Thursday, 1 November 2012

Autistics Speaking Day '12: Bad Advice, part 3

Well, here we go with Segment Three, 'Meeting Social Expectations'.

White lying is an important friendship skill to have in maintaining the fragile self esteem of teenage girls. 

OK, I agree that white lying at times, and being able to phrase certain criticisms diplomatically are good skills to have. I'm just finding it quite amusing how Iland says this right after spending most a chapter happily being as blunt as possible to teenage girls.

Let me get this straight:

Neurotypical girls are uber-delicate sugar paper creations who'll go to bits the second they hear an implication that they're anything less than perfect. Girls with Aspergers are tin men who can never be seriously upset by anything you say or imply about them, because 'reality'. Nobody's just a person who can take some kinds of criticism well, but not other kinds.

An example Lisa gives of white lying is always answering 'no' to the question "Do I look fat in this". Again, very good as a guideline, but there are always going to be exceptions, even to this 'universal rule'. When it comes to other people, the answer is always no except for when it isn't.

The rest of this page is list of communication methods. It's self-explanatory, I'm going to skip over it.

Seeing (other) friends leaving each other comments on Myspace can cause a girl to feel left out.

To say something positive for a change, this is actually a good point that a lot of people overlook.

A girl with AS should know how to show interest in these ways and work with a peer, parent or professional on knowing the right things to say in each medium of technology. 

... and they won't be able to tell her much- especially if they're a parent and she's asking about social networking sites.

"What do I say on the phone/Facebook/by text" is one of those "How long is a piece of string" questions, in that there is no concrete answer. What you say depends on who you're talking to, not the gadget you're using to talk to them. Just a glance at Facebook will tell you that there isn't one definitive way to type, or a list of acceptable things to say.

Most girls don't want to talk about science or Star Wars. Find something to contribute to what girls talk about.

Still ignoring the existence of aspie girls who are interested in mainstream things, I see.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One, find some friends who share your interests... oh, no, wait, you've got to make friends with 'popular' girls, and nobody can like science and be popular! OK, how about you find something you both like and talk about that... oh no, wait, Aspie Girls and Popular Girls are different species who don't have anything in common naturally! But you have to choose the Popular Girls to make friends with because... reasons.

So, what do the girls in your world talk about, Lisa?

Boys, fashion, shopping, movies and music will always be teen topics of conversation.

Most teens watch hours of MTV. If you want to do some research on popular music and teen culture, watch MTV's Total Request Live and see the ten most popular music groups of the moment as deemed by America's teens. 

Watch the TV Network E! to find out about what is going on with celebrities and fashion, another popular girl topic. 


Question: Where are all these girls who only care about boys, clothes, shopping, and pop music? Because I haven't met many. The idea that they're the default girl belongs in Saturday morning cartoons with Basher Johnson.

I think that if you're having to actually do research just to be able to talk to your friends, they're probably not the right ones for you. Taking an interest in aspects of a friends life that you may not be interested in is good, but the idea is that it's reciprocal- that is to say, you ask them about the One Direction concert they went to even though you don't really like that group, and they ask you about your day at ComicCon even though they don't understand see the point of it. What Iland is proposing here is completely one-sided: The aspie girl forfeits all her interests and adopts those of her friends. Her friends do nothing in return.

There seems to be an attitude that young people with Aspergers don't really feel attached to their clothes, interests, hobbies, favourite music etc. That we have mainstream interests only because we want to fit in, and non-mainstream interests only because we don't know any better. This has already cropped up in Iland's work back in segment one, and it's resurfacing here. The idea that constantly having to talk about things she has literally no interest in, but never being allowed to share her own interests, may make an aspie girl unhappy is never really acknowledged.

Oh, and this is probably a bit of a nitpick, but I'll say it anyway. Boys are a perfectly good topic of conversation... provided you're a) into them, and b) into them in the same way your friends are. Iland spends a lot of time instructing girls who don't share their friends' tastes in music, but seems to take it for granted that boy talk is accessible for everybody. It isn't. If you're a Lesbian, or asexual, or even if you just have a different taste in men to the rest of your friendship group... those conversations aren't going to be easy to navigate.

Lisa then tacks on a paragraph about how she knows that not all girls are interested in fashion and pop culture. Good. I'm relieved.

Most high schools allow for students to start their own clubs, and that is a good way to find other like-minded specialists on the subject.

What's this? Good advice, described in proper detail? **Falls out of seat in shock**

Next, we learn that it's helpful to be good at small talk, and get some examples of scripted exchanges ("Hi, how are you?" "Fine, thanks!"). It's fairly bland and standard, and while a lot of it would be better aimed at younger girls, there's nothing really wrong with it. I'll move on.


Sometimes people with AS have a harder time distinguishing responsiveness. A typical peer's claims of being "stalked and smothered" are a sign that a person with AS has a difficult time telling when interactions with a peer are responsive or avoidance behaviours. 

Going by the number of times "smothering and stalking" has been mentioned so far, Lisa seems to think that all aspie girls are hopelessly clingy. Some are, but there are just as many who do not have this problem, or who struggle with the exact opposite and distance themselves unnecessarily. I know that throughout a large portion of my tween and teen years, I was terrified of appearing clingy and took ages to feel comfortable approaching a friend first, even just to say hi.

It is important for a girl with AS to brainstorm with a parent or professional a list of ways that teens show disinterest.

Uh, are you sure this is a good idea? By asking somebody thirty years your senior about how your peers behave, surely you risk creating more confusion than you solve?

Next, we have more bland advice about entering circular conversations and choosing somewhere to sit at lunch. Mostly bland, that is.

Find out what teens in your town say.

Probably one of many things. Idiolects exist.

Younger teen girls generally equate being seen by peers without friends as being momentarily friendless. This accounts for their desire for their friends to accompany them everywhere. Being alone= being a-loner... girls who spend lunchtime by themselves should practice looking content and busy in being alone. No typical peers ant to befriend a sulky 'loner'. The only legitimate reason teens accept for being alone at lunch is because of school obligations.

I know I've asked this question, oh, a thousand times before, but one more time won't hurt. "Should we be encouraging this?"

For people who don't sit alone at lunch by choice, this advice is just going to add insult to injury. For people who do prefer to be alone by choice, this advice is going to seem patronising and annoying.

It also reinforces the fact that, according to Lisa, you don't get time off. You have to worry what your body and face are doing all the time, even when you're on your own. The fact that this is exhausting for most people, and therefore an unreasonable expectation, doesn't seem to have registered with her.

In conversation (a girl) should nod her head to show she is listening and casually make eye contact every 10 seconds and look away for 5-10 seconds. 

... and then lose track of the conversation because she was too busy counting.

New rule: If it requires a stopwatch, it's not necessary. 'Don't stare' and 'Try not to avoid eye contact completely' are enough, Lisa.

Kelsey used to hunch her back in her chair and dart piercing stares at others around the room. "I didn't know that I was frowning a lot and had an angry look on my face. When you look mad, nobody wants to talk to you or be friendly. 

Fair point, but it's important to remember that there are often reasons why people look closed-off or hostile. Serious reasons, in many cases. You can't expect people who feel the exact opposite of happy and comfortable to hide it perfectly all the time. It's not 'realistic'.

4: Bullying and Mean Girls:

Final segment! We're on the home straight! **vuvuzelas etc**

Facing bullies is really intimidating and unfortunately some girl bullies are relentless. Gossipping, rumour spreading and cattiness are so prevalent that popular movies such as Mean Girls have been made in response. 

Lisa, you do realise that Mean Girls wasn't a documentary, right?

I suppose this explains all the 'Queen Bee' business.

