Thursday, August 27, 2009

Searching for Eve: A Review of the movie "Adam"

**WARNING: This review may contain slight spoilers. Read at your own discretion.

After months of build-up and tons of people asking me if I'd seen this movie, today I finally saw Adam, starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne. I'm sure most everyone already knows the story, but it's about the life of a young man named Adam Raki who has Asperger's syndrome, and Beth Buchwald, the woman with whom he falls in love and has a relationship.

One thing that I had forearmed myself with as I went in to the film was not to get my hopes up about strongly "identifying" with the character of Adam. I belong to the listserv for GRASP, the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, and several people on the list have posted about seeing the movie and their feelings on it. The thing is, with maybe one exception, these people are all men. I knew today that what I was going to see was a depiction of the male version of Asperger's. Although there were several moments that resonated with me, as I expected, I did not completely identify with Adam.

That is not to say that the portrayal of a person with Asperger's syndrome was unfaithful or miscalculated. It was realistic, and it did capture some of the frustrations and pain I have experienced in my own life. But, again, this was still being told through a uniquely "male" lens. Now, it does make sense that a mainstream film (or almost mainstream, because I did see this at an art house theatre) featuring a titular character with Asperger's syndrome would be a man, because more males than females are diagnosed with the disorder. However, this does not mean that women on the spectrum aren't out there. They are, although many are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and I have hope that one day their stories will be told, too.

There was one scene in Adam that particularly struck me, which is where Adam discovers that Beth has lied to him about the circumstances surrounding his meeting her parents (he thought they ran into them coincidentally at a theatre for an off-Broadway show, but it was actually preplanned). Adam flew into a rage at this, calling Beth a "liar" and throwing things around the room. For one thing, I understand why he became so agitated--he thought Beth lying to him meant that she was pulling away from him and didn't care about him.

On the other, this was another "male" Aspie moment. The tantrum itself was a pure outburst--his emotions didn't even have time to flow through his body, they just came flying out at 100 miles per hour. I have had meltdowns in my life, but for me, what's happened is that the emotions have filled me completely and overwhelmed me to the point where they spilled out of me. Neither were my meltdowns directed at other people, as Adam's was (Beth later states that she was afraid he was going to hit her). The anger or frustration I felt in my younger years was directed mostly at myself, and I wouldn't have dreamed of hurting someone, and if it did happen (albeit unintentionally), I would be wracked with guilt.

This also speaks to the dichotomy of "male" versus "female" gender roles in society. For men, it's more permissible to have a "temper," to express rage in an outward fashion like that. Women, by contrast, are taught to contain their emotions, to behave and repress and act "ladylike." We see Adam throw this fit and feel sympathy for him; yet, I feel that if it were a woman acting similarly, the primary thought emanating from the audience would be, "What a crazy bitch!", and no sympathy would be given whatsoever.

The other issue concerning gender roles again comes from the onscreen individual with Asperger's being a male, and the love interest being a neurotypical (NT) female. Beth steps into Adam's world, reads the book "Pretending to be Normal" to learn more about AS, drills him to help him prepare for a job interview. Simply put, the idea put forward is that because she's a woman, it's "expected" that she would do these things for him. It may be a challenge at times and rather difficult, but it's never mentioned that there's any other possible route for her to take (i.e., not reading books, not making accommodations, expecting him to fit into her world). She, instead, takes measures to fit into his world.

Now, speaking from firsthand experience, I can tell you that I have yet to find an NT male who would do any of these things. I'm not saying that they're not out there, but I don't think there's any way a purely NT male would make these sort of accommodations for an Aspie female. In our society, women are supposed to be "nurturers," the "carers"...protecting and providing for everyone else. A man can be damaged or screwed up in all sorts of ways, yet all it takes is a woman to come along and "complete" him, to repair him. I do not think women have this luxury, but rather seem required to be put together, stable, and calm at all times. To put it bluntly: if I had a tantrum or meltdown like Adam did in the movie, the NT guy I was seeing or hoping to see would be out the door in seconds flat.

Again, I don't mean to seem like I'm not giving NT guys any credit. Heck, I currently live with one, and he's helped me in ways I can't even describe. But when it comes to a relationship, that's a whole other basket of eggs. Longevity is just not in the cards for a person like me. Indeed, in the movie, Adam and Beth do not end up together, which is representative of the romantic foibles of most real-life Aspies. But the fact that they courted and began dating so quickly also seems to be an anomaly. I know that this is part of the magic of the movies, but the fact is that Adam's "quirks" and "idiosyncrasies" were very endearing to Beth, and sadly this is not representative of real life. I myself have learned the hard way that certain qualities of my personality annoy or irritate more people than they enchant.

