Movies

The Accountant

So, I know the movie came out last year, but I only got around to watching it recently. In sum: it’s not perfect, but overall I really, really liked it, and I would like to see more movies featuring autistic characters that are like The Accountant.

However, I’ve been kind of disheartened by the mixed critical reviews and some criticism by other autistic people—a lot of which came from people who didn’t actually watch the movie. So, I wanted to give my thoughts (as an autistic who watched the movie).

First, Not Autism Stuff: I love the nonlinear narrative style; I think it was done really well and in a way that was engaging and compelling. It’s one of those movies in which at first some scenes might not make sense or seem relevant, but as the movie goes on, you see how all the puzzle pieces fit together, and I love that.

Now, onto the autism rep (general first, then specific).

A lot of the criticism has revolved around the surface elements of the story—namely, the decision to have the autistic character (Ben Affleck’s character, Christian Wolff) be a gunslinging dude who shoots people. Some people dislike this because of the idea that it’s equating autism with violence (which is, obviously, very bad), and/or that it’s showing an autistic person as a “sociopath.”

These criticisms are objectively wrong (which is precisely why it can be dangerous to make judgments about a premise without actually reading/watching first).

I mean, if you believe that autistic characters should never be seen engaging in any kind of violence…then, yeah, you’re not going to like the movie.* However, the movie itself does not equate violence to autism or autism to sociopathy. Let me explain:

  • If Christian Wolff had been the only violent character in the movie, then yeah, I can see that conclusion. But he’s not. There are tons of (presumably neurotypical) gun-wielding henchmen who are just as violent. There’s a (definitely neurotypical) hitman/private security contractor who is also violent. In fact, while Christian Wolff is described, in the movie itself, as something of an antihero, the movie also points out that he kills people when they “violate” his “moral code.” So really he’s more like a vigilante, and in my opinion, an autistic vigilante is unique and cool.
  • The strongest argument against the movie equating autism with violence is that Christian Wolff is not *naturally* violent just because he’s autistic—there are plenty of flashbacks that show that he was trained in self-defense by his (neurotypical) father, who made that decision because he was worried that other people would hurt Christian due to ableism.
  • The people who say the movie portrays Christian as a “sociopath” are, ironically, falling into the same ableist traps that lead to discrimination against autistics. Christian is not emotionally expressive, but the movie goes out of its way to show, very explicitly, that he cares for other people. He cares for his family, he cares for Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick’s character), he cares for other autistic people (generally & specifically). In fact, in his first appearance, he is shown going out of his way to help strangers by voluntarily helping an elderly couple avoid extra taxes. So, the movie is actually a deconstruction of the “emotionless autistic” stereotype.

(*I think there’s a counter-argument here, though, which is that saying that autistic people are “incapable” of violence can contribute to the infantilization of autistic people/fetishization of autistics as “innocent” and “pure,” which is also Not Exactly A Good Thing.)

The overall message of the film is that “Autistic people are capable of doing amazing things” so, despite a few missteps I’ll talk about below, I think The Accountant is a very important movie and I’m indignant it’s gotten a mixed rep.

Okay, now for the specific cons of the autistic representation in this movie. (There will be spoilers below the read more cut—somewhat minor, though your mileage may vary.)

Continue reading “The Accountant”

Life, Movies

The darkness and the light

One of the occupational hazards of being autistic—for me—is having strong opinions but not being good at handling arguments. For example, I recently disagreed with a friend about the movie Man of Steel, and I felt pretty uncomfortable afterwards.

I’m sure a major part of it is when I love movies, it’s because I’ve become very personally invested in them. In particular, I have a strong negative reaction to the oft-repeated arguments when it comes to Man of SteelBatman v. Superman, and the DCEU’s movies generally, because my reactions are tied up with my own personal experiences as someone who has experienced depression.

The idea that suffering “must” be balanced with optimism in fiction, is one that I can’t view independently of ableism towards depression, because the two sentiments are way too similar. There are people who berate the movies for not being “optimistic and uplifting enough,” because “Superman doesn’t smile enough,” etc.

