People Like Us: David Byrne’s True Stories As a Search for Autistic Connection
Autistic readings of Byrne’s cult 1986 ode to the odd everyman
“They’re calling it the Celebration of Specialness.”
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is standing in front of a boxy concrete building, decked out in a dark three-piece suit and bolo tie with a matching cowboy hat. He looks away for a second, frowning slightly, before turning his eyes right back to the camera.
“But this place is completely normal!”
This is True Stories, Byrne’s hard-to-categorise 1986 cult movie, which recently entered the Criterion Collection. In it, Byrne, as the nameless Narrator, travels to the fictional small town of Virgil, Texas, and meets a panel of strange characters gearing up for the town’s celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial. In recent years, it has been repeatedly brought up as one of the most accurate representations of an autistic point of view to be put to film.
The iconoclastic Byrne is mostly known for his work with his groundbreaking new wave band, but he’s had an eclectic artistic career spanning almost five decades and nearly twice as many mediums, from non-fiction writing to furniture design. Byrne released the movie at the peak of Talking Heads’ popularity, and where the band’s music was charged with angst and alienation, True Stories was almost blindingly wholesome — yet still incredibly strange, brimming with the same detached worldview Byrne instilled into his lyrics.
Byrne was often described as cripplingly nervous, fidgety, withdrawn, or just plain weird. He went off on tangents in interviews, rarely managing eye contact more than a couple seconds, his thought process hard to follow. Conversations seemed nearly physically painful to carry out for him. As for his lyrics, they baffled, all glaring at the commonplace and everyday at an unsettling angle.
“I think if there is any piece of David’s pie missing, if there is anything that he is still struggling with, it is human relations.” explained actor Spalding Gray, who plays civic leader Earl Culver. “In another lifetime he might be hospitalised.” 
Byrne often appeared frustrated at the idea his point of view was particularly unusual, especially in Talking Heads’ early days. As far as he knew, he just called it as he saw it. He’d done away with the artifices of writing and gone back to the source. Wasn’t this how everybody saw the world, when they stopped pretending?
This feeling persisted in some way as his fame increased. “People talk about how strange I am.” He told TIME, a few years later.  “Of course, being inside myself, not having the perspective, I don’t think I’m odd at all. I can see that what I’m doing is not exactly what everyone else is doing, but I don’t think of it as strange.”
At the time, Byrne wasn’t aware that he was autistic. His self-diagnosis in his mid-‘60s led the autistic community — to which this writer belongs — to re-examine a movie that had already resonated with many of them. The film, much like the great majority of Byrne’s oeuvre, carries the fingerprints of an autistic mind from the bottom to the top, from shape to content, and while it’s been analysed many times over its multilayered intentions (“What was he thinking of?” enquired critic Roger Ebert in his — favourable — review ) it also lends itself to a number of autistic readings.
If one is to look at Byrne in the context of his career, True Stories is a piece of art made by a man desperately looking for his people. Much like the character of Louis Fyne broadcasts TV ads in an attempt to find a wife, True Stories almost acts like a message in a bottle thrown to the screens of mid-1980’s America, the implicit question which had underlined Byrne’s entire artistic output up to then blown up in full technicolor: “is there anybody else out there who feels the way that I do?”
“I felt like, [the way] that I was seeing things — I didn’t see anything else presenting things that way.” He told a TV channel while promoting the movie. “And I thought, well. You know, maybe somebody else would like to see this.” 
Of course, in 1986, Byrne’s intent wasn’t to make an autistic movie — that’s just what True Stories ended up being, because what Byrne did intend was to put his view of the world to film. What resulted was a disconcertingly original artefact, which left critics puzzled if pleased, and marketers at a loss. Byrne had produced a piece of autistic cinema.
This piece will look at autistic readings of five interconnected aspects True Stories: its content and subject matter, its alien-like Narrator, its framing and ways of seeing, its inner themes, and finally, the idea of the character of Louis Fyne as a co-avatar of Byrne himself.
1/ Looking for Specialness
The first thing you’ll be told about True Stories is that the characters were based on outrageous human interest stories from the tabloid Weekly World News, which Byrne would collect as the band toured America.
