I went to a psychologist one time and said, “I don’t have body language.” We spent about four years hashing that one out.
One time she asked if we could talk about my gait. She said, “When you walk, your arms never move.” And they don’t, they just hang there like pointless, arm-shaped curtains.
Generally, I told the psychologist, my limbs feel odd, disconnected. “The truth is that I don’t feel like I’m really here, in the same world with everyone else. It feels more like I’ve been ineptly superimposed over a photograph that everyone else is in.”
The psychologist thought that one over. She said she wondered if there was a connection between my gait and limb discomfort and the lack of body language. She asked if I knew anything about proprioception- the brain’s ability to spatially track where the body/limbs are located at any given time.
I shrugged. I didn’t know about it. She talked about proprioception, the vestibular system, about the brain’s constant processing and integrating of the data they provide.
She added that there was not a lot of research about the interplay between autism and proprioception. I told her that that was okay. My limbs just feel lost…like someone else’s shadow…that’s probably all I need to know.
She nodded. Then we just drank coffee for awhile and thought about stuff.
The sense of physical disconnection can make it difficult to feel a persistent sense of self.
Which is a problem: if you have trouble defining a baseline self and you don’t know why…you don’t lack for theories. Our brains are interpretive machines…in the absence of understanding, the resulting void will be filled with metaphors, myths, theories and so on.
We make sense of ourselves. Sometimes in creative ways. Sometimes in ways that are destructive, that lead us astray.
When I was in 5th grade, a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I replied, “A movie projector”.
She thought about it, then asked/corrected, “You mean projectionist?”
“No,” I said, “Like the machine. A movie projector.”
She smiled blankly and said, “Well then…” and walked away.
I didn’t get to tell her that I was already turning into a machine. The projector thing…it was less of a desire and more of a prediction.
I had been trying to understand how my mind worked. I looked at other kids; they didn’t seem anything like me, so there were no clues there. (They liked popular cartoons and the confusing rituals of group play. I liked staring at doorknobs and reading in the dark until my eyes hurt. Seemed pretty obvious: they were the weird ones.)
The only frame of reference that made any sense was a movie projector. I did not feel like any one thing or person…I felt like a blank fabric. And somewhere, some lantern played with lights, illuminated the fabric; the lights were selves that appeared and flickered out. Selves undulating, gone.
To me, the world felt real. I could see it, touch it. But my self had no substance; my body was strange. It was all blankness and lights and candle-flame textures. As I pieced together theories about the nature of my self, I increasingly heard a sound; it filled my mind and was maybe an answer.
A projector, spinning, clicking.
When I was 15, I turned into something else all together.
The thing is, I didn’t know that I lacked body language. No one ever told me. The people in my life thought I was shy, still. And this was the rural south in the 80s…people just weren’t talking about social milestones and non-verbal communication.
But one day, I saw it for myself. I don’t know why this moment happened…it just did. It was an unexpected transformation; think Paul, Damascus, fish scales, etc.
10th grade. It was time for lunch. I walked into the cafeteria. Some days, I did not eat…did not feel like cramming into a table and weathering the social misery. It was a day like that. I just leaned against a wall and tried to mentally shut down.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the cafeteria full of students, sitting at their tables. I noticed how much movement there was. People gesturing, nodding heads, pointing…it was like watching the effects of wind on a field of tall grass.
Then I looked at people more directly…tried to count how many students were sitting, yet continuing to move. The answer: all of them. Every person in the room was using body language. And for some reason, that is when I understood what “body language” signified…it wasn’t just a phrase; it was literally a form of communication. All that movement meant something. Obvious to others. A revelation to me.
It was striking to see it…students talking, moving…simultaneously, collectively. It was all so interconnected that it looked more like the room itself was speaking, with everyone in it subjugated to a secret language. The people vowels, their movements syllables.
Tumblers in the lock of my mind spun, opening new paths.
Really seeing body language for the first time: a profoundly hurtful moment. The realization both of its existence and that I had been missing out on it for so long…it hit hard. Discovery and loss, all at once.
So, I began a project. I worked on trying to memorize the body language of others. I watched their movements, then surreptitiously practiced them; always alone, sometimes in front of mirrors. Only when I felt that a gesture was ready would I work it into a real conversation.
Research, practice, memorization. I observed, then puppeted my body through interactions.
The movie projector was out.
The marionette was in.
It was the new way of understanding myself; a life on invisible strings.
Maybe this is connected? I don’t know.
I’m not able to remember what I look like. My body feels near but not attached to me, so it’s hard to pin down any consistent impressions about it.
As a kid, forgetting what I looked like made for a confusing experience. Mirrors would surprise the crap out of me, catch me off guard. “Gah! Oh…me? That’s me. Right?”
Sometimes I would stare at myself, try to memorize nose- and eye-shapes, try to commit it all to memory. It never took. The second I walked away from the mirror, I was back to my blank fabric self.
Today, as an adult, it’s not as confusing. I’m used to it. I see my reflection and think, “Oh. That guy.”
a projector, a puppet…she says “proprioception”
I say, “blankness, spinning, candle-flame textures”
the mind, the body…
kindred strangers, lost in the play of lights