I agree that passive-aggressive bullying like that is common, but it's far from the only way girls bully. In my experience, direct bullying- that is, saying and doing things directly to the victim- is much more common. Also, as with friendships, bullying isn't gender-segregated. Boys bully girls too, and they do pretty much the same things. The only real difference is that boys bullying girls often use sexual harassment as a form of humiliation; girls bullying girls do not.

Next, we have a few quotes from Queen Bees and Wannabes, describing bullying. Only stereotypically 'girl' forms of bullying, though. Violence, theft, throwing insults, racism, being deliberately patronising... none of these things were mentioned.

Author Rosalind Wiseman suggests to parents ways that a girl can solve a situation involving gossip or rumour spreading:
- Your daughter can confront the Mean Girl...

Like most anti-bullying advice, this is good for an isolated instance of bullying, but completely useless for systematic bullying, where there are more than a couple of bullies involved.

Mind you, Lisa does understand that there are a variety of reasons for bullying, ranging from insecurity to a desire for power. This is good- a lot of people generalise when it comes to this subject.

Her comeback advice isn't too bad, either. If an insecurity is pointed out, calmly and confidently agree with or shrug off the insult (depending on what it is). When it comes to bullying, no response is guaranteed to work, but this one stands a better chance than most.

However, she also suggests ignoring the bullies, which sometimes works and sometimes just makes them press harder for a reaction. It's worth a try, but don't depend on it, in other words.

Some of Lisa's non-aspie friends share their experiences with bullying. Their advice ranges from pleasant...

You may not get along with everyone, but there are other people like you somewhere that you will get along with. I was lucky enough o find them in choir and theatre. It's people that are like me. 

... to accurate, if short-sighted

"(Bullies bully) because it's easy to pick on people who don't defend themselves. In a way, picking on people protects the person from being picked on themselves."

(True, but chances are, if somebody's not defending themselves, it's because they can't. Maybe they're outnumbered, maybe they've already tried several methods and found none of them really worked. Nobody refuses to stand up for themselves because they don't want to.)

... to motivational

Building confidence and skills in a sport, club, or activity helps. They could pick on me all they wanted but when I stepped on a softball field I was the best and they could never take that away from me. 

... to questionable.

I was definitely picked on for being fat. Although I was bullied a lot, I never let it get to me because I was a stronger person than that. I think that people who get made fun of tend to keep the mean comments with them and start to believe them because of the repetitive nature of bullying... The way I overcame being bullied was I changed myself, and got healthier, not for everyone else, but to make myself happier. 

If you're able to shrug off bullying and not let it get to you, brilliant! But people who don't manage to do that aren't weak- different people respond to stimuli differently, and individual circumstances can have a huge impact. For example, if a victim of bullying doesn't have a close family or many friends, the bullies' opinions are the ones they'll hear the most. In this kind of circumstance, it's very easy to start believing you are ugly/stupid/worthless, because you never get told anything to the contrary.

Also, this person's end advice is "change yourself to stop bullying", which is awful for two reasons: One, not everybody is capable of changing the thing that they're being bullied over. Now, I'm not naive enough to think that losing weight is just a matter of calories in- calories out. For many people, it's nowhere near that simple. However, I think we can all agree that most people do have a degree of control over their body size, making "stop being fat" a possible option. The same cannot be said for, say, gender identity. Or disability. Or height. Or nationality. Some people even get bullied because of a rumour, or because they have a certain reputation. If you're in a position like that, "change yourself" is completely useless advice.

Secondly, even people who can change themselves shouldn't be expected to. If you're being bullied over something you can alter, such as weight or clothing, it doesn't mean you brought it on yourself and are now obliged to change to suit the bully. The bully is the one whose behaviour is harmful and unacceptable, so the bully is the one who needs to change. Telling the victim that they need to act as though the bully's right is not good advice.

And to round it all off... cyberbullying! Iland mentions anonymous bullying (huzzah!), but also places the responsibility squarely on the victim's shoulders (getting a new account is a good idea, but the victim shouldn't have to take all the evasive action).

It is important to teach girls with AS online safety, never posting an address, last name, or telephone number online; only giving information over the internet to trusted real-life friends, not people met online; and never meeting an online friend in person, at least without her parent being present. 

Most of this is fairly sensible advice, I'm just amused by how quickly it's outdating. I remember being younger and having my parents warn me against meeting people from the internet, who were inevitably fifty year old truckers with dodgy motivations. These days, many people make friends online, and a great number of meet-ups are organised that way. "Never meet an online friend in person" just doesn't apply any more.

Lisa then says that girls with AS should be careful who they befriend (why us specifically?), then brings in her friend Megan to explain in more detail.

It is important that you are careful who you choose to be friends with, they could be using you or get you into trouble, or even involved with drugs and alcohol. Don't fold into peer pressure or get in dangerous situations. 

So, after spending countless pages detailing the many ways in which girls with AS should bow to peer pressure, we're now being told not to. I... actually have no idea what to make of this. "Don't fold into peer pressure". Wow. Have you read your chapter, Lisa?

This also skips over the fact that plenty aspie teen girls who've tried drugs and/or alcohol didn't need encouragement from anybody else. We're not all completely straight edge, and even those of us who are don't generally recoil in horror when hearing anecdotes from friends who are not.

The final paragraph starts like this:

"Girls with AS are bright and beautiful and have intellect, talents and skills that many typical peers wish they had." 

Lisa, it's all very well saying that now, but after spending an entire chapter talking about how we're all clingy, miserable, stalkers who never get anything right, the damage has probably been done.

It's interesting how Lisa oscillated from describing aspie teen girls completely negatively to completely positively. Why can't we just be people? Actually, I'd pose the same question about neurotypical girls, who have been described throughout the book as shallow, bitchy, unintelligent, and manipulative. Teenage girls, of any neurotype, are not caricatures.

So... final thoughts: Girl to Girl has some reasonable and even good advice in places, but that's dwarfed by the sheer amount of unwise, impractical and unfair advice that gets given out. It shows no respect to anybody's boundaries or individuality, expecting aspie girls to sacrifice themselves for popularity whilst simultaneously reducing the 'popular' NT girls down to walking tropes. Iland doesn't seem to have any respect for teenage girls as a group, and shows little understanding of the negative effects her words could have on an already insecure aspie teenager. She never fully explains why she expects aspie girls to place so much importance on popularity and conformity. She claims to be realistic, but much of what she says is anything but.

Final conclusion, this chapter is probably best skipped.

Autistics Speaking Day '12: Bad Advice, Part 2

So, we kick off segment deux with more... well, Iland's talking about social hierarchies in schools again, and she's still getting real life mixed up with Mean Girls.

She describes three levels of popularity: 'Popular/Elite', 'Middle/Mainstream', and 'Unique/Unusual'. I'm  going to call bullshit on 'elite' straight away- no teenager gets treated like royalty by every single one of their peers. She's also wrong about 'Unique/Unusual' equating to 'unpopular'- I've had a couple of noticeably eccentric friends who were very well liked, mostly because they were good at making others laugh. In my experience, whether somebody's weirdness has a negative effect on their popularity or not depends on multiple factors, many of which will vary by region. Plus, many of the 'unusual' people who were ostracised didn't have high opinions of some of the 'popular' people, and... oh, screw it, It'd take until Christmas to dissect everything here.

One thing I will point out though is Iland's failure to factor in the mixed-gender nature of most teenage social circles. All her advice is geared towards befriending groups made up entirely of girls, which is a bit silly, considering how most people have both male and female friends by the age of thirteen. Lisa seems to be working under the assumption that boys and girls live in separate worlds- an assumption that simply isn't true.

Basically, a real school's social network is essentially a big web. Iland seems to think it's a column.

Next, Kelsey's back for another soundbite- and she actually has some reasonable advice this time! Huzzah!

