The Ballad of Reading Eyal (et. al. in a hospital waiting room)

[Finally feel well enough to think and write again; this post contains brief discussions of surgery under the read-more.]

In 2000, when I was a small autistic boy with a bowl cut, I underwent surgery at a local hospital to attempt to correct strabismus. Those of you who are familiar with the string of adjectives I often use to describe myself know that this surgery was unsuccessful; I remain, as ever, an “autistic transfem guilty professional computer toucher with dark wavy hair and strabismus.” Evidently, I’m far from alone in that, though it would have surprised the hell out of me to know that when I was riding back to the operating room in a little red wagon, clutching a plush mouse for dear life.

It’s 2022, a week ago. My spouse needs a tonsillectomy in the middle of a pandemic that has left hospitals threadbare and medical professionals fatigued beyond safe limits. Once more, I am in the same hospital, in the same pre-op alcove as I was two decades ago, albeit this time as a mere spectator. Yesterday, my role was to sit, wait, and try not to panic as knives danced around my spouse’s throat. Naturally, in the aid of that effort, I decided to do some light reading: Gil Eyal’s The Autism Matrix, an attempt to apply the tools of anthropology and sociology to the history and consequences of autism as a diagnostic category.

As the hours wore on, after we had to return due to near-immediate uncontrollable bleeding, one train of thought crowded out the others: if the link between my autisticness and my strabismus actually exists — and everything, from the existing literature; to knowing other autists with strabismus; to the fact that my own strabismus returned after surgery but never progressed beyond its present state, tells me such a link does — could we say I went under the knife because I’m autistic, and with the express goal of making me less visibly so? To be fair, this is a deliberately uncharitable reading of my medical history; my mother never had any desire to make me a normal child, and honestly always behaved as though she was relieved I wasn’t. I also can’t deny the pressure she faced from the pedagogical, psychiatric and medical fields during my childhood to render me more normal; it’s possible to read the decision to operate in this case as a kind of concession to that pressure.

But all of this presupposes that in 1999 and 2000, the autism-strabismus link was understood, or taken seriously; that one of the above-linked articles has Bernard “Chelation” Rimland as coauthor leads me to hesitate myself, and I’m pinning this entire discussion on the existence of the link he notes. In terms of actual fact, I just had a series of eye exams, an irregularity was identified, an attempt to correct it was made, that attempt failed, and now I have strabismus. It’s easier to treat this whole train of thought as a cautionary tale about the limits of introspection — with or without the aid of critical theory. At some point, one learns at the end of such a tale, the absence of care and detachment leads us to critiquing shadows, to tilting at windmills and falling off a cliff.

And yet I cannot escape the emotional weight of having beenĀ worked upon, for the first time in a long history, in that hospital, in the same rooms in which I sat, in the name of amelioriating a fault that, in time, my body reinscribed with defiant vigor.

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