanner, Asperger, and Bettelheim frequently described autistics as being inherently self-centered, trapped in their own worlds, imprisoned in their asocial bodies. Simon Baron-Cohen propels lack of theory of mind as an accurate description of autistic selfhood, this inability to empathize and recognize the intentions of others serving as a large marker of autistic existence. Ann Jurecic and Lisa Zunshine, both scholars in English Studies, also herald theory of mind in relation to autistic identity, bringing up issues of mindblindness and autistic egocentrism.

If autistics are seen as self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-isolating individuals, it’s little wonder that the idea of an autistic community — in contrast to an autism community — seems paradoxical. How can a bunch of self-absorbed selves form a community? How can a bunch of self-absorbed selves relate to a bunch of self-absorbed selves? How can a bunch of autos, autistic voices meld into a (semi)unified, real autistic voice?

I think it’s important to note that these questions largely stem from autism discourse, rather than autistic discourse, and perhaps this is why so many spectrumites loathe “person first” terminology, preferring “autistic” to “person with autism.” The phrase “person with autism” suggests that, should the autism be removed, a “real” person will emerge — without any trace of that asocial, autos garbage. It denies the intermingling of the autistic autos and bodily self. It denies the intermingling of autos and voice.

All of this rambling brings me back to the title of my post, to the idea of the self-indulgent narrative. In Literacies, Experiences, and Technologies, Sibylle Gruber writes,

I would like to argue that I don’t use the personal for capital investment, that I don’t use the personal as a mirror reflection of a self or culture, that I don’t slot myself or others as being able to speak for a group, and that I don’t disembody the personal…. But it is also important to acknowledge that personal narrative — or self-reflexivity — can become ‘self-indulgent or narcissistic’ …. In other words, despite conscious efforts not to use identity politics for individual gain, it is often difficult to escape the unconscious or subconscious tendencies to justify, defend, and promote an individual, albeit theoretically founded and supported, perspective. (22)

Throughout her book, Gruber positions herself, as a foreign researcher, in the contexts of those she researches. Gruber contends that personal biases are a real part of research, and she thusly justifies her use of personal narrative. Yet, she also fears narcissism, that her narratives about her ESL status are misplaced, autos-ridden tidbits of the personal.

Similarly, in “Tender Organs, Narcissism, and Identity Politics,” Tobin Siebers writes of the ways in which personal narratives of disability are often conflated with narcissism:

It is wrong to study what you are. (41)

But I also think that people with disabilities need to resist the suggestion that their personal stories are somehow more narcissistic than those of able-bodied people. If we cannot tell our stories because they reflect badly on our personalities or make other people queasy, the end result will be greater isolation. (50)

Now we of the tender organs need to introduce the reality of disability into the public imagination. And the only way to accomplish this task is to tell stories in a way that allows people without disabilities to recognize our reality and theirs as a common one. For only in this way will we be recognized politically. (51)

I worry that my writings about autism are, or will be, perceived as the self-indulgent, narcissistic writings of a pathological person with autism. As a I read over my previous post, a post that is rife with the personal, I wonder about what I should strive to be. Is this a personal blog or an academic blog? When the autism community reads my writing, do they immediately believe that I lack a theory of mind? Am I too autos for the masses — do I need to de-auticize myself in order to be seen as a voice of/for/with/about autism? In what ways can I be an autistic voice who writes for/with/about/to/at the voice of autism? How do we begin to bridge the realities of autistics into the public imagination of autism?

Paul Heilker and Jason King suggest that the end to the autism/autistic war — or, more likely, the beginnings of an autism/autistic truce — may involve Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of rhetorical listening. Rhetorical listening, unlike empathy, invokes understanding commonalities and differences. Ratcliffe claims that

understanding means listening to discourses not for intent but with intent — with the intent to understand not just the claims but the rhetorical negotiations of understanding as well. To clarify this process of understanding, rhetorical listeners might best invert the term understanding and define it as standing under, that is, consciously standing under discourses that surround us and others while consciously acknowledging all our particular — and very fluid — standpoints. (28)

Notably, Ratcliffe does not claim that the solution to life’s problems necessitates peeking into the mind of the Other. Rather, she stresses the necessity of difference, those autos features that particularize us as individuals.

I find it ironic that, in this discussion of the necessity of difference and personal narrative in disability writing, I haven’t been very personal. As a result, I now share this photograph, which is also meant to break up the textual monotony of my blog:

Some of my ELO collection -- albums, posters, t-shirts, and a clock!
[A portion of my ELO collection: my perseveration of choice]