I know now that wires
poke out through my skin
and stand at attention.
I hang letters and signs
from their silver, pin-prick
heads: autism, ADHD.
And my monkey still lives.
Ask your monkey sometime
for his name, and see
what he tells you.
– Excerpt from my poem “Two Monkeys, A Raven, and A Lizard King”
It is quite serendipitous that the poem from which I just quoted lines was published today in Red Wolf Journal. And today, of course, is World Autism Acceptance Day.
Notice I did NOT say World Autism Awareness Day. I am troubled by the kind of awareness promoted by groups such as Autism Speaks. I think The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism says it best when they said this in the opening paragraph of their post today:
“…to the autistic people we love, work with, fight alongside, parent, and (some of us) are ourselves, it’s instead a day to bust myths, speak out, and try to change the world to be a more autistic-friendly place.”
So on that note, I will meditate a little about another possibly neurodivergent soul: Jim Morrison.
A Few Words on So-Called “Obsessive” Interests
On many levels, writing about him today makes sense to me. For one thing, I try to understand myself, and the world, through acts of echolocation. My intense interest in things, people, and subjects happens to be one way in which I do this. As I said in another (unpublished) poem, “Elephant”:
Break off, and devour it
in chunks. I might take fifteen years to
process one picture, twelve years to
walk through the autobiography of one man’s
sorrow. Is the world made out of
In this poem, I compare what has been termed by others as “narrow, obsessive interests” to the parable of the blind men and the elephant — not to compare autism with blindness but to illustrate the idea that no one ever has a complete picture of the world and that we might use our thoughts, our senses, and perhaps in the case of autistic people these interests to better understand the world.
Of course, with this discussion comes the question: who decided that there was something unusual about our interests as autistic people? I’ve been made fun of a little for my keen interest in The Doors, and in Jim specifically. When I was in college, those around me thought that my keen interest in R.E.M. was a little strange. My mother once joked that in my late teens, I had Nirvana on the brain.
With these particular groups of musicians, I studied not just the music, but them as musicians — their personalities, their personal lives, even the way they might think of and process the world around them. For example, I have found similarities between my childhood and that of both Jim Morrison and Michael Stipe (the lead vocalist of R.E.M.): our families moved around frequently as children, all of our fathers were in the military, all of us showed intense interest in literature and poetry as teenager, and that’s just to name a few. I have found that it is a human trait, not just a neurodivergent trait, to look at the lives of others similar to own and compare/contrast experiences to try to understand our particular experiences. And that’s exactly what I did, and have been doing.
Is my so-called obsessive interest in these musical groups — or some of my other interests such as the Enneagram, or social/cultural/racial issues — any more or less unusual, than, say, that of an obsessive Lady Gaga fan? Or is the keen interest of an autistic in, say, batteries or Greek mythology any more or less unusual than that of someone who’s really into One Direction? I submit that the answer to both of these questions is “no”.
I believe, however, that the term “obsessive, narrow interests” may seem to have a negative connotation depending on who’s observing, and who’s doing the judging — perhaps that judgement occurs because these interests are not things that we share with the majority of people around us. As a teenager in today’s Western cultures, it might be easier to find someone to gab on with for hours about One Direction than to find someone to gab on with for hours about a more seemingly obscure subject, such as Telugu-language poetry. (Of course, if you’re a teenager in Hyderabad, you might easily find someone to geek on about Telugu poetry — which proves that some of this depends on the culture in which one lives and is from. But I digress.)
Jim Morrison, in 1969 (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Now, About Jim
Sometime in 2008, Jim Morrison captured my imagination. I don’t know whether to thank or blame Oliver Stone for this. One spring afternoon, my fiance and I watched his 1991 movie The Doors — and it left me with way more questions than answers. So, I went off into reading, listening, and fact-finding. What I found was absolutely startling, amazing, and heartbreaking.
First of all, the real Jim Morrison was not very much like Val Kilmer’s portrayal in the Oliver Stone film. Stone may have been correct on some biographical details, but many of the events in both the Doors’ career and Morrison’s life were either rearranged, exaggerated, or flat-out fictionalized in the film. I won’t go into the exact details here, but I will say that instead of being a mystical, illogical junkie as was portrayed in the movie, Jim was way more complicated than that. He was a collection of contradictions: both a incredibly nice guy and an insensitive, misogynistic creep; both a brilliant and amazingly talented artist and an arrogant, self-important asshole; and a man who at his finest inhabited the concept of an alchemistic shaman but who was also an intensely pain-ridden, broken soul in need of healing himself.
And, my friends, I also suspect that Jim was neurodiverse.
Some might say that I am “diagnosing the dead” in the case of Jim. But consider, my friends, that we must move away from the paradigm of pathology and illness. Diagnosing suggests that there is a problem to be fixed — which is not what this is about. This is about identification.
In all the reading, viewing, and fact-collecting I have done over the last six years, a few things have lead me to believe that Jim was some form of neurodivergent. For example, bandmate Ray Manzarek documented in his book “Light My Fire” that Jim had a photographic memory to the point of being able to identify the exact book and page number of any passage read to him from a book in his collection — with his back turned so that he could not see the book from which the person read. I’m autistic with ADHD, and I have near photographic memory, but I’m not that good – my memory is much better with pictures and sound. I would compare Jim’s ability with that of Dr. Temple Grandin, who has documented that she was able to recite entire printed pages from memory as a teenager, and I have met other ADHD and autistic folks who also have this type of exceptional memory.
