PTSD in Elephants / PLEASE, PLEASE Listen to every word

From Kerulos website. See more details in Elephant Breakdown / Nature vol. 433/24Feb. 2005

Trans Species Psychology

In 2005, Kerulos’ Director Gay Bradshaw diagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in free-living elephants. This science has catalyzed an entirely new approach to elephant conservation and welfare.

Historically, elephants in India and other parts of Asia roamed across the continent. Today, there is intense conflict between humans and elephants. Elephants in close confinement captivity live in chronic stress, deprivation, and pain even when direct physical punishment is not employed. While culturally engrained images of performing animals and zoo exhibits may evoke nostalgia and fascination for humans, the experience of animals in captivity is far different. The measure of elephant suffering can perhaps be best appreciated when we take into account the radical differences between captivity and the wild habitats to which they are ecologically, psychologically and evolutionarily adapted.

When release from abuse does occur, the road to recovery is not easy. Elephants coming to sanctuary experience tremendous improvements, yet they still carry the scars and burden of their past experience. Similar to human prisoners who survive, elephants from circuses and zoos are diagnosed with Complex PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) and other trauma-induced conditions.

Sadly, free-living elephants are no longer immune from the ravages of trauma. Poaching, culls, and the stress of life in shrinking habitat have torn apart elephant society. Orphaned infants suffer physiological and emotional shock when they lose their mothers and families and elephants everywhere are under siege from human pressures. Elephants and their culture are threatened with collapse.

Elephants, Us, and Other Kin. Presented by G.A. Bradshaw at the UCLA Annual Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference 2014. See video below.


Modern social humans won’t stop until every last living thing on earth is tortured, made insane, or is driven to extinction.

Dear Asperger; Do you see yourself in this tragedy?



My Computer Died

I’m on an enforced vacation. The HP finally is dead after many years of service.

Contemplating what model to replace it with. Will re-post some oldies until then. Meanwhile, I’m using the library’s computers.

Gone Wild

Human self-domestication / Martin Brüne

Open Access

On human self-domestication, psychiatry, and eugenics

Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 20072:21

DOI: 10.1186/1747-5341-2-21

© Brüne; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2007


The hypothesis that anatomically modern Homo sapiens could have undergone changes akin to those observed in domesticated animals has been contemplated in the biological sciences for at least 150 years. The idea had already plagued philosophers such as Rousseau, who considered the civilisation of man as going against human nature, and eventually “sparked over” to the medical sciences in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, human “self-domestication” appealed to psychiatry, because it served as a causal explanation for the alleged degeneration of the “erbgut” (genetic material) of entire populations and the presumed increase of mental disorders. (This is a misconception on the part of psychiatry and medicine, and in itself does not prove-disprove self-domestication- me)

Consequently, Social Darwinists emphasised preventing procreation by people of “lower genetic value” and positively selecting favourable traits in others. Both tendencies culminated in euthanasia and breeding programs (“Lebensborn”) during the Nazi regime in Germany. Whether or not domestication actually plays a role in some anatomical changes since the late Pleistocene period is, from a biological standpoint, contentious, and the currently resurrected debate depends, in part, on the definitional criteria applied.

However, the example of human self-domestication may illustrate that scientific ideas, especially when dealing with human biology, are prone to misuse, particularly if “is” is confused with “ought”, i.e., if moral principles are deduced from biological facts. Although such naturalistic fallacies appear to be banned, modern genetics may, at least in theory, pose similar ethical problems to medicine, including psychiatry. In times during which studies into the genetics of psychiatric disorders are scientifically more valued than studies into environmental causation of disorders (which is currently the case), the prospects of genetic therapy may be tempting to alter the human genome in patients, probably at costs that no-one can foresee.

In the case of “self-domestication”, it is proposed that human characteristics resembling domesticated traits in animals should be labelled “domestication-like”, or better, objectively described as genuine adaptations to sedentism. (Agreed – me)


The term “domestication” refers to a goal-directed process through which humans have changed physical features of plants and animals by replacing natural through artificial selection to adapt these species to specific human needs. In animals, domestication-associated changes also include behavioural characteristics, which, above all, have led to a reduction of aggression and an increase of “tameness” [1]. At least since Darwin’s pioneering work on domestication [2], biologists have controversially debated whether several aspects of domestication-induced traits in animals could similarly be present in humans, and this issue has recently been reconsidered [1, 3]. Even earlier, however, philosophers have been plagued with the question of man’s place in nature. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755), for instance, had argued that “civilised” living conditions would have negative consequences, subsumed under the term “degeneration” [4]. Conversely, in the 1940s, the German philosopher Arnold Gehlen proposed a self-domestication theory of Homo sapiens, according to which domestication would, on one hand, induce biological maladaptedness through abandoning natural selection, but, on the other hand, open new prospects for cultural development [5]. Similarly, recent humanism has highlighted the positive aspects of a presumed human domestication such as to prevent “brutalisation” of human societies (comment in [6]).

Whereas philosophers have extensively discussed putative effects of human self-domestication in terms of moral values, by the turn of the 20th century psychiatrists became interested in the hypothesis of human self-domestication, because it seemingly provided a causal explanation for what was perceived as signs of degeneration of the human genepool (“erbgut”) (Again, a concept promoted by practitioners of psychiatry and medicine, and not a scientific effort into the proof-disproof of self-domestication. ) [7].

In 1857, the French psychiatrist Benedicte Morel sought to introduce objective measures in support of the concept of “degeneration”, suggesting that subtle physical abnormalities would indicate the deterioration of mental health and also account for delinquent behaviour, because such deviations would be most prevalent in mentally ill and criminals [8]. Indeed, by the turn of the 20th century, with increasing biologising of psychiatry, leading professionals were concerned about the seemingly rising number of hospitalised patients and searched for biological explanations, leaving aside social factors [9]. Hence, the hypothesis of the domestication of man was welcome, and, in light of the then prevailing cultural pessimism and upcoming eugenic idealism put forth by August Forel and Alfred Ploetz [10], readily adopted as rationalisation of a host of unresolved questions in psychiatry and related social issues. It is perhaps not exaggerated to state that this one-sided biological view of mental disorders and handicaps also contributed to what followed in Germany under the Nazi regime.

Albeit modern human biology may be largely free of moral allegations, there seems to be a need for discussing the possible impact of biological findings and hypotheses on contemporary conceptualisations of mental health and treatment options of psychiatric disorders. This premise is based on the fact that biological ideas have always been at risk of socio-political misuse, (and I contend that this is exactly what is happening in ASD and Asperger research and diagnosis) and on the concern that the advent of new genetic techniques may be tempting to “improve” human genetic material and eliminate unwanted traits, part of which could erroneously be attributed to human self-domestication.

In this article, I shall (1) deal with the biological evidence for human self-domestication and the historical development of the idea, including its entanglement with political opportunism during the Nazi epoch in Germany; (2) outline how and why the self-domestication hypothesis was adopted by leading (German) psychiatrists, and possibly contributed to positive and negative selection programs during the Third Reich in Germany; (3) finally argue that the debate between philosophy, biology, and other medical sciences including psychiatry necessitates a common language for further interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, as well as awareness of the dangers of naturalistic fallacies. (Halleluiah! It’s about time!)

