dear benedict cumberbatch

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.30.03 AM

{Image is a screenshot of Diary’s Facebook post on Friday night. It reads “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine. – Alan Turing in The Imitation Game}

Dear Mr. Cumberbatch,

Firstly, do you mind if I call you Benedict? I’m just not a particularly formal kind of gal and it feels a little odd to refer to someone younger than myself as “Mr.”

Before we get into the purpose of my letter, I wanted to say I’m sorry about the Oscars. I’d say that you were robbed, and in any other year I’m sure that would be true, but, let’s be honest, Eddie’s Hawking was, well, Jesus, even Hawking confused him with Hawking. Tough break, that.

Anyway, I suppose I should start with an introduction. My name is Jess. I write a blog called Diary of a Mom, which is precisely what it sounds like. To be clear though, it’s evolved into a bit more than just a diary. You see, my younger daughter, to whom I refer as Brooke on the blog, is autistic. And because of that I’ve become something of an accidental advocate for not just my own family, but those like my younger daughter. It happens. You start seeing the world differently when you love someone who, well, sees the world differently. And then, gradually, you realize that you now have a responsibility to call the world out on some of its more damaging misperceptions of difference. Lydia Brown, who is autistic, quotes Arundhati Roy in the masthead of her blog. She says, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” That’s pretty much what I’m trying to say.

My older daughter, Katie and I went to see The Imitation Game the other night. It was utterly brilliant. Your performance in it was stunning. I actually want to say that it was heartbreakingly brilliant, but I just used the word brilliant, and that would be crap writing. But brilliant really is the only word that does it justice.

Katie is a big fan of Sherlock, so it was actually you who drove her to want to see the film. She adores you. Has a thing for the Brits, that one. For my part, I was thrilled that my thirteen year-old daughter wanted to see something historical rather than one of the dystopian teenage nightmares in which children are divided into factions or pitted against one another for the entertainment of the capitol of which she’s so fond. That’s not to say that World War II wasn’t a dystopian teenage nightmare in which children were divided into factions and pitted against one another for the entertainment of the capitol, but, well, oy.

We loved the film. Katie cried for nearly an hour after the credits rolled. She was aghast and heartbroken that Alan Turing’s life ended the way that it did. She was, like you, horrified that homosexuality was so recently a prosecutable offense. She was angry that such incredible genius was lost to society’s fear of difference.

You see, fear of difference is something that she understands. Her sister is different. Her sister is misunderstood. Her sister is dismissed in myriad ways every single day because people are afraid or unable or unwilling to look beyond what they believe must be wrong. Because we still seem to believe that difference is wrong. That it is to be feared.

This is why I write. To prove what so many, Thank God, now take for granted about homosexuality – that it is not a disease to be cured or a perversion for which one should be imprisoned but that it is a difference to be accepted and even, dare I say, celebrated – is also true about neurodivergence. The parallel is desperately imperfect to be sure as homosexuality, though still sometimes societally debilitating, is not an intrinsic disability, while autism is. But nonetheless, it makes for a reasonably useful vehicle for understanding the social movement of the latter.

Even before we’d left the theater the other night, I’d begun googling that one line from the film, repeated again and again:

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

That line spoke so deeply to me. It means so much to the mother of a child whose very humanity is so easily dismissed by others simply because it tends to be expressed atypically.

My friend Barb is autistic. While nonverbal, she found her voice through typing. She describes herself as “disguised as a poor thinker.” As much as I hate that truth, I love her expression of it. The people no one imagines anything of might be awkward schoolboys, women in the 1940s, homosexuals throughout history, or perhaps, those disguised as poor thinkers.

About a quarter of the way through the Imitation Game, I leaned over to Katie and whispered, “Asperger’s?” she nodded. While her sister’s autism manifests itself very differently from Asperger’s, there is still a familial connection, if you will. She recognizes folks like Alan, as different as they may be from her in so many ways, as part of her tribe, and therefore, Katie and I do the same by extension. Her family is ours.

On Saturday, I mentioned to an autistic friend that we’d seen and loved the film. “I heard it was interesting,” she said. “It’s a shame that he said what he did about autism.”