“Usually it was just something mildly funny about it,” Byrne explained to CNN. “But it was also kind of moving in a way, that somebody would have a lifestyle that was that different could somehow be alright. And there was something really good about that.” 
This quote is particularly revelatory, because it lays light on the deeper nature of Byrne’s interest for his collection, and his drive to have these stories represented in some form (he started the project with no script idea, and charged scriptwriters Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley with providing bones for a story before rewriting it himself almost entirely.) Byrne was painfully aware that people found him strange, and although by the mid-‘80s he had become much more socially apt, he was still struggling, and these difficulties had become part of his identity. In the late ‘70s he told an interviewer: “I really want to go into some place and talk to the proprietor — you know, like I was a normal person. […] For a long time, I felt, ‘Well fuck everybody.’ Well now I want to be accepted. I want people to like me.”
Byrne was concerned with trying to find people to relate to, or, at the very least, things in people to which he could relate. Some part of him must have identified with these eccentric people — found their stories inspiring, reassuring, familiar to some degree. His collecting might have been just as much self-soothing as it was curiosity.
It’s clear in the gentleness with which Byrne presents the inhabitants of Virgil that he feels a certain kinship towards them. He isn’t gawking, he isn’t pointing fingers. If anything, he wonders at them, with the kind eye of a family member picking out the quirks in their relatives. He finds outsider creativity in small town America which he values just as much if not more as the one found in the New York scene which birthed Talking Heads, and in which he was an outsider himself.
This impulse doesn’t just stop at True Stories’ main cast of hand-picked weirdos. Where he cannot find strange people, Byrne looks to find people at their strangest: True Stories makes a point of showing us several instances of characters in uninhibited contexts, often outside of social situations: a janitor whistling while mopping an empty hallway, a man breaking into dance in an empty office late at night, a worker climbing on a half-constructed stage in the middle of nowhere to sing opera into the emptiness of the Texas plain. These unselfconscious moments of solitude are probably where neurotypical people come closest to being relatable to an autistic person, and the tender delight with which Byrne includes these scenes overflows with yearning.
His Narrator clearly loves being in Virgil, surrounded by other outsiders, people who seem to have no idea when a bear roar is appropriate, people with acute obsessions that dominate their whole lives.
An argument could be made that everyone in Virgil is on the spectrum themselves, a community of autistic-coded characters cohabitating seemingly completely peaceably, tolerating each other’s quirks no matter how intrusive. And it is compelling: for example, despite annoyance on the part of a few characters, not once is the mythomaniac, conspiracy-theory-spouting character of the Lying Woman rebuffed or set right for her outlandish claims. No one really gives grief to the Culvers for refusing to speak to each other directly. No one really rebuffs Ramón’s claim that he can read people’s minds.
As we will explore later however, it is more likely that rather than being intended as autistic — or, more accurately, Byrne-minded — their writing is simply tinted with Byrne’s autism. Byrne’s avatar of the Narrator, on the other hand, sets himself apart from the other characters with a specific brand of strangeness: and it’s with him that the reading of the autistic character can most certainly be made.
II/ Stranger In a Strange Land
Byrne’s nameless Narrator is the figure taking us along through most of the story. The near-inexistent’s plot’s default main character is Louis Fyne, a bachelor looking for love and apparent acquaintance of the Narrator, but the Narrator is the host who takes us to Virgil and drives us out of it, who offers commentary on it. He has no effect on the story, and doesn’t appear in half the film, but his gaze is a constant presence. Ostensibly and obviously, he is Byrne, his pure self-insert into the movie, complete with Byrne’s trademark flat monotone.
“Yeah, that was me in the movie,” Byrne confirmed to Daily News Magazine. “I was performing at times… I’d try giving my lines a funny reading intentionally. But I wasn’t a character, no.”
