Monday, February 8, 2016

“Fear Itself”: That awkward moment when a TV show you like accidentally implies kids are better off dead than autistic

         Content warning: Discussions of abuse of disabled children, including a fairly upsetting and nauseating picture, ahead
So, as the members of the official N.E.R.D. Facebook page know, I recently watched the USA show The 4400 for the first time. I had watched it here and there while it was airing but neither of my parents cared for it and they controlled the TV at either home. (See Jeff, someof us kids these days know the struggle.) Realizing that the writers and producers consisted of a significant portion of the writing/production staff for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, AKA my favorite TV show ever, only cemented my interest and I was glad to queue it up on Netflix. Very briefly, it’s the story of 4,400 individuals from around the world and across sixty years of time who disappeared mysteriously, but return all in one day from a glowing ball of light over Mount Ranier. Some of them have superpowers. I have never seen Heroes but I am told this is basically a better executed version of that. I highly recommend the show, all though I have to warn you about two things. 1. It ends on a massive cliffhanger, so if you have closure issues skip this one. 2. This freaking episode.
         Considering I just gave the show a glowing recommendation, I’m going to try to minimize spoilers for the series as a whole, but considering this is a season four episode and it’s a continuity-heavy show, some series spoilers are necessary for context. If spoilers are a huge problem for you, maybe bookmark this blog and read it at some time later after seeing the show for yourself. Also, as with the “I Am Not a Monster” blog, this blog will have some strong language because … this freaking episode is awful.
Refer to the kitten as needed.

         Our episode starts out promisingly enough, with several people having horrible hallucinations of their phobia and subsequently having to be institutionalized. These “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Scarecrow” episodes are far from original – they’re done in just about every sci-fi show whose premise even remotely allows it, and a mundane version has even shown up in non-sci-fi shows such as Bones and Criminal Minds – but I have a soft spot for them. For one thing, the actual Scarecrow is one of my favorite villains ever, at least partially for the same reason. I have several deep-seated (and odd) phobias that would make me a great victim on these episodes, which makes them oddly relatable but also much scarier than most people probably find them. When done well, they can be not only entertaining but can provide insight into the regular characters.
An example of the hallucinations. Maybe I needed to add clowns to my content warning.
Following the apparent supernatural attacks, our two main characters (or at least what passes for main characters in a massive cast like this), NTAC agents Tom and Diana, set out to investigate. Or Diana does after some family stuff but that’s unimportant. Tom and Diana work for the agency in charge of both protecting the 4400 from the world and protecting the world from the 4400, and their job just got a lot tougher – at the end of the previous season, a drug called promicin that can sometimes induce 4400-like superpowers in non-4400 hit the streets. The only reason absolutely everybody hasn’t taken it yet is because some of the powers are really sucky and, more importantly, it has a fifty percent chance of killing you horribly. Understandably, it was quickly outlawed. Bookmark that for later, it’s important for why this episode ticks me off.
Yes, this show has a glowing green serum with supernatural properties invented by Jeffrey Combs. Some shows like to include a subtle actor allusion or two, and then there's this show.

And this is how you die if you come out on the wrong side of the fifty-fifty.
Our intrepid heroes, Tom and Diana.

Typical red herrings happen, Tom and Diana eventually discover the truth. The culprit is Brandon, a nonverbal autistic child whose father, who shall hereafter be referred to only as “Asshole Jones,” because I have watched this episode twice and still didn’t catch his name and I can’t be bothered to look it up given how much I despise him, injected him with promicin in the desperate hopes that he would develop a power that could “compensate” for his autism. Yes, the drug that had a fifty percent chance of killing him. Brandon survived the shot, but now has this terrifying superpower he can use to torment people, which he cannot control and uses without any real malice whenever he becomes frustrated.
Brandon and his mother. I tried to find a pic of the dad so you could picture the appropriate face to wish you could punch but it seems even Google Images wants to forget him.