So I googled. And this was what I found.

 “I don’t think he was on the spectrum,” you said. “I think a lot of people are very lazy with that. I think it’s a really dangerous thing to toy with that. People talk about me doing that quite a lot and that being a good thing for people who are on the spectrum, which is great. But I don’t go into a job going, ‘Is this autism? Is this Asperger’s? Is this some other form of slight learning difficulty or disability?’ I’m very wary of that, because I’ve met people with those conditions. It’s a real struggle all the time. Then these people pop up in my work and they’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it.”

Source

Your words made my heart hurt. Not because you were crushing my “false hope” for my daughter, but because you were, in one fell swoop, dismissing the possibility that she very well might be challenged AND sort of brilliant.

My daughter does struggle. So does Barb. So do many of our friends, both speaking and non. None struggle more than those who have yet to find a reciprocal method of communication. I appreciate you acknowledging the hard stuff. It’s important to understand that autism comes with very real challenges. And yet, they still might do great things.

Barb’s is not an easy path. She’ll be the first to tell you that she requires a great deal of help with nearly every facet of self-care. And yet she is one of the brightest, most articulate human beings I know. In fact, though it took her ten long years of typing one damned letter at a time, she wrote a incredible, life changing book. Something I dare say no one could have imagined. She also co-founded a production company and has a radio show. Yes, a nonspeaking woman has a radio show. I highly recommend it, in fact. It’s called Loud Mute Radio, because, of course. My daughter is only eleven, so her CV is a little lighter than Barb’s, but she’s certainly done an awful lot that no one would have imagined. She learned to read, to write, to play a clarinet. Things that no one would have thought possible for the little girl who chased cobwebs and spoke only by parroting back what she’d just heard.

The irony sears my soul when the man whom I just watched say, Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine, then essentially says, “Except the ones who struggle. If you’re looking for brilliance there, you’re fueling false hope.”

Ouch.

Seeing what is possible takes work. Digging below the surface, peeling off layer after layer of our own prejudices and assumptions is not easy stuff. But it’s absolutely vital if we are to not just recognize one another’s potential in the future, but one another’s humanity in the moment. My daughter is challenged. That is incontrovertible. To also call her brilliant isn’t false hope, it’s reality. To say that the two are mutually exclusive is, well, what was the word you used? Lazy.

Please dig deeper, Benedict. It matters so much.

If you’d like to talk more, or meet my daughter*, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Her reality, while challenging, is sort of brilliant.

Warmly,

Jess

* Katie asked me to add “either one of them, because Katie is a HUGE fan of yours.

17 thoughts on “dear benedict cumberbatch

  1. Just…these words…I cannot speak/write how they touch. I hope, somehow, he reads this…and learns…and cares. From an old lady who has learned to “get it” from your words and those of your compatriots. Thank you.

  2. You said beautifully what my mind couldn’t find the words for. I have so much trouble finding the words to respectfully refute the misguided words of others and you do so wonderfully. Thank you.

  3. it’s nice of him to play autistic characters…win accolades and awards for doing so…then casually belittle autistics. i don’t really understand the motivation for saying some experiences offer “false hope”, that was a real gut punch to read. if i were to write a letter, i would point out that autism is a spectrum…and different experiences on the spectrum are not mutually exclusive…there’s room for all of the stories, they don’t cancel one another out. the idea of “false hope” doesn’t really make a lot of sense, given what we now know about the spectrum. it was just something he said to belittle certain experiences…for reasons i’ll never really understand.

  4. As someone who has aspergers, I found it upsetting when I first read this some months ago, because he was basically saying my struggles don’t count because I’m not as severe as some of the more non verbal autistics.

    Aspergers is not a slight disability (and by definition cannot be a learning difficulty, do your research before speaking benedict), anyone who has lived with aspergers knows that it is very difficult indeed.

    Apparently his opinions are based on two visits to a home for institutionalised severe autistics. So he only ever saw the worst side of autism, and is now dismissive of people like me because my struggles don’t matter compared to theirs (sound familiar?).

