Theory of mind and things

First of all: read this essay. (Though actually I don’t blame you at all if you don’t/can’t read it. It’s really thick academic language and also really emotional.)

Second: I arrived at that essay from this particular quote:

Consider, for example, Frith and Happé’s response to autie-biographer Donna Williams’s (1992) Nobody Nowhere, which chronicles Williams’s horrifying experience of childhood abuse:

Typically in the autobiographical accounts we find relatively little about people’s feelings or attitudes. …Thus, harrowing events (in the case of Donna and Gunilla) are reported, while possible reasons for otherwise bizarre behavior on the part of other people are left extremely vague. (Frith and Happé 1999, 18)

In the land of ToM, what matters are the “feelings and attitudes” of the non-autistic. Abusers cannot abuse if they have feelings and attitudes, while the subjects of their abuse are little more than disembodied objects.

And the person who posted it was like, well, people might criticize the writing of neurotypical survivors of abuse for the same reason, but they certainly wouldn’t go this far, this is a double standard.

But no? Not having/including a good explanation for why people hurt you is not a poor writing choice. It doesn’t make your writing weaker from a literary point of view. That’s not a legitimate criticism. The problem isn’t that they’ve taken it too far, the problem isn’t that there’s a double standard, this line of critique is disgusting through and through.

“She didn’t explain the feelings and attitudes that led people to abuse her.”

Can YOU explain why people hurt innocent children?

Can YOU explain why people hurt each other?

Can YOU explain why people you loved or trusted or depended on have hurt YOU, personally?

(Why do we suffer? Why do we suffer, and fear, and die?)

Taking the third question first, to ask someone why they personally were abused is to invite them down a rabbit-hole of self-hate. Likely the first answer that comes to mind– the abuser may even have said so– is “Because I deserved it”. This is a painful question. All answers to it are painful to one degree or another. Please don’t tell someone their essay-writing skills aren’t up to par because they haven’t finished grappling with the most painful and difficult questions that keep them up late at night. That’s ridiculous. Your/our/readers’ desire for “realism and complexity” or a certain kind of characterization or plot structure should be a tiny, petty, incosequential thing in the face of allowing survivors to write about how they actually feel, their actual process of dealing with what they’ve experienced, whatever that is and wherever they are in it. If they can’t answer or even consider this question, they should be able to write about what that’s like.

The more general form of this question has the same problem on a larger scale.

In a broad sense, yes, we can certainly try to explain why people abuse children and do other awful things. In a risk-factors-and-probabilities way, we can actually say some useful things about child abuse. But that kind of information doesn’t definitively explain why one specific person chose to commit abuse, when some others in similar situations don’t, and it isn’t really the point.

Ultimately, our reaction of “But why would someone do such a thing?” is not about wanting a factual explanation– or it’s not only about that. It’s a moral question, and a protest against the idea that anyone would choose to do such things. We don’t want abuse to be understandable. We don’t want it to make real, visceral sense as a choice, however much we intellectually try to understand it, because we don’t want it to be a viable choice. We want it to be too wrong to ever consider, too wrong to happen as much as it does, too wrong for us to have to suspect our friends and neighbors and our children’s teachers. On a certain basic level, abuse is inherently “bizarre”. It is inherently inexplicable. To explain it– to explain on an emotional level why someone would choose to commit it– is to justify it.

“Why would someone do such a thing?” isn’t a request for facts that someone with personal experience might have more access to. It’s an expression of sadness at the seemingly senseless cruelty that exists in the world. In asking this question, we are on the same page as the survivors who can’t answer it. Expecting them to have an emotionally satisfying answer to the question of why they were abused would be expecting them to solve the entire problem of human suffering.


(So what I’m saying here amounts to “not every story about abuse can be Hitherby Dragons”. Heh.)


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