One of the most common attitudes you’ll receive if you’re depressed is, “Just get over it already.” “You don’t have any reason to be sad,” or “You should have gotten over the event that originally made you sad already.” “It’s because you’re not trying hard enough to be positive/happy.” Etc.

It’s comforting to believe that people will always be able to handle disappointments, setbacks, and negative events with grace, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we get knocked down, and we don’t know how to get back up for a long time, or without a lot of support. That should not be seen as a weakness, or something to be ashamed of.

Psychological depth when it comes to exploring how characters deal with negative or traumatic events is something that’s incredibly rare in fiction. There are probably multiple reasons: ableism, but also toxic masculinity that says male characters aren’t allowed to cry or feel sad, just get violently angry if something bad happens to them.

I purposefully seek out a lot of stories that deal with traumatic events, not because I like reading about trauma, but because those are typically the only kinds of stories that attempt to explore healing and coping. I am not, per se, a survivor of trauma; however, I have spent a lifetime looking for stories that could reassure me that it’s okay to feel pain and sadness and not be able to immediately “get over it”; it’s okay to be deeply affected by negative events; it’s okay to take time to heal. After I began to struggle with depression, and also dealt with awful ableism, I needed those stories more than ever.

Just like how, when you’re depressed, having people try to shower you with positivity doesn’t do much and can even annoy you, seeing protagonists who are always able to “get over” their traumas gracefully just isn’t reassuring to me. Sometimes, it can make me feel worse, because it’s like, “Hey look, another character who didn’t get depressed after their parents died! Why can’t you get over feeling depressed just because you feel socially isolated, you pathetic weakling??!”

Sometimes, it feels like people who clamor for “lighthearted” stories don’t really understand how meaningful these “darker” stories are to people like me—and how much we need them because we’re surrounded by a fictional sea of protagonists who don’t get depressed (or not depressed in actually authentic ways) and don’t struggle emotionally and can get over tragedy after three days’ mourning. We’re surrounded by protagonists who are quippy extroverts; thoughtful introverts are relatively uncommon.

So yeah, that’s what those kinds of stories mean to me.

Life

Anxiety issues

I became pretty sure that I developed anxiety problems as a result of law school when I noticed that I was having trouble sleeping, racing heartbeat/heart palpitations, and mental paralysis when it came to doing certain things. Why, I’m not entirely sure, since I already began to withdraw from law school/take it less seriously starting from my 2L year, so I thought that would’ve led to less internal pressure, not more. But maybe the fact that I knew I wasn’t even trying to be a dutiful law student anymore—which was totally at odds with how I approached school up until that point—caused a lot of internal angst.

Dealing with rejections for my first novel hasn’t helped, either. To quote Sabrina Khan: “as much as anyone will tell you that rejections aren’t meant to be personal, they really are. And they hurt. A lot.” Especially since my book is sort of an #ownvoices exploration of depression, in both literal and metaphorical ways, and includes #ownvoices themes in asexual & Asian representation. So, yeah, the rejections hit even harder in that context.

So I find myself dealing with anxiety once again: Instead of applying for jobs or querying/Twitter-pitching agents for my book, I’m frozen with anxiety again. All I can think, over and over in a loop in my head, is, “Who do you think you are? Your book probably sucks, or is completely unmarketable, that’s why you’ve gotten so many flat rejections. You have no credentials, you suck at writing cover letters because you hate marketing yourself, your invisible disabilities have prevented you from having a lot of work experience, YOU ARE BOUND FOR FAILURE. WHY EVEN BOTHER TRYING.”

Logically, it’s not rational, but that’s the whole point of mental illnesses/disorders: your thoughts aren’t rational, but they seem so convincing to you in your head. And trying to push past them is like being Sisyphus and trying to roll that boulder up a hill that always keeps falling back down and knocking you flat again.

Writing

“Depression isn’t worth telling a story about.”