Now, a little background on the characters and the show to explain what I expected to happen. Tom had the distinction of being the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Stabler” character for this show, occasionally going all “Cowboy Cop” and bending rules or losing his temper on suspects. One of his defining good qualities is that he’s a family man who adores his son Kyle and his 4400 nephew Shawn, to the point that he was willing to break the law for either one of them on multiple occasions. Diana is the adoptive mother of Maia, a 4400 child who is frequently threatened by both sides because her power is a game breaker and because she’s a girl out of time whose classmates tease her for crushing on Frank Sinatra. She’s much more by-the-book than Tom in general but we know that if anything threatens Maia, she has the power to transform into the fiercest of mama bears. One of the other characters on the show, Kevin, is a catatonic schizophrenic who was healed by the future (it’s a long, spoilery story) and in his first two episodes, the show did a beautiful job of portraying a lot of his personality and establishing his friendship and eventual romance with fellow mental patient Tess even when he didn’t speak and could barely move. Tess’s schizophrenia is similarly treated very sensitively, in a way that avoids most of the unfortunate implications that shows like this tend to have when dealing with mental illness. So, given that the show has dealt with the subject so sensitively before, including having a nonverbal character who is still shown as a person with value, personality, and full capacity for love and friendship even before he regained the ability to speak, and a papa wolf / mama bear pair of protagonists going up against a man who essentially poisoned his child for incredibly selfish reasons and caused a lot of suffering by doing so, I half expected Tom to drag this fucker behind his car by the end of the episode. I was praying for at least a solid punch to the face.
Kevin and Tess. I'm cheating slightly and using a scene from later since I couldn't get the pic of them doing this at the mental hospital before he could speak, but you get the idea. Shockingly, he managed to convey his tenderness and protectiveness towards her without speaking.
So, do I get to see Asshole Jones get his comeuppance? Nope. The episode treats this guy, who took a coin flip’s chance of killing his child and succeeded in giving him a terrifying superpower he can’t control, as a sympathetic character, because “do you know what it’s like to have a kid who can’t say ‘I love you?’ ” Bull. Fucking. Shit. When I hear a parent say this to justify the horrible shit they’ve done to their autistic kid (and make no mistake, they do, trust me, I’ll get to that), all I hear is, “Because my kid can’t express his affection for me and validate me as a wonderful, loving martyr to their neurological condition, I am so sad that I am going to do this horrible shit to them.” And if you think I’m being uncharitable, watch the scene. Ninety-five percent of his explanation for why he did it is framed around his kid not being normal and wanting his son to show him affection. Not his son being unhappy. Just his son not being normal. I’d have loved it if Tom had decked him on the spot. I’d have loved it if Diana had verbally ripped him a new asshole. (She does at least express mild disapproval of what he did, so … half a kudo?) I’d have loved it if Kevin had just teleported in from elsewhere in the story to kick his ass. Hell, I’d have loved for Tess to teleport in from elsewhere and beat him with a rolling pin or something else suitable for a nice girl from the fifties, considering that very easily could have been her boyfriend they were talking about experimenting on.
This trope of the autistic kids never saying I love you, as well as the myth that people with autism lack empathy, is so widespread and I’m sick to death of it. People with autism may struggle in social interactions, but that doesn’t mean they’re little sociopaths or zombies, for Christ’s sake. Just so no one could say I’m just white knighting for autistics since I am not one, before writing this I contacted several autistic friends and Danelle, who is not autistic but has two (sweet, beautiful, smart) boys who are. This is what she had to say about the “I love you” issue. “I really think non-autistic society is overplaying the whole... having your child say they love you thing as though the child has to say it for it to be true or something.” I can say as her friend that she is constantly posting adorable pics of her sons (the younger of whom is not entirely nonverbal, but has significant difficulty communicating) being adorably affectionate with each other and with their mom and grandparents, even if it’s not in a traditional hugs and kisses way. If you check out the Facebook page, “Colin's Friends,” you can see many pics of the eponymous Colin being tender and kind to his sister and other kids, despite having so much trouble interacting socially he heartbreakingly told his mom he didn’t have any friends to invite to his birthday party (the reason for the page’s creation). It’s this bizarre trope within the community of parents who’ve martyred themselves to their kids’ autism that nonverbal “I Love you”s somehow don’t count – and I say bizarre because it’s the only community where that’s the case. I never hear it from the hearing parents of hearing-impaired children, or the parents of children who can’t speak for some physical reason. They take their “I love you’s” in sign language, in hugs, in smiles, in whatever currency they can get it without whining.