What’s notable about the Narrator is that he isn’t a simple proxy character for the watcher to identify with. He is an outsider to the world of Virgil, but he’s perhaps even more of an outsider to the world of the watcher, belonging to neither, a stranger in a strange land. He has been described as a figure akin to an alien ethnographer come to study humanity (interestingly, Byrne would describe himself decades later as an “anthropologist from Mars” in the context of his autism): he marvels at box-shaped facilities and suburban sprawl, at gaudy fashion shows and computer manufacturing labs, all with a boundless enthusiasm and an offbeat attitude that will strike the neurotypical watcher as even quirkier than the rest of the movie’s characters, whose over-the-top Texan wackiness pales in comparison to the Narrator’s matter-of-fact, free-associative monologues praising the beauty of prefabricated metal buildings.
Of course, Byrne’s almost total overlap with his Narrator entails the latter would inherit this unusual point of view from Byrne’s own autism; but it would be dishonest to forget that it is also tinted with Byrne’s status as a foreigner.
Born in Scotland, Byrne emigrated to Canada with his family at the age of two, spending his early childhood in Hamilton, Ontario, a region with a large population of first and second generation Scottish immigrants, and which still had strong connection to the Glasgow region from which Byrne originated. Because of these conditions, Byrne explained  that he even kept his Glaswegian accent until the family moved to Baltimore when he was eight or nine, a move which consequently turned out to be much more of a culture shock than the crossing of the Atlantic. In Maryland, Byrne dropped his accent and made sure to integrate, but his parents maintained their Scottish culture, especially relating to food and values. “My upbringing was as someone who was in a foreign country. [My parents] would always tell me, ‘God, look at the way these Americans do this. Isn’t this a little bit odd.’ They always saw things as foreigners. I think they kind of taught me to see things this way as well.” He offered in a 1983 in an interview for Belgian TV. 
This cultural disconnect compounds with Byrne’s autism, both camouflaging it and complicating it. In fact, part of the Narrator’s fascination with Virgil lies with its Americanness, though he stops short of elaborating on it. “I have something to say about the difference between American and European cities. But I forgot what it is. I have it written down at home somewhere.” In typical autistic fashion, the Narrator chooses his words carefully — and he is not good at improvising.
Indeed, the Narrator is undeniably an autistic figure. His sensibilities and attitudes are all loudly autistic, reflecting for example Byrne’s longstanding obsessions with buildings and electronics. His speech pattern is also typical of autism, with him jumping from one subject to another seemingly randomly. Sometimes, he will also react to things with a delay, and not just in direct conversation. About mid-way through the movie, during the dinner scene, the young son of Earl Culver tells the Narrator that the Culvers will be riding in the parade in a red convertible lent by the local auto dealership. The Narrator, who happens to also drive a red convertible, simply says “Hmm.” But, at the end of the runtime, as he drives out of Virgil, he turns to the camera, patting the red leather of the steering wheel. “This is not a rental car.” he assures us, nodding insistently. “This is privately owned.”
The recognition is strongest in the way his eyes move, in the expressions on his face, in his body language and the way he navigates the space around him. He always seems slightly lost underneath it all, never completely sure of himself, constantly followed by a shadow of nervousness. As he walks along the mall with Louis Fyne, his gaze wanders to his feet, he chews on his lip, his answers are stilted. He’s happy to see Louis, initiates a conversation, but he’s still out of his element.
His disconnected and analytical view of Virgil is also distinctively autistic: he cruises through the city while describing everything around him as if he’s explaining it to himself, something that was already typical of Byrne’s lyrics. This is also true of his observation of the town’s inhabitants and their habits. Many autistic people will be familiar with the intensive active observation that is needed to acquire social skills: the social instinct which drives neurotypical people is different in autistic people. The latter must manually learn the codes which govern social interaction. These are difficult to distinguish and acquire, often feeling unnatural or illogical. It’s a focused, consistent labour that can take your whole life, assimilating scripts for a variety of different situations. This is the process that the Narrator is undergoing while he explores Virgil.
There’s an eagerness to understand as he meets and mingles with the townsfolk: he even dons a whole wardrobe of western suits complete with cowboy hats in an effort to fit in, although he remarks, half disconcerted and half disappointed, that “they sell a lot of ‘em, but I don’t see anyone else wearing ‘em!”.
