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Making it: IV
You can run with the wolves, or run with the hounds
This forms part of an occasional series on succeeding as a writer. The first piece is here; the second piece is here; the third piece is here. If you have a question, it may have been answered in one of the earlier instalments. If it hasn’t, please pop it in the comments. I will get to everyone’s questions eventually.
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It’s become fashionable, these days, to celebrate what goes by the name of “neurodiversity,” and to argue that society should be re-ordered to make life easier for people like me. Sometimes, a specific learning disability or neurodevelopmental disorder is even reimagined as advantageous to the people who have it.
Well, I’m here to tell you this is cobblers. If I could wish my dyslexia away I would do so in a heartbeat.
Parental life lessons formed part of a childhood I’ve often drawn on my writing, particularly the literary non-fiction I’ve published over many years for The Australian and Law & Liberty. It was my parents, for example, who worked out how to manage a dyslexia diagnosis when I was seven. This was the 1970s; few people had heard of dyslexia then, much less understood it. That I was the youngest of four talented and verbally fluent children made the problem especially acute. Until I learnt to read, I was a cuckoo chick in the family nest.
My problems were identified in the usual way for dyslexics—I was good at maths but couldn’t read. This, I assure you, was no sort of superpower. It isn’t just that it took me until I was nine to learn to read because of it, or that my parents had to hire phonics tutors to guide me over the barrier to learning thrown up by the then-fashionable “look-say” method of reading instruction.
It’s that, even now, dyslexia means I do not process calendrical information accurately. I’ve had a lifetime of double-booked meetings, missed sporting fixtures, and stood-up clients. I once failed to appear at a literary event a local bookshop had gone to some trouble to organise. A large audience waited for an hour-and-a-half for Punch to arrive and Punch was in the pub (having written down the wrong date). I apologised, explaining dyslexia’s effects, but did not expect forgiveness. Nor did I receive it. The rest of society does not need to reorganise itself around people who can’t keep appointments.
Part of the rage of the creative underclass I wrote about in the first piece of this series has its root in a sense of specialness, the idea that artists and writers exist to kick against the pricks. Thing is, this is a notion that emerged only with the rise of literary and artistic Romanticism. Historically, both writing and art required aristocratic patronage, while “creatives” were essentially tradespeople who worked both hard and consistently to both get better at their craft and to earn money. There really wasn’t room to be too much of a weirdo, lest one finish up spending a lifetime on the run (think, for example, of Caravaggio).
One of the side-effects of a dyslexia diagnosis, at least in the 70s and 80s, was regular IQ testing. Once or twice a year I’d traipse up to the administration block to be asked a series of questions by people who I later learned were educational psychologists and, occasionally, psychiatrists. The first few tests were wholly verbal and involved looking at pictures. Later, they progressed to the more familiar pencil and paper sort. By the end of primary school—when I was 11 or so—they were inevitably followed by anxious conferences between the principal, the testing psychologist, my classroom teacher, and my parents. I did wonder what was going on, but I was bribed to sit still and wait with Freddo Frogs and only afterwards learned the source of everyone’s disquiet.
My IQ had stabilised at 148, which was (and is) considered freakishly high. I say this not to boast, because I have no problem admitting that I inherited excessive cleverness in the same way other people inherit a stock portfolio or a country estate: from my mum and dad.
Of course, various unearned advantages of social class went with the IQ. My parents could afford a phonics tutor, for starters. They impressed on me that, as someone who had been given so much, my country was within its rights to make significant demands on me. “Otherwise,” in mum’s pithy formulation, “it’s like landing on ‘Free Parking’ in Monopoly.” My father sat me down and said this explicitly. “I don’t want my child falling off the nerd cliff,” he said. “And I don’t want her thinking cleverness buys her the right to tell other people what to do.”
We should not be in the business of rewarding people materially or socially simply because they’re clever. That—to pinch one of Adam Smith’s insights—is like holding people in high esteem simply because they’re rich.
This encourages clever people to assume they’re special, a hugely dangerous belief behind much of the entitlement displayed by young people these days. While it’s true not enough have been told to be content with the hand they’ve been dealt, those who’ve been dealt flushes and full houses tend to think they’re “worth it” or did it all themselves.
When I was four, my parents bought me a beautiful, life-sized baby doll, one of those so contrived that the eyes open when you sit it up. I played with it once. When I was five, mum donated it to a local shop noted for its annual nativity display.
