Below is the foreword that I wrote for Michael Scott Monje Jr.’s novel Defiant.
Defiant is one of the first titles to be published by Autonomous Press, the independent publishing house I co-founded with Monje, Elizabeth “Ibby” Grace, Bridget Allen, and Corbett O’Toole. It’s part of the same epic series-in-progress as Monje’s earlier novel Nothing Is Right (although it stands perfectly well on its own).
Defiant is available directly from Autonomous Press, and from online retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (though it’s better for small publishers if you order from them directly), and from your coolest local bookstore if you ask them to carry it. I’m reprinting my foreword to it here as a preview of sorts.
Last time we met Clay Dillon he was six years old and nothing was right.
If you haven’t already read Nothing Is Right, Mike Monje’s first Clay Dillon novel, that’s okay. Defiant takes place 23 years later, and it works more or less equally well to start with the six-year-old Clay and then read Defiant to see what the little guy’s future holds, or to start with the 30-year-old Clay and then go back to discover where he came from. (And even as I write these words, Monje is already well into the writing of the next Clay Dillon novel, Imaginary Friends, which takes us back again to Clay’s childhood, picking up not long after Nothing Is Right left off.)
Like Monje himself, Clay Dillon is autistic. The young Clay of Nothing Is Right didn’t know he was autistic, and the adults around him didn’t know it either. Defiant begins just after Clay has finally found out. At the age of 30.
Imagine spending your entire childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood knowing that you’re different from everyone else in your world – different from your family, your teachers, your peers, the people you pass on the street. Not different in the superficial ways that elementary school teachers and “inspirational” writers are talking about when they repeat cutesy platitudes about how everyone is special. Different in the fundamental workings of your mind. Different in the ways you experience, use, and understand language. Different in the ways you perceive reality – not just differences of viewpoint, but differences in basic sensory experience, differences between what you see, hear, and feel, and what everyone else claims to be seeing, hearing, and feeling. Different in ways that make understanding between yourself and the people around you impossible, because on a basic neurobiological level, they’re incapable of experiencing anything like the reality you experience, and you’re incapable of experiencing anything like the reality they experience. They don’t understand what your thought processes are like, or your emotions, or the reasons behind most of your actions, and you don’t understand any of those things about them, either.
And imagine that because these people who are so vastly different from you also vastly outnumber you, all of the constant confusions and difficulties that stem from these differences are blamed on you – attributed to some failing, deficiency, bad intent, or general wrongness on your part. They’re different from you and you’re different from them, but the way they tell the story, the way the story is taught to you, is that they are normal, and normal means good and right, and you’re not normal, which means you’re bad and wrong. At best, most people respond to you with puzzlement or pity; more often, with hostility, cruelty, or contempt. And no matter how hard you try to change this state of affairs (and you try harder than any of them will ever know), no matter what you do, nothing is right.
And imagine that you have no name for what it is that sets you apart from others, no name for the nature of the difference.
And then one day you find out that there is a name for it.
After 30 fucking years.
Having a name for it means that suddenly you have a way to start talking about it. The name means a new understanding, a new lens through which your past and present can be seen in an entirely new way. The name is a starting point from which you can begin to create a new and coherent narrative from the chaos of your life. A starting point for communication and understanding between yourself and others, about who you are, how you and they might differ, how you can work together. A starting point for finding other people like yourself, reading what they’ve written, benefitting from their experience, joining with them in communities of mutual support. A starting point for the task of discovering what you really need in order to have a better life, a life that fits you, a life in which some things, sometimes, can finally be right.
At the same time, it’s a bit of a shock. As the old saying goes, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” The radical shift in self-perception that comes from discovering in adulthood that one is autistic can be profoundly disorienting. And the cascade of insights that flow from such a discovery, however valuable and transformative in the long run, may be accompanied by intense anger and grief. As Monje explained in an introductory post when he first began publishing Defiant in serial form on his blog, Shaping Clay:
In Clay’s case, as in my own, the grief is not so much a matter of feeling like a limitation has been imposed, and it’s definitely not the feeling that the diagnosis somehow diminishes us as people. Instead, it’s grief for the childhood and younger adulthood that he could have had—a grief for the opportunities lost, if only we had been properly supported and taught.
So Clay is in a fragile state right now, as this chapter of his saga begins. While he’s finally discovered he’s autistic, he has very little idea of what this really means, or can be made to mean, in the context of his actual life. Mostly he’s flailing around trying to cope, as his old understanding of who he is crumbles around him. And to top it all off, he’s about to make the all-too-common mistake of putting himself in the hands of a non-autistic psychologist.
Clay and the psychologist, Dr. Williams, live in two different worlds. I hold citizenship in both worlds, which might be why I got the job of writing this foreword. I’m autistic, and I also have an academic career which consists to a large extent of teaching psychology to students who are headed for careers in psychotherapy and related professions.
When I read Defiant through my autistic eyes, Dr. Williams is the book’s villain. I’ve seen too many people harmed by the Dr. Williamses of the world, the condescending “experts” whose “expert knowledge” consists of a steaming heap of stereotypes, prejudices, and unsound theories and practices invented by other non-autistic “experts.”
But when I read Defiant through the eyes of a teacher of psychology, Dr. Williams seems more tragic than malign. She was probably drawn to the field of psychotherapy by the same thing that draws most of the aspiring therapists who show up in my classes: a genuine interest in human beings and in helping human beings to make positive changes in their lives. And somewhere along the way, she got lost in all her acquired expertise, and in the comforting illusion of certainty and superiority that such expertise conveys. And now she’s face-to-face with a fascinating, unique, beautiful human being who’s primed to begin an extraordinary process of transformation… and her head is so stuffed with expertise that she can’t see him.
I’ll be recommending Defiant to my fellow autistics for many reasons, and one reason is that it serves as a cautionary tale that might save some readers from “experts” like Dr. Williams. I’ll also be assigning Defiant to my psychology students, in the hopes that it will save them from becoming Dr. Williams.
But enough about Dr. Williams. Let me say a bit more about Clay.
D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in the field of child psychology who was quite a bit wiser than Dr. Williams, said that when children grow up in environments in which it’s unsafe to express their true selves, they develop “false selves” that are in closer compliance with what’s demanded of them. By the time they reach adulthood they may have forgotten that the false self is a mask, donned in compliance with external expectations. The true self is buried, and the mask stays on, however badly it might fit.
With the discovery that he’s autistic, the part of Clay’s mask that hides his true autistic self (as much from himself as from anyone else) has begun to crumble. But that’s not the only part of Clay’s false self that’s crumbling. The mask is cracking all over. That’s often how these things go. For instance, Clay’s compliance with the dominant societal standards of masculinity is also part of his false self, and that, too, has begun to crack.
And what’s underneath? Clay is just starting to find out, and we, the readers, get to find out along with him. Whatever it is, though, it’s bound to be infinitely more complex, strange, and beautiful than the ill-fitting mask of compliance. Compliance, as D.W. Winnicott once said, “is a sick basis for life.”
And the best antidote to compliance is, of course, defiance.