His mimicking also extends to his general attitude. In the mall scene, after interacting with an apparent alien aficionado, he informs us that “people here are inventing their own systems of belief.” Just minutes earlier, out of the blue, he’d gestured out at the open Texan plain, somehow confident and hesitant all at the same time: “Look! I personally believe… I can see Fort Worth from here.” It’s almost as if he is trying out the local customs.
Perhaps most telling, there is nothing about Virgil which appears off to him. Although Virgil is decidedly atypical, the Narrator is confused by their self-asserted “specialness”. To him, Virgil is just as normal as the rest of the world, ostensibly because to him, the rest of the world is just as strange as Virgil is. His efforts to connect with the characters of True Stories, his autistic delight at the town’s most mundane aspects are no different from his effort to connect with everything and everyone else. He likes Virgil better, though. It’s not clear if he could tell you why.
If the Narrator obviously likes the company of these people, there’s always a shade of polite confusion in the way he interacts with them; and they seem to implicitly recognise his difference despite his best efforts. Even among these outcasts, he is never completely at ease, and this tacit discomfort is shown not just through characterisation, but also in the way True Stories is filmed.
III/ The Autistic Gaze
True Stories’ autistic perspective doesn’t stop at the bare makeup of its characters. What makes it such an effective representation is that the autistic point of view seeps through the whole movie. To the autistic watcher, it is immediately and holistically familiar, from the second where it begins with a slightly disjointed info-dump of a monologue summing up Texas’s history. The Narrator’s flat delivery and non sequitur-heavy speech pattern, his deadpan jokes, his pronunciation of “special-ness”: it all rings true.
More than that, True Stories’ camera and structure communicates the autistic gaze through the way they frame and choose to present everything. This is particularly obvious in how social interaction is shown: the camera keeps hanging on to people and actions just a little too long, highlighting a certain awkwardness. It’s also in the writing: conversations tend to be short and dead-ended; other times their beats hit wrong; in fact, real conversations are few and far between. Most of them are closer to monologues with short interjections. It’s no wonder Byrne had a great part in editing the movie in addition to writing the screenplay.
The Narrator is the most flagrant demonstration of all of this. Byrne, essentially in character as himself, pleasantly deadpans through all his scenes with the nervous earnestness of a man who knows he’s brutally under-equipped for human interaction but as well-prepared as he could ever be. His eyes alternate between blank confusion and frantic darting, the gears which journalists always said they could almost see turning after each interview question chugging along as conversations and behaviours unfold before him.
One example worthy of analysis is the mall scene. The expression on Byrne’s face as he observes the mallgoers straddles self-satisfied awe and slightly panicked incomprehension. At one point, the Narrator is distracted by two young men in a laughing fit over a tabloid headline, and the shot holds just a little bit too long before cutting back to the puzzled Narrator, who turns away with a tense smile which immediately vanishes from his face. He licks his lips; nervously joins his hands; changes the subject. “Stores here are pretty clean.” he says. The sight upset him somewhat. Whether he didn’t understand it, or found it objectionable, or both, there’s something immediately relatable in it for autistic people. The neurotypical world can often feel confusing, cruel, distant — and desperately aspirational. It’s better not to think about it.
Soon after, he runs into an engineer carrying electronic equipment.
“I send signals. Up.” He explains.
“Oh, to satellites and things like that?” the Narrator enquires.
“Well, further than that I hope.”
Reverse shot. For a second, the narrator stares in blank incomprehension. “Oh.” He finally nods, hesitantly. The engineer walks away, but the narrator stays silent for a few more seconds before gathering himself and resuming his monologuing to the camera, visibly embarrassed and a little taken aback. When a conversation goes off-script, when something unexpected happens, when an implication misses or a cue doesn’t land, autistic people may be at loss for an answer, or need more time to process it. The particular energy depicted here is another dead ringer for the autistic experience.
It isn’t just the narrator: almost all the characters seem a little lost every time they have to talk to someone else, their reactions somewhat unpredictable. Almost every single social interaction on screen is at an awkward angle. It’s like the writer isn’t quite sure what a conversation between two neurotypical people should look like. It’s like Byrne can’t quite fathom socialisation without the element of incompatibility he’s come to take for granted.