The other large issue that I felt was distorted was Adam's search for a job. When the movie starts, he has a job, but is soon fired due to a lack of productivity. He sends out something like 80 resumes or cover letters, and in what seems like no time at all, he hears from a company that doesn't think he's right for the job for which he applied, but they "have one that they think [he'd] be perfect for."

Employment is a huge struggle for people with Asperger's--both obtaining and keeping jobs. Upon Adam's termination, I felt the very same sting that I could tell he was feeling, numb and disoriented as he stumbled out of his office. His former co-workers attempted to offer sympathy, but he was too aggrieved to be receptive to such condolences. When he stepped outside, everything seemed louder, more jarring, moving him ever-closer to being totally overwhelmed. I experienced something quite similar when I was fired from my temp jobs in Seattle. They weren't even real jobs, like Adam's, but my heart was shattered when I was told to pack up and leave, and I remember just looking down at the floor as I made my way to the elevator, ashamed and upset.

But for Adam to bounce back so readily is, unfortunately, very atypical. The fact that he found a job through sending out online applications is also improbable, as many folks with AS go through organizations that look for employment for people with disabilities, or utilize other assistive services. The success rate of these is often low, and is even worse when these individuals look for jobs on their own. So, while I understand that the focus of this film was to be a romantic comedy, I do wish it would have delved more into the employment aspect. I was also confused by the fact that Adam became terribly agitated when a character suggested that he move out of his apartment, yet he seemed to readily embrace the idea of moving across the country to California for a job.The film was attempting to portray the difficulty with change and changes in routine that many individuals with AS have, so throwing in that latter plot point was one heck of a contradiction (to me, anyway).

So I'm sure you're all wondering, "All right, Amy, enough. Just tell me straight: Is Adam worth seeing?" My answer is yes. It does provide an NT viewer with a better understanding of Asperger's syndrome. For the Aspie viewer, it provides a fresh opportunity to identify with a character (which may have been much more of a challenge with the film Mozart and the Whale, which was based on the book of the same name and the lives of two real Aspies, Jerry and Mary Newport). Adam is truly a unique character, and it's much more possible for someone with Asperger's to say "Hey, that's like me!" because there are no preconceptions with which to contend.

Many AS folks may feel like Adam is showing or telling them things that they already know, but even I can't deny that I got a serious lump in my throat the first time the words "Asperger's syndrome" were uttered onscreen. In my entire life, I have never seen a character in a movie that I thought was really at all like me, and so this was a monumental step forward, both for cinema and for people with Asperger's syndrome everywhere. But I still hope to see a story from the female perspective make it to the silver screen one day, because it is the yin to this yang, the other side of this rare coin that we've finally been privileged to see. And it deserves a chance to shine.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The last few months

I can't believe I haven't updated since May! My goodness. Quite a few things have happened since then, and I feel terrible for not keeping you all abreast of the latest developments.

This entry is actually more of a housekeeping one, though right now I am working on an entry all about me testifying in the New Jersey State Assembly back in May, in favor of an autism insurance bill. I will have that up as soon as time allows, but for right now, I want to make a declaration.

After seeing the movie Julie & Julia today, I realize the importance of regular blogging. I got an e-mail the other day with a link to an article about a 14-year-old nonverbal girl with autism named Taryn, who had started typing on her parents' computer one day, revealing all of her inner thoughts and feelings. The article said that she'd found her "inner voice," and the person who e-mailed it to me, while anonymous, left a note that said, "We, your fans, are glad you found your inner voice, too. :-)"

That message just about made my day, for a multitude of reasons. I never realized before that I have fans, people who may possibly read this blog on a regular basis. If this is the case, then I have been letting you all down terribly by not updating in so long. No more! I had always thought that I couldn't write an entry unless I had something big and important to write about, but I can write about anything. The day-to-day goings-on in my life are pretty interesting, especially since I'm about to start on my Master's thesis this fall (if you can believe it!).

So this is my pledge to you, dear readers: no more lengthy gaps and spaces of time between entries. From now on, you will be seeing a lot more entries from me. I fear they may tend towards the mundane, but if you all are willing to read them (and maybe comment?), then I am willing to write them. This is my promise. And I will do all that I can to fulfill it. So, stay tuned for an entry about my testimony to the NJ State Assembly, and many other entries to come!