More next post…..

Part 2 Human self-domestication / Martin Brüne

Part 2

Human self-domestication – the development of an idea

Charles Darwin was the first to systematically examine biological changes in species under artificial breeding conditions. Even though he did not refer to the question of human self-domestication in his two volumes on Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication [2], Darwin proposed clear definitional criteria for the process of domestication. He emphasized (1) that the domestication of animals is more than taming, (2) that it represents a goal-oriented process for human purposes, (3) that the variability of physical and ‘mental’ characteristics is greater in domesticated species than in their wild ancestors, including the occurrence of dwarfism and gigantism, (4) that the behavioural plasticity and educability of domesticated species is greater, and (5) that the brain size of domesticated animals is smaller than that of their wild ancestors’.

In spite of these unequivocal definitional criteria, Darwin was remarkably vague regarding the possibility that humans could have undergone domestication. In The Decent of Man [11], he wrote the following (the most critical phrases are highlighted in italics by the author): “It is, nevertheless, an error to speak of man, even if we look only to the conditions to which he has been exposed, as ‘far more domesticated’ (Blumenbach 1865) than any other animal. … In another and much more important respect, man differs widely from any strictly domesticated animal; for his breeding has never long been controlled, (this is not true! The social hierarchy is a reproductive selection machine!) either by methodical or unconscious selection. No race or body of men has been so completely subjugated by other men, as that certain individuals should be preserved, and thus unconsciously selected, from somehow excelling in utility to their masters. Nor have certain male and female individuals been intentionally picked out and matched, except in the well known case of the Prussian grenadiers;” (p. 29) … By contrast, in another paragraph Darwin stated: “We might, therefore, expect that civilized men, who in one sense are highly domesticated, would be more prolific than wild men. It is also probable that the increased fertility of civilised nations would become, as with our domestic animals, an inherited character …” (p. 45–46). (Darwin was a man of his time and class; likely oblivious to de facto social selection. People married and reproduced within their “proper place” on the pyramid.

With respect to brain size Darwin argued, however, that in contrast to domesticated animals the human brain and skull has increased over time. Nevertheless, in the chapter on human races, Darwin reiterates that “man in many respects may be compared with those animals which have long been domesticated, …” (p. 178); and later: “With man no such question can arise, for he cannot be said to have been domesticated at any particular period” (p. 183). And finally: “With our domestic animals a new race can readily be formed by carefully matching the varying offspring from a single pair, or even from a single individual possessing some new character; but most of our races have been formed, not intentionally from selected pair, but unconsciously by the preservation of many individuals which have varied, however slightly, in some useful or desired manner” (p. 188). In summary, although Darwin did not hold a clear position concerning the possibility that domestication could have taken place in homo sapiens, he pointed to the fact that no scientific proof in favour of such a hypothesis existed, particularly, due to a lack of goal-directedness or conscious selection of traits. However, he also made clear that humans might share some characteristics typical of domesticated animals such as increased fertility.

In the biological literature following Darwin, the term “domestication” became increasingly poorly defined. The criterion of intentional and goal-directed selection, which according to Darwin’s definition was critical for domestication, was largely replaced, at least with respect to humans, by the equation of culture and civilisation with domestication. (One example of intentional goal directedness: The Harem – females selected for social position, connection to allies or subjugated nations, tameness and beauty and continually replenished with youthful baby producers. A broad “blood” base (genetic pool) was available: a veritable farm for producing “top males” for the continuation of a dynasty.

An extensive evaluation of the topic was put forward by Eugen Fischer in his essay on Die Rassenmerkmale des Menschen als Domestikationserscheinungen (“The racial characteristics of man as a result of domestication”, 1914) [12]. A couple of years later, Fischer became known for his publication of Grundriß der menschlichen Erblichkeitslehre und Rassenhygiene (“Outline of human genetics and racial hygiene”), which he edited together with Erwin Baur and Fritz Lenz in 1921 [13]; all authors later became leading authorities in Nazi eugenics and supported the legalisation of sterilisation and dismantling of welfare institutions to reinstitute the laws of natural selection [10].

( A prime human conceit that has ravaged the planet: we are so intelligent that our blunders-efforts at reshaping natural processes and entire ecologies are de facto  improvements on nature. WE ARE NOT THAT SMART!)

In his essay on the domestication of man, Fischer suggested that domestication should be defined as a condition in which “the nutrition and reproduction has been influenced over a number of generations by humans” (author’s translation). In line with these greatly relaxed definitional criteria of domestication, Fischer reasoned that humankind should be considered domesticated from the beginning of its existence. (We were never wild animals?) Fischer considered racial differences to be the result of domestication, because “almost all characteristics of human races could be found in domesticated animals, except for the low variability of the external ear and the lack of dappling of the skin or hair.” Interestingly, Fischer regarded blond hair, blue eyes, and bright skin colour of Europeans as signs of domestication-induced partial albinism, as well as, dwarfism and gigantism in some populations, racial differences concerning the disposition for obesity, temperament, character and intelligence. Even “the permanent female breast indicates domestication much like the udder of domesticated cattle” (author’s translation) [12]. However, the point that “Aryans” should be carriers of outstanding signs of domestication was apparently overlooked, a point to which I will return in the discussion. Remarkably, however, the very same attitude towards domestication and racial hygiene including support of sterilisation was also found in leading Jewish scientists such as Richard Goldschmidt, who was Professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem [14]. Goldschmidt argued that the abandonment of natural selection and “radical extermination of the unfit” (Goldschmidt, 1933, pp. 214; author’s translation) ought to be replaced by positive and negative eugenic measures (apparently, Goldschmidt later realised that the Nazi regime held an even more radical position regarding eugenics and was expatriated by the Nazis in 1935; he was appointed Professor of Genetics and Cytology at Berkeley, CA). Even anthropologist Franz Boas, who was not a racist and strongly opposed the Nazi regime, described curly hair, variation in stature and increasing or decreasing pigmentation of the skin as signs of human domestication, but was inconclusive about how much environmental and genetic factors contributed to these variations [15]. Thus, although Fischer and colleagues may, to a certain degree, have had an opportunistic interest in mixing scientific ideas with political claims, the association of acknowledging the self-domestication hypothesis with eugenic consequences during the 1930s was not only an issue for racist scientists. (The misconception / mixing of non-scientific social, political, and religious beliefs has not disappeared in psychology. Biological sources are sought for justification of  discrimination. These prejudices do not negate the possibility of domestication, but unfortunately, have made it a “shady” subject for study. The same problem taints psychology and its support and contributions to American Eugenics movement.) 

In the 1920s, another, entirely independent biological concept was adopted from embryology to explain human self-domestication. The Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk (1926) [16] postulated that adult humans would resemble juvenile apes, and that the retention of juvenile characteristics of the ancestral species into adulthood of the descendant, referred to as “foetalisation” or “neoteny”, could be associated with the process of domestication. For example, the zoologist Max Hilzheimer (1926/1927) argued that “the recent European should be considered the most progressively domesticated form whereas Neanderthals were much less juvenilised” (author’s translation) due to the more pronounced retention of juvenile traits in anatomically modern humans compared to Neanderthals (at that time, it was not known that Neanderthals were not ancestral to anatomically modern humans) [17]. The parallel drawn between domestication and neoteny is interesting in light of the currently resurrected debate about human self-domestication (see below).