“Everyone on screen looks so normal and behaves so oddly, they could be pod people.” Ebert remarks in his review. He’s right: everyone here is an autistic person’s idea of a “normal” person. Byrne’s autistic perspective inevitably colours these characters and their behaviours — and he’s not exactly trying to attenuate that. For example, Spalding Gray details how Byrne introduced the character: “Rather than psychology, David began with graphics. He showed me drawings he had made of the civic leader’s hands. He had copied these gestures from a book on public speaking […] The character of Earl Culver had appropriated an unusually large number of these gestures and now used them at random.”  The focus on breaking down body language, the emptying out of its meaning, the external rather than internal understanding of neurotypical expressions (“I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on the psychological motivations of the characters,” Byrne admitted later. “And some actors found that a little troublesome.”) : this is an autistic person’s vision.
All of these things combined work to create a piece of media that puts you — or at least tries to put you — in the place of an autistic person. “Most people around here have eaten dinner already,” the Narrator interjects in front of a sunset backdrop. “Don’t wanna be late, you know what I mean? Or do you?” It’s almost accusatory: Byrne pushes the watcher in the situation of someone who doesn’t directly grok social codes.
IV/ Autistic Sensibilities, Autistic Anxieties
The autistic experience of the world is distinct in more ways than neurotypical people often expect. Autistic existence is most commonly sensorily atypical, marked by hypo- and hyper-sensibility to certain stimuli. Talking Heads’ lyrical content is full of such unusual sensory imagery, from air that hurts your skin to confusing smells to seemingly nonsensical vestibular suggestions. Autistic people also often report feeling emotions much more intensely than allistic people do, be they negative or positive. Byrne was often remarked for his sudden outbursts of laughter and excitement, which broke his usual understated presence in a way that surprised acquaintances and interviewers — instances of powerful autistic joy.
But these heightened perceptions don’t stop at emotions, of course. Vivid inner activity and sensory stimulation combine to create an autistic world that, though sometimes overwhelming, may also be full of patterns and colours, of excitement and mystery in even the most mundane settings.
“He’ll do things like getting excited about how food looks on a cafeteria table and start standing up on chairs and looking at it and telling people not to eat it yet,” original co-scriptwriter Beth Henley recalled of working with Byrne. 
Byrne’s enthusiasm for the simple beauty of the everyday, of the drab and commonplace, stems partly from this experience of the world: it’s not particularly unlikely for an autistic person to find thrill at the sight of a box, especially if the box has an interesting size, texture, or colour. When the Narrator, as he leaves Virgil, explains that when he arrives in a new place he notices all its little details — “the way the sky looks, the colour of white paper, the way people walk, doorknobs” — that can be seen an expression of that hyper-sensitivity.
It is also the expression of another facet of autistic sensibilities: the tendency to focus on details, and to see the world as distinct elements joining together to form larger entities. This is autism’s famous “pattern-seeking mind”, and it is mostly through that lens that we’re shown Virgil’s landscape: shots of the clouds, titillatingly colourful gas stations, symmetrical arrangements, scintillating lights: a panel of pleasing, stimulating images that appeal particularly strongly to the autistic brain. To prepare for the film, Byrne had sent several photographers out to North Texas for documentation, and picked out the pictures that appealed to him most. These are the visuals which made Byrne tick, the things he likes to look at; and they contribute immensely to fostering the sense of recognition autistic individuals seem to experience when watching True Stories.
The problem of communication and language is also an autistic anxiety that runs through the themes of the film. Beyond the aforementioned awkwardness of almost all social interactions shown on screen, the most obvious instance of this is the Culver couple, who only ever speak to each other through their children. This creates a comically stilted conversation over dinner, full of repetition and truncated sentences. If anything, it highlight the absurdity of some parts of social decorum and customs: what we hear, what we pretend to hear or not to hear, and what useful information our words actually carry.
