When I was a teenager, I was abused by a much older man. I have a net total of zero feelings about this.
I was a young freelancer beginning to set up shop; he was a wealthy creative, elegantly wealthy even though I never figured out where the money came from, and the first person to hire me. It’s a horrible Fifty Shades setup, I realize now; trash fantasy. What started out as a professional relationship became a personal one over the course of a year. I was well aware that a man in his forties taking that much interest in a teenager was a problem. I was well aware that I should not have been at his house, drinking his alcohol, playing confessional games with him and his wife. I should not have let him sneak me into swanky bars. But amid all this, I was not being groomed. I was not dissociating. I was having my fun, learning how to take risks.
Again, if you think those sound like the words of a horribly gaslighted person, I can promise you that they are not.
The games got devious in the second year. Physical. At its culmination I let him hit me. He asked and I agreed to it. I cried from the sting of it, but kept a straight face, and made no sound as the slap rang against the slanted attic walls of the house I shared. I’m sure my roommates heard it. He tried again and again. I was a statue. This didn’t feel wrong. I had consented. It just felt uncomfortable, like an unwanted conversation. When he left my house there was a sense of finality, like something in our relationship had been fundamentally broken. A few days later I sent him a triumphant photo of the bruise.
After this incident I hardly heard from him, and the few updates I got indicated that he had become quite the alcoholic. He returned only once to announce that he was divorcing his wife and moving abroad, and to make an intimation of more gamesmanship that was never followed through. I tried to contact him after the move. Even tried to invite him out when I was traveling in the area for work on multiple occasions. He never responded. His social media was last updated in 2015. The networking website where we coordinated our work turns up no results. My twisted friend, the ghost.
Through all this, it wasn’t that I found ways of rationalizing this behavior, of burying his red flags even when they were on fire and I was literally being beaten. It was that I had a very strict heuristic for our interactions. I knew this was a game that I had agreed to, and that I would never lose on principle. I assumed that this was known, and only afterward realized that he was operating on a different principle: that he assumed he would get to break me as part of the rules of engagement. My inability to do this meant the relationship had no value for him, so he left. I didn’t realize how much he must have hated not just being beaten, but the victor asking him out for coffee as if to gloat, completely oblivious.
So yes, I was a bit of an idiot for not realizing that this man was actively trying to abuse me. But I was always seeing the state of affairs head-on. I just had my own way of interpreting it and managed to speedrun the entire possibility of being hurt by just…assuming I was fine. The realization felt like invincibility.
I have pulled the term ‘weaponized autism’ into my vocabulary from the cesspool that is 4chan, making sure to wash my hands on the way out. Loosely, it describes an impressive ability to finesse conflicts with a combination of obsession, awkwardness and complete detachment from what other people consider to be real concerns. In particular, one of the most potent weapons I’ve noticed in myself and my autistic friends is something I like to term “the deep quiet of the soul” (sorry; can you tell I write high fantasy fiction?). There is certain untouchable core of the personality, which results in us being distinctly difficult to influence. The motivations of other people don’t penetrate us in ways that could change us, because they seem innately foreign, incompatible with our inner selves. We can act in relation to them, but we can’t be fundamentally altered by them. It’s an innate self-possession.
I first noticed this quality as a child and saw it as an annoyance. As the stereotypical “weird kid” I would try very hard to change my behavior for social approval, but it felt like none of the changes ever sank in. I would do this surface-level play-acting, pantomiming the customs people told me were important, but they never seemed to take hold inside of me as an actual value system, the way they functioned for everyone else. I experienced anxieties about the cracks in my mask being visible, and feared that everyone could tell I was a sham. The flesh was somewhat compliant – I wanted to learn how to behave, because I wanted the rewards that came from behaving – but the spirit was immovable despite my best efforts. I only realized I could spare myself the agony and just give up trying in the last couple of years.
If this scenario seems recognizable to those familiar with applied behavioral analysis, specifically the way it gets foisted onto autistic children as a semblance of therapy, you’re onto something. I was trying to classically condition myself into being neurotypical. This same regimen is often employed in professional settings as a means of normalizing the behavior of young autistic people. The theory is that by providing positive reinforcement for behaviors that mimic allistic ones, the incidences of “problem” behaviors such as stimming, nonverbal communication or sensory breakdowns are reduced. Unfortunately, this doesn’t create a functional child, this creates a child who has been cowed into never trusting their own instincts. Many autistic behaviors are self-regulating ones, things that make us feel safe or calm in a world that reads to us as arbitrary or unstructured. If we remove these access points to our inner refuges and replace them with only the threat of failure ostracism, the ability to actually negotiate conflict becomes ineffective, and generates greater anxiety. We are highly effective people when we rely on our instincts. Conformity kills that ability.
So the next time someone aggresses you in a way that seems questionable, just assume that the most feral, disconnected-from-society instinct you have is probably the correct one.