Smacked right in the feels

Credit goes to the amazing Tom Siddell

A week ago I was immersed with some friends in an RPG (role-playing game.) They were together in person, being of the same household, and I was on Zoom. At one point a friend and fellow player forwarded a link to my Discord account to illustrate what she was talking about. It was just supposed to be a quick frame of reference for the elves we were dealing with as part of the game.

The link intrigued me, and afterwards I followed up, scrolling back to the beginning of the story. The graphic series is called Gunnerkrigg Court, written and illustrated by Tom Siddell. At first I took this for a kind of Tim Burton/Emily the Strange narrative with a steampunk twist. Then it took a distinct Buffy the Vampire Slayer turn, specifically in that the two main characters resemble Buffy and her best friend Willow — the warrior and the brain.

Except the further in I got…

Well, let’s just say this emotional epic is eating me alive right now. I didn’t realize how deeply inundated I was until the main character’s father shows up after several years of neglectful silence and absence. My whole world is revolving around this storyline, and I’m entrenched in all the powerful emotions the main character is refusing to feel. So painful! So real.

Don’t toady up to him, Antimony, fer god’s sake. Stop trying to be the good daughter! He’s never going to accept you the way you are.

My reactions are like those of an audience member who yells at the movie on the screen. I want Antimony to get angry! I want her to scream and shout at her father. I’ve analyzed their relationship dynamics to the nth degree, and I know why they’re both acting the way they are. My brain has gone into overdrive to the point where I’m feeling physical pain at the characters’ disconnect.

Needless to say, this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

Stories are the reason I have a sense of empathy at all. It’s true that people with Autism have a… well, a different sense of empathy than neuro-typicals. We have either too much or too little, or a combination of both. My empathy is like a sheet of hard plastic that’s been through an industrial accident; parts of it are melted, too thin or thick, and there are burnt holes on one side. Curled and warped.

When I was a child, I didn’t understand much in the other-people-are-real-too department. I was different, and it showed — most kids thought I was weird and treated me that way. Pushed me at arm’s length. So it was through stories that I accessed empathy, the one place I could see into the inner worlds of others. I could see emotions on the page, along with background and choices. I mean, this wasn’t good literature. Star Trek novels, for the most part. But it was enough.

Sure, it’s simpering, heteronormative and over written, but it was my favorite when I was 12.

The pain is real, too. As a child I boiled in intense, unmitigated agony while feeling for characters, and often cried because of it. But this self-inflicted torment did things for me that nothing else could. It streeeeetched me like physical or occupational therapy in that it allowed me to access the empathy center of my own brain. There were no services for ASD when I was a kid. The diagnosis itself made its debut in the DSM in 1993 — when I was a junior in high school — and naturally I didn’t figure out I was autistic until my late 30s. So stories were… well, it.

Meantime, Antimony Carver and her father dominate my world, and I surrender to the sweet pain of their inner horrors. If I cry about it, sometime late at night, no one has to witness the transgression and it won’t surprise me. It’s just my sense of empathy, stretching into existence once again. Becoming more than my brain was ever meant to be.

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