I just blew my own mind, so I’m sharing this with you in real time as I work through it. Bear with me.
Both personally and professionally, I’ve written about plenty of social issues, but there are a few that I’ve consistently backed away from because I’ve never felt secure in my voice or position. One of those is sexism, and gender in general. I’ve felt that I didn’t have an experience many would relate to, possibly due to my otherwise privileged situation. I grew up middle-class, white, generally physically and mentally able, and as an early-’70s baby, part of the first post-women’s-liberation generation.
I’ve spent my whole life as female in a very binary-heavy time and place, but never stressed too much about it. In my twenties, when it was realized that I needed a hysterectomy, I was like, yeah, rip it out. Those organs weren’t connected to my identity. I suppose I’ve never felt like a normal girl or woman, but I never felt strongly enough to reject it. My first friends were boys, climbing trees and playing soccer, and I’ve dressed mostly in baggy old man trousers and band t-shirts or sweatshirts–the times I wear pretty dresses or otherwise girly clothes, it still feels like a costume (which is fun sometimes). I got into the punk scene, which in the late ’80s and early ’90s just welcomed me and never made me feel weird about being one of the three or four girls at any given show. (We could take our shirts off in the crowd just like the boys and nobody was gross about it.) I’ve never been into makeup, never thought about becoming a mommy, and never let anyone get in the way of something I wanted to do. And my family, friends, and school all encouraged me to do and be whatever I was. I was given every opportunity. I can only think of two or three instances growing up when I thought, wow, that’s some straight up sexism.
But that couldn’t have been the case, right?
Same goes for bullying. I was part of whatever group I wanted to be in, which changed as I aged. I was a tutor and still very popular in elementary school, I played basketball briefly in junior high and hung out with cheerleaders, I got invited to parties, and into high school I hung out with the skate kids and I acted and did behind-the-scenes theater stuff. I saw cliques, general groups who stuck together, but it never seemed like it does in films, where the beautiful people are somehow elevated and are mean and bitchy to the other kids who dare attempt to break that barrier. We had smart kids, jocks, suburban-level gang members, punks, burnouts, band kids, cheerleaders, and whatnot, but people did intermingle. Our prom king was the furthest thing from a jock, a super smart, lovely guy who I’m pretty sure went on to be a neurosurgeon. I never noticed anyone ever making fun of kids in special education. The few fights in the halls seemed to be personal, not the “What are you lookin’ at? I’ll kick your ass!” kind.
But again, there’s no way I actually grew up in this fairytale land.
It is only now that I’m realizing I probably just missed a lot of what was going on, socially. I probably missed subtle hints or jabs, to myself directly or to those around me. I’ve always believed that I never experienced peer pressure–maybe I just never perceived peer pressure. How much of my life simply didn’t make it all the way through to my brain? How much gender-based judgement was directed at me that I totally missed? How many cues from those around me were trying to prevent me from doing whatever I wanted yet I ignored them because I didn’t see them?
People often see me as tough–not outwardly threatening, but rather that you shouldn’t try to mess with me. And it’s true, I have some pretty impenetrable armor. I am very slow to trust people, I always have one foot out the door, fear-of-commitment style, and I’m a quick judge of character. You do not get to wrong me twice. I tend to view people as puzzles and try to predict behavior. I study facial expressions and try really hard to see beyond spoken words. I look for their patterns, and that way I can avoid a negative situation. It makes me a good, defensive driver and a good project manager, sure, but what made me this way? Who hurt you? I haven’t the slightest.
So here I am today, trying to decide whether it’s worth trying to dig up the things I missed, as if they were suppressed memories. I’m gonna say no. I’m doing pretty okay. There’s no trauma I need to sort through, no villain I need to deal with. I don’t think this is selective memory or romanticizing the past; rather this filter or block or whatever that I have/had makes perfect sense in what I’m seeing in my research of autistic brains. I mean, I do remember people I didn’t get along with, who either didn’t like me or I them. I wasn’t delusional. Part of it is maybe I was lucky in that I was smart and funny enough and apparently great at masking and fitting in–while always being a bit of a weirdo, mind you–wherever I placed myself that I was accepted and encouraged by those I needed that from. To this day, I can sometimes tell that a person might not particularly like me but they see my worth, which is fine because I am able to work with people to do some good without getting emotionally invested.
I’m a fan of questioning reality, knowing that our individual perception is wildly subjective, whether you’re neurotypical or not (and until about six months ago, I assumed I was). It’s a lot of work, second-guessing everything, but it’s also comforting that I have an openness as my default. I’d always placed a solid 5% margin of error on my memories, but understanding a little more about how my brain works, I’m going to go ahead and up that to 10% and be prepared to adjust as needed.