by Josh Stallings (First Published in CrimeReads 2021)
“More diversity? No. Enough already. Just let me write my book about a dude in a hat shooting another dude in a hat.”
I can already hear the screaming, and it sounds like a painter asking to have colors removed from their palette. Fine, do charcoal if that’s what hikes your kilt, but no whining if you discover you’re writing boring books.
“Roll it back, what is this ‘neurodiversity’ you want me to sign onto?”
Okay, I’ll pretend you don’t have Google. In 1998, Australian sociologist Judy Singer came up with the term as a new way to look at what had once been seen as neurodevelopmental disorders. Instead of pathology, she saw diversity in the way brains work, and that it was societal barriers that disable people. It’s more nuanced, and complicated—as all things worth learning are. Simple version, being a Bear of Very Little Brain does not mean you are broken.
Neurodiverse characters have been around as long as stories have been told. The Norse gods had all kinds of brain types running around Asgard. Don Quixote saw dragons where others saw windmills, and became one of my favorite literary heroes. I love Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, love Steinbeck, but I find Lenny…problematic. Was Lenny a fully formed character? Or was he a cardboard cutout written in so George and Curley had someone to define themselves against? I risk being labeled too PC when I note that, too often, intellectually disabled characters are treated as women have been—by which I mean written as two dimensional objects for men to expose their character, or lack of character, to.
Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn gave us the multi-dimensional Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette’s syndrome. When stressed, Lionel involuntarily says the most dreadful things, effectively amping up the tension in every interaction.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a stunning look inside the head of a fifteen year-old who refers to himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” By choosing a neurodiverse narrator, Haddon delivered a completely unique voice.
Elizabeth Little captured neurodiversity brilliantly in Pretty as a Picture. Little chose narrator Marissa Dahl, who doesn’t label herself, but seems to deal with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In her words, “The best way I can think to describe it is that there’s a beehive in my chest, and most people upset the bees. The nearer they get, the worse it is—and direct contact makes them swarm.” Marissa is much more than a diagnosis, she is a fully alive character, a film editor struggling to verbalize to producers her inner creative process. Struggling with a difficult personal life, and now trapped on location away from her support systems, on a movie set full of mayhem and murder. Her lack of interpersonal skills and downright odd behaviors makes her the last person anyone would believe when she starts to unravel who the killer is, creating white knuckle tension throughout. All these writers share a real respect for their characters, combined with unflinching honesty about what it’s like to stumble through life with a “different” brain.
My placement of an intellectually disabled man at the center of Tricky wasn’t a decision to be neurodiverse—I hadn’t heard of the term yet—or a plotting calculation. It was personal. My son Dylan is intellectually disabled. I knew if I wanted to see someone like him in a book, I’d need to write it.
Dylan was a wonderfully interesting kid. He liked to dance and sing along with Merry Poppins. He’d put on a sleeveless Levi’s jacket and bandana so he could sing along with Bruce Springsteen. He was, like his mother, a natural-born rule follower and that made him easy to parent. At twenty-six he developed schizoaffective disorder and for a time our world exploded. Rages came on with no apparent trigger. He was living in an apartment over our garage, which we’d built it to afford him some privacy. For a while it worked. Until the day he tore it apart, flipped what furniture he couldn’t break. Tore drawers from his dresser and piled his clothing on the floor. Ripped up beloved He-Man comic books. In the following months he became more and more paranoid. My wife and I became the enemy. As his delusions worsened, we thought we could handle it. We were wrong. He was completely out of control. Fearing he might hurt himself or us, we knew we needed to go to the hospital. But how? He was starting to act out violently. There was no way to get him into our car. In the face of all that, we made the worst decision of our lives: we called 911. They sent a LAPD cruiser to our home.
I remember being ordered to stand back and let them handle it. An officer—hand on pistol butt—was demanding my son comply. Dylan, dressed in Ninja Turtles pajamas, looked so young. His eyes were unfocused, he was lost. A large part of Dylan’s sense of self comes from knowing he is a good guy. The officer’s accusatory and angry tone ratcheted up Dylan’s madness.
Not getting the expected compliance, the officer pointed at his badge saying forcefully, “Do you know what this means?”
“No, he doesn’t.” My wife said, but she was ignored.
I believe my son would have been shot if the SMART team psychologist hadn’t arrived at that moment. SMART (Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team) partners a police officer with a county psychologist. They dialed all the agro from the scene. With gentle words and a relaxed demeanor, the situation went from a stand-off to sitting on the sofa quietly chatting with Dylan. They talked to him respectfully about needing to go to the hospital, asking if he would feel better if he got dressed first. Even when they cuffed him, they explained every move, got him to understand and accept it. That night after Dylan was safely under his psychiatrist’s care, the SMART team psychologist called to check in with us, he wanted to know how Dylan was and how we were handling it. He showed real compassion.
Tricky opens with Cisco, an intellectually disabled man with a pistol leaning over a dead man. An LAPD officer holds a gun of his own and is shouting for Cisco to drop his. We will discover Cisco had a violent past, he was a shooter for an East Los gang. Given his police record, it’s logical for a cop to think Cisco is faking a traumatic brain injury to avoid being arrested. He may be intellectually disabled, or maybe he’s just a brilliant liar.
Writing Cisco took a lot of thinking. I toyed with writing in the first person, but finally decided not to. Dylan hasn’t the words to let me know if I get it wrong. He can’t explain what it feels like to be Dylan, he just is. Having been close to him his whole life, I did feel comfortable showing who he is, capturing his behavior, his humor, his outrage and deep sense of justice.
I know diversity can feel like a moving target. I was raised in the counter culture by activist Quakers. They believed in diversity as they understood it at the time. I went to a private hippie grammar school in Northern California. We Stallings kids were given scholarships, partly because our mom was a teacher, and partly because a gaggle of poor kids added economic diversity. They had a few kids of color in every class. They had families from multiple religious backgrounds. They did not have any intellectually disabled students.
In that same private hippie school, I was last in my class. I couldn’t spell, and my reading was way below average. Simple math baffled me. Thank god for art and shop class. I remember overhearing a teacher explain to my mom that some kids just aren’t as smart as others. My parents believed deeply in “school-smarts.” My father was a Rhodes Scholar, my mother got a PhD from Stanford while teaching and being a single parent to us four wild animals. I had no model for success that didn’t come from scholarly pursuits. What none of us knew was that I am dyslexic, a trait I share with some of my favorite writers. If we had openly discussed neurodiversity I might have known that my brain was different, not “better” or “worse” than others. I might not have lived so much of my life thinking privately of myself as the “dummy.”
Neurodiversity is complicated, I get that. But imagine raising my son in a world where the only intellectually disabled people to be seen in pop culture were either magical grinning saints or psychopaths. This lack of realistic, rounded representation led loving family members to tell me that my son Dylan is an angel sent by God to teach us. That’s not true. Dylan is a complicated man, angry sometimes, happy others, sad when a cheerleader failed to see how cool he was. He incapsulates the entire human experience, it’s just the packaging that’s different.
Now Dylan and I have a favor to ask. Readers, seek out and champion stories that include neurodiversity. Writers, artists, creators of any ilk please paint your characters with a palette as richly diverse as we humans truly are. Create worlds where I can see my son reflected back at me. Do that, and I’ll keep doing the same.