Because let’s face it – even if they can’t express love in any way … so what? Neither can a newborn, and I hope to God you wouldn’t risk their life just to hear them say “I love you” sooner. Neither can a profoundly intellectually disabled child with the intellect of an infant, but you’re still not allowed to drown them because you didn’t get a return on your love investment. Neither can a child in a coma, for that matter, and yet mysteriously the show depicts Tom being a loving, devoted parent to his child in a coma even though his prognosis isn’t great. It’s almost like his love for his child isn’t conditional on his child being able to return it. What a concept! Newflash, the world doesn’t revolve around your emotional needs, cupcake, especially not once you’re a parent. Not that parents’ feelings are a trivial consideration, but my sympathy gets cut out the minute they put their feelings ahead of the well-being of their child, especially to the extent seen here. If it was all about Asshole Jones’ child – like being worried about what would happen to Brandon after his parents were gone, being sad because he thought he had an unfulfilling life, that kind of thing, or if Brandon had been shown to be out of control and in need of institutionalization – I would still think the episode had a terrible, terrible implication problem, but I could have at least had a glimmer of sympathy for the dad. As it was, all I saw was a happy kid who wanted to play with his train but Daddy kept trying to make him normal because being autistic wasn’t “good enough,” and like I said wanted to see Tom drag him behind his car.
I realize whining is probably uncharitable terminology. I don’t doubt that having an autistic child, particularly one who is nonverbal, is probably very hard. But where this starts to piss me off is when someone uses this as justification for someone doing horrible crap to their kid. And yes, it happens in real life. It happens much more often than you would probably hope. Some parent (usuallythe mother) drowns her autistic kid or stabs him to death or burns him todeath, and the comments are filled with those same echoes I heard in the show. “It’s so hard to have a child like that.” “They’re just a shell.” “They’re so hard to care for.” That makes this whole thing hard to swallow, even though it’s obviously fictional.
Remember, within the parameters of the world of the show, Asshole Jones had no way of knowing his kid would survive. It wasn’t even a small chance he would die – it was fifty-fifty. He had just as much chance of flipping a coin and having it land on tails as he did that this injection would kill his son. Listen to ChuckSonnenburg’s story (starting at 14:30) about his twin boys almost not making it when they were born, hear all the pain in his voice when describing knowing that there’s a fifty percent chance one of your children could die, hear how much of that pain is still apparent at least eleven years after the fact, and then realize Asshole Jones put his family in that situation intentionally. Hell, the show emphasizes this with one of the other plots in the episode – Tom’s non-4400 nephew wants to take the shot, and his brother reacts with the appropriate horror at him taking such a risk. It’s probably best not to call attention to how terrifying the odds on the promicin shot actually are and then expect us to feel sorry for a dad who gave this to his child. I mean … if Brandon had been “normal” and Asshole Jones was just an overachiever or wannabe who couldn’t stand the thought of having an ordinary child and so risked his life in this manner, do you think the show would have treated him with even a glimmer of sympathy? So why is it okay because Brandon is autistic? 
Just a friendly reminder that Brandon had an equal chance of having this happen to him.
 Even though the shot succeeded, it wasn’t in any way that “compensated” for Brandon’s autism, and the dad knew that the odds weren’t good he’d magically get a superpower of “not being autistic,” when he did it. At this point in the show, it’s already apparent that some of the 4400 powers are horrible. We’ve seen people who could create plagues and people whose spit created an enzyme that would cause people to starve to death if they consumed it. Tess essentially has the “voice of God” and can get anybody to do what she wants just by telling them to do it – if she weren’t such a sweet person, that would be terrifying, and at the height of her delusions, it quickly becomes just that. We’ve also seen people commit hate crimes against the 4400 for their abilities, and the government itself has been involved in several terrifying conspiracies against them. And this fucker decided his innocent, disabled child needed that drama in his life?!
Those people aren't sleeping. And no she didn't mean to do this. I'm sure turning into the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse would have really helped Brandon overcome his autism.
Even setting aside the fact Asshole Jones hurt his child (hard to do), Brandon put several people in the mental hospital because of what he did! It appears to have been temporary, but don’t tell me those people aren’t going to need therapy after days of hallucinating being smothered or chased by killer clowns or having body parts fall off. Don’t bullshit me show, these people were not “fine” after spending at least forty-eight hours being viciously attacked by the thing they were already afraid of. Besides, what if he’d attacked someone with a heart condition, or what if someone had killed someone flailing around in “self-defense?” If he’d have been anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, I guarantee someone would have got shot because they looked like a giant spider under the effects of Brandon’s power. And while Asshole Jones couldn’t have predicted that specific outcome, like I said, previous 4400 related superpowers have included unleashing the plague.

