EMPATHY, AUTISM, & LEARNING HOW TO INTERACT AND SHARE APPROPRIATELY
This is an excerpt from Joe Biel’s seventh book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s. which details many mistakes that proved to be learning opportunities and the first 20 years of Microcosm Publishing.
I made a rule when I turned eighteen that I would get only one tattoo per year. I was afraid I would run out of real estate on my body before I had really good ideas later in life. For the first few years I would plan out the next four or five tattoos. Ideas rarely got scrapped but sometimes got refined. Most of the concepts were paper-thin and the executions weren’t much better. I took images that were meaningful to me and put them on my body — things my friends had drawn or artwork I found on albums that I liked or things to represent commitments to my politics — “One Less Car,” “Revolution Between The Lines,” or “Break Free From Gender Roles.”
After the better part of seven years of walking around with permanent ink, I started to feel a little on display, expecting to be judged, or maybe just a little tired of explaining what these things mean over and over. In the social circles that I was a part of and to fans of Microcosm, art was expected to have intense, didactic meaning, and it was fair game to ask for an explanation, perhaps turning a stranger into a friend.
But I was beginning to tire of this. So I put together a concept piece. It might have been someone else’s idea; I don’t remember anymore. But I loved it: an image of a wooden table and two empty chairs. One of the chairs would be knocked over, like an argument had just occurred. There would be no text. I would get it tattooed over my heart. The absolutely meaningless image would appear to have deep, intense meaning, both in its execution and in its placement.
I’ve always found joy in being a troublemaker, and I thought this idea was hilarious. So did the tattoo artist and her friends from art school. Unfortunately, my wife, Heather, did not agree.
“You can’t claim that something has no meaning. That is ridiculous and offensive!” she berated me.
“Well, I don’t know…I’m sort of riffing on and poking fun at people who have this idea that images carry all of this weight and meaning.”
“Well, I’m one of those people and I think it’s a stupid idea! I don’t even like the cross-hatching on those chairs. Why didn’t you get wooden slat-back chairs?”
Everywhere I went for the next few weeks, people would ask to see my new tattoo. I would lift up my shirt and show it to them awkwardly. Each and every one of them responded with some variation of, “Whoa! That’s intense! I didn’t know you were getting divorced!”
To which I would foolishly respond, “Oh no, it’s a joke. I was trying to think of the most seemingly intense tattoo and then put it in the most intense place. I even gave up on getting the outline of my home state of Ohio tattooed there instead.”
Everyone gave me skeptical looks and continued to insist that I was getting divorced, like they knew something that I didn’t or could trust my tattoo better than my words.
Maybe deep down in my subconscious I did know what they saw. By that point Heather had been making regular trips to go visit her ex, and their relationship had become a constant source of argument in our household. I was jealous of the emotional proximity that they seemed to have. Heather and I had been dating for five years and married for one, but we barely knew each other. We knew all of the details about each other’s lives but we each really had little insight into what motivated or excited each other, making it very difficult to relate empathically. Once, when she had read an article that I had written for a magazine, she broke into tears because she realized how little she knew about me. Part of not knowing me also led her to constantly misread my words and actions, as well as to come to distrust my intentions.
When Heather was applying for a job that she suspected two other friends of ours also had their eye on, she asked me to write a reference for her. I was flattered to do so but afterwards she somehow got the idea that I probably wrote one for our other two friends as well. I hadn’t done so and told her as much. But she was saddened and hurt, and she kept pointing to ambiguities in my speech that convinced her that I was lying about my true motivations.
The same thing that made it fun to talk about the double meanings of words with Heather led her to believe that I meant every potentially insulting double meaning in everything that I said. When I bought a T-shirt depicting a person with his ass on fire and sticking his head into a bucket of water with the caption “voter,” Heather got upset and took it so personally that she told me she would not be seen with me wearing it in public.
Heather often claimed that people treated me differently from others as a result of my confidence, which grew as a further source of resentment between us. She said that people were more likely to do things for me than they were for others. So gradually I changed my behavior to accommodate this, losing a bit of myself in the process. Whenever I had an exciting piece of news and would tell her, she would immediately post it on the Internet. When I would run into friends, they would already know all of my news, having read it as it happened on Heather’s blog. I asked her if she could stop doing this. She instead asked people to stop mentioning that they had already read the stories when I told them about things. She could even take my accomplishments and stories away from me. As our interactions got more and more awkward I started keeping the things that I was excited about to myself, which didn’t help matters. More and more of my time and emotional energy were taken up by explaining that what Heather had gleaned from a conversation wasn’t representative of how I felt at all. I would ask her if she understood what I was saying and she would always say that she didn’t.
Months later, after many more conversations like this, she said that, to her, saying that she understood what I meant in any given situation was the same as saying that she agreed with me, which she assuredly did not. So she would say that she did not understand rather than saying that she disagreed. I knew that our perspectives were different and we were both prone to unique views but this conversation absolutely floored me. The way that Heather belittled my feelings, called me names, insulted my perspectives, and declared that I had no friends during these arguments gradually destroyed my confidence and self-esteem. She would buy me presents and then not give them to me if something that I did upset her. I was watching the only stable relationship in my life unravel. I clung harder to the relationship even as my dwindling confidence began to erode my ability to do things that I had always been good at: math, remembering names, and planning out a logical course of action. Sleeping for only three or four hours each night was likely not helping matters.