I just started saying hey to people around campus who would say it back, and now after building on that, I have friends in many different groups!

Yep, it's true that making yourself appear open to friendship is a good way to get to know people. Obviously it's not foolproof, and it isn't always possible for those who struggle with confidence, but if you're able to do this, go for it!

Of course, prior to the reasonable advice, there was a bit of waffle about starting low and working up the popularity hierarchy, because friends just aren't worthwhile unless everybody else loves them too, amiright? >.<

Understanding the structure of popularity at school is not intended to make a girl feel as though she doesn't measure up

Maybe not, but that's the effect this chapter is most likely to have.

If a girl with AS has dreams of elite popularity, she has to begin somewhere.

Again... should we really be encouraging thirteen year olds to value popularity, and give up multiple aspects of their personalities in order to achieve it? I don't think so.


This kind of advice would never be given to neurotypical girls on a platform this prominent. Books about NT girls, quite rightly, tell them to be themselves and stand against peer pressure. Why should it be any different for neurodivergent girls?

In order to potentially befriend a person from a popular/elite group, a girl has to at least be in a middle/mainstream group. Often people belonging to the popular/elite group will not befriend girls from anywhere else. 

I can sort of see what she's getting at, but when it comes down to it, no, sorry. Human interaction is waaay too complicated to be reduced down to a maths equation. Web, not column.

My Brother with AS kept asking the prettiest and most popular girls to date him... However, it was unsuccessful because he was at a different level of popularity than they were... The positive solution to the dilemma he was that he could find nice, friendly girls who were 'in his league' to at least begin developing dating skills with, and then see what happens. 

Ah... ha...

The impression I'm getting here is that Lisa Iland told her Brother to start out dating 'within his league', then work his way 'up'. Which means that his first girlfriends- probably 'unique/unusual' girls (just like you, reader!)- were essentially being used as crash test dummies. The 'nice girls in his league' weren't going to be the girls Mini Iland would date properly, they were going to be his training bras until he managed to become popular enough to get the girls he really wanted.

I hope I'm completely wrong about that, because if I'm not... Jesus. That is terrible advice. Somebody who wants to teach us all social skills has just told a young boy to use girls he's not really into as stepping stones. The last place I saw that being advocated was a PUA site- places not exactly known for good interpersonal relations.

There is a hierarchy of interaction that typical peers are finely tuned to, but that girls with AS may not be. This hierarchy is comprised of different levels of relationship. When a girl with AS is gossipped about by peers who say "I just don't know her that well, she gives way too much information, she is very odd" etc, it is because the information shared, or the action done by the girl with AS, was inconsistent with the level of relationship as perceived by the peer. 

Levels of relationship: 
5) Close Friends
4) Friends
3) Acquaintances
2) Familiar Faces
1) Strangers

Passive aggressive prod at the reader (who is definitely being gossipped about lolol) aside, there's something I'd like to point out here:

I don't like the implication that everybody else is 'finely tuned' to everything and only girls with AS struggle. This is a common assumption people tend to make when writing about autism, and I really think it's counterproductive. Those of us on the spectrum may be more prone to making social mistakes. but we don't have a monopoly on them. Acting as though we do is likely to make young autistic people feel more alienated, not less. How can they look at their NT peers and think "they're not so different" when they're being told that all neurotypicals have savant-like abilities when it comes to social skills? How can they feel confident talking to NTs when literature is framing them as almost a separate species?

Neurotypical people can be socially awkward. They will fuck up occasionally. They can feel uncomfortable and get confused, and accidentally offend people, and make misjudgements. I've met a few who've managed to put their feet in their mouths in ways I could never manage. Even the most socially brilliant people get it wrong from time to time. When it comes to socialising, nobody's perfect.

The next few paragraphs are basically just more detailed descriptions of the levels of relationship. They work quite well as guidelines I suppose, but they do oversimplify a lot. For example:

A close friend might not mind hearing about Star Wars for 30 minutes, but it could mean the end of an Acquaintanceship.

... Unless, of course, the acquaintance also likes Star Wars.

A close friend who wants you to change the subject for whatever reason may just say so. Strong relationships are often more direct.

A girl with AS should practice retelling stories, or talking on a subject, based on whom the listener is. A trusted adult or peer mentor can discuss and establish what time limits are appropriate. 

I understand that techniques for improving social skills are highly subjective, but I'm not so sure about this one.You can't predict how an entire conversation will go, so diligently rehearsing one with notes and a stopwatch seems a bit pointless. I mean, you could decide to spend a minute telling your casual friend about your holiday (the example given by Iland), and then get to school and find that your casual friend has been to two of the towns you visited, and has always wanted to visit the theme park you went to, and is curious about the world war one trenches her family didn't get round to seeing, and wants to know if you had thunderstorms too... and next thing you know, you've been comparing notes for an hour.

aaand Lisa pretty much admits this in the next paragraph, which begs the question as to why she wrote that particular instruction in the first place.

Sometimes girls with AS may mistakenly believe that they are friends or close friends with an acquaintance or a familiar face. This can cause social upset and potential humiliation in front of peers. In order to be socially successful, a girl with AS needs to practice taking perspective, and although Theory of Mind makes this difficult, she will have to practice imagining what the other person thinks of her, possibly using visible data from her interactions if the idea is not concrete enough.

I'm not sure what the current stance of the Theory of Mind, er, theory, is, but I'm not too comfortable with Iland's blanket assumption that girls with AS don't have it.

The Sims is then suggested as a teaching tool. The idea is that observing their interactions could help an aspie teenage girl understand what's appropriate to say to whom. The Sims... isn't a game I associate with realistic human behaviour (surrounding somebody with plastic garden ornaments= killing them, for instance). I'm not sure it could help people with much more than the very basics, which most girls will already have by the time they're teenagers.

If enough friendship mistakes are made, a friend could go back to being an acquaintance. 

I do wish people would stop trying to tell young people on the spectrum that making friends is like keeping a tamagotchi happy. Teaching somebody that s/he has a level of control over other people's thoughts and feelings that s/he, in fact, does not have and can never have, can cause problems for them further down the line. For instance:

-  If you've been raised to believe that other people's reactions correspond perfectly to your behaviour, you're going to immediately seek to blame yourself if something goes wrong.

- Thinking you have to keep other people completely happy at all times in order to remain friends with them may cause you to start discarding your personal boundaries.

- It makes you catastrophise minor mistakes- thinking a friendship is going to end because your friend didn't understand a joke you made.

Other people's thoughts and feelings are dependent on lots of things. If they're in a bad mood, don't instantly assume it's your fault and don't take it as a personal failure if you can't make them happy.

Yes, this is coming from personal experience.

Girls travel in packs and have a group mentality

People =/= wolves. Or elephants. Or lions, or sheep, or any other kind of herd/pack animal. Teenagers often conform to their friends wishes, but they're not mindless drones.

Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, has taught hundreds of teen girls and has come to see patterns in the roles that teen girls play in their group structures. 

Wiseman classifies them as:

7 Common Roles Girls Play in Cliques

Iland then lists Wiseman's seven roles. All but two are negative. You have the Queen Bee, a shallow manipulative type who lords it over everybody else; Her sycophantic sidekick; her sycophantic sidekick; a gossipy type who manages to extract everybody else's personal information whilst still appearing innocent; and the person the others pick on. There's also the morally neutral 'torn bystander', who often goes against the cliques' wishes. The only 'positive' role is the floater or drifter- a person who has friends in different groups and divides her time between them.

Lisa's opinion of teenage girls doesn't seem to be too favourable, and she seems to buy into the idea of female friendship as a silent battle ground in which nobody truly likes or respects anyone else. Is she sure she's the best person to be giving advice to teen girls?