Anyone who’s ever experienced depression before knows how heavily this mental illness is stigmatized.

“Why can’t you just get over it?”

“You don’t have any reason to be depressed.”

“It’s all just in your head.”

I find it incredibly ironic that one of the major suggestions I received for my book was to cut out the ending section, which dealt with the main character’s depression and PTSD in the aftermath of the traumatic events of the story. The comments I received were that this section was “unnecessary,” and the protagonist’s emotional issues had “already been resolved.”

Which sounds a lot like “it’s unnecessary to explore the protagonist’s depression because he should have already gotten over it by now.”

Basically, echoing general ableism regarding depression.

Which, to me, isn’t a good reason to cut out a section from the book. But I also fundamentally disagree with the idea that “he should have gotten over his feelings by that point.” Without getting into spoilers, he goes through multifaceted emotional trauma throughout the book, compounding prior traumatic experiences. I just…don’t agree that someone could “get over” such experiences so easily.

I mean, sure, I agree that not every exploration of mental illness is going to make for a good story. But I don’t personally think that taking 30 out of 160 pages to (among other things) show the emotional, mental health fallout the protagonist is experiencing as a result of everything that happened in the story is that indulgent. I don’t think it would have been healthy to wrap everything up immediately after the climax by shoving the two main characters into a romantic relationship, making it difficult to avoid the problematic implication that “love cures depression.”

I made it my mission as a writer to represent mental illness and mental health as authentically and accurately as I can. But I can’t do that if I’m asked to remove the discussion of my characters’ mental health from my manuscript.

So yeah, ableism exists everywhere.

Life, Writing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that rejection sucks.

When I was planning my writing career, I made the mistake of using “instant success” stories as a yardstick for my own life. Authors who landed agents and publication immediately, or even just authors who directly submitted to indie publishers and received immediate acceptances.

I realized, too late, that such cases comprise a minority of writer careers. That most authors experience rejection after rejection before finding success.

The statistics have not been in my favor. I’ve fallen in the majority camp.

First, I queried 7 agents whom I thought I’d tailored to be the most receptive to my manuscript. 6 of the 7 rejected without any request for fulls or partials; the last agent, who I think might’ve been the most receptive to my book, quit agenting, so that turned out to be a dead end.

Then I submitted to an indie queer publisher, thinking to myself that my queer sci-fi romance would have a better chance of finding a home there. Today, I received a rejection.

At least I got detailed feedback, which is better than the flat nothing you get from agent rejections. But, to paraphrase a forum post I saw: it’s always a bitter pill to swallow when you get rejected for issues that neither you nor your critique partners noticed.

More worrying to me is the fact that my story has a structure similar to Room by Emma Donoghue—the ending part is all about rehabilitation and recovery from mental health issues (and also wrapping up loose ends), yet that part is cited as “unnecessary” and “too long” in my rejection. Which is causing me a lot of angst because for me, a person who had/has mental health issues, accurate representation of mental health problems is one of the fundamental reasons I wrote this story. If I had to delete that part, I would simply lose interest in the entire story.

I also don’t think it should be somehow anathema to have a sci-fi story filled with action and mystery and also explore mental health issues.

I feel less disappointed than frustrated. Frustrated because of the bitter pill I mentioned above, frustrated because I feel like some of the feedback is unfair (“it’s too coincidental that one of the protagonists’ siblings is a certain profession that ends up being useful to them later” is…that really…a big deal?), and frustrated because I’ve poured my heart and soul into writing a story about queer characters of color that explores mental health issues that are deeply important to me, and I’ve had a hard time finding any reception for that story.

I’m also frustrated because I’m under a vague time deadline, which means I’m going to have to figure out what to prioritize. I don’t know whether I should revise this story and either query more agents or hope the publisher won’t be annoyed by a resubmit, or whether I should work on my new project, a YA novel that I feel will be easier to land an agent/publisher, all while I have to think about what to do for a day job and then go through the stressful process of landing a day job, all for the sake of having health insurance.