Because of my Asperger’s I wasn’t able to hear Heather’s expressions of her emotions and thus wasn’t able to respond appropriately with empathy and understanding. With distance, I can see how painful it would be for her feelings to always be ignored or dismissed. I can see how that would chisel at someone’s self-esteem and identity. And it was taking quite a toll on both of us.
One of my pen pals, Bree, had moved to Portland, which was exciting, as she was one of the few people in my life that I was close to and could relate to at the moment. Bree commented on my constant drive towards self-improvement and how much effort I put into understanding how I could relate better with others. She had just turned eighteen and I was in my mid-twenties, but we related as equals. We had a room vacant in our house and I asked Heather how she felt about Bree moving in.
One night Heather insisted that I had a crush on Bree. She continued to bring this up and make reference to it often as the days went by, so much that I began to question my own version of events. Did I have a crush? Did I have romantic intentions? What if I did but I didn’t know? Reluctantly, I made a deal that I would not make a fuss about Heather having a romantic relationship with her ex if Bree could move into our house.
Shortly afterwards, Heather declared to me with a sneer that, while she had agreed to the deal, she had never agreed to be nice to Bree. She would lash out regularly. One night as I sat on the porch talking to Bree, Heather brought us each a delicious plate of tofu scramble, biscuits, and gravy. It was a mixed gesture. She handed them to us with such hostility that Bree and I just sat there silently. Bree moved out soon thereafter and I didn’t hear from her for months.
I was lost and lonelier than usual. So I planned a trip by myself to Bloomington, Indiana for the Plan-it X Records ten-year anniversary music festival. I had numerous friends there that I had met at zine conferences, and I figured that a convergence of hundreds of friends would help me firm up my self-image and decision-making skills. Bree was also going to Plan-it X Fest, which greatly upset Heather.
I headed to Cleveland and met up with my old friend Drew, and we drove out in his car to the Allied Media Conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. We had a really great time. He had declined to come to my wedding, but we hadn’t really talked about the particulars much before this.
“Why did you get married to her?” he asked me.
“I don’t really know. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” was the best I could muster.
Drew was a good friend and he supported me even if he didn’t approve. We drove from Bowling Green to Bloomington and arrived a few days before the fest. We stayed with my friend Christopher, whom I’d met when he lived in San Francisco. The two people that he lived with and who owned the house were constantly fighting and screaming at each other. It felt like every little thing the other one did hit a nerve. It was so similar to my life at home that it made me feel like my relationship with Heather was normal, maybe even healthy.
The festival was probably pretty great but I spent the whole time moping outside or dragging my sorry mess of a story around and telling everyone I ran into about my heartbreak. I figured that sharing in this way would create the kind of emotional proximity that I so desperately sought and might create close friends instead of a sea of distant acquaintances. Instead, most people with clear boundaries seemed freaked out by it. They nodded and fled. The people who did engage me were as lost in life as I was in that moment. They were there for reasons similar to my own: To find their way by being open to whoever offered them the time of day long enough to ensnare their lives together.
Christopher asked me “What is it like to be a celebrity here?”
“You’d have to ask one.” I replied, trying to dodge an unanswerable question.
“No, really. What is it like? How do people treat you here?”
“It’s a little weird. People engage with me as the person that they perceive me as rather than the person that I am. It doesn’t exactly create a lot of room for exchanging ideas as equals.”
I set up tables of zines and books on the sidewalk outside of the shows. The reactions were pretty mixed and some people were outright offended that we were asking for money in return for books and zines. I met a lot of people wearing our T-shirts who were huge fans of Microcosm, and they gushed about what they had taken from some of our titles and asked questions about things that they couldn’t fully understand on their own. It was overwhelming to feel like so many of our fans were in one place and all had the opportunity to engage with me in real time.
Although most of my interactions in life were made less overwhelming because I could stem the tide through email or by talking to one person at a time on the phone, being in Bloomington opened up the floodgates for people to ask me all kinds of questions. Because much of my own writing had been about my personal life, fans felt like they knew me and could ask me anything they wanted. Whereas I had overshared with people that I didn’t know very well, fans seemed equally uncomfortable being given this information. Sometimes the awkward pauses that I would leave after someone asked a question were so long that they would just walk away while I was still forming my answer. Being that my personal life was in shambles at the moment and I was deeply unhappy and insecure, all of this socializing unfolded into a bit of a nightmare.
I didn’t watch many bands perform that weekend, but looking back, I did feel excited and inspired by the trip. Bloomington felt magical in the same way that Portland did, and seeing it while hundreds of people from out of town invaded made it seem larger than life.
The highlight of the trip was getting to spend so much time at Boxcar Books, a store that also housed Pages to Prisoners, the oldest program for sending free books to people in jail who request them in the U.S. The store was started by two friends of mine based on their experiences of being involved with another anarchist bookstore, Secret Sailor Books. They thought they could create something more stable and lasting while keeping the heart and soul of the place. Boxcar really impressed me because it was built from the ground up by people I knew. They had really dug deep to source books from all kinds of publishers and all of the sections in the store were really fleshed out, not just the usual titles on the usual politics that you’d find in radical bookstores all over the U.S. I picked up quite a few books for myself, but, mostly, as Drew and I drove back to Cleveland, I carried inspiration home from Boxcar itself. It let me know that my dreams for Microcosm had lots of different directions that they could still grow in, even after eight years.
The full book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s, is available in paper and digital formats.