Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reading 1984: I was Julia

Look, at this point I'm considering changing my byline to the nickname "Trigger Warning Mickey" because of the way I write. I'm discussing deeply personal wounds on this blog, and exploring their impact on the universal human experience in my fiction. Assume that my life so far comes with a trigger warning for everything.

This post is a direct follow-up to my previous 1984 post, "Facecrime". It builds on the ideas established in the previous post, and it takes into account some extra points made by other bloggers. A full table of contents for the 1984 posts done here and the contributions by others follows the post.

I think that it's fairly natural to assume that most people who have read this book have identified with Winston Smith. That's the point of making him the protagonist, after all--to move him front-and-center, to make his emotions the ones we filter this world through, and to help us identify with his humanity. When I was younger, I always self-identified with Winston as I read. His attempts to throw off the ideological chains that bound him while evading the very-real chains he knew would bind him in the future were the prism through which I felt the oppression of Big Brother and the terror of the Thought Police.

Except, not really. While I identified with Winston during my reading of the book, I identified with the idea of constant surveillance, constant interrogation of my motives, and an authority figure that existed to impose its interpretations of my behavior on me because that's the way that teachers and parental figures in my life acted. I could not write a silly nonsense rhyme because I enjoyed echolalia, even when the words had no intrinsic meaning together. I had to be trying to say something. If any of the words happened to be critical or negative, I had to be saying something about my parents. I had to know the reasons why I was saying these things, because my mother or father would ask me.

If I said "I don't know", then they would either accuse me of lying or they would explain the many ways that acting without thinking would lead me to hurt others. It was always implied that I probably had hurt others and that they just didn't know about it.*

1984 was just someone explaining the way the world works to me. There was no point in trying to change it--if the people in charge listened to me, then there would be no problem. The only way to carve out a space for myself was to assume their constancy and protect myself against them. This is why I say that Orwell might have intended us to identify with Winston, but the fact is that I was Julia.

You wanted a good time; 'they', meaning the Party, wanted to keep you from having it; you broke the rules as best you could. She seemed to think it was just as natural that 'they' would want to rob you of your pleasures as that you should want to avoid being caught. She hated the Party, and said so in the crudest words, but she made no general criticism of it. Except where it touched upon her life, she had no interest in Party doctrine... Any kind of organized revolt against the Party, which was bound to be a failure, struck her as stupid. The clever thing was to break the rules and stay alive all the same. (p. 137-8)
This isn't to say that I am disappointed in my own behavior during my youth. This is to say that Julia, and not Winston, is the product of being immersed in an environment of total control from birth forwards. I was always destined to be Julia--I could not have been Winston. To be Winston, one has to have the concept of a different way of being (or at least, one has to believe one has the concept, but that's for a different post). Julia is the natural state of being for those of us who were never taught the possibility of anything else, and who refused to believe it when others told us about it.

While this leads to both a kind of learned helplessness and a channeled rebellion that focuses more on getting what one wants out of life instead of focusing on true autonomy, it is possible to be happy in this situation. When you're on the inside of it, the 'Party's' demands become environmental, and they don't really affect your emotional makeup any more than living in an earthquake-prone region does. You know there are
hazards there, you know what they are, and you prepare for them. You also take it for granted that sometimes, things just go wrong.

It is very possible to believe that you have a great degree of freedom under these rules, because a large number of the things you wish to do are still available for you. For instance, despite the rules against them, I was able to: get away with watching R-rated movies, keep a small collection of Playboy photos, steal my dad's soda, and even (eventually) raid the liquor cabinet without detection. If I questioned the reality of the Catholic god, then I was punished, both by being insulted ("when you get older you'll realize how stupid you're being") and by actual punishment as if I had broken a household rule. If I defied the rules in front of my parents, I was punished (ex: cussing). If, however, I was content not to cause them problems and not to question the rightness of their ideas, then there was a great deal of freedom available to me.

That is, I was free to do so until they decided otherwise. Eventually, the other foot would fall and they would retaliate in an indirect and devastating way, such as by bringing up my 'fascination' with girls of late at a family gathering, and laughing while discussing the minute details of my recent bodily changes with relatives in the extended family that I was not close with. Or by loudly discussing in the car "when the boy will start to care whether his clothes match or not" while I was in the back seat.

Being discussed, particularly with strangers, while they refused to acknowledge I was in the room, was my "secret weakness" that was used to keep me terrified enough to admit that 2+2 = 5. In the book, we find out that Winson's secret is the rat cage. We never get to know Julia's.

There are some ways in which the constant, looming terror of being totally devastated without notice becomes liberating, though. For example, when you believe that the people in charge might just be moved to punish you for no reason, there's no reason to obey them. Obedience only matters when you're seeking to gain positive recognition or when you're trying to avoid negative recognition.

You also find yourself in a position to acknowledge their madness even though you can't imagine living without it.
In some ways, she was far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda. Once when he happened in some connection to mention the war against Eurasia, she startled him by saying casually that in her opinion the war was not happening. The rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceana itself, 'just to keep people frightened'... She also stirred a sort of envy in him by telling him that during the Two Minutes Hate her great difficulty was to avoid bursting out laughing... Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simple because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her. (p. 160)
In a situation where your level of comfort, your emotional security, and your privacy are totally up to the whims of an unpredictable and, if not malicious, certainly callous authority, why should truth and falsehood matter? What did it matter if I actually had a moment of incontinence when I was eight or not? Discussing with my aunt the wet spot and speculating that I might be starting to ejaculate at a very young age (because I had no accidents for several years before this) while I'm listening will have the same effect either way. It's still humiliating.

One can know that everything one hears is a lie and still have to cling to it, because the consequences of the lie are themselves real, and the transmutation of reality that occurs because of it still affects one's life. In fact, eventually it ceases to matter whether you really forgot to do a chore or not. Eventually, knowing that whatever happens, you will be enduring an hour long tirade for forgetting to do a chore leads to simply choosing to do no chores. The result is the same either way.

They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. (p. 163)
*Remember, I was (to the best of my own knowledge) undiagnosed as a child. These tactics were simply my parents' natural approach to raising a child who acted like me, and not part of an over-arching immersive behavior modification campaign. I believe that such programs are just as harmful as my experience, though, when they seek to replicate this level of control and they are conducted with similar disregard to the consent of the child.

(I will also note that my mother described my father to me a couple of years ago as someone who "is stuck entirely in behavioral psychology. He's not smart enough to realize that most of the reason he doesn't get what he wants is because cognitive psychology is a better tool." I was not yet diagnosed when she said this, and would not be for another year or so after she said it. This is leading me to question the "you're gifted, you don't have a learning disability or anything like that, your brother does" narrative of my formative years.)

Previous posts in this series (most recent to least):
Yes, That Too... - 1984 and... Neurodiversity? (Updated to remove the senior paper, it was not written from a neurodiversity perspective.)
That Autistic that Newtown Forgot - The Truths in Silence and the Lies Loudly Spoken
Shaping Clay - Facecrime