After forty-eight hours of seeing every single person who approached him like this, I'm sure that guy was totally able to leave his house again just as soon as he's hidden under the blankets for a good ... ten years at most.
No, I have no problem putting Asshole Jones in the same category as the parents who kill their autistic kids (because, remember, he was very, very close to literally being in that category), or at least the parents who shove bleach up their kids’ butts. Oh yeah, that’s a thing. They think the parasites their kids got from vaccines (don’t ask) is somehow causing their autism and that the bleach will kill the parasites and the kids will be normal, happy kids who say, “I love you for pouring bleach up my ass, Mom, you’re such a great parent despite the fact I’m not the perfect child you thought you were owed.” Oh wait, I’m sorry, it’s “not bleach.” The bleach you use in your house is sodium hypochlorite, this bleach, chlorine dioxide, is just the industrial strength bleach used to take the brown out of wood pulp to make paper and strip textiles of all color for cloth recycling. That’s so much better, right? They probably dilute it right?
Sure they dilute it. With hydrochloric acid. (On the left, pictures of intestine that these parents have fished out of their kids' stool thinking they're parasites, but actually it's just evidence of the damage they've caused their own children. On the right, actual parasites, you fucking dumbass sadistic crazy people that do this to your poor babies.)
And that’s why I have such a burr up my ass about this episode. This tiresome repetition of the “it’s all about me, raising autistic kids is hard” tropes used as a justification to do something awful to a helpless child is not only sickening and disheartening in a show that handled mental illness so well, it’s outright dangerous. I probably would have thought, “Oh well, that has some unfortunate ableist implications,” and moved on if I hadn’t spent over a year trying to raise awareness of and get something done about the aforementioned use of bleach in autistic children. But because I have spent a year doing just that, and looking at screenshots of parents using almost the exact same language to justify what they’re doing, or even in comments justifying people murdering their children, I very quickly developed an allergy to this character and every time he opened his mouth I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle him.
And the rancid cherry on the suck cake is the ending. Tom’s nephew Shawn, whose power is healing, heals Brandon of his autism. Yes. Brandon immediately acknowledges his dad verbally and gives him a big hug. Of course. Asshole Jones is going to jail for injecting his son with promicin (which is illegal) and presumably also for reckless endangerment related to the people his son hurt, or that might just be me being hopeful, and the music tells me this is supposed to be sad. He has a noble sounding line to the effect of, “My kid has been in a prison his whole life and I’m happy to trade places with him,” (the first time he at least tried to sound like he did what he did for his son and not himself) and show ends on what it thinks is a hopeful note. 
Shawn, drawing out the autism demons from Brandon.
Except, that as many autistics will tell you, they don’t want a cure. This isn’t like taking Tess’s delusions away or making Kevin “able to think” again (Shawn also does the former and the future people did the latter for Kevin, don’t ask). Schizophrenia is a sucky, sucky disease that is relatively late onset, and the show makes a point to illustrate how it takes people away from the person they are. While in a delusion, Tess hurts Kevin in “self-defense” despite the fact she’s a sweet, gentle person who loves him dearly and he’d never actually hurt her. Kevin was completely unable to speak (or, according to him, think clearly) because of his disorder. Once it’s gone, they remain the same people – Tess is still bubbly and almost heartbreakingly optimistic, Kevin is still grumpy towards everyone but Tess, eccentric, and even a little paranoid. Presumably that was their personality before they became ill (canonically, Tess had her first episode at sixteen, Kevin at thirty). Can you say that of Brandon?