Of course, photographic memory alone does not a neurodivergent make. One of Jim’s own quotes may give away his own possible neurodivergence:
“I think of myself as an intelligent, sensitive human being with the soul of a clown which always forces me to blow it at the most important moments.”
It is not in dispute that we must read into this quote to determine its meaning. Jim is dead, and is not here to explain to us exactly what he meant. And even if he could, would he? This is a man with a million mysteries behind his life — and appears to have liked it that way. But it’s not hard to use this quote as a jump-off point, to make small mental leaps and imagine his difficulties with impulse control and executive functioning. After all, this was a man who often did not “look before he leaped” — whether it was shouting racial slurs at passersby for no apparent reason, sometimes sleeping with every woman (or man) he could get his hands on, or drunken, ill-planned onstage ranting.
The above quote suggests a struggle with forethought and considering the consequences of one’s actions beforehand…and the guilt, embarrassment, and endless face-palming after one has done the thing. I think of this quote and I’m reminded of an incident in third grade when, bored with the classroom lecture, I suddenly had the urge to stand up, interrupt the teacher, and shout at the top of my eight year-old lungs, “APER – RAPER – PAPER!” without even considering that two of these were not real words in the dictionary, or that I was interrupting a lecture. I, of course, found myself red-faced as I made the trek down to the principal’s office.
And speaking of school, this brings to mind an interesting quote from one of his poems, “As I Look Back”:
I was given a
desk in the corner
I was a fool
The smartest kid
I can’t help but think of a wise-ass with an electric mind wired in such a way that he was way beyond his peers. And since neurodiversity, after all, promotes the idea that those of us who are autistic, ADHD, bipolar, and other variations are simply the products of different kinds of brain wiring naturally present in the human genome, wouldn’t this quote coming from a neurodivergent person make sense? The same kid who gives the teachers a headache and wisecracks so much in class ends up reading material way beyond his grade level — in Jim’s case, it was books on Arab sexuality and sixteenth-century demonology, as well as his well-documented reading of Nietzsche which began as a teenager.
Ah, Nicole, but what about his drinking and drug use? you might ask. Doesn’t that complicate things and make it harder to judge his possible neurodivergence? To be fair, yes, it does. But I also point to that as another possible sign that he was neurodiverse. Consider that many of us neurodivergents have self-medicated in an effort to help ourselves cope with life — especially life in a world not built for us. I have personally known autistic, ADHD, and bipolar folks who have done some form of this: in my case, it was alcohol. For the non-neurodiverse in my reading audience, consider this: if a substance provided you with even temporary relief from excessive mental stimulation, emotional and/or energy rollercoasters, or paralyzing sensory overload, might you not at least consider taking that substance? Many do. It may not be the best coping mechanism — and it may become destructive in our lives, as it clearly did in Jim’s case — but that is a very real reality for some of us.
So, What’s Your Point, Nicole?
I started thinking about this a few weeks back when I struggled with my own sense of inhibition, which had been born out of teenage fear. My family bullied me into trying to be “normal”, so I created a LOT of facades, subroutines, and a few inhibitive ideas which would ensure that I didn’t, as I once put it to my fiance, “fuck up my own life”. I was SO afraid that I would, because I believed that at heart I was an undisciplined, feral creature that would just go “crazy” and do off-the-rails shit that would ruin mine — and now, our — lives. I began comparing what I saw as an inner impulsiveness to trying to restrain a wild monkey.
Then, it occurred to me that Jim probably had a monkey, too. He was an intensely creative mind who was also impulsive, a risk-taker, and prone to both moments of brilliance and what appeared to others to be madness (believe me, because of my new realization of how neurodivergence is often pathologized, I do not use that word lightly). That quote about “blowing it at the most crucial moments” started to echo in my own mind. From this thought process was born both my poem “Two Monkeys” and a new realization: we who are neurodivergent can only be who and what we are.
I am certainly not suggesting that being neurodivergent is without its challenges, but I believe in many cases those challenges are not because of who and what we are — they are what we encounter while existing in a world system not created by us, and at the same time we still try to cope, try to get along, and even try to conform. Many of us are very familiar with the feeling of ramming our souls against invisible walls created by others when we engage in our usual behaviour. And this happens on many levels. Consider an ADHD child who struggles with sitting still in a Western-style classroom environment, or an autistic who cannot make eye contact, or a bipolar whose emotional passion and unique life rhythms are judged to be a pathology.
Whatever Jim was, he was probably nursing wounds as a result of slamming himself against invisible walls created by those around him, and in the end, partially unfortunately due to bad choices on his own part, he paid a heavy price. And I’m sure some of us neurodivergents are still nursing our own wounds. So I will say this: I am tired of trying to conform, my friends. My monkey is slowly learning how he and I can work together, and not against each other.
While I know we are far from having “overcome”, I am thankful that we live in such an era of knowledge and advocacy with such a potential towards understanding and acceptance of neurological differences. I wish Jim had discovered these same opportunities in his lifetime. So, I leave you with another of Jim’s quotes — what I call an invocation to open, and keep opening, doors to a brighter, better future — one in which we will simply be neurodiverse, free of any paradigms of pathology:
O Great Creator of Being
grant us one more hour
to perform our art
and perfect our lives