In the 1940s Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz’ published some speculations on the relation of human psychological capacities to the process of domestication. In his article Durch Domestikation verursachte Störungen arteigenen Verhaltens (“Domestication-induced disorders of species-typical behaviour”, published in 1940) Lorenz reiterated parallels between the living conditions of civilised inhabitants of metropolitan areas with domesticated animals, which he thought indicated signs of degeneration [18]. (The assumption of “degeneration” damaged scientific research.)

Lorenz proposed that the intensity and frequency of instinctual patterns of behaviour were altered under these conditions, leading to a hypertrophy of some instincts due to a lowered releasing threshold and to a functional disruption of species-typical behaviours. Beside the alleged domestication-associated morphological features in human beings, such as shortening of the extremities and of the base of the skull, atony of the muscles, and obesity, which he later subsumed under the term ‘Verhausschweinung’ (a term hard to translate that roughly compares the physical appearance of human beings with domesticated pigs), Lorenz described a domestication-associated diminished social sensitivity and a functional disruption of love, marriage, and the “copulation drive”. Apart from his appallingly coarse language, which conformed to the writing style of that time, Lorenz did not refrain from discussing racial hygienic consequences such as the “extermination of ethically inferior people.” Moreover, and from our perspective today virtually ridiculous, Lorenz proposed a positive selection for Anständigkeit (decency) and for the physical ideal of the ancient Greek. (As modern western “civilized” and Christian people, we applaud ourselves for having high ethical and moral standards, but what is the underlying goal of military, economic, and cultural invasion by any nation? It’s murder, rape and pillage – virtual extinction of peoples and cultures – on a massive industrial scale. “Democratization=Domestication” How many so-called primitive tribal people, religious minorities, and any “outgroup” that is labeled enemy, or any enemy at all is “cleansed” of its heritage, values beliefs and practices by military, social and corporate actions? Civilian casualties, millions of displaced refugees – hypocritically disguised as the inevitable consequence of the mysterious “fog of war.”)

By contrast, in his chapter on Psychologie und Stammesgeschichte (“psychology and epistemology”, first published in 1943) [19] Lorenz took over Arnold Gehlen’s idea that human beings were specialised in being non-specialised. Gehlen had acknowledged Bolk’s and Hilzheimer’s hypotheses as scientific proofs for his thesis of man as “Mängelwesen” (“deficient being”). Following Gehlen, Lorenz highlighted man’s lack of physiological specialisation while rejecting the hypothesis of deficiency. In contrast to his earlier exclusively negative approval, Lorenz now accepted the hypothesis of domestication-associated neoteny, which accounted for the positively asserted human “Weltoffenheit” (“cosmopolitanism”) and persisting explorative behaviour. This was new, since he now ascribed to neoteny a variety of human behavioural and psychological features in addition to his physical characteristics. Even in his later writings, however, Lorenz stuck to his culturally pessimistic attitude, while partially backing off from his writings during the Nazi regime.

Since the 1960s, both the foetalisation and the domestication hypotheses concerning humans have been refuted by various scientists. Starck (1962), for example, criticised that Bolk’s hypothesis had been so broadly accepted simply because the many problems of explaining human evolution could be resolved with apparent ease. According to Starck, hairlessness and the reduction of pigmentation of the skin (a geographic phenomen due to varying solar radiation) were more reliably explained by chance mutations rather than by foetalisation. Moreover, the retention of juvenile characters (i.e. neoteny) did not sufficiently explain the increased variation of traits under domestication [20]. In addition, Herre and Roehrs (1971) rejected the human self-domestication hypothesis for its lack of goal-directedness and artificial selection of traits; nor was there evidence for a “wild” ancestral human species from which a domesticated homo sapiens should have derived. They further argued that a reduction of instinctual patterns of behaviour in human beings could also better be explained by a more sophisticated cortical control rather than domestication [21]. (Objections based on the lack of scientific evidence at the time and the resistance to Homo sapiens the animal.)

As with many scientific ideas, these hypothesis of human self-domestication has recently been revived as a possible explanation of changes of human physical traits since the late Pleistocene changes include the reduction of body size and decrease in skeletal robusticity, modifications in cranial and dental features including reduction in cranial capacity, shortening of the facial region of the skull and maleruption of teeth, and reduction in sexual dimorphism. In contrast to earlier biological writings, other domestication-associated features observed in animals such as an increased variation in skin colour, increasing fat storage, earlier sexual maturation and activity, and reduction in motor activity are not discussed with respect to human self-domestication in recent accounts [1]. It is indeed plausible to assume that these changes could have taken place due to the creation of an artificially protective environment after humans adopted a more sedentary lifestyle in the Neolithic period, thereby relaxing natural selection pressures. (But! selection pressures changed and increased due to selection by a new urban and dietary environment that required behavioral and reproductive adaptation.  Reproduction became controlled by social customs, class barriers to reproduction partners, and selection of females for tameness.)

Similarly, the idea that foetalisation and domestication could be related has recently been highlighted in a seminal paper comparing anatomical features and behaviour of apes and humans [3]. The authors argue that changes in social structures of early humans, compared to our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee, could have favoured the selection against aggression, and that such selection was accompanied by a reduction of sexual dimorphism in humans and the retention of juvenile characteristics in body shape and behaviour. Interestingly, a parallel development has been proposed in the bonobo, which displays more neotenic physical features and is much less aggressive compared to the common chimpanzee [3].

From a biological perspective the greatest dispute with regard to physical changes in anatomically modern humans akin to domestication pertains to a slight but measurable decline of brain volume from around 1,400 cm3 to roughly 1,300 cm3, which could be interpreted in further support of the human self-domestication hypothesis. However, this decline in stature was accompanied by a reduction in body size such that the allometric brain-body relation remains unchanged [22]. In contrast to humans, domesticated animals show a large disproportionate decline of brain size by up to 30%, especially of the sensory perceptual centres, compared to their wild ancestral species, yet no such pronounced decline has convincingly been demonstrated in any human population.

We have a huge stumbling block in the investigation of self-domestication in humans: Which “human” is our wild ancestor?

Part 3 next…

How Animals Think / Review of Book by Frans de Waal

How Animals Think

A new look at what humans can learn from nonhuman minds

Alison Gopnik, The Atlantic 

Review of: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

By Frans de Waal / Norton

For 2,000 years, there was an intuitive, elegant, compelling picture of how the world worked. It was called “the ladder of nature.” In the canonical version, God was at the top, followed by angels, who were followed by humans. Then came the animals, starting with noble wild beasts and descending to domestic animals and insects. Human animals followed the scheme, too. Women ranked lower than men, and children were beneath them. The ladder of nature was a scientific picture, but it was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would have dominion over those lower down. (This view remains dominant in American thinking: “The Great Chain of Being” is still with us and underlies social reality)

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection delivered a serious blow to this conception. (Unless one denies evolution)  Natural selection is a blind historical process, stripped of moral hierarchy. A cockroach is just as well adapted to its environment as I am to mine. In fact, the bug may be better adapted—cockroaches have been around a lot longer than humans have, and may well survive after we are gone. But the very word evolution can imply a progression—New Agers talk about becoming “more evolved”—and in the 19th century, it was still common to translate evolutionary ideas into ladder-of-nature terms.