The Narrator tries to interact with the Culvers directly but the only person who actually talks to him — truly verbally and accurately interacts with his words — is the Culvers’ young son. First, the Narrator compliments Kay Culver’s food, then her fashion show, but she only ever tilts her head at him in reply, almost as if she finds his presence or interventions inherently petrifying. Later, as he struggles to follow Earl Culver’s esoteric half food-fight, half TED talk monologue on the capitalist future of the tech industry, he asks, seemingly slightly overwhelmed: “Excuse me Mr Culver. I forgot what these peppers represent.”
There’s a real discomfort here, a fear of being ignored, misunderstood, of not being able to connect, to interact. Language is a concern for the Narrator. “You know, things that never had names before are now easily described.” He enthuses. “Makes conversation easy.” The more specific words get, the less there is the assume, to analyse, to assemble through context clues. An autistic dream of clarity.
Byrne had an interest for engineering and electronics which he inherited from his father, of whom this was the profession. The advancement of computers is at the center of True Stories, and it was at the center of the mid-‘80s. Byrne doesn’t seem to find it particularly threatening. In fact, he seems to find in them a possible answer, or an alternative, to the trappings of human communication. “Computers are like that. You can never explain the feelings, or connections to anyone else,” the engineer that takes the Narrator around the Varicorp lab exalts. “Computers are as much a means of expression as language.”
When spoken language is difficult, when nonverbal cues are indecipherable, when the codes of society appear opaque, any new way to connect, to communicate, to express your thoughts and feelings with other human beings is an exciting prospect.
This is also where the musical element of the film comes in: for Byrne, musical performance was a way to “make his presence felt, make his ideas known, announce the fact of his existence,”  something he felt unable to do as the self-effacing, anxious character that he was in daily life. People in True Stories burst into song for the same reason — and in that Byrne truly understands the genre of the musical. The characters start singing when speaking fails, when emotions overflow: music is a way to “expose their insides to everyone else in the town,” to establish a quasi-universal rapport. Some nonverbal autistic people find music to be a conduit for communication; many autistic people overall harbour a special connection to music as a stim, or a way to express themselves, or a medium to release built-up tension. Byrne is no exception, and True Stories reflects this.
V/ Byrne In Love: Louis Fyne As an Avatar of Byrne
There is a final autistic reading that we can make, and although in some places it might veer into a genuine stretch, this writer finds it worthwhile to examine. Naturally, Byrne put a little piece of himself into each of the characters he built from the headlines — the script was almost exclusively his by the time the filming took place, and even though he allowed and encouraged actors to add lines and ad-lib, the foundations of several of Virgil’s inhabitants are at least somewhat Byrnian. The Culvers have his communication difficulties, the Cute Woman has his obsessiveness, even the preacher has his penchant for non-sequiturs. But Louis Fyne, the dancing fool cum country bachelor who is the closest the plot has to a main character, also has a lot of Byrne in him.
Fyne’s character can be seen as the avatar of a facet of Byrne that the Narrator doesn’t already represent. If the Narrator is Byrne’s main persona — the socially awkward, quirky, but earnest outsider — Fyne is Byrne, the autistic lover.
By 1986, Byrne had produced a slew of apparent love songs, which mostly populated Talking Heads’ first album; however, he considered Speaking In Tongues’ This Must Be The Place to be his first love song. Pieces like Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town, Love -> Building On Fire, or With Our Love seem to register as songs about infatuation rather than love with a capital “L”, the love Byrne was now feeling for his then-future wife, Adelle “Bonnie” Lutz, who designed a large part of the film’s wardrobe. This isn’t exactly surprising. Much of Talking Heads’ love song output seemed more tentative than assertive, the thoughts of a man trying to figure out exactly what it is he is feeling, or what he’s supposed to be feeling. Byrne, despite his peculiarity, had no trouble finding partners. Women seemed to find him very handsome and quite endearing, if a little gawky, the comparison to Gregory Peck a staggeringly frequent one. But by 1986, several articles remarked that his blossoming long-term relationship with Lutz had visibly positive effects on him. He was more relaxed, less snappy, more social . Byrne was in love, and he’d written a real love song — an autistic love song, at that. His apparent failure to truly connect with anyone until Lutz can help us draw parallels with Fyne’s character.
