Impressions on the Mask as a Metaphor

Because I am autistic but did not know that until I was 30, I had to learn to compensate.1 I had learned as a child and teenager how to suppress symptoms and grit my teeth through problems and build workarounds so that I could act mostly neurotypical; moreover, I had learned all of this without knowing that that is what I was learning. Either this process was wholly unconscious or else I attributed it to the regular learning curve of a somewhat awkward teenager from a rural elementary school suddenly cast into a townie high school. But where I learned these social skills passably well in high school, I learned them very well in customer service jobs. I am now very good at the point-of-sale and tour guide personality performance; I have had coworkers call me charming and employers rely on me for impressing visiting dignitaries. It is a performance, though, that I turn on and off. I think many people in customer service do this. I suspect far fewer people in customer service also use their “customer service face,” as I call it, in almost all social encounters. I do.

anifrD

“Mask” by Philippe Gillotte at flic.kr/p/anifrD

I have seen other late-diagnosis autistic people on Twitter call these compensations a mask, and that is a good description. Lately I noticed that two of my previous posts here on Accidental Shelf-Browsing have a mask metaphor in so central a place that I used a photograph of a mask as one of its images: the first pertains, by way of William Blake, to the way that all self-expression creates an imperfect persona that is not identical to who we are, while the second pertains to my personal sense of inadequacy and the brazen colossus within which I find myself trapped. Is this preoccupation with masks a consequence of the fact that, in order to function in neurotypical society, I have had to live under one for my entire life? Of course, I still stand by the claim that all self-expression creates a “self” distinct from the person who created it, that for each Borges there is another Borges. But it is possible that most people take their masks off from time to time whereas, since I only recently learned that I wore a mask at all, I haven’t the slightest idea how.

At Queen’s University, my alma mater, there is a Creative Writing program consisting of four seminar-workshops, in all of which I enrolled. For the final course I workshopped a poem called “My Lady Mandeville,” which I have since posted (with embarrassing commentary) here.2 In my view this was some of my bravest writing, dealing not with my past but with my present. And although my classmates commented on this, one who has read my work over multiple courses said she was still waiting for me to just let loose with my writing, that that was something she really wanted to see.3 And here I thought I had let loose! I thought that this is what that was!

I suspect I still don’t know how to take off the mask. I don’t know how to stop pretending to be neurotypical. Is it possible for me to learn to live without this mask? I don’t know. Maybe the mask has just grown on; maybe there is no longer any way to take it off. It is still a mask, though. It is still a foreign substance in a foreign shape that I have brought into myself.

Perhaps that’s true of everyone. Psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche claimed that our subconscious is created by our exposure, as infants, to the sexuality expressed by the adults around us which we were incapable of understanding. He calls this content which we could not parse the enigmatic signifier, and all of our other repressed experiences are organized in our subconscious around this initial mysterious content. Although I am not a Laplanchean and doubt the primacy of some subconscious to our sexaulity, and the primacy of our sexuality to all our psychic life, I must say I am convinced by the notion that our psyches are at least partially organized around our response, as infants, to a world we did not understand. That is to say, each of us is built around a kernel of foreign material.

Still, I think the experiences of those neurodivergent people who had to learn to pass as neurotypical (pass so deeply that we even passed to ourselves, that is) is different: it is not a foreign kernel but more like sets of foreign vises, binding and contorting us. I am not sure. What I can say is this: what I have now come to believe I experience, and what others with late diagnoses of autism have said they experience, does not seem quite identical to the way that all of us have formed identities in response to external phenomena. It may be a while yet before I can better articulate what the differences may be.

But perhaps there are family resemblances. W. Paul Jones said of people who live in what he designates as the third theological world (of the five he identified) that they often fear moments when their masks slip, not because something terrible is beneath the mask but because there is nothing beneath the mask at all. Up until this sentence I did not think I was part of this theological world; immediately upon reading this sentence, I knew without a doubt I was. Now that I have come to realize that I am autistic, and that I have read about the experiences of other late-diagnosis autistic folk, I can see why. It is not that I am concerned that what lies beneath the mask would not be accepted by neurotypical people, but rather that I haven’t any idea what lies beneath the mask in the first place. Is it even sensible, at this point, to suppose there is something that would remain if the mask slipped? Is there enough “me” that is independent of the mask that there would be a “me” at all if I removed it?

(Presumably there would be; I have noticed that I do not emote “correctly,” showing the sort of responses that I think would most facilitate the social encounter rather than showing responses which correspond more exactly to what I feel. However, there is also a sense in which I do feel what I emote, at least until the social encounter ends, where the causal order appears to begin with what kind of emoting would best facilitate the interaction and ends with feeling appropriately. And yet in no way is this the entire story, because I am less able to do this when I am tired.)

Jones’ point, though, is that many people feel this way, or something like this way. Socialization compresses and deforms all sorts of people, especially the marginalized. There might be other reasons people put on masks and other reasons some of those people forget that it was a mask at all and never learn to take it off.

I don’t at this point know what to do with this set of observations. I have seen on Twitter that some autistic people with late diagnoses feel liberated after unlearning their workarounds. Maybe this is a possible future for me. It does not feel like it could be. What could I do so I could discover how to remove the mask? If I do not remove the mask, what options remain for me?


  1. I am using identity-first language here because that is the preference of most autism activists I read online and because I am aware of and agree with the arguments that disability activists use for identity-first language for disabilities, which I think can be correctly extended to neurodivergence.
  2. Early on I was quite uninformed about the publishing industry and had not seriously considered submitting work for publication and so, quite unwisely, I put most of my best writing on the Internet, making it much harder to publish it traditionally after that.
  3. That classmate was Anna Maxymiw, if I remember correctly; she has a memoir called Dirty Work coming out in May. Natalie Morrill was also in that class, and her first novel, The Ghost Keeper, came out last year.

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