Modern biological science has in principle rejected the ladder of nature. But the intuitive picture is still powerful. In particular, the idea that children and nonhuman animals are lesser beings has been surprisingly persistent. Even scientists often act as if children and animals are defective adult humans, defined by the abilities we have and they don’t. Neuroscientists, for example, sometimes compare brain-damaged adults to children and animals.

We always should have been suspicious of this picture, but now we have no excuse for continuing with it. In the past 30 years, research has explored the distinctive ways in which children as well as animals think, and the discoveries deal the coup de grâce to the ladder of nature. (Not in psychology!)The primatologist Frans de Waal has been at the forefront of the animal research, and its most important public voice.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he makes a passionate and convincing case for the sophistication of nonhuman minds.

De Waal outlines both the exciting new results and the troubled history of the field. The study of animal minds was long divided between what are sometimes called “scoffers” and “boosters.” Scoffers refused to acknowledge that animals could think at all: Behaviorism—the idea that scientists shouldn’t talk about minds, only about stimuli and responses—stuck around in animal research long after it had been discredited in the rest of psychology. (Are you kidding? “Black Box” psychology is alive and well, especially in American education!) Boosters often relied on anecdotes and anthropomorphism instead of experiments. De Waal notes that there isn’t even a good general name for the new field of research. Animal cognition ignores the fact that humans are animals too. De Waal argues for evolutionary cognition instead.

Psychologists often assume that there is a special cognitive ability—a psychological secret sauce—that makes humans different from other animals. The list of candidates is long: tool use, cultural transmission, the ability to imagine the future or to understand other minds, and so on. But every one of these abilities shows up in at least some other species in at least some form. De Waal points out various examples, and there are many more. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. A few Japanese macaques learned to wash sweet potatoes and even to dip them in the sea to make them more salty, and passed that technique on to subsequent generations. Western scrub jays “cache”—they hide food for later use—and studies have shown that they anticipate what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that these human abilities also appear in other species. After all, the whole point of natural selection is that small variations among existing organisms can eventually give rise to new species. Our hands and hips and those of our primate relatives gradually diverged from the hands and hips of common ancestors. It’s not that we miraculously grew hands and hips and other animals didn’t. So why would we alone possess some distinctive cognitive skill that no other species has in any form?

De Waal explicitly rejects the idea that there is some hierarchy of cognitive abilities. (Thank-you!) Nevertheless, an implicit tension in his book shows just how seductive the ladder-of-nature view remains. Simply saying that the “lower” creatures share abilities with creatures once considered more advanced still suggests something like a ladder—it’s just that chimps or crows or children are higher up than we thought. So the summary of the research ends up being: We used to think that only adult humans could use tools/participate in culture/imagine the future/understand other minds, but actually chimpanzees/crows/toddlers can too. Much of de Waal’s book has this flavor, though I can’t really blame him, since developmental psychologists like me have been guilty of the same rhetoric.

As de Waal recognizes, a better way to think about other creatures would be to ask ourselves how different species have developed different kinds of minds to solve different adaptive problems. (And – How “different humans” have done, and continue to do, the same!) Surely the important question is not whether an octopus or a crow can do the same things a human can, but how those animals solve the cognitive problems they face, like how to imitate the sea floor or make a tool with their beak. Children and chimps and crows and octopuses are ultimately so interesting not because they are mini-mes, but because they are aliens—not because they are smart like us, but because they are smart in ways we haven’t even considered. All children, for example, pretend with a zeal that seems positively crazy; if we saw a grown-up act like every 3-year-old does, we would get him to check his meds. (WOW! Nasty comment!)

Sometimes studying those alien ways of knowing can illuminate adult-human cognition. Children’s pretend play may help us understand our adult taste for fiction. De Waal’s research provides another compelling example. We human beings tend to think that our social relationships are rooted in our perceptions, beliefs, and desires, and our understanding of the perceptions, beliefs, and desires of others—what psychologists call our “theory of mind.” (And yet horrible behavior toward other humans and animals demonstrates that AT BEST, this “mind-reading” simply makes humans better social manipulators and predators) human behavior our In the ’80s and ’90s, developmental psychologists, including me, showed that preschoolers and even infants understand minds apart from their own. But it was hard to show that other animals did the same. “Theory of mind” became a candidate for the special, uniquely human trick. (A social conceit)

Yet de Waal’s studies show that chimps possess a remarkably developed political intelligence—they are profoundly interested in figuring out social relationships such as status and alliances. (A primatologist friend told me that even before they could stand, the baby chimps he studied would use dominance displays to try to intimidate one another.) It turns out, as de Waal describes, that chimps do infer something about what other chimps see. But experimental studies also suggest that this happens only in a competitive political context. The evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare and his colleagues gave a subordinate chimp a choice between pieces of food that a dominant chimp had seen hidden and other pieces it had not seen hidden. The subordinate chimp, who watched all the hiding, stayed away from the food the dominant chimp had seen, but took the food it hadn’t seen. (A typical anecdotal factoid that proves nothing)

Anyone who has gone to an academic conference will recognize that we, too, are profoundly political creatures. We may say that we sign up because we’re eager to find out what our fellow Homo sapiens think, but we’re just as interested in who’s on top and where the alliances lie. Many of the political judgments we make there don’t have much to do with our theory of mind. We may defer to a celebrity-academic silverback even if we have no respect for his ideas. In Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet cares how people think, while Lady Catherine cares only about how powerful they are, but both characters are equally smart and equally human.

The challenge of studying creatures that are so different from us is to get into their heads.

Of course, we know that humans are political, but we still often assume that our political actions come from thinking about beliefs and desires. Even in election season we assume that voters figure out who will enact the policies they want, and we’re surprised when it turns out that they care more about who belongs to their group or who is the top dog. The chimps may give us an insight into a kind of sophisticated and abstract social cognition that is very different from theory of mind—an intuitive sociology rather than an intuitive psychology.

Until recently, however, there wasn’t much research into how humans develop and deploy this kind of political knowledge—a domain where other animals may be more cognitively attuned than we are. It may be that we understand the social world in terms of dominance and alliance, like chimps, but we’re just not usually as politically motivated as they are. (Obsession with social status is so pervasive, that it DISRUPTS neurotypical ability to function!) Instead of asking whether we have a better everyday theory of mind, we might wonder whether they have a better everyday theory of politics.

Thinking seriously about evolutionary cognition may also help us stop looking for a single magic ingredient that explains how human intelligence emerged. De Waal’s book inevitably raises a puzzling question. After all, I’m a modern adult human being, writing this essay surrounded by furniture, books, computers, art, and music—I really do live in a world that is profoundly different from the world of the most brilliant of bonobos. If primates have the same cognitive capacities we do, where do those differences come from?

