Lost Scripts and Misbehavior

Nicholas Grider


So I’m converting to Judaism, or at least I was. But then the rabbis in charge of my conversion decided I wasn’t capable of making a rational decision about converting, so now I don’t know if or when I’ll convert. When I started convert I thought: There’s a lot of reading and a lot of classes, but nine months is fine, and then it gets taken care of, right? Growing up an atheist and having no previous experience converting from anything to anything I’d sort of thought of it similar to how things would work if I wanted to be Lutheran or something: I’d waltz into church and proclaim Jesus my personal lord and savior and get a bible and get sprinkled with holy water and bang, I’m in. With Judaism it’s more complex, partly because it’s more of an exclusive club (which leaves me unnerved), and what I learned was that no, in fact, conversion does not get taken care of, it gets offered and then taken away from you and then you subsequently get teased with it.

It’s difficult for the rabbis to kind of grab the handle of and hold onto the following, but there are two clear reasons why they’re preventing me from converting: 1) I’m autistic, and 2) I’m poor.  Their reasoning is simply, because I sent them some moderately insistent emails this summer, two messages of which containing the side note that I didn’t think the head rabbi liked me all that much, was that I must obviously be, as they put it, “not of sound mind.” Partly because Rabbi Shapiro loves everybody; he loves you too, dear reader, and he has never met you and maybe never will. The response of my psychiatrist and my therapist (who has an MD), when I told them this and further informed them I needed a kind of doctor’s note in October from them certifying my sanity was, as you might guess, a mixture of bewilderment and anger, because rabbis are many things but they are not, after all, mental health professionals who can make vague diagnoses on the basis of some insistent emails and a mistaken impression based on a guy making mean public jokes about me. So currently my doctors and one of the rabbis are playing phone tag with each other while I wait, but I still have two problems: 1) I’m still autistic, and 2) I’m still poor.

The poor thing is pretty simple (I don’t have any money) and the autism thing actually relates to my work as a writer and I can tease out a bit for you here; I will often enter into patterns of miscommunication with people, often authority figures, and since I’m autistic and unaware that I have caused a problem, I invariably make things worse when I notice that X authority figures are bothered and in general since I’m not sure what the script is supposed to be, I am not using it. So it’s a bit like taking a college course in calculus but instead of buying and studying the calculus textbook, I bought and studied a textbook in algebra or statistics. Right idea, in other words, and terrible execution. What happened this summer is I did have a script–an “I’m eager to convert, tell me what to do and how to do it” script–while their script was a more laissez-faire deal of, “Let’s schedule a meeting, and you’re already supposed to have figured out how much it costs and all of the stuff we’ve told you to learn that you don’t actually know, right?” Reading that script and trying to dovetail it into my bordering-pestering enthusiasm did not help at all, so I was left simply repeating lines from my script, to worse and worse effect, the results being that I “misread” and “miswrote” so I’m not allowed to convert. (Side note, here; as far as I’m concerned, Jew-wise, it’s like learning to drive: you learn to drive and then go to the DMV to get a license, and over the past year I’ve learned how to drive and it’s opened up a new world to me, and a pretty great one, but I’ve been more or less barred from the DMV, so no license but I still know how to drive.)

So my insistence plus some misreading of a way a rabbi acted toward me means I am very far up a creek, so far that they think I’m nuts. My doctors have assured me of the obvious, that no, I am not nuts, I’m just autistic so I had problems with communication and (my words, here, not theirs) I need to learn a different script.  The reason I’m bringing up scripting so much is that this is an actual not-quite-literal thing that autistics engage in, or at least that I’ve been engaging in since a child, lying in bed on sleepless nights working out the mental chess moves of potential future conversations so that when I encountered them, I would be at least somewhat prepared vs. my ordinary response to an under-prepped personal interface: deer-headlights silence and sometimes stuttering. Stuttering is a fast-growing mold and proliferates once it begins so all my life I’ve set mental time aside to “script” enough conversations that I am prepared for most everyday interactions in my life save for some sharp left turns, like learning how to deal with a rabbi or last week when a guy really bluntly hit on me at Target, where I went to buy a winter hat and some oatmeal. I have no script for flirting, and couldn’t say what was in my head–(“Sorry but I just had an eleven-hour day of school and tomorrow’s the anniversary of my mother’s death so you inadvertently have some terrible timing so I’m flattered but no, the answer’s no to whatever requests you might make”)–so instead I froze, scriptless, having never bothered to learn how to flirt, and I stuttered a bit and thanked him and all but ran off down the aisle.

