“Situations I can’t control and events I can’t predict confuse me, whether they are negative or positive” Laura James
Book Review by Kimberly Gerry Tucker of Odd Girl Out by Laura James (2018, Seal Press, Hachette Book Group)
Reading excites neural pathways, heightens connectivity in the left temporal cortex, and lessens my insomnia.
It’s escapism too; and it’s a part of my routine that not even a pandemic can ruin. I believe there is a great-granny of the earth, who will take up her mending and stitch up the chaos. She will shake her head woefully and put things to right, as she puts all the bad people in a corner and tells them to think about what they have done and how they can effect change to make it better. And so here is my review of Laura James’ book Odd Girl Out, which is one of the books I’ve escaped to; during this strange time in history.
“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are,” Mason Cooley
As a child, Laura saw books as offering a blueprint as to how people behave; preferring books about people who inhabit a landscape she can understand… about people who live lives not so dissimilar to her own. Books offered clues how not to be seen as odd.
Odd Girl Out is not a blueprint on how not to appear odd, rather it is a dawning acknowledgement of true self, in all its perceived “oddness.” I once did a digital ‘painting’ of my present self, hugging my child self, and that image came to mind reading this book. The adjectives in this book’s title say it all- odd, female, autistic.
Even original minds try hard to conform to society’s ‘norms;’ more-so when you’re an autistic person, perhaps doubly so if you’re an autistic female. As a teen, Laura mimics, hides differences, tries to blend in. She studies other girls’ likes and dislikes; makes them her own. She studies girls’ mannerisms; adopts their tastes.
Like Laura, I too sometimes wonder looking back, “what is borrowed and what is authentically me?” This is cognitive dissonance. When a person holds several contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; and participates in an action that goes against one of them, they can experience stress because of that.
This book is not a page-turning drama full of unbelievable plot twists. What it is, is an honest account from the perspective of a woman who freely addresses the way in which she experiences the big emotions, like love for example. This frightens her and she asks herself- Is she missing out on something? Does she love properly? How can we be sure we all feel love the same way? (I asked my self these very things last week.)
Laura James is a journalist. She shares about a moment on a train when a man picks up a copy of the Telegraph. There’s an article inside with Laura’s ‘coming out as autistic’ article; an article she wrote as a way of reaching other autistic women so they would not feel as alone; a piece written as a way of telling people about her diagnosis in one public fell swoop, rather than having to explain to individual people over and over again. I had a similar moment when a man picked up a copy of a magazine in a doctor’s office waiting room; a magazine containing an article about my experiences as an autistic woman.
Laura wonders, as did I, when the man flips to her article, will he read with interest, or will he flick past, writing it off as a woman’s piece? Will he glance up and recognize her? Which is the better scenario?
I noticed my face smiling while reading this next part, about Laura’s stay in a hospital and the young woman whose job it was to accompany her to surgery: “The girl driving my bed is too chatty. They always ask the same questions. Do you have children? is the opener for women of my age, apparently… small talk kills me.” Such as it is for so many of us. The salves used as healing balm for one aspect of the population (i.e. small talk used as comfort) does not have the soothing effect on all of society. It can have the reverse feeling on some of us.
Laura writes openly about the confusing identity-shaking starkness of ‘empty nest,’ a time in life when we are no longer raising children. This is something that affects a lot of us, male or female (but especially female) and whether we are autistic or not. But as an autistic person, big feelings are especially hard to process, and as I have empty nest too, I get it. Laura says that she wishes we all lived in a world where we all went along on a straight emotional line, muted and never feeling too strongly. The reality is, we don’t.
With quotes and insights throughout the book from autism authors and professionals, the book makes for an informative read on the differences between autistic males and autistic females. Here is a quote from Sarah Wild: “It’s common for Aspie girls to refuse to argue and to not be able to deal with any difficulties in relationships or friendships… they can’t address the difficulties as they can’t control the outcome. They don’t know if the relationship will still be there after an argument.”
Laura’s relationship with Tim is so much like my own relationship(s). Laura doesn’t like or even understand “screaming rows” where couples rant and shout, only to “make up” later. Bad feelings are hard enough to process, why “ride roller coasters” of emotion in relationships? Laura feels that her part in the relationship is to “offer a smooth ride.” I know that role.
I think the great-granny of the earth puts truths before us and we must be open to seeing them. I did not open this book as a means of self-enquiry. Nevertheless, personal spiritual journeys are complicated. An impactful thing I took away from Odd Girl Out, took me a long time to process. To my surprise, my cheeks were wet with spilled tears as I read it. I will keep that truth to myself and my hope is that you will read this book too, and find your own take-away. I think the author is refreshingly self-aware, gifted with insight into what some neurotypical people might describe as baffling, but people like me, find affirming. Maybe something will resonate strongly with you as well.
If you are autistic and read this book, you may well relate. If you are not autistic, then perhaps you will understand what it is like to be an outlier dot on the spot chart of life; a bit further out and apart than the main regression line. Well, in data analytics, outliers play their own unique and important roles. It is important to remember that.
Like Laura, I have uneven skills; I am confused a lot more than I let on, I adapt my personal environment to set me up for comfort and personal successes. I push my comfort zones and often I too read about people who are living lives not too dissimilar from my own.
We all have our own versions of gray sweaters. I declare this book pinked. (Those last two statements are good things; and you will have to read Odd Girl Out to know what they mean).
Review by Kimberly Gerry Tucker, Art of Autism board member, artist, and author of Under The Banana Moon (living, loving, loss and aspergers/selective mutism).