The old evolutionary-psychology movement argued that we had very specific “modules,” special mental devices, that other primates didn’t have. But it’s far likelier that humans and other primates started out with relatively minor variations in more-general endowments and that those variations have been amplified over the millennia by feedback processes. For example, small initial differences in what biologists call “life history” can have big cumulative effects. Humans have a much longer childhood than other primates do. Young chimps gather as much food as they consume by the time they’re 5. Even in forager societies, human kids don’t do that until they’re 15. This makes being a human parent especially demanding. But it also gives human children much more time to learn—in particular, to learn from the previous generation. (If that generation is “messed up” to the point of incompetence, the advantage disappears and disaster results – which is what we see in the U.S. today). Other animals can absorb culture from their forebears too, like those macaques with their proto-Pringle salty potatoes. But they may have less opportunity and motivation to exercise these abilities than we do.

Even if the differences between us and our nearest animal relatives are quantitative rather than qualitative—a matter of dialing up some cognitive capacities and downplaying others—they can have a dramatic impact overall. A small variation in how much you rely on theory of mind to understand others as opposed to relying on a theory of status and alliances can exert a large influence in the long run of biological and cultural evolution.

Finally, de Waal’s book prompts some interesting questions about how emotion and reason mix in the scientific enterprise. The quest to understand the minds of animals and children has been a remarkable scientific success story. It inevitably has a moral, and even political, dimension as well. The challenge of studying creatures that are so different from us is to get into their heads, to imagine what it is like to be a bat or a bonobo or a baby. A tremendous amount of sheer scientific ingenuity is required to figure out how to ask animals or children what they think in their language instead of in ours.

At the same time, it also helps to have a sympathy for the creatures you study, a feeling that is not far removed from love. And this sympathy is bound to lead to indignation when those creatures are dismissed or diminished. That response certainly seems justified when you consider the havoc that the ladder-of-nature picture has wrought on the “lower” creatures. (Just ask ASD and Asperger children how devastating this lack of “empathy” on the part of the “helping, caring fixing” industry is.)

But does love lead us to the most-profound insights about another being, or the most-profound illusions? Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine would have differed on that too, and despite all our theory-of-mind brilliance, (sorry – that’s ridiculous optimism) we humans have yet to figure out when love enlightens and when it leads us astray. So we keep these emotions under wraps in our scientific papers, for good reason. Still, popular books are different, and both sympathy and indignation are in abundant supply in de Waal’s.

Perhaps the combination of scientific research and moral sentiment can point us to a different metaphor for our place in nature. Instead of a ladder, we could invoke the 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s web of life. We humans aren’t precariously balanced on the top rung looking down at the rest. (Tell that to all those EuroAmerican males who dictate socio-economic-scientific terms of “humans who count”) It’s more scientifically accurate, and more morally appealing, to say that we are just one strand in an intricate network of living things.

About the Author

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Days of Relief / Ignoring the Social Condemnation of Asperger’s

The past few days I’ve been ignoring Asperger’s, the “social disease” as characterized by psychologists (and their misuse of “neuroscience” to “prove” their ugly prejudices) because I decided to finally revamp my blog (formerly Some People are Lost – now Miss America Gone Wrong) and have been taken back in time to a productive period, when I began to discover myself as a person that I could like.

MAGW is important to me because it was written (1991-1992) when I didn’t know that the “condition” existed. Asperger’s was “created” around that time, and until very recently, females were excluded, mainly because male psychologists (and most males) dismiss females when it comes to “brain abilities” in engineering, math and the sciences. Women can be “biology types” because – they have uteruses. Ironically, most psychologists are female today, which is not a “compliment” to the field. Whenever a job category is overtaken by women, it means that the field has lost status and that the pay scale has dropped.

In 1991 I was in graduate school, serving time in the academic Gulag run by male assholes. It’s that simple. I finally and totally rebelled over bad treatment, and frankly, the overt hatred of females that I’d “put up with” my entire life.

When I googled “recent research” in Asperger’s this morning, the same old crap appeared – an onslaught of “studies” that claim to prove that Asperger people are robotic deviants; fictitious claims that the “bounty hunters” are closing in on the brain defects and genetic mistakes that make us social outcasts.

No one seems to even raise the question as to why being “hyposocial” and intelligent is considered to be a state of pathology – literally a “social crime” being misrepresented as biological pathology.

Why must each and every Asperger-type individual begin life as a “broken” human? And, once labeled, no matter how well we manage to survive in a hostile social environment, we can never prove that we are a legitimate type of Homo sapiens. We are guilty, and remain guilty of a social crime, without the opportunity to prove our status as “part of” our species. We are literally considered to be lower than chimps, monkeys, rats and mice on the mystical supernatural and magical “empathy scale” – which somehow is granted the “new definition” of what is “required” to be considered a “real” human being.

My “escape” from social tyranny twenty-six years ago was fueled by disgust –  I had no intention other than relief for a few weeks before I again would have to take on survival in “American social reality”.

Surprise! It was the happiest time in my life. I began to uncover the “me” that was buried under a lifetime of “being told who I was” – and I liked the person who began to be revealed as I left behind the social order that classifies, defines and injures human beings. The people I met were often in the “same boat” (or RV, tent or car) as myself: refugees from a cruel and unjust economic and social system that had kicked them to the curb – and declared them to have no value.

What is disturbing, is that this system has grown in strength and callous brutality  over the past three decades.






gONE fREE gONE wILD / New Blog

It was a chore, but I finally have a new blog for my travel journal in a new format that’s actually accessible and readable! The old version was Some People are Lost, which will disappear once I check for anything I’ve missed.)

And the journal has a new – old name. I had changed it because I thought that the first title – courtesy of a Texan who appears in a couple chapters – over-promised on what the content was like, but after so many years with the wrong title, I realized that he was not talking about the content, of which he had no knowledge, but he was referring to me. I think it’s an old Texas saying, but he applied it rightly, as only a Texan can.

It’s good to remember that I was thoroughly Asperger at the time, but utterly unaware of that situation.

Miss America Gone Wrong

“There She Goes”

It’s all there, but needs tweaking and illustrations.

I used to write prose / Inside out, and Outside in

img_0199fbSpent the day on my hands and knees stripping the kitchen floor of wax; don’t think I’ll ever do that again. Now it’s evening, and I pace that floor to the rhythm of worries financial. Tense, restless, wondering what is next, if anything, but more of the same. Caretaking; years pass, taking care of myself and a small house.

The dog comes in, wanting a walk; that’s how she takes care of me.

August is the time of weeds, town taken over, deserted; sci-fi post end-of-the-world deserted. We walk, the dog and I, through town; quiet beyond normal, normally quiet; our town is a rest stop in the wilderness. There are two wildernesses, one of man and one of nature, one inside and one outside: civilization lies somewhere east and west.


My house is barely a house – it supplies a hot shower, cooking stove, lights, doors and windows. The walls form a blow-through tunnel. Inside out, and outside in; sand, clay, leaves and footprints.

It’s a camp – an old lady camp, with a dry potted garden and laundry on the line; clothes burnt dry, smelling of ozone; the dog lies under the waves of fabric. Breathing dogs and blowing wind are the rhythm of my house. A barefoot house, winter and summer, my feet love my house.