    Just because we have learned to cope does not make our lives any easier. You might as well say that someone who is blind but can navigate the world with perfection is not disabled either (nope, they may cope well, but they are still blind!).

    Brooke is just as capable of brilliant things as I am of struggling with every day life. I don’t see brooke and others like her as poor broken children needing pity, but as equals who just need to communicate differently, and whom I resonate with because they are on the same wavelength.

  5. I think we all tend to develop an opinion of something based on our limited experience base, without knowing maybe that it is limited. Autism is such a large spectrum and people that have only been exposed to small portions of said spectrum define autism in their own mind within those limits. That is the beauty of your letter and your advocacy. You are challenging people to see the broad and full spectrum.

    I hope that Mr. Cumberbatch is open to having his personal definition expanded and to seeing the full beauty that complements the challenges of autism. My son is high functioning autistic with what is considered a gifted IQ. He struggles daily, but that does not change that he is brilliant. And the idea that one day he can find a meaningful use of his brilliance despite his struggles is not false hope. It is hope. And I do hope that one day more people can appreciate his quirky, socially challenged personality and see the good heart and intelligence that lies beneath.

    (And this is not to say autistic individuals without a gifted IQ have less to offer. They all have so much to contribute. I just thought it was relevant since he seems to imply that an autistic individual cannot be brilliant.)

    Thanks Jess.

  6. Thank you Jess. Not just for this letter but for all the times you push us and the world to see that “competence” is not all there is to look for in those that are different. Brilliance is just as likely to be there – smothering, not under their challenges but under OUR prejudice and assumptions. I so love that you said that. I’d like to meet you about as much as Katie would Benedict Cumberbatch I dare say.

    Graham Hanks May I quote you sir? Your comments are awesome as well.

  7. I wonder if he could have meant, in a clumsy way, that assuming all those with autism are Rainman-like savants is damaging in its own way. I’ve heard well meaning people tell the parents of severely autistic children, “Well, he’ll probably be a scientist or a mathematician because, of course, he’s a genius!” Although I agree that every child is brilliant in their own way (I have 2 little wonders of my own) not every child with autism is going to solve quadratic equations by age 4. This stereotype is just as scary to me as many of the others I hear regularly. I don’t need my daughter with autism, or the one without, to be geniuses for me to be dazzled by their accomplishments. I just need them to be themselves.

  8. I got a similar vibe as lovelylacy10. We don’t know what kind of stuff has been thrown at him about this. And there is SO much of the Rainman/Savant/Sheldon stereotype out there – when most autistic people – just like non-autistic people – are just average. We’re NOT going to be Turing, or Einstein, or whatever. We don’t have the potential to be.

    We – all of us – DO have the potential to be our best selves – and that’s the tough part for people to get who haven’t found the neurodiversity/presume-competence mindset.

    Those of us who have found the neurodiversity path have a different awareness that most people DON’T have. We’re lucky – and they are – when they find it/figure it out, but the path to it isn’t clearly lit. And there’s so much baggage attached to autism – especially when there are great challenges that sometimes come with it – that people who need the path aren’t willing-or able to take it.

    It’s tough to balance on that line of defensiveness and desire to educate sometimes.

    • i agree with this in some ways. but i still have trouble with how he talks about autism.

      if you hear him speak about it he usually seems to be getting at the savant stereotype which is harmful and I’m glad people speak against it.

      even though he comes off as dismissing peoples potential i dont think thats how it is meant (i could be wrong)

      but i have problems with that too.

      turing isnt a made up character, he is real, and many of his problems can be tyed to autism

      (i am not going to say he definitly is but people cant say he definitly isnt either since he is dead at this point and he hasnt looked into it in his life.)

      dismissing autistic peoples problems with autism because they have been successful in one way or another, in my experience, is also very harmful.

      it has happened to me, i’m not a savant, and it happens to others (and even savants often also have trouble in other areas)

      but it hurts people who have worked hard to overcome problems in some areas, or who dont have an ID, or who dont have a specific problem other autistic people do, or who dont “seem autistic”

      hope that makes sense

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