In other words, the pressure of my impending health-insurance-less future means that in the immediate future, I’m not sure if I can work on both projects (even if I were doing it sequentially). I mean, obviously revising one manuscript is easier than writing a story from scratch (which is the case for my new project), but I just don’t know how long revisions would take when I’m already trying (hoping) to write my second book ASAP.

I guess it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to table my first manuscript until I’m less emotional about it…

Life

End of an Era

I know I’ve been AWOL for a while; I was basically dealing with finals, then graduation, and now I’m finally back home from school.

So, I’m officially done with law school. On one hand, it’s a relief, but on the other, since I realized being a lawyer wasn’t going to work for me, I’m now a law school graduate without a job. And afraid of not being able to find a job due to my autism. And although I’m very lucky in that my family is able to financially support me if need be, being jobless in the US sucks due to the whole lack of healthcare thing, so I will probably have to find a day job eventually—I just don’t have any concrete idea of the what or the how, exactly.

My own plans for the near future are: (1) try to regain my spoons and improve my physical health (which really tanked in law school as a result of mental health problems, and I don’t want that to continue now); (2) continue to try to get Project E published; (3) write my next book and cross my fingers that I can finish it quickly. And after that’s done, look into what kinds of day jobs I might be able to get.

My main worry is that, since I’m living with my parents right now and for the foreseeable future, my mom is kind of mercurial. She spent the past few months assuring me that I could devote my time to writing after graduation, that she finally understood that I have plenty of special interests to keep me occupied even if I’m home all the time, but already tonight she began to walk back a little, returning to the “you need something to do because staying at home alone is unhealthy” rhetoric. I’m hoping it’s just a temporary thing, but…as someone who craves specific kinds of routine/consistency, it’s always been hard for me to live with her when she’s constantly changing her mind, especially about me. Her opinion switching from the former to the latter would turn what would’ve been a relaxing unwinding/de-stressing period at home into a tense, uncomfortable, and possibly even worse experience.

Sigh.

Writing

The waiting game

My memory’s been pretty horrible lately, so I really can’t remember how much I’ve talked about what’s been going on with my novel (Project E). In case I forgot to explain anything at all:

I submitted Project E directly to an indie publisher in January, and I expect to hear back from them in May (maybe this month if I’m super lucky). Hopefully before I graduate and leave campus. I’ll be honest; the waiting game has been pretty brutal. Especially since I basically failed my initial goal of getting Project E at least under contract for publishing during my last year of law school, so that I’d have something to keep me excited during the final slog to graduation (though, in hindsight, it was probably unrealistic, given that I had no connections and was going into the publishing process cold).

Sometimes I waffle about whether it was the “right” decision to submit Project E to an indie publisher instead of query more agents. After all, I want to eventually have a career as an author, and traditional publishing is still the best way to do that (I don’t write quickly enough to make a living from self-publishing/indie publishing). But I also think it’s not a bad thing to publish Project E specifically in the LGBTQ fiction niche—I’d get to bring racial diversity and an asexual romance where sex isn’t required to that genre, which are both things that genre is currently sorely lacking.

…Though, on the flip side, one of the problems with submitting Project E to the niche queer fiction (specifically M/M romance) audience that I worry about is that there is an expectation among that audience that there will be sex scenes, to put it kindly. I’m not kidding; I see over and over again in Goodreads reviews “[low rating] because there wasn’t sex/the sex was off-screen” or, conversely, “there was just enough steam to keep me happy” (implying that the book would’ve been rated lower or considered unsatisfactory if there was no sex).

Basically, I want Project E to be published, but I also hope it’ll be well-received, or at least not criticized for shallow reasons such as “didn’t have any sex, 1/5 stars.”

And while I’m still waiting, it’s way too easy to get sucked into the negative downward spirals of wondering “What if I’m not good enough?” Especially since I wasn’t able to find an agent. “What if people hate my premise?” “What if the no sex really is a deal-breaker?” “What if it’s too dark for people?”

Sigh. Fingers crossed…