The Road to My Father’s Death / RAW DAYS


Freedom is never free.

It’s more than a road that I follow to death’s door. Ahead lies night a continent across – a corridor of loneliness, of absence, and of terror that will return me to my father’s presence. How shall I conquer my own Dark Continent to be at his side, a frightened traveler who confronts an impossible journey, one that is tangled by the difficulties that complicate a personal and fond farewell?

Someone lend me an undivided heart to guide my actions, so that I may show those who attend him that his daughter has not turned out too badly. Let the darkness ahead yield its depth and fold a pocket in which to conceal a breaking heart. Then let my grief be sealed by time, as if there is no mystery to our departures.

My world was injured by driving east to Rawlins, Laramie, and the familiar streets of Cheyenne, where common sense asked me to stay the night, but ahead lay a spiral galaxy that turned toward my father’s death, and I must ride the circumference of that terrible disk in some way.

The truck sped beyond the border of Wyoming and into the Pine Bluffs of Nebraska, where we stopped at the first rest area. The dogs dragged me into the petrified blackness that was transparent to their senses, tugging me along the ghost trails of summer visitors, the dead grass sending aloft stale messages of happy journeys; family trips. The cold wind briefly chilled my fears of what lay within the night of the dark road, and we drove on.

One hundred miles farther we left the highway for the lights of a prairie town; its main street was as efficient as a rifle barrel and lined with cafes and comfortable motels where I might close my eyes to the nerve-wracking night, perhaps to awaken to the comfort of a blue and friendly morning, but I fed my fast food dinner to the dogs while pumping gas at a brightly-lit service station where young Friday-nighters were fueling their vehicles for fun. The black cold emptiness of the prairie was their arena: I was a stranger who counted the distance to my father’s death in gallons of gasoline.

By winter’s clock the terrible darkness was only a summer’s evening, but by my father’s way of thinking, rest was forbidden when so many miles could yet be taken up as if the truck were hauling in a rope that ended at his door. Suddenly, my head floated away over my right shoulder, tethered to the rest of me by the slightest will. Familiar furies escaped from the long-locked suitcase of former journeys and fear seeped in confusing colors between the cracks in my growing disarray. There it was – overwhelming panic and I knew that the road had closed for me as surely as if the highway had been ripped up by its roots.

Familiar Cheyenne was an easy two hours behind us, but it was a distance that seemed unreachable without the sight of the smooth prairie to channel my senses, which had become ungovernable in the claustrophobic night. At that moment I wanted to drive the entire distance home, passing Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins: a great distance with nothing but the cold dark and my anxiety to fill the space between sparse towns strung out along the interstate.

In night-abandoned Cheyenne I found a room with the indecent charm of an interrogation cell. A television set that hung from the ceiling by chains buzzed incessantly. A heater was stuck on cold, rattle, and blow. The dogs had to be dragged through the door, which was a threshold of terror for them also. After long minutes of hysteria, they crowded around me on the frigid bed, and I hung onto them through the night, paralyzed by my own stunning fear of the black road to my father’s death that waited outside.

In the early, early brightness, we fled. A minute’s delay might have broken my glassy hold on the steering wheel. Westward we fled, into the shining mountain plains of Wyoming, into a lens of the whitest fog that had engulfed the town of Laramie. The truck burrowed through that heavenly cloud; a brief journey through peace, but the phone call to my father’s death waited at home and the disgrace of my flight caused my heart to beat wretchedly.

Home: a slow and quiet Saturday afternoon. I ached to be invisible to my neighbors. I wanted to drive into the country where failure has no meaning, but I parked behind the house – a place of poor countenance – a yard of packed mud that somehow gives life to an old broken cottonwood. Why, out of all the miles of western brush and rock is this place home, when any scrap of earth could do as well?

It came to one moment on that dark road to my father’s death, when in panic I traveled the wrong way: not east, from Nebraska to Iowa and Illinois, but back to Wyoming, across the mystical, psychological, soul-bounding border of a hidden corner, to renew my exile in a waste of yellow rock and twisted board houses. None of this was new: I had come west, the wrong way from a daughter’s duty, many years before.

Knowledge folded over me as gentle truth. (Yes, the universe is gentle, eventually.) I hid in the house, hating winter’s early dark. The scene outdoors rippled with change as sunlight worked its way through empty snow clouds. The asphalt street glistened briefly. An old shoe that the dogs have worried to death, and an elk rack propped upright in a barren flowerbed, ought to have comforted me, but it was time to call my father.

His voice sounded oddly high-pitched and raspy, as if a little Egyptian mummy had taken his place. He began by recalling the age at which his father had succumbed, which was sixty-nine. At this far end of the lesson, his mind had returned to counting age in the way of a child and he noted that he had turned eighty-three and a half on Halloween. I wanted to say that eighty-four would come, but couldn’t. Instead I recounted my strange trip; the tide of panic, the terror that I might complete my own journey of death, which had begun five years before. He agreed, but without evident emotion, that I had done well to turn back. Perhaps he had come to expect disappointment from me, but he said that he was glad that I was home and safe and not playing again with chance on that dark road. It was unthinkable to turn around in the night, away from my father’s death, but I had.

Some quiet devil within wanted to know why he didn’t beg me to come home, to share his last dark night, as a daughter should, but he transferred the phone to my brother, who barely disguised his relief at my failure to appear, letting me know how unimportant to him that I had become. Something like a gravity wave passed through my pain, making concrete the fact that my behavior had often been irresponsible. Not in advance, but in retreat, lay progress.

Last night my father was moved into a nursing wing of the hospital. He described the room as being empty except for a hospital bed and a television set, which he complained was too loud.

“I don’t know where your brother is today,” he said. “He’s all upset again.”

“Over money.” I said. My parents had always funded him: I knew that there would be a wretched mess over that later.

“Yes,” he said.

We talked about the coming week, about his treatment schedule and when he might go home. The ability to walk unaided has become an important chimera, but he’s grateful for not being in pain, radiation treatments having knocked back a tumor that encroached on his spine. His raspy voice unsettled me – what is the cause? But the cause is that he is very ill.

His beard has grown too long to shave it by himself, he said. A nurse popped in just then to give him a wash up, which cut our visit short. An image lingered after I hung up the phone, of a cheerful young woman carrying a basin of water as if entering a temple. How has it come to pass that a stranger is more intimate with my father than I have been? Shouldn’t the Good Daughter serve at his bedside, my children gathered like birds in my skirts, to show him, and the world, that life goes on? But I have created no such family, no best accomplishment. Neither has my brother. Crazy ends here.

At the end our relationship was no little different than it had been during the years that we had traded the rinds of our minds over telephones scattered around the West, linked to the one in his kitchen, exchanging factoids about automobile maintenance, home repair, and amazing artifacts from the sciences, so I made a point of thanking him for moving the family in the 1950s to a suburb of Chicago, where my brother and I had access to good schools.

“Growing up where we did provided a foundation for my life that wasn’t only practical, but…”

“Spiritual,” he rasped.