How scripting and Judaism and flirting are relevant to an autism/writing essay is in how much scripting, both having a script and not having one, influences my take on interpersonal interaction in my fiction, with a slightly wild pendulum between, on the one hand, me handing off my own inarticulacy onto my characters because they lack scripts for the often sharp-left-turn things that happen to them and they do in response. The other end of the pendulum being that I’ve spent so much time scripting that when characters in my writing are articulate, they’re not just sufficient; they are, because fiction affords me a formal scripting opportunity, hyper-articulate and clever and possessed of large vocabularies. If I thought I could get away with a Gaddis-esque (or Ivy Compton-Burnett-esque) mostly dialogue novel, I’d do it, the weird thrill of power that pervades all world-building in writing, even if you’re on draft fourteen, crests for me in dialogue scenes because I can play between the two pendulum swings I noted above and let the book, rather than the characters, stutter.

Such that in a current scene I’m writing for a huge unpublishable book an interchange between a loquacious alcoholic talk show host and a loquacious pregnant teenage girl/documentarian zips from discussion of forms of address to a Paul Simon joke to a stagy bit of interplay about weltschmerz and ennui and, says the girl, are they applicable to Americans or are they purely European existentialist deals while Americans trade more in boredom and loneliness. But US adults, the girl says, don’t feel bored and lonely, they just are, or at least she is, at which point she volleys the question to a mildly autistic media studies grad student in the room who’s been silent the whole time and he’s startled and all he can get out is “sort of, I don’t know,” because he has no script for slingshot chatter, which bounces back to the girl who nods in the grad student’s direction and just says, “Well, there you go, boss, pure embodiment, embodiment of if not what I’ve just been laying down verbal brick about then embodiment of something possibly even more urgent, or deeper, or at any rate more interesting, because boss I am willing to take (the grad student) at his word and throw my petite fedora in that ring or straddle that pony or whatever and say to you, dear sirs, actually yes, ‘sort of’ and ‘I don’t know’ are where we’re all at, right now, actually sums things up quite well.”

The above, of course, does not advance the story at all and will doubtlessly get cut when my first draft ends up being several hundred pages longer than has been deemed acceptable by the US publishing industry, such as it is (mainstream or alt lit or whatever, it applies in all cases), but why I am getting you privy to a scene from a novel that’ll probably never get published is to underline how scripting for me as a person is both of what’s above, it’s both endless drifting chatter and it’s all I can muster is an “I don’t know.” Meaning here that my scripting for life is often, for lack of a better word, fun, but the fun is inappropriate for the context, as is my other recourse, my sort of, I don’t know. Neither suffices because what I’ve found from people (especially authority figures) when they’re trolling for verbiage from me is either obedience, acquiescence, or both. And, dear readers, I am not an obedient or acquiescent person, which is why things end up happening to me like how I’m 100% sincere and borderline-pushy about wanting to convert, still, but I know that if I even so much as email one of the rabbis to ask them some kind of rabbinic hermeneutics question for a college paper I’m writing, it’ll get filed in the Crazy Bin because no matter what choice I make, and there are many to choices to choose from, it’s the wrong one, because despite possessing a script, all the choices are wrong.

So, then, writing when you’re autistic: everything that everyone does is wrong, accidentally or on purpose. Misbehavior, often tightly linked with above-mentioned loneliness, is what drives my books as much as either what I mentioned in another essay, disconnection, because it’s one thing to freeze out of not knowing what to do, how to connect, how to land the punch of any kind of meaningful interpersonal contact. But my books and stories and plays aren’t frozen oceans, even if they don’t have the “gripping” variety of plot (ever) and are too long (always) because what disconnection motivates people to do, in both my writing and the world I live in, is to act, but, not having a script to work from that means improvising, and with improvisation comes error, and error is a steep and stony downhill slope, so calamity collects in my work (and life) with great ease, even if, like the grad student in my bloated book, I cannot quite follow the conversation, can’t quite keep up, hope I pass notice. I am constantly relearning the lesson of the only safe way to navigate yourself into a readable novel or official Judaism or any of the other slippery variables in my life right now, the answer is just yes, whatever you said or did, that’s exactly what I’d do and would say, which is the on-the-spot scriptwriting technique of mirroring. But the issue is that people, in my books or life, are not mirrors, people are people, so you can look for your reflection in me all you want, and my characters engage in this too, but you’re not going to be reassured when you see your smiling face in me, because a mirror is not a thing I know how to be; I’m barely getting the job done at being a human being, and if there’s a trend in all of this, be it Judaism or Paul Simon or weltschmerz, the trend is there are no mirrors anywhere, not really. So all I have is a script, and it contains material you might not be prepared or willing to hear, and likewise in my books, but the difference between being an autistic writer and a garden-variety autistic is that in my work the misbehavior and reactions it generates forms an elaborate, multi-ball game of pinball, which on its own can be intriguing and entertaining when you’re reading about unreal people in that situation, surely, though it’s a very different story when the pinball in the real-life pinball game is none other than you.