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21: April 2, 2009


“Maybe If I Don't Blink, My Eyes Will Tear Up”




The concept of insensitivity in the clinical sense of the word—a deadness to human emotion—has been creeping into my pop culture diet of late.

Actually it was a year ago that I read Born on a Blue Day by high-functioning autistic savant Daniel Tammet, but I perused it anew while cleaning the office the other day. The anecdotes through which Tammet reveals his special abilities strike the reader as incredible but, at the same time, eminently believable owing to the matter-of-fact way that they are laid out by someone literally incapable of deception or exaggeration. As I have pointed out with characteristic panache, a truth-telling memoirist is hard to come by these days, and for me Tammet’s tales ring truer than those of Burroughs, Sedaris, or Frey. (Or those of Muggins, for that matter.)

For all his amazing achievements (reciting the value of pi from memory to the 22,514th digit; learning Icelandic in one week), I was more intrigued by the things that this surprisingly articulate young man can’t do, or at least does only with considerable difficulty. Though socially competent enough to travel abroad and teach English (!) and maintain a romantic relationship, he had to learn how, and when, to smile. It doesn’t come naturally to him. He must constantly refer to memorized cues in order to arrive at the realization that “this is a situation where the people around me expect me to smile,” and then force his facial muscles to create a completely artificial Boehner-esque grin. (Watch him unleash it on David Letterman in this interview.)

Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, being an android, does not smile at all. (Well, except when his programming goes haywire…or ancient quasi-Egyptian deities take possession of his body…or any number of other ludicrous scenarios that the writers had to concoct, one suspects, for the purpose of humoring the actor Brent Spiner’s desire to exercise his range after four seasons of Keanu-esque blank staring.) That program happens to come on cable just as I’m sitting down to dinner on weeknights. It’s an agreeable old show that doesn’t require one’s full attention to enjoy, and of course Marina Sirtis’s cleavage serves as a scientifically certified digestive aid so long as one is not lactose intolerant, so I tune in.

Data, as you’ll recall, is written as a riff on the Pinocchio fable: the artificial boy who wants to become real. He schools himself in such human tendencies as sarcasm and deception (things that Tammet can hardly grasp), and tries to understand emotion by keeping a cat, activating a program that allows him to dream, and even creating a doomed daughter from his own neural net.

Not likely to do any of these things if he can help it is the title character of Showtime’s Dexter, which I like to watch on weekends while slowly murdering my brain. I’ve just finished the first season. (Of Dexter, that is; the murdering of my brain is in its thirty-fourth season with no signs of imminent cancellation.) Dexter is the most compelling character I’ve run across in a television series in recent memory. (Of course, “recent memory” isn’t saying much, when you’ve been getting drunk every weekend for decades.) I identify strongly with Dexter. In case you didn’t know, Dexter is a serial killer.

Actually he works as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami PD by day, and the serial killing is sort of a sideline. Via flashbacks we learn that he was rescued from a horrific crime scene at the age of three by a police officer named Harry who then adopted him.

Harry recognizes his foster son’s murderous tendencies early on and teaches him to channel his insuperable urges toward those who deserve it. Earlier in the flashbacks, before the killer instinct emerges, we get snapshots of Harry coping with Dexter’s emotional deadness. Like Tammet, Dexter needs to be taught how and when to smile—for example, during family photo ops. He’s oblivious to the pretty girl who hints that she wants to be invited to a school dance until Harry clues him in and encourages him to attend, if only to “blend in” and “look normal.”

Present-day Dexter has carefully cultivated his ideal girlfriend, the wife of an imprisoned junkie who frequently beat and raped her, thus guaranteeing that she will place no demands for physical intimacy of him. Meanwhile, the emotional part of intimacy he can fake just well enough to get by. It’s while watching Terms of Endearment with his blubbering girlfriend that Dexter internally makes the observation I have quoted in the title, and if that doesn’t clarify why I love this show then I’ll tell you about my favorite scene.

Dexter decides to execute a husband-wife team of human traffickers. He has them strapped to a table side by side in his plastic-coated chamber. Realizing that there is no escape, the victims attempt to hold hands and pledge their eternal love. Curious, Dexter calls a time out and asks them to explain how they have managed to forge such a strong emotional bond. (Their answer, almost in unison: “We want the same things.”) Then he shrugs, revs up his power tools, and gets to work.

For all the enjoyment that I have gleaned from the book and the two series cited above, there’s a too-close-for-comfort element mixed into my attraction to Daniel, Data, and Dexter.

Commenting on the suicide of David Foster Wallace last year, someone somewhere online (I can’t find the article now) stated that all good writers are social failures. I took immediate offense at that qualifying “good,” because I think the characterization is just as true of us mediocrities. There is something inherently wrong with a person who can spend literally thousands of hours over the course of four years honing every sentence of a book that fast readers will dispose of in two hours, and that’s true regardless of whether or not the end product is “good.” Those thousands of hours are hours that the author, if a normal person, would have spent interacting with other humans instead of tapping away at his keyboard behind closed curtains.

Here’s a personal example of what “social failure” looks like up close: Some time ago, through Save the Children, I “adopted” a child in the Philippines. Money to support her and her family is charged to my credit card every month. I’m telling you this not to prove what a heckuva guy I am, but just the opposite.

I was sitting around with a hangover one day when it occurred to me that most people of my age and income give more of themselves to their communities and to the world at large than I do. And while the bulk of human emotions go way over my head, the competitive instinct isn’t one of them.

So I sat there feeling defeated and girding myself to do something about it. I came to the realization based on experience that this impulse would soon pass—that at best I’d knock out some random, isolated act of forced kindness and then ball myself back up into my cocoon of selfishness. So I went to Save the Children and set up the automatic monthly contribution, thereby forcing myself to be (superficially, at least) a “good person” once a month even when I don’t feel like being one.

Every once in a while I get a cute letter from this ten-year-old Filipina, telling me about her neighborhood or her dog, and I always have to stop and think—Wait, who is this chick?—before it comes back to me. I do write replies, of course, but always do so on the edge of panic. I have no sense of what is appropriate in this sort of relationship. When she tells me how much she likes school, I’m tempted to write something like “Way to go! Way to reduce your odds of getting sold into prostitution!” until realizing that that would probably raise a red flag to whoever screens the children's mail. I suppose I muddle through well enough, because the cute letters keep coming in.

Unlike Daniel, I can recite pi to all of five places. Unlike Data, I don’t have superhuman strength or a positronic brain capable of sixty trillion operations per second. And unlike Dexter, I’d have no idea how to dispose of a body leaving no traceable evidence behind. But when it comes to being hapless at human interaction, to lacking any kind of instinct as to how to please others—well, I could go toe to toe with any of those three.

It wasn’t always this way. To be sure, I’ve always been a bit slow in picking up on the feelings of others, but back in the twentieth century I was, if nothing else, very much in touch with my own, and could often be seen crying at the ends of movies. Not Terms of Endearment to be sure, but I was bawling like the proverbial baby at the end of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut when the topless cartoon angels opened the Pearly Gates and finally let Kenny into Heaven. (Oh, stop sniggering. You cried, too..)

But shortly after that movie’s 1999 release, my life spiraled out of control in ways that I have already described ad nauseum, and upon emerging from a major breakdown I came to a conscious conclusion that writing about life would be much less dangerous than living it--and anyway, there simply isn't enough time to do both. Consequently, I don’t cry at movies or at anything else now. I’ve willed myself into a Dexter.

No love for non-homicidal freaks like me, I suppose.