The reason many autistic people feel they don’t need a cure is that autism affects your whole brain and how it’s wired. It affects the way you think in a more global, permanent way than schizophrenia. And you’re born with it so it’s all you ever know. Unlike the assertion of many parents that autism “takes away” their child (or this character’s assertion that his son was “in a prison his whole life”) – that is, in fact, their normal. It shapes everything about the way they think. It’s less of an illness or a disability and more of a different way of being. An autistic person’s autism is as much a part of them as having blue eyes or brown hair. And as I said, Brandon doesn’t seem particularly unhappy – he gets frustrated, yes, but he seemed to deal with that pretty well until Dad gave him superpowers, comforting himself by flapping his arms and vocalizing (which is known as “stimming”). That looks upsetting to outsiders and is certainly awkward to explain, but all of my autistic friends describe stimming very positively. So essentially, it’s mostly embarrassing for the autistic person’s caretakers. He might even have eventually learned to communicate through an AAC device, the way that Danelle’s younger son does – many parents are amazed by how communicative their kids can be once alternate methods are attempted. It would be one thing if Shawn had just made Brandon able to speak and/or taken away his comorbid anxiety. I don’t think anybody would have objected to that. But Shawn explicitly says he healed his autism and Brandon immediately stops stimming and hugs his dad – so is he even the same kid? Danelle’s reaction was this, “It fundamentally alters his kid for him to suddenly not be autistic.” In the past, she’s argued with people telling her to try this or that quack cure on her kids that even if it worked, she wouldn’t want it to – that she likes her kids just fine, thanks, and she can do without them being replaced by completely different people. In olden days, autistic people were often considered “changelings” – fairy children left behind in place of the real child, stolen away by fairies. This seems to be a modern reversal of that … and it’s treated as a happy ending. Eek.
Even setting the question of autism and identity aside (which, again, is hard to do), the fact Brandon is immediately able to speak strains credulity (wouldn’t he still need to, you know, learn words?) and the fact he immediately gives dad the thing he wanted (and risked his child’s life to get) is simply nauseating. If not for that, I could set it aside as an “esoteric happy ending.” After all, the show clearly doesn’t agree with what he did. But by giving them a “sweet” family moment and having the dad say this noble-sounding line about him being willing to go to prison to get his son out of one, it comes across as though the message of the show is, “Risking your kids’ life on dangerous, unproven therapies is okay as long as they can’t speak for themselves to object.” I’m sure Kevin would agree, wouldn’t you Kevin? Oh wait … he’s not autistic, so when it’s implied he was given experimental drugs and electric shock therapy (which, ironically, despite the public perception of it, would actually havebeen an appropriate therapy for catatonic schizophrenia assuming a low voltage and general anesthesia were used) it’s supposed to be horrifying, but the fact this fucker who injected his child with something that easily could have killed him is going to jail gets sad music? Blow me, episode. 
A nonverbal person who shouldn't be subjected to cruel medical procedures without his consent.

A nonverbal person whom it is okay to subject to cruel medical procedures without his consent. I guess.
It’s so head scratching because the episode could have worked just fine in so many different ways. If Brandon had had terminal cancer and his father had injected him in the desperate hope he would develop “not dying of cancer” powers, that would have been touching. If Brandon had been older and was actually being violent before his dad gave him superpowers, it still would have had terrible implications but I could at least have had sympathy for Asshole Jones. If people besides the boy’s mother had seemed more than slightly miffed with Asshole Jones for risking Brandon’s life and recklessly endangering the rest of the world and they’d scrapped the ending, that would have worked fine. I always love it when shows have realistic villains. But no, instead we got … this.
In one way I can’t really fault the show because they were clearly trying. Like I said, other episodes handle the topic of mental illness very sensitively and other characters are treated much better. At least Brandon is treated as a child with special needs instead of some kind of monster despite his powers. At least his mother had the (only) appropriate response to what Asshole Jones had done (“You son of a bitch! What did you to do to my child?!”) and at least the show doesn’t go so far as to outright agree with what he did. But … I just can’t let this one go. Not when autistic children are murdered every year bytheir parents. Not when children have died of chelation (a legitimate but harsh medical procedure that should only be used for heavy metal poisoning, but for some awful reason a ton of parents think is appropriate for their kids’ autism) and an unknown number of children are being tortured with repeated bleach enemas, all by people using the same reasoning as Asshole Jones.
“I just want my kid to say ‘I love you.’ ” Tough shit, asshole. Maybe you should start by loving him for who he is instead of acting like you were cheated out of the actual human child you were owed by being given this autistic subhuman fairy child. Actually managing to demonstrate a tiny bit of unconditional love for your child would probably be an excellent first step in getting them to return it.

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