Emily, Our Town, and My Autism
“Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante’s Purgatory). It is an attempt to find value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are ‘hundreds’, ‘thousands’, ‘millions’. Emily’s joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents---what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living and will live? Each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner.”
Author Thornton Wilder
At the end of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, a young woman who has recently died returns to the world of the living. After she stops the experience because it is too intense for her, she asks the Stage Manager, a somewhat godlike narrator, the following question:
"Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"
He answers that maybe poets and saints do, but I want to suggest to you that maybe autistic people do, too. At least a little more, or differently, than the people around us.
I don't mean to imply that Thornton Wilder was autistic or that he intended Our Town in general or its climax to have anything to do with autism. But I do think it is interesting and possibly helpful to look at the play from an autistic point of view.
Our Town is weird. So weird (and so often taught and performed) that I don't feel compelled to give any spoiler warning. Trust me-- there's nothing to spoil. It's not that kind of play. It works like Philip Glass music-- deliberately boring in places in order to intensify subtle changes.
It has a narrator and is set on a bare stage with actors pretending instead of using real objects. The first act is structured around a single day in the life of Grover's Corners, a small American Town. Act Two tells the story of how Emily came to marry her husband George.
And the third act happens shortly after Emily's death. It takes place in the cemetery. The dead are sitting in chairs, and Emily joins them. She realizes that she can revisit her life, and the others warn against it.
But she does.
I can't embed the video, but you can watch the scene on YouTube, in the 1989 production starring Penelope Ann Miller. It's in two parts.
The Stage Manager tells Emily that she will not just re-live the day she chooses to return to. She will also watch herself living it. And this reminds me of my life. Because fitting in with neurotypical expectations makes me so self-conscious, I often have a sense of watching myself while tying simultaneously to interact with others.
Because I get so frustrated by implications that autistic people have magical powers, I should be very careful to say that I don't think autistic people get overwhelmed for the same reason the Stage Manager says that Emily will be. He says that she will see the future, the things that the living people around her do not know will happen. We don't have special knowledge. We just just don't know when to stop looking.
It's like Christopher, the protagonist of Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time says:
I see everything.
That is why I don’t like new places. If I am in a place I know, like home, or school, or the bus, or the shop, or the street, I have seen almost everything in it beforehand and all I have to do is to look at the things that have changed or moved. For example, one week the Shakespeare’s Globe poster had fallen down in the classroom at school and you could tell because it had been put back slightly to the right and there were three little circles of Blu-Tack stain on the wall down the left-hand side of the poster. And the next day someone had graffitied CROW APTOK to lamppost 437 in our street, which is the one outside number 35.
But most people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction, e.g., when a snooker ball glances off another snooker ball. And the information in their head is really simple. For example, if they are in the countryside, it might be:
- I am standing in a field that is full of grass.
- There are some cows in the fields.
- It is sunny with a few clouds.
- There are some flowers in the grass.
- There is a village in the distance.
- There is a fence at the edge of the field and it has a gate in it.
And then they would stop noticing anything because they would be thinking something else like, “Oh, it is very beautiful here,” or “I’m worried that I might have left the gas cooker on,” or “I wonder if Julie has given birth yet.” This is really true because I asked Siobhan what people thought about when they looked at things, and that’s what she said...
And when I am in a new place, because I see everything, it is like when a computer is doing too many things at the same time and the central processor unit is blocked up and there isn’t any space left to think about other things. And when I am in a new place and there are lots of people there it is even harder because people are not like cows and flowers and grass and they can talk to you and do things that you don’t expect, so you have to notice everything that is in the place, and also you have to notice things that might happen as well. And sometimes when I am in a new place and there are lots of people there it is like a computer crashing and I have to close my eyes and put my hands over my ears and groan, which is like pressing CTRL + ALT + DEL and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting so that I can remember what I am doing and where I am meant to be going.
And that is why I am good at chess and maths and logic, because most people are almost blind and they don’t see most things and there is lots of spare capacity in their heads and it is filled with things which aren’t connected and are silly, like, “I’m worried that I might have left the gas cooker on.”
Emily and Christopher are experiencing a world that is overwhelmingly intense.
Emily's mother-in-law warns her to choose the least important day of her life. "It will be important enough." She chooses her twelfth birthday, and is overwhelmed with love for the familiar objects she used to see every day. I think there are some autistic people, maybe, who feel love like that every day for the familiar sights and sounds around us. And that may be part of why it's so hard to vary from our routines. And hard also sometimes even to look at what is around us, not because we are indifferent, but because we love too much. Emily says "I can't look at everything hard enough." I often feel this way.
And I also sometimes find interacting with the people I love to be painfully intense and far too fast. Emily says:
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me... Just for a moment we're together. Just for a moment we're happy. Oh, let's look at one another...
I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another.
Emily never noticed all that was going on when she was alive-- and maybe one difference between autistic and neurotypical people is that we notice a little more.