I'm really starting to wonder what school Iland went to by this point. I've never met anybody who fits her definition of a Queen Bee- a snobby, conventionally pretty, manipulative person who everybody else worships as a God. I've met popular girls, pretty girls, girls who look down on others... but not too many who fit all three categories, and nobody who got treated like Royalty by everyone around her.

Queen Bees are like gangs of bullies with leather jackets, crew-cuts and names like Basher Johnson. Caricatures hardly ever seen outside fiction.

Most teenagers don't belong to 'cliques' either. Even the tightest friendship groups have a degree of fluidity, and hardly anybody's friendship circle is limited to just their main friendship group. I've found it's often hard to tell where a friendship group ends, as people who are friends with only one or two members will often temporarily join it, or hang around on the fringes.

And once again... by the age of thirteen, most people have both male and female friends. Where are the boys in all this?

When a new person is brought into the group, the existing structure has to shift

This happens all the time. Most of the time, it doesn't cause much conflict.

When a girl with AS is not 'clicking' with a group of girls, she should analyse what possible reasons, other than her own actions, could have caused the lack of success.

This wouldn't be bad advice, were it not for the fact that Iland's encouraging girls to classify their new friends as 'pleasers', 'targets' and 'sidekicks'.

The next segment of advice actually isn't too bad. It's about best friends, and how becoming a third wheel in a pre-existing close friendship can potentially unsettle things. It only starts to go off the rails slightly at the end, when Iland starts describing girls as 'claimed'.

Disclosing Aspergers Syndrome to friends:

Ohh... this one's going to be, er, fun.

Disclosing Aspergers Syndrome is something that requires planned and careful consideration. Girls should consult trusted adults for guidance, and discuss what to say. Disclosing can lead to many different outcomes, and often depend on who the peers are as individuals, and how the information on Aspergers is presented. 

I'm on the fence about this. I think it's up to the individual how they disclose any information about themselves. Carefully planning a 'coming out' speech is a perfectly valid option, but it shouldn't be a requirement. Some people prefer to be open from the start; others are more comfortable casually mentioning it should it come up in conversation.

I personally follow the "if you don't treat it like a big deal, they won't treat it like a big deal" school of thought. The only time I've planned was when applying for a voluntary role that required high levels of empathy- something many people still think people with Aspergers don't have. Even then, my plan was simply "Don't tell anybody until you've proven you can do the job". I've never made an elaborate ploy.

A girl with Aspergers should be very sure she can trust a person before disclosing to him/her.

Once again... not necessarily.

 Sometimes it is hard to tell if letting your friends know that you have AS will help socially. Will it make it easier to fit in? 

Yeah, like that's the only potential variable.

Other reasons why you might want to tell a friend that you have AS.

- They keep making jokes about disability that you find hurtful, and you need to be able to explain why you're not laughing.
- They have a lot of misconceptions about what AS is, and you want to put them right.
- They've asked directly.
- They're feeling insecure about their disability, and you want to tell them about yours in order to let them know that you understand.
- You're feeling insecure about a problem relating to your AS, and would like your friend's support or advice.
- They keep calling out/making fun of something you do that you, due to your AS, have limited control over (for example, a strong aversion to a texture or noise) . You'd like to explain this to them.
- An opportunity for mentioning it just comes up in conversation, and you decide to take it.

... you get the idea.

And to round off this (very long) segment... here's Kelsey with a personal anecdote I'm not sure what to make of.

When my friends are upset at me and I don't know what I've done, I ask another person, "Did I do something wrong? What social error did I make?" I have to work on being receptive and listening to their feedback. 

I'm torn. On one hand, trying to understand what you did to upset the other person so that you can apologise is infinitely better than shouting "Fuck them! They need to grow a backbone!" and storming off. However... is taking this much responsibility all the time such a good idea?

Next time, parts three and four. Meeting Social Expectations and Bullying. Eep.

Autistics Speaking Day '12: Bad Advice. Part 1

Four years ago, when I was about fifteen, I was given the Tony Attwood book Aspergers and Girls by the head of my school's Learning Support. She told me to look at a chapter called "Girl to Girl, advice on Friendship, Bullying and Fitting in", and explained that, while she doubted that it would appeal to me, she thought it was worth having a look at.

This chapter was written by a neurotypical woman called Lisa Iland, whose knowledge of Aspergers comes from one Brother and an unknown quantity of friends. The main gist of her advice- aimed at teenage girls- was "conform as much as possible". Being a stubborn babybat with no doubt in my mind that completely changing myself wasn't something I wanted to do, I handed it straight back with a "thanks but no thanks". However, while I was certain that Iland's advice would be no use to me, I didn't have any problems with it from an objective standpoint. Hey, maybe Miss Congeniality-esque personality transplants genuinely help some people. This advice probably has merit for someone out there.  

I'm not sure exactly when that opinion changed. All I can assume is that, at some point in the last two years, I found myself looking back on the book with a slight feeling of unease. I remember searching out reviews of the chapter to see if anyone else found Iland's advice somewhat... questionable, and was relieved to discover that they did.

Obviously from there the only sensible thing to do was to plan to publically rip the chapter apart one day, and, well, what better day than Autistics Speaking Day? This is Girl to Girl, advice on Friendship, Bullying and Fitting in- the dissection.


Iland's chapter begins with a long preamble about what makes her qualified to give Aspie teenage girls friendship advice. To be fair, it's not the worst set of justifications I've seen. She isn't aspie herself, but has had enough school-based contact with aspies to have a fairly good idea of what our educational lives are like. I'm not convinced that she understands things quite as well as she claims to, but I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. The only bit that raises my eyebrows is this:

I hope to explain the teen scene that a parent of professional may need to know about to help their child or client be successful, with rules that a teen girl with AS could use herself. 

OK, I may be going off on a slight tangent with this criticism... but I'm not sure making parents the primary audience is the best idea. Hardly any teenagers tell their parents absolutely everything, so it's unlikely that a parent will know every detail about their child's life at school. Even if they do, there's only so much they'll be able to help with. A thirteen year old's problems generally can't be magicked away by Mum and Dad like a three year old's can.

Anyway, preamble out of the way, Lisa moves on to the actual advice.

The Four Essential Areas to Know in order to fit in:

- Creating appeal and image 
- Understanding where to fit in
- Meeting social expectations
- Overcoming Bullying and Mean Girls

Already this sounds a little clinical. You 'create appeal and image' for products, not people.

Lisa starts by listing the qualities she would look for in a friend. Her word choices are the kind everybody would make- after all, who wants friends who are not 'kind' and 'friendly'? The problem comes with the subjectivity innate in some of these words. For example, one of the personality traits which would turn Lisa off a person is 'obnoxious hyperactivity', but hyperactivity is one of those things everybody has different tolerance levels for. One person's 'obnoxious and annoying' is another person's 'fun and lively'. Sometimes one person's tolerance levels for hyperactivity can vary depending on their mood, so that they find their manic friend funny one day and overbearing the next.

Another one of the traits Lisa insists on is 'appropriate volume of speech'. Now, correct me if I'm wrong here, but is this not one of the thing aspies often have legitimate problems maintaining? I know I do- I talk too quietly when I'm nervous and too loudly when I'm enthusiastic about what I'm saying. I don't do it deliberately- in fact, I'm often not aware that my tone is 'off' unless somebody points it out to me. On more than one occasion, I've been shushed whilst hearing my own voice as barely more than a whisper, or told to speak up when I think I'm being perfectly clear. I also have problems with auditory integration, in that conversation becomes impossible to follow if there's too much background noise. I'm sure I've often raised my voice to talk over a distant vacuum cleaner, or a nearby conversation, without realising that the other person does not need me to do this.