Fyne’s problem isn’t that he’s struggling to find dates. In several instances over the run of the movie it is shown that women are very interested in him: whenever he performs, girls whisper, giving him bashful, excited looks . Fyne’s problem is that he doesn’t seem to connect with any of them: we are shown four of his unfortunate dates in varying amounts of detail. He’s so desperate to find a wife that he runs an ad on TV. “I’m looking for someone who can accept me for what I am… I’m pleased with the way God made me. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m willing to share.” Above all, Fyne doesn’t want to be made to change. He wants real understanding — not to abandon what makes him special for the sake of a relationship.
Byrne wrote each song in the movie specifically for each character, and I always found People Like Us, Fyne’s song, to be a very strange one. “Was called upon in third grade class / I gave my answer and it caused a fuss / I’m not the same as everyone else / and times are hard for people like us […] What good is freedom? / God laughs at people like us.” Of course, Louis’s quest is presented as very particular in the movie. In his opinion, he’s not your typical bachelor: he wants “Matrimony with a capital M… serious inquiries only.” No swinging, no flings.
Fyne sings about “people like us”, who “don’t want freedom, don’t want justice… just want someone to love,” but in the early to mid 1980's, this wasn’t a particularly controversial position. The search for true love was well and truly mainstream, protest songs were a dying breed; free love was long gone, and although divorce rates were starting to soar, there was never a question in the time of Reagan that the search for love and marriage was a universal one. You could read the song as a neoconservative, pro-family lament over the institution of matrimony, or a cynical diatribe on the apolitical penchants of the cultural hegemony, but, much like the rest of True Stories, it’s just too earnest for that. If you identify Louis as an avatar of Byrne, however, things start making sense. You can read more into this song: you can see an autistic person being proud of their distinctiveness, going against the current, making a life for themselves independently from the mainstream and being loved for it: this sentiment that Byrne seemed to have echoed when looking at his Weekly World News headline collection.
Ultimately, with True Stories, Byrne aimed to make a piece of media that was kind without being naive. “I discovered that it’s more fun to like things, that you can kind of like things and still be gently critical, without blind acceptance,” he told TIME . To another publication later in 1986, he said: “I mean, I don’t think so separate anymore. I think I used to feel other people’s lives and mine were so different […] Now I sort of feel I can go up to people in small towns and not feel I’m a total foreigner.”
This is what True Stories is partly about: an exercise in relating, in appreciating, in trying to make a connection. The rejections and ridicule of the neurotypical world often lead autistic people to become cynical and misanthropic as a mean to protect themselves. With True Stories, Byrne was fully pushing back against that instinct of self-defence which had shown in some of his earlier output, embracing the autistic sincerity he’d been chasing. His artistic position at the time and his deep involvement on all levels of the project allowed him to produce a final product that was quasi-unfiltered, marked in every way by an autistic approach and autistic impulses.
Nowadays, Byrne often comes back to the idea of his original attraction to music and performance being fuelled by that same need to connect with other people. It was a social crutch that allowed him to always have something to talk about, to always have a more gregarious person on hand, and to let his unmasked self loose in a controlled environment. Devoid of the vocabulary to describe and distinguish his experiences, of a wider community that understood and validated his experiences, he managed to find outlets that allowed him to successfully exist and adapt in an incompatible environment, his atypicality becoming his brand and his outward identity.
True Stories did not reveal class of people who saw the world the way Byrne did, much like his music remained slightly puzzling even to its fans. The movie was just too peculiar, and though it became a respectable cult phenomenon on the home video market, it was its alienness, its disconcerting weirdness that made it attractive. Only in the age of the internet and in the light of Byrne’s self-realisation as an autistic person could watchers start recognising what had been there all along in a coordinated way: a categorically autistic, absolutely earnest transmission on another wavelength.
Lewis Attilio Franco is an autistic visual artist and fiction writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He writes mostly about baseball. For what it’s worth, he’s Sorbonne-educated.