As far as I could remember, my father had not uttered this word ever, but it was apt, coming from the man who had taught me that there is something outside the human ego that must be acknowledged as preceding us and outlasting us. A shared reverence for nature’s depths had helped two damaged people fumble toward love. My mother and brother were alien beings who existed outside reason and were therefore, dangerous.

Compelled by an obsession to make something useful out of everything, I had studied the two as if they were rogue planets, convinced that one more observation might bring them into the realm of order, but nothing is ever solved. People just pass away.


I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote this, but today I see AS as the primary ground of my “differentness”. I believe that many Asberger symptoms are the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”

My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, refused treatment, and lived with our parents, who enabled his paranoia and protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened, and let him abuse me, as well as adding dashes of abuse of their own, so I stayed away for years at a time.

I didn’t piece together until much later that my father was an “obvious” Asperger – and that I was also, which eventually led to a diagnosis. This revelation explained so much about my childhood that was inexplicable, tellingly, that I understood intuitively that my father’s “odd behavior” was familiar, and yet, it wasn’t. I was aware that my behavior was “out of sync” and constantly pursued the subject; my family didn’t seem to have a scrap of insight. This bizarre situation became a lifelong laboratory that helped to develop my thinking skills.

Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder and decoder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanied my daring escape.




At my father’s house in Illinois / RAW DAYS


At My Father’s House in Illinois

I am accustomed to writing about landscape, but at present the internal picture takes precedence. The outer view encompasses a gray-skied, bare-treed, cold and windy Midwestern midwinter day. Longing overwhelms my inner state and I am thankful that the land is bleak. A blue sky over red cliffs, shadowed hills, or a dark, abrupt mountain side might provoke an unbearable contrast to the lock that despair has placed on my heart.

A fir tree composed of a gently curving trunk, its branches resembling dogs’ tails, stands in front of my truck. I start the engine periodically and slide the heater lever far to the right to counter cold air that sinks through the windows. My brother paces outside, indifferent to the cold. He is not lazy per se, but for some reason he is not productive either, expending energy on the complications that can be made to adhere to any project, and in the process, derailing his efforts into lost canyons. I confess that this compulsion baffles me. A monthly flea market located west of Chicago attracts thousands of buyers, come rain, snow, or as we have joked, nuclear attack, but my brother will not sell there.  He mentioned a dealer with whom he had a disagreement of some sort, hinting that the man had stalked him afterward: that is, he showed up at the same place once or twice. This was years ago, but he will not sell at that market.

Today we have dragged a trailer load of goods to the parking lot of an antiques store, the same store my brother refused to venture into last week. He sent me instead, carrying a box of things to sell. The owner was not in. I waited for an hour, passing the time by dusting egg cups and figurines, and straightening doilies.

My brother urged me to repeat the effort some days later, but I declined. Surprisingly, and to his profit, he went himself, but last night he refused to attend an auction that this same store owner frequents.

I look through the windshield at the gray Illinois sky to where my brother leans against the flank of my truck. Rotund and nearly fifty, with a gray knit cap squashed over his forehead, his greasy black hair straggling from beneath it, he wears a surplus parka with a rip in the sleeve and many stains on the front. He tilts his face toward the dark snow-spitting sky, and I notice that his eyeglasses are dirty, too. He smiles at me and I smile at him. Two people could not be more unalike, but nevertheless, we are family.

Winter’s box besets my father’s house. Barricaded by black trees, it is impossible for me to know what transpires in the larger world. A storm cloaked northern Illinois with ice during the night, and a thick skin mimics the shape of my truck. A red concrete goose, a lost daughter of Juno’s flock, is stationed at the entry to the house; she acquires a mantle of white wood ash that drifts above the sidewalk. The source is a trowel held in my father’s hand.

Last night my brother scrubbed the kitchen floor and I swept the porch. My father knows that we’ll track the mess inside, and yet he shakes the ashes onto the walk like some medicine man describing a chant.

A patch of blue sky can be seen for the first time in days, just above the tangled black oaks growing at the edge of the lot. A small forest begins there, dense and unlovely, like lines of type overprinted by a printer that is stuck. When I was nine years old my father ditched his mother and sister as if they were nothing. The shock of this event caused me to flee to the perimeter of the Garden, but his harsh judgment of the women followed me there, worn into my thoughts like hollows in the rocks beneath a waterfall. My father taught me that contrary to Christian conceit, it is not a supernatural Father that picks and chooses who among us shall suffer, but our earthly one.

Spring ought to have made gains, but the days remain gray and ice-sheathed. Without notice, something sharp and cautionary breaks through. Impulses one could call manic threaten the compliant and silent demeanor I have cultivated these many weeks. Happy hysteria is feared and yet longed for; the green brightness within has become something to withhold – a peculiar, protective, irrational impulse in someone who badly needs a lift.

Tiles fall away from a tub surround that is black in places with mold. Chunks of plaster tumble into the tub. I shower anyway, feeling a shadow of guilt by doing this healthy and normal thing. According to my father and brother, my insistence on bathing is ruining the tub enclosure; the extra and unneeded water will hasten the rot. The two calculate that by not bathing they can delay making repairs indefinitely. I recall seeing my brother with damp hair on two occasions; my father never, but he hasn’t much hair.

My father cuts deadfall with a chainsaw this morning. The branches are about three inches in diameter. He cuts enough to fill the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, and then rolls it up the lawn to the screened porch, which is sealed by plastic sheets that remain in summer. Unavailable as a bug-free haven, the space is reserved for makeshift stacks of scrap wood, which he loads into the fireplace day and night, winter and summer, like bodies into a crematorium. It is my observation that neither the heat gained, nor the life of the flames, propel what he calls recycling.

Broken pallets and dismembered furniture, roof shingles and plastic are burned as a sacrifice to the darker purpose of being perverse for perversity’s sake: he punishes the air we breath in order to punish us. The abundant deadfall is the result of my father’s indifference to the health of the trees on his lot, which are not trimmed, shaped, sprayed, or removed when dead. Infested branches plummet audibly to the ground. Several metal rods dot the yard, each with a rusted can balanced on top, marking where volunteer trees grew long ago from the seeds of a rotted hickory. My father marked them in this way in order to avoid mowing them down. He may have done so anyway: regardless, they died. I offered to remove the rods and cans that remain, but was forbidden to do so.

We never mention my mother, but I thought of her tonight as I plucked giant yellow tulips from the yard in front of my father’s house. The tulips grow in the lawn along a line that marks a relict garden, which is why I thought of my mother. It was only to remark how she would have liked to see the flowers, but as they were before she died, when the lawn was mowed, the beds were readied for planting, and weeds were kept at bay. A section of sidewalk has subsided so that a fault scarp, as well as a pair of overturned urns, must be negotiated on the way to the door. Next to the stoop, a crater of unknown origin is being colonized by bright cones of convallaria that erupt through ferns that lie brown and prostrate as if blown down by an explosion. We never mention my mother, as if there had always been just the three of us.