Vocal control problems aren't limited to Neuroatypical people, either. I have one NT friend who is also prone to 'getting loud' at times on account of being partially deaf, and I can think of at least two others who start shouting when they're in a hyper mood. None of them do it on purpose.

The point I'm making is that controlling speech volume can be genuinely hard for some people for a variety of reasons. I'm not convinced that Lisa understands this, and I'm not convinced her request for aspie girls to eliminate vocal weirdness is a reasonable one.

Social inappropriateness is considered acceptable once a girl is an established friend.

True, to a degree, and I'm pleasantly surprised that Iland mentioned this. However, facts like this all too often call the need for 'rules' into question. I often wonder how wise it is to raise aspie kids with the belief that there are strict right and wrong ways to do absolutely everything, when this is not the case.

Option 1: Mainstream your image... Option 2: Stay within the unique/unusual rankings of the social hierarchy. 

These are the headings of two paragraphs. They're fairly self explanatory. In the first, Lisa says that looking like everyone else will get you more friends. In the second, she says that looking like everyone else isn't compulsory, but warns that you may be less popular if you choose to continue in your unfashionable ways. She then says that even 'unfashionable' girls follow certain standards, and we get some slightly dodgy, 1984-ish commentary about school social hierarchies that makes me wonder whether Lisa's basing her advice on Teen Movie schools instead of real ones. I'm open to the possibility that this could be down to some cultural difference (Iland's American, I'm British), but I doubt it.

Iland also seems to have ruled out the existence of aspie girls who follow fashion of their own accord, for some reason.

Peers will be less judgemental if there's less to judge.

Surely it's better to raise children to be more accepting of differences than it is to make everyone the same? All the latter is likely to do is make life harder for those who can't help but be different, whilst creating teenagers who can't deal with people who aren't exactly like them. Where are the benefits there?

Updating and Improving Image:

... and here comes the questionable.

Girls with AS do not necessarily need to buy the most high fashion clothes, but should wear clothes that are attractive and viewed by peers as acceptable.

See that word, 'should'? Lisa, you were kind of admitting that this is all optional a moment ago. Why are we suddenly talking in shoulds?

The 'attractive' requirement is pinging a couple of alarm bells, but in and of itself it's too general to justify complaining about. Got my eye on you, sunshine.

Iland mentions self esteem and confidence building. Right after talking about how nobody wants to be associated with unfashionable people. Because nothing makes you feel good about yourself like being told you need to change your entire wardrobe in order to become likable.

And to round off the image segment, one of Iland's aspie friends, Kelsey, makes a cameo:

Some people say "If I change the way I look I am not being true to myself. You should like people for who they are on the inside." While this is true, it is not reality. People are friendlier when you look more mainstream. And you are still true to yourself even if you change something about the way you look. Girls with AS should ask themselves: "Is this really who I am, or am I willing to change it for success?" 

It's closer to reality than Kelsey is making it out to be. Everyone makes a few base assumptions on the grounds of clothing (and mainstream clothing is not immune to negative associations), but most people are also open to the possibility that these assumptions could be wrong. Maybe teenage girls are, on average, more judgemental than adult women, but is that something we should be encouraging? I don't think so.

And if the girl asks herself that question and comes to the conclusion that yes, this is really who she is? I take it that's allowed?

Oh, and Kelsey's point that changing something about your appearance needn't be a big deal would stand up much better were it not for some of the advice you'll be seeing later on. More makeup and trendier clothing isn't all Lisa wants from you. By a long way.

By the way, Kelsey used to be a 'tomboy' who dressed casually. If this needed to be changed, the boundaries of acceptability are worryingly narrow.

For a few final thoughts on this chapter...

Aside from the whole 'policing girls' appearances' aspect, I feel there are quite a few things Iland has just plain overlooked. For one thing, many people on the autistic spectrum are sensitive to particular types of fabric, which may mean they are unable to wear certain trendy items. Others are averse to tight clothing, and therefore need to stick to loose T-shirts, trousers and skirts. This, like vocal control, is not an easy thing to control. If rough fabrics hurt, they hurt, and why should be people be made to feel that they have to wear clothes that cause them discomfort?

Religion has been ignored too. It isn't mainstream to wear a hijab... so should Muslim girls with AS take theirs off? Should Christian girls in secular areas remove their crucifixes? Should Sikh girls cut their hair? Iland's spent a lot of time telling everybody to make themselves look as mainstream as possible, but she hasn't really balanced it out with reassurances that the individual gets to decide where the line is. You don't get to the end of this segment feeling as though your boundaries or individuality matter much. I can see girls reading this and feeling obliged to make changes they shouldn't have to.

Although Iland talks briefly about aspie girls being tomboys, the possibility of them seeking to take part in alternative subcultures is left completely off the map. I'm not sure quite why... sure the existence of non-mainstream sources of social inclusion is relevant?

In part two, more on Social Structures! Joy.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Remnants of the Goth Challenge

Because I am determined to finish this no matter what.

Day 26: Show a photo for every year that you've been into Goth:

Wait, I was supposed to be keeping track? XD

Day 27: The worst thing you ever did to a newbie:

Why would I go out of my way to wind up somebody who's done nothing to piss me off? The worst thing a 'newbie' is likely to do is call something Goth when it's not, which is hardly the end of the world. All you need to do is say "Actually, (band) is (genre), not Goth". Problem solved. No more fuss needed.

I'm not a fan of the idea that newbies are fair game just because they're new, or young. I've seen a lot of people try to justify blatant nastiness towards them with comments such as "they won't learn if you don't tell them they're wrong" and "the subculture doesn't exist to coddle you, I went through it, you should too." Neither of these excuses stand up. Rudeness isn't necessary to correct somebody who has made a mistake, and you can't expect people to meekly accept unfair treatment. I've never seen anybody asking to be coddled, either- the "we're not here to coddle you" line always seems to be used whenever somebody expresses fear of hostility. There's a big difference between wanting Goth to be a magic happy-clappy fantasy land, and wanting Goth to be generally non-judgemental towards newcomers.

Day 28: Do you consider yourself an Eldergoth?: 

... No. Definitely not. I'm way too young.

Day 29: What do you think will happen to Goth in the future?:

At the moment the subculture seems to be widening its' boundaries. The 'Goth is what you make it' school of thought is growing all the time, and it looks set to eventually eclipse the more purist views of Goth. While it's impossible to know for certain what the future holds, I can see the definition of Goth becoming more hazy in the next few years as more and more people start to accept modern interpretations as legitimate. There also seem to be quite a few people around now who are opposed to subcultural elitism, so with any hope there'll eventually be a bit less of it.

Day 30: Make a list of blogs you regularly read and link to them?: 

Not counting blogs I've linked to in earlier posts:

The first is a very diverse and friendly Tumblr community, the latter two are mostly personal blogs. Go and have a read. :)

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Some notes on Cruxshadows.

So, last night I saw Cruxshadows play at the Talking Heads. At the moment the words I really want to write are "Squeee", "Fuck, yes!", "Yay!" and, er, "*.*", but I'll try to articulate my thoughts a bit better than that.

I'll start at the beginning. Note to anyone going to a gig alone: Arrive shortly before Open Doors, not half an hour before like I did. Waiting on your own for a long period of time isn't the most fun of activities. However, it does give you time to people watch, and one of the things that struck me whilst I was hanging around was the massive differences in the ages of the other fans. There were people around my age right up to people in their 50's and possibly 60's, which I thought was just fantastic.

We went in a little late for some reason, but none the worse for it.