Yes, I was one of those girls who could not only spell carburettor but knew how to fix one.
Homosexuals grow up in overwhelmingly straight social milieux. We’re isolated from each other, and as we age, we must find each other. This encourages hypervigilance and makes us more aware that things have built-in nature, which we don’t fit. My father had, as some parents do, worked it out. A girlchild obsessed with cricket statistics who played chess and built scale models from Meccano was never going to be straight. My mother, by contrast, was disturbed and upset.
In this, my experience repeated a pattern I’ve often seen, one where the gay kid’s opposite-sex parent is more accommodating. This is, I think, because a straight man understands what makes women attractive while a straight woman understands what makes men attractive. The same-sex parent, meanwhile, is baffled. My mother was upset about an absence of grandchildren; there were tears. My father told her there would be novels, or a cure for cancer, or bridges, or a gold medal.
“Those are as good as grandchildren,” he said.
Perhaps, too, my father was more used to diversity. Posh families are full of odd people who never marry and talk into the fireplace, who spend their lives obsessed with foxhunting or golf and never do anything else.
Of course, this “arrangement” couldn’t work at school, which was conservative in orientation and Christian in ethos. I finished up in a profoundly odd situation where everyone knew, but no-one said anything. Right down to being paired off with the only obvious gay bloke in the school for dances. We were pretty good, too.
Queensland in the period when I was a teenager also represented the closest anywhere in the white British Commonwealth came to genuine authoritarian government.
Like many young Queenslanders irritated at how the state government trampled on civil liberties, I managed to get myself arrested. And yes, while my parents remained unwaveringly conservative, they also raised me to appreciate good things done by my opponents and bad things done by my friends. My father loathed the way Joh Bjelke-Petersen (Queensland’s state premier) made people in Australia’s southern states think anyone from country Queensland was a drongo whose lips moved when he read the paper.
The transition from high school to university and my first encounter with what goes by the name of “queer theory” was, well, weird. If you’ve spent several years being told not only that there’s something wrong with you but that you also lack insight into who you really are, and then you land in an environment where special observational superpowers are conferred on you also by dint of what you are, things get weird.
Both passels of nonsense were, obviously, false. Individually, they were also funny. When I first encountered Judith Butler’s claim that there is nothing underneath or before language to secure reference to anything outside it, I thought she was having a laugh. The intelligible bits of Gender Trouble are often funny, although Butler also asserts that biology is a “medico-legal alliance emerging in 19th century Europe [that] has spawned categorial fictions that could not be anticipated in advance”.
At one point, I suggested in a university tutorial that women were not stoned for adultery or deprived of contractual capacity due to a system of categorisation developed in the 19th century. Rather, this was commonplace throughout human history, so much so, when one encounters a legal system where subordination of women isn’t pervasive (Roman law in the Late Republic and Early Empire, for example), it complicates one’s approach to the society producing such “modern” or “progressive” legislation. After all, the Romans were not exactly noted for being kindly, humane, or peaceable.
This saw me sent off with a flea in my ear, so I decided discretion was the better part of valour and commenced sitting exams and writing papers while high as a kite, something that did not go unnoticed. At one stage, a proctor told me I smelt like someone had set fire to a pot plantation. With Butler, I adopted what I came to call “the marijuana measure of intellectual quality” or “The Bong Scale” for short. This referred to the amount of cannabis I smoked first to make her witterings intelligible and later to write about them under exam conditions.
When I was 10, I set off the school fire alarm, which in Australia matters: fires in Australia mean business, killing people by the scores and even hundreds. This entrenched fear of fire meant the entire school, something like a thousand kids and all their teachers, support staff, and groundsmen, assembled outside in the carpark and bus-bays. Australian arrangements in response to environmental threats (because they are matters of life and death), are orderly, disciplined, and thorough. There were no stragglers on that day.
Of course, there was no fire. Eventually I was fingered as the culprit, and carpeted. It was high summer. Those kids hauled out of a swimming lesson were not best pleased with me. The principal called my parents.
“You have to make a decision,” my father told me. “You can run with the hounds or run with the wolves. With the companion of man, or with his enemy. You can’t do both.”
You’re human, which means if you were raised by wolves, you can choose to run with the hounds.
Unfortunately, I did not internalise the importance of my father’s lesson until my mid-20s.
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