My brother and I searched the yard for scrap materials to build flower boxes – anything to focus my attention. Our contact over the last three months has been like that of wild animals forced to drink from the same small water hole. At one point I looked at him and wondered, What’s wrong with clean clothes, a hair cut, and polished eyeglasses? Just then a spasmodic cough overcame him: I turned to face a giant pear tree dressed in thousands of fragrant white blossoms. Where did this apparition of life, this white tower of profuse flowers come from in such a place?

My brother halted every few feet on his way to the house to bend over and cough. Whatever is wrong with him, it is none of my business, although if he were an acquaintance or a stranger, I would ask. His health is yet another part of the family’s world from which I am excluded, a world where nothing is open to discussion.

The drive home from town lends a reprieve when the highway crosses a valley edged by low glacial ridges. The view ahead clears and the sight of a narrow asphalt thread snaking eastward toward my father’s house reminds me of roads that cross western plains. The rolling gray road lets me know that I belong to the universe, not to my family nor to anyone else.

My existence tears and flutters like tissue, and yet I survive. Last night I checked inside, looked into the goo that resides at the bottom of the well. The stuff began to rise like a gas bubble in heavy oil and strange things appeared as it broke the surface; bouquets of sea creatures appeared black and metallic, and yet glinted with color. A nuclear wind reduced me to a crouching corpse transformed into a lump of ash. I breathed a short gasping breath. Someone spoke and I was encouraged: my father entered the room where I cowered in bed.

“I’m in bad shape,” I told him, a confession of weakness that pegged me as the perfect audience for a monologue about what a clever lad he had been. The man possesses a remarkable memory for data such as the height of the fence posts at his childhood home, or the dimensions of a boat that he constructed as a boy, but he can’t recall that I’m staying at his house because I’m quite ill. Despair overcame me as he droned on, but the ordeal helped to pass the time.

Days slide underfoot, passed from front to back like buckets of debris in a rescue brigade; my days are wasted in the knowledge of the Gothic cathedral and its chain of souls, the apex of daring among men and women who imagined heaven as an experience. Love comes to me in post cards of traveling stones and earthbound sagebrush, of grassy islands in the dust, of seed wands that nod beneath boiling clouds.

On the morning that I didn’t leave my father’s house for the 5th, 6th, or  7th time, I can’t remember which, the air was cold and the sun was shining. The rumble of a prop plane carried into my escape pod, a travel trailer parked in front of a shed nearer to the road than to the house. The dogs lay with me on top of an electric blanket, unaware of the journey that they would miss that day. I was sick with confusion, cigarettes, and self-hatred and I wanted to lie in bed until I died. I lit another cigarette and tried to imagine that the three of us were parked along a clear stream a thousand miles west. Soon I must go up to the house: hunger and humiliation called. I closed my eyes and sought relief in the warm blanket, but the airplane circled and my stomach dipped and dived with it.

“You are a coward,” my throbbing head observed. Two days earlier I had informed my father and brother that I must leave: this was true. My confidence slipped as I spoke, but having declared that I was leaving, I had to. My father reacted as if I were planning a vacation; he brought a dusty bundle of fishing rods up from the basement. He looked as if he would cry. I felt dismal, and worse, I felt my strength and resolve dissolve.

I didn’t have the courage to leave this morning, but went up to the house and drank three cups of coffee, saying things like, “I hate myself,” which I did.

My father said to me what he used to say when my mother was ‘blubbering’ over something: “Quit getting all worked up.” He still doesn’t know that lamentation is the result of distress, not its cause.

“It’s good that I’m crying – I haven’t cried for ten terrible months,” I said.

Signs of life were brief, so it was out to the trailer and back to bed, the aluminum hull a serving as a second skull that protected me from whatever would happen next. The sun went down and I walked back to my father’s house like a shipwreck unwilling to let go of her leaky raft despite having washed up on a beach.

The day that I left my father’s house, my destination was a motel a mere eight miles away, a small affair attached to a dairy farm. A German shepherd met me inside the office, so I was encouraged that my dogs might be welcome.

I returned to my father’s house to tell him what I’d done. He may have been upset; it was hard to tell. He was likely thinking that it was a fool thing to do when I already had a roof over my head. The empty motel called to my confused grasp on the idea of salvation, but I spent one more night at my father’s house, gathering some clothing and a box of food.

In the afternoon I left for the motel, but the room seemed ugly and smelled like vomit. Feeling silly, I asked the manager to move. The new room proved to be warmer in color, the carpet was newer, and the room didn’t smell, but I panicked around dinner time  and felt ridiculous.

The next morning I didn’t feel well, but this had been going on for months, so I did what I’d done every morning: brushed my teeth, showered, dried my hair and dressed, then pulled on rubber boots. It had snowed overnight and a drift blocked my truck. Two orange shovels leaned on the wall by the office door, but no one was about. There was nothing to do but dig in. Eventually the owner joined me.

“That shovel you’ve got doesn’t work too well,” he said. We kept digging until the truck was free.

I drove to a coffee shop and surprised myself by eating a plate of eggs, hash browns, and toast, with three cups of coffee. Encouraged, I drove to my father’s house where I discovered that whoever had plowed the driveway had also piled the snow in front of my trailer.

The dogs burst into the yard when I opened the truck door, running circles around the big oak trees and plowing trails through the snow with their noses. No one was at home: the house felt less awful now that I no longer lived there, but I crept around like a thief collecting shampoo and a scarf, my electric teakettle and mouthwash.

Back at the motel I felt all right, perhaps relaxed. That night I lay sleepless as the curious situation played on my mind: eight miles from my father’s house and homeless. What did that mean? Was I capable of hooking up the trailer and driving away? If so, where would I go and what would I do when I got there? Could I pull off my own rescue without ambition or desire?

On the second morning after I left my father’s house, I began removing the snow that blocked my trailer. The plow had scraped leaves and gravel into the pile, and the resulting melange was difficult to dissect. My father came out to see what I was up to: an irritable comment escaped my lips.

On the third day after I left my father’s house, I didn’t go there.

On the fourth day it was time to finish off the snow that barricaded my trailer, since more bad weather was predicted. My father again appeared, this time carrying a garden shovel. He jabbed at the snow and leaves looking for an entry, then mumbled something about his failure to dispose of the snow pile for me.

“Don’t help her!” My brother shouted as he emerged from the house. He pushed past me, as if I was no more alive and present than a concrete statue. “This doesn’t concern us,” he added. No surprise, but why antagonize me now, when I would soon be out of his way?

“I didn’t ask for help,” I said. This brought a vicious reprimand from him, so I called him a jerk. He countered by hurling grudges from the stockpile of warheads he keeps armed like a Russian who aches to launch a few missiles, for old time’s sake.

Our father stood aside like a wounded sack of coal, passively sanctioning the bullying initiated by my mother and perpetuated by my brother. When I was a child there had been no escape, unless turning into a nervous wreck is a form of refuge.

“I’m leaving for Wyoming,” I told my father. That was the last time I saw either one of them.


raw days editThis piece is from RAW DAYS, a book about being bipolar.

I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote it, and now I see AS is the primary ground of my “differentness” with bipolar symptoms the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”

My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, and refused treatment. He lived with our parents, who protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened and let him abuse me, so I stayed away for years at a time.

Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanies my daring escape.