There were two support bands: Dreams Divided, who I didn't realise were playing until they got on stage and introduced themselves, and AlterRed, who'd been booked from the start. Despite their last minute appearance, the former band did better than the latter, partly because they had an entire entourage with them, partly because they're known locally (or so I hear), and partly because the frontman was very good at rabble rousing. Or maybe it was just because they were on first, and managed to catch the crowd when we were raring to go. Either way, AlterRed didn't really get a very good run of it- they had very few of their own fans in, and they had the awkward slot between the first support act and the main act, which everyone seemed to want to save their energy for. The microphone also decided to throw a wobbly just as they were starting up, ruining their entrance a bit. They handled everyone's lack of enthusiasm pretty well, but I felt a bit bad for them nonetheless.

Because I believe in always supporting the support act whether you know of them or not, I started nodding along the second Dreams Divided came on. I didn't want to dance- partly because I had a half-drunk bottle of Budweiser in my hand, partly because I can't dance. However, it wasn't long before I realised that nobody else could either, so once I'd got rid of my drink I gave it the full drunk Uncle treatment. I kept this up for the next three hours. It was great fun and I regret nothing.

Storytime: During the first interval I went and asked one of the bartenders if there was anywhere I could leave my bag. I got given some directions to a cloakroom, but following them turned up only a locked door, so I went on a bit of a search. This involved a lot of wandering around looking awkward, and, because I didn't know the layout of the Heads, walk up the stairs, where it turns out you aren't supposed to go unless you're actually playing. I realised this the second I reached the top steps and saw there was nothing up there except an empty cupboard and a room full of band members, and began the slow walk of shame back downstairs, feeling like a character in a dodgy sitcom.

I also got hijacked by two great people! After my failed Cloakroom Quest, I got talking to Rosemarie and Amy (of Stripy Tights and Dark Delights, on which she has posted a proper review and a wonderful assortment of photos- go and have a look), and I ended up just... staying with them. We spent the rest of the show dancing around in a corner, next to a woman who had glowsticks and very impressive hair falls.

So Cruxshadows came on, and my favourite song got played, which I was very happy about. OK, that's a mild understatement there. Everyone has songs that are personally very significant to them, and Quicksilver is one of mine, so hearing it played live was really quite special. I think I actually spent half the song with my eyes shut, trying to take it in properly, as cheesy as that sounds.

... I was also mouthing along badly. Maybe that balances it out.

Throughout their lengthy set, they played a good mix of 'old favourites' and songs from their upcoming new album, which I without a doubt will be investigating when it's eventually released. The quality was consistently brilliant throughout, with every member performing perfectly, and the usual levels of crowd interaction were present. Full introductions, walking amongst the audience whilst singing, pulling chairs into the middle of the audience and standing on them whilst singing, daft dances with fans...

Just what you'd expect, really.

I don't think I stood still for a second for the... well, however long they were on. Needless to say, I was exhausted by the time they left the stage, and was too busy trying to catch my breath to join in with the shouts for "encore". These shouts were eventually successful. After about five minutes (which I'd spent trying fruitlessly to get a drink), the band wandered back onto the stage and picked up their instruments once more.

They performed two songs, and during the second one, Marilyn my Bitterness, Rogue started pulling everyone in reach up onto the stage, and within a minute most of the audience were up there, myself included, jumping around under the lights. This was brilliant fun and  probably the highlight of the entire thing. It's also given me a new addiction to that song- I've spent significant portions of today playing it on a loop.

The bands had intermingled amongst us right through the show- I had various Cruxshadows standing next to and behind me whilst Dreams Divide were on, The Dreams Divide entourage themselves blended in so well I didn't even realise they were with the band at first, and even members of AlterRed weren't safe from my dancing- according to Rosemarie, one of them got a faceful of my hair. I'm also convinced that everybody in the building got a hug off Rogue at one point or another. I got hugged after confusing the hell out of him- he'd been looking right at me when I'd appeared at the top of the stairs like a stalker, and after much mental debating, I decided to go over and apologise, even though there was a good chance he'd have no clue what I was on about (this was the case, as it turned out- but I think he got the general gist).

(I can't work out whether that particular event had good connotations or bad ones. I mean, on one hand, I had the courage to go and talk to somebody I wouldn't usually feel able to approach, which is good and, along with other events of the evening, suggests that I'm less shy than I thought I was. Seriously, If I had a pound for every time I'd caught myself thinking "My fourrteen year old self would never have been brave enough to do this", I'd be a lot better off. However, I approached in order to needlessly apologise for a minor mistake, which is something I'm trying to do less. Step forward or step back? You decide.)


The atmosphere was very friendly, very lively, generally wonderful, people were  striking up conversations with strangers, and it seemed as though everyone there was having a great time. The crowd was quite small, but in a way that was a positive rather than a negative- it meant more space for everyone, and more audience interaction between the bands and the fans. I have decided that a Cruxshadows concert is where I want to take anyone who believes that Goth is miserable and devoid of fun, because the entire show was anything but.

Until the next time... and my already long-overdue post about World Pride shenanigans. Deadlines? What're they?

Also, squeee! *.*

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Auschwitz 2

It was a 24 hour day. I was up at one in the morning, and out of the house by half three, wearing about three layers because we'd been warned countless times that Poland is cold, my remembrance poppy, and my old school boots because New Rocks and customs can equal inconvenience. By six AM I'd arrived at Gatwick airport, met up with Chris, the other Itchener, battled through security and was sat around reading the welcome pack for forty-five minutes or so because really, what else could you do?

The plane left at seven. We were given breakfast, which I didn't find that bad and then wondered what the hell was wrong with me, this was plane food. At one point, our entire row was asleep, which was just as well really. We'd have been dead by the end of the day otherwise.

Touchdown at 10:00 local time.

On the coach to Oswiecim, the Polish town that was renamed Auschwitz during the war, we were advised to try and get some sleep, but being the geography geek that I am, I put my glasses on and tried to just sort of... take in Poland. The area we were in was a bit run down, full of shabby buildings, some with cracked walls and broken roofs, and most of the countryside looked quite desolate, but it was quite a nice place nonetheless and I barely took my eyes off the scenery for the hour we were on the road.

Eventually the buildings became more numerous and began to look larger and neater. In a bay in a narrow street, the coach finally stopped, and we filed off into the centre of Oswiecim, which was a very calm, well-kept place. We followed the road upwards and stood at the top of a bank overlooking the river Sola. We were informed that this had once been the site of the town's largest Synagogue, which had been destroyed totally by the Nazis shortly after the outbreak of the war. In later years, numerous artifacts from the Synagogue were discovered buried underneath the site, having been rescued by local Jews as Nazi anti-Semitism closed in around them. From there, we went on to the surviving Synagogue, which weathered the war due to being converted into a storage area for the invading forces, and is now being used as a museum documenting the plight of the Oswiecim Jews, of which there are none left. Here, Rabbi Barry Marcus, who had organised the trip and was a very dynamic speaker, gave us a bit of background, describing what happened in the town, and telling the story of the last Jew to live in Oswiecim, who had returned from captivity to find himself alone. Every day up until his death ten years ago, Shimshon Klueger opened the Synagogue door every morning and shut it every night, just as if it was still in use. He lived behind the building in very poor housing, and spoke to no-one.

By the time we got back on the coach, the atmosphere already felt different.

The plan for the rest of the day was thus: We would travel across to Auschwitz one, the first part of the camp to exist (and the camp to bear the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign), and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the second and largest part of the camp, and the part used primarily for mass slaughter. There is a third camp, slightly away from the other two and used mainly for labour, and several other mini-camps, where inmates had been shipped off to work in specific areas, but time was very much of the essence, so we wouldn't be visiting any of those.The first thing that struck me was just how close to civilisation Auschwitz one was. We were all expecting the coach to turn off down an isolated road, trundle off into the wilderness for half an hour and eventually arrive at the camp in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn't like that at all. We were driving along, past houses and shops and garages... and suddenly there it was on the right. A bored looking woman with a high-visibility jacket directed us into the coach section as we went to park.

