In time, Simone became a strict conformist, a rule-keeper: “I had made a definite metamorphosis into a good little girl… I had composed the personality I wished to present to the world; it had brought me so much praise and so many great satisfactions that I had finished by identifying myself with the character I had built up… I no longer upset the grown-ups with turbulent outbursts of rage…” This was a more mature way to handle her anxiety: moving past violent reactions, she determined that if she observed both rules and received wisdom scrupulously, she would avoid trouble and win approval.
One example of conscientiousness, efficiency, was valorized throughout their home, especially by her mother (more on her later). Simone found it quite natural and fitting as an ideal for life and even play. For example, for a time, she so completely covered her school notebooks with writing that the nuns asked her mother if she had “a mean streak”. Examples in play included playing shipwreck survivors on a deserted island or besieged defenders of a fort: both scenarios were enjoyed because they ignited in her a parsimonious delight of using every resource completely.
Rigid Social Interaction
Like many autistic children, rigid thinking affected not only how she played, but also her views of those who played differently (and, in turn, their views of her): “Despising other girls who played with their dolls in what seemed to us a silly way, my sister and I had our own particular way of treating our dolls; they could speak and reason, they lived at the same rate, and in the same rhythm as ourselves, growing older by 24 hours every day: they were our doubles… As the perfect mother of an exemplary little girl, providing her with an ideal education from which she drew the maximum of profit, I made good the shortcomings of my daily existence under the guise of necessity.“
This underlay her visible autism: “I even tended to look upon myself, at least from the childhood level, as the One and Only. Of a sociable disposition, I took pleasure in associating with certain little girls of my acquaintance… But in general I hadn’t the slightest respect for any of my little friends, whether boys or girls. I demanded that our play should be in dead earnest, with precise observance of all the rules, and that victory should be bitterly fought for and hardly won; my sister was equal to these exigencies; but the usually ineffectual playfulness and fundamental lack of seriousness of my other partners always exasperated me. I suppose that on the other hand I must often have taxed them beyond all endurance…
One day, seeing me coming across the playground, a little girl flapped her right hand under her chin in an expressive gesture: ‘Oh, it’s her again! She gets my goat!’ This little girl was ugly, stupid, and wore spectacles: I was rather surprised at her outburst but was unable to feel any great annoyance.
Another day we went out to the suburbs to visit some friends of my parents whose children had a croquet set. …all through lunch during the afternoon walk with my parents’ friends and children I kept talking about croquet. I was itching to play. The other children complained to my sister: ‘She gets on our nerves with all that talk about how good she is at croquet!’ When my sister repeated this to me later that evening, I greeted the information with complete indifference. I could not possibly be hurt by stupid children who demonstrated their inferiority by not liking croquet as passionately as I did. Entrenched in our own preferences, our manias, our principles, and our own particular set of values, my sister and I conspired to condemn the silliness of other children….
During my first eight years, I knew only one child for whom I had any respect…“
From this, it can be seen that while she took pleasure in being with other children, she could not bring herself to respect them, since they failed to share her “fundamental seriousness”. There was a mutual sorting in their interactions which lead to a proud isolation on her part and a revulsion of her on theirs.
Earnest and Formal
Around age 9, Simone became acquainted with “Zaza”, the girl who would be her best friend into adulthood. Zaza served as a foil to much of Simone’s personality: “…although her marks were not as good as mine, her free and easy attitude to her work gave it an indefinable quality which mine lacked, despite or perhaps because of my assiduity. She was said to have ‘personality’: that was her supreme advantage. She would often draw parallels between her nonchalance and my earnestness, her defects to my perfections, which she liked to poke fun at. I was not spared her sarcasm. ‘I have no personality,’ I would sadly tell myself.” Even though Zaza was her closest friend, “…my relationship with her remain somewhat stiff and formal: there were no kisses, no friendly thumps on the back; we continue to address one another as ‘vous’, and we were reserved in our speech.“
At a crossroads of doubt once over expressing her feelings of deep concern for Zaza, Simone wrote that she felt “held back by that fear of ridicule that had paralyzed my childhood.” Either through inexperience or because of incomplete processing of social experiences, autistic people often do not know how to respond as expected. Ambiguous situations may make them uneasy, causing them to resort to the more explicit rules of polite behavior.
Slow Emotional Processing
Simone was quite taken with Zaza, but was unclear about her own feelings about her new best friend: “I did not immediately consider what place this friendship had in my life; I was still not much cleverer than I was as a baby at realizing what was going on inside me. I had been brought up to equate appearances with reality; I had not learned to examine what was concealed behind conventions of speech and action. It went without saying that I had the tenderest affection for all the members of my family, including even my most distant cousins. For my parents and sister I felt love, a word that covered everything. Nuances and fluctuations of feeling had no claim to existence in my world. Zaza was my best friend: and that was all. In a well-regulated human heart friendship occupies an honorable position, but it has neither the mysterious splendor of love, nor the sacred dignity of filial devotion. I never called this hierarchy of the emotions into question.”
These feelings had an unexpected effect upon her at the start of the new school year: though she felt the usual build up of excitement, when the term began, “..the classes bored me; I learnt my lessons and did my homework joylessly… my life was dull and monotonous. I had everything, yet my hands were empty. I was walking…and I suddenly asked myself the agonizing question: ‘What is happening to me? Is this what my life is to be? Nothing more? And will it always be like this, always?’ The idea of living through an infinity of days, weeks, months, and years that were void of hope completely took my breath away: it was as if, without any warning, the whole world had died. But I was unable to give a name to this distress either.
For ten to fifteen days I dragged myself somehow, on legs that seemed as weak as water, from hour to hour, from day to day.
One afternoon I was taking my things off in the cloakroom at school when Zaza came up to me. We began to talk, to relate various things that had happened to us, and to comment on them: my tongue was suddenly loosened, and a thousand bright suns began blazing in my breast; radiant with happiness, I told myself: ‘That’s what was wrong; I needed Zaza!’ So total had been my ignorance of the workings of the heart that I hadn’t thought of telling myself: ‘I miss her.’ I needed her presence to realize how much I needed her. This was a blinding revelation. All at once, conventions, routines, and the careful categorizing of emotions were swept away and I was overwhelmed by a flood of feeling that had no place in any code. I allowed myself to be uplifted by that wave of joy which went on mounting inside me, as violent and fresh as a waterfalling cataract, as naked, beautiful, and bare as a granite cliff.“
Simone seems to have been affected by alexithymia, a common difficulty with emotional discernment in autism. Just as she was unable to give a name to her feelings, the word “alexithymia” means “no words“. It did not mean that no emotions were felt, merely that they were vague and overwhelming for a time. Slow or incomplete emotional processing can contribute to an apparent lack of emotion found in many autistics.
Due to the amount of material related to autistic traits in Simone’s later childhood, the next article will include more material from this period as well as material from her adolescence. Come back next week to read more.