Actually getting into the place took a bit of time. As there are usually multiple tour groups about, tour guides have to speak to their groups through miniature radio headsets in order to prevent them from needing to shout over each other, so we all had to be fitted with one of those. It was, as you'd expect, a solemn atmosphere right from the start. From the moment we stepped through the doors, nobody really spoke. We loitered around in the entrance for a while, adjusting our headsets, before being ushered off down the path, under Arbeit Macht Frei (a replica, we were told- the original had been stolen), and into the camp itself.
                                                                                    Above: Walking through Auschwitz One.

The weirdest thing about walking around Auschwitz one was how, well, nice it looked. The buildings themselves were the incongruous but functional looking giant bricks I'd expected, but the camp in general had been prettied up. I have no idea when or why this happened- for all I know the camp always looked like this- but somewhere along the line somebody had decided that what a place of mass death really needed was gravel walkways, well-kept trees, and cute little pewter lanterns everywhere. It was half barracks, half Manor Gardens. The effect was really disconcerting. If I hadn't known where I was, I'd never have guessed. Inside the

The name 'Klara Goldstein' is readable
on the foremost suitcase. 
Prayer shawls taken from
Jewish victims
buildings, however, there was no getting away from it. The glass cases containing suitcases and prosthetic limbs, shoes and prayer shawls, made sure that everyone knew exactly what had happened where they were standing. Some of the exhibits were particularly striking: The room of hair, for example, houses the shaven hair of the prisoners. In a tank at one end, ponytails and plaits remain intact. One of the first rooms we went into contains canisters that once held the deadly gas used to kill the prisoners, and one of the last held clothes, shoes, and toys that had clearly belonged to children.

Children's belongings

Due to time constraints, we were hurried through all this rather quickly, with the guide's voice piping constantly through the headsets. Despite this, we were able to take in everything. Before arriving in the camp, I hadn't really known how I'd react, whether I'd feel absolutely nothing or burst into tears after five minutes. What I got was neither of those things, but a feeling of unsettled detachment as I struggled to properly comprehend where I was and what had once happened right where I was standing. I walked around in a haze, and after we'd left the barracks and gone back outside, I found myself walking ahead of or separate from my group on  multiple occasions.

Tribute Wall: In memory of
murdered prisoners of war.

Looking over Auschwitz's last
standing gas chamber
It was the outside that held some of the most poignant parts of the camp.  A row of candles placed in front of a wall which had once been used for shooting prisoners against formed a memorial. Above it was a flag, blue and white striped to resemble the camp uniform, but also bearing the red triangle the Nazis used to signify Prisoners of War, which most of the camp inmates were. Back towards the gate, two sets of gallows could still be found; one of which had been used to hang Rudolf Hoess in 1947.

The most unsettling part of Auschwitz one was, of course, the gas chamber. Auschwitz One hadn't really been a death camp- that had been Auschwitz Birkenau, but all four gas chambers there had been demolished by the Nazis towards the end of the war, leaving the small chamber at One the only chamber still standing.

These canisters contained the gas used to
kill thousands
It was one of the strangest experiences of my life. You think you'll feel something, but it's almost impossible to get your head around the fact that seventy years ago, right where you're standing, thousands of people were being systematically murdered. As I looked up at the hole in the roof where the gas had been poured in, I became more detached, except now the detachment was accompanied by a kind of dry horror. It's difficult to explain in hindsight. I think it's one of those things you simply have to do to understand.

One of the oddest things about the trip in general was that all this was being accompanied by a very businesslike atmosphere. We walked out of the gas chambers, handed in our headsets, and scrambled back onto the coach, where our team leaders gave us a jovial briefing and a weather forecast (cold). We'd gone from death camp to basic, day to day organisation within just a few minutes. As we drove onwards past the shops, garages and houses of Oswiecim, there seemed to be a clash of worlds, and this made the whole experience feel even more surreal.

It didn't last long, however. Five minutes after getting on the coach, we were getting off again, at Birkenau. This time, there was no denying where we were.

Unlike Auschwitz One, Auschwitz-Birkenau had been built for purpose. It didn't have the deceptively innocent look of the first camp. Here, there were just wooden blocks, guard towers, and chain fences, as far as the eye could see, in every direction. It was one of the bleakest places I'd ever seen. Hardly surprising, really, as this was the largest purpose-built death camp run by the Nazis during World War Two. Four gas chambers operated here, burning up to . As the Red Army advanced into Poland towards the end of the war, all four were destroyed.

After disembarking, a local journalist who'd tagged along took Chris and I off for an awkward photo in front of the fence with two students from another nearby college and MP John Denham (who'd also tagged along). We were then shepherded to the watchtower and given a small Jewish candle each, with the instruction to stash them away somewhere as we wouldn't be needing them for another four hours. This wasn't a pleasant prospect- the temperature was dropping rapidly and staying outside for four hours was probably not going to be fun.

Nonetheless, we hooked up headsets once again and made our way into the camps. There were no decorative plants here- unlike Auschwitz One, Birkenau had been left exactly as it was. We often found ourselves jumping muddy ditches because nobody had bridged them, and while there were paths, the quality of them varied rather. Even the buildings themselves hadn't been adapted. There were no exhibits in here- they contained the skeletons of what had been bunks, and holes which had once been used as toilets. They were dirty, rusting and not a great deal warmer than outside. It was close to a time capsule, and here, you got a fragment of understanding as to what living in the camp may have been like. You looked at the bunks and pictured people sleeping in them.

Other parts of the camp had been left intact too. The railway was still there, and one of the cattle carriages used to bring in prisoners from all over Europe had been placed beside the platform. Again, it was all to easy to see what had happened exactly where we were standing: Jews, Gypsies, Prisoners of war, disembarking, and then being roughly divided up. Many adults and almost all children would be sent to one area and then taken straight to the gas chambers: Those who looked strong enough to work would be sent to another area, where they would live a while longer providing slave labour for the Nazis.

Birkenau as seen from the top of
the Watchtower: This was the best I
could do, I'm afraid.
Then, to let it really sink in, we were taken back towards the entrance and told to form a queue. It took me a while to work out what was happening, but eventually I realised we were being sent up to the top of the watchtower, in small groups due to the ever weakening foundations. As I reached the turnstile at the foot of the steps that counted people in, and got waved through by Rabbi Marcus, I wondered how exactly the camp would look from the top. Would it be bigger than I'd realised? Smaller? Would I be able to see over the trees at the far end? As it turned out, there were no real surprises, but the view was haunting nonetheless. I'd expected to see barracks stretching almost to the horizon in every direction, but actually looking at the bare landscape,  peppered only by imposing guard towers and wire fencing, really brought home exactly what the camp had been used for. It was really strange when you looked further into the distance and saw a few modern houses, sitting just outside the camp boundaries. How the local population felt about living so close to places like these had been a subject of much discussion throughout the day. I wondered how long it took them to get used to it.

Back outside, we regrouped and headed into the camp once more. Sunset was beginning, and the sun was a weirdly symbolic blood red. The  temperature was dropping fast and nobody really wanted to be outside anymore. The cold was overpowering to the point where we were all losing concentration on the history and the only thing on our minds was getting indoors. This was us wearing several layers of winter clothing. The prisoners would have only had their camp uniform, plus they'd have been much physically weaker than us to begin with if they'd already been in the camp for a while. In between wondering how much longer we'd have to be outdoors, I found myself questioning as to how anybody at all had survived the conditions here.

As night finally fell, things got creepy.

By this stage, we'd moved towards the far end of the camp, and stumbled across an area which was full of remembrance shrines. Candles of every colour stood out against the pitch black sky, and illuminated the flowers, letters, and carved stone slabs that lay beneath them. It was... pretty. And about as devoid of threat as anything can be. I was standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and yet somehow the atmosphere felt peaceful and respectful. I fought hard to make sense of this. Birkenau was a death camp. Candles or no candles, it wasn't supposed to feel peaceful. I concluded that I was clearly just a bit screwed up, and decided not to tell anybody else present, lest they mark me down as a semi-sociopath or something.

We weaved around this end of the camp, passing the ruins of the four gas chambers (although some of the steps up the entrances were still distinguishable), hearing a story about a rebellion attempt and how it was quashed when the Nazis told all the prisoners present, whether they were guilty or not, lie down, and then shot every third person. We walked through the woods. I thought these were pretty too, in the dark. I worried for my brain.

 My memory of this part of the day is a bit hazy, because all anybody was really focusing on was getting indoors. Eventually, we got our wish. A large building, I'm guessing an information/conservation centre, stood about as far from the gates as it was possible to go. It had previously been the place where new prisoners who'd been selected for labour rather than death had been brought to be processed. They'd been stripped and showered in one room, then their heads had been shaved in another, then they'd been given the camp uniform to put on and sent out to the barracks. As we slowly followed in their footsteps, the guides made a point of emphasising that thousands of people underwent this process every day when the camp was at its peak.

A large part of the project was making the Holocaust human. Although facts and figures were mentioned a lot, putting names and faces to victims and perpetrators alike was a large part of  what they did. This was why, when we went into the last room, we were given plenty of time to look around what it contained.

Several large boards, each covered in photographs. Family albums, mostly, from before the war began. Set of pictures of a person, whose name and description was given in the middle of the images, having fun with friends and family, holding their children, going to work, totally unaware of where they'd end up. You always know that the Holocaust ripped families apart, but now we could see. We'd look at the photos, read the names of the people they contained, and then read about how two of them had died and the others took forever to find each other after the war was over. It's the kind of thing I think there should be more of- it's so easy for atrocities on this scale to end up as numbers in a textbook, but everyone involved was a person, and the more we remember that, the harder it is to allow the Holocaust to become an irrelevant abstract. This point was drilled home yet again by Rabbi Marcus, who herded us all back together for some readings given by a few volunteers, and then a sermon. He talked at length about the importance of not forgetting, then asked us to join him in prayer. The prayer was, of course, Jewish (and in Yiddish), but he made it clear at the start that we could adapt to our own beliefs where necessary.  I'm an atheist with no God to worship, so I chose to treat it like a two minute silence and just listened and remembered.

On the now intensely cold walk back towards the watchtower, I fell into step with Chris, and, he too admitted to finding Birkenau weirdly peaceful. I was relieved it wasn't just me, but not especially surprised, as by this point, it had started making sense. These days, people come to Birkenau for education and remembrance. Despite it's past, it is now a place of respect, and feels less dangerous than pretty much anywhere else I've ever been. It's a very strange contrast, and one I still have trouble fully getting my head around- but there it is.

By the time we left, there were over 100 more pinpoints of light standing out against the night sky. Battling against the wind, a few matches were passed and we finally lit our Jewish candles. It took most of us two or three goes, and trying to manoeuvre our candles together in a way that would allow the flame to travel across the wicks was incredibly tricky, but eventually, we managed it. We set them down in a sheltered spot right outside the watchtower, which felt incredibly symbolic, but it's only as I've been writing this that I've fully realised why. The fact that a place of genocide is now full of endless memorial plaques, stones, and candles... the fact that remembrance services are now held in the room where prisoners were once processed... the fact that the watchtower once used to aid mass murder now shelters tributes to the victims from the wind. It all adds up to one huge statement: The power Birkenau was given by the Nazis has been taken away.

The sun sets on Birkenau

A week after the visit, I attended a second, follow up, conference in London, and was assigned for created a presentation for Holocaust Memorial Day in February. The one thing that had irked me about the project was the way it seemed to focus exclusively on Jewish victims, to the point where it was difficult to remember that other groups had been involved at all. To me, it felt as though the Roma, Disabled, Gay, POW, Polish and 'Undesirable' victims were being forgotten completely. Therefore, I made sure I included as many groups as possible in my presentation. I also included lots of personal stories, from all kinds of victims, because if there's one thing this experience has taught me, it's the importance of remembering that the Holocaust was made up of individuals.

Friday, 18 May 2012


I have far, far too many things to worry about.

A2 Exams: 
Pretty self explanatory, really. Made worse by my total and persistant ineptitude with 'Exam Technique'. For two of the subjects I'm taking, passing the exam is very dependant on writing in the way the exam board want, and I've never really managed to work out how to do that. In class practices, I'm the person who explains instead of contrasts and loses tons of marks as a result, and every year worry I won't be able to remedy that for the exams.

Financing College next year: 
I won't be getting EMA next year, and it's only just dawning on me how hard it's going to be to afford food and transport if I can't get a job by Autumn. My family's financial situation isn't brilliant as it is, especially now with my brother starting a vocational college course that needs tons of special equipment, and I hate the idea of making it worse. For the record, this won't spell disaster- worst case scenario is that I have to bring all food from home and only use the college bus (even if that means waiting around at college all afternoon), but it's a situation I'd like to avoid.

Getting a job: 
Recently I've realised that I've been putting jobseeking off due to anxiety surrounding employment. Why am I anxious? I have no clue, but needless to say, I need to learn not to be pretty quickly, especially as I've been feeling lately that my family's finacial worries are something I really ought to be helping with.

Sorting University:
From July onwards, I'm going to have to start trying to make friends with the dreaded UCAS. UCAS likes making people jump through hoops. Also, heavy student loans: I need one, but I really, really don't want one.

World Pride:
Although I've been planning on marching with AVEN since last year, I'm still very nervous at the prospect of going. Why? I'm not sure- the more I think about it the less there is to be worried about. I know my way around the underground, I have the money, and everything else can be sorted easily enough. Nonetheless, I often feel as though I'm only definitely going to this because I know I'll regret it for all eternity if I don't.

Explaining above to parents: 
I've been to London alone before, but knowing my parents, that won't stop the almost inevitable "That's not safe" argument. I'm also semi-expecting a "What on Earth do you want to go to that for" argument, a "What about future employers?" argument, and/or a "Those things are bloody stupid" argument, possibly even a "Will you just drop this silly 'asexual' business?" argument.  worst thing about this is that I'm not sure I could answer back to a few of these- particularly 'why do you want to go'. Right now, my choices are either be honest and argue, lie, or try to sneak out of the house at 6 AM on the seventh and not tell anyone where I am until I'm on the train. None of these are especially appealing.

Cruxshadows Gig:
A lot of people complain about not knowing any local goths. For me, the problem is slightly worse. I do know a couple of local goths, but I don't feel especially comfortable around them. Now, there's every chance this has more to do with me than it does with them- I do have trouble trusting people and I'm quite prone to seeing animosity where there isn't any- but the prospect of walking into a room convinced that the only people who recognise me look down on me isn't a very welcoming one, especially when one of those people seems to be pretty well established. Like AVEN, my decision to go to CXS at the Talking Heads was based on knowing I'd regret it if I didn't: Right now, I'm struggling to drum up enthusiasm.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

Day 25: Did you ever consider leaving the subculture?:

I've often wondered whether calling myself 'Goth' was a good idea or not. Truth be told, I only really use it as shorthand. I fit the definition well enough to consider myself Goth, and being able to answer "Are you Goth" with "yes" is far more convenient than the "Well, kind of, I mean, I take influence from Goth, but I don't really class myself as anything" ramble I used to have to go off on. Yes, sometimes I worry that I don't really fit, but the way I see, it's a word that defines me only loosely, not a doctrine I have to stick to. For now, I'm happy using it.