This is a guest post from Brendan Szendro, a PhD Student in Political Science, Binghamton University and follows a previous post on the topic of autism
On April 19, William H. Moore, a Political Science professor with what he termed “borderline Autism,” committed suicide after writing a lengthy note on his blog. In it, he detailed his frustrations with his perennial outsider status, his inability to communicate his talents professionally, accusations of arrogance by those around him and the fact that he had a strong desire to produce more than he consumed, but no longer found joy in producing. In other words, he exhausted himself through years of failed attempts at communication, until his abilities became obligations and his work a prison.
Outside of meeting him on one occasion, and reading much of his work, I did not know Moore well. As a Political Science graduate student with Autism Spectrum Disorder, however, the incident resonated with me. In his note, Moore perfectly articulated a litany of emotions that I’ve struggled to explain since childhood. The fact is, if he had not put them in a suicide note, I probably would have shared it as an explanation to others. Friends on the Spectrum have agreed with me that Moore’s writing described us well.
I haven’t in the slightest ever conceived of doing anything like what he did. But, in his note, Moore outlined so many of the pressures, that have weighed on me, as I struggle to gain professional recognition for my talents which seem to me to be incredible – perhaps better than professional – but just not quite what people want. These are Autistic traits, for sure, but they’re also the traits of a certain personality type that feels it has something to say, but doesn’t know how to say it. Academia draws this type of personality because it provides an avenue for communication. The pressure to succeed, however, can exacerbate the negative aspects of this kind of personality.
It reflects a feeling academics face, when confronting the pressures of their field. It seems natural for me, and people in my position, to deal with these things. Most of us don’t have any professional success, yet. We feel a need to communicate because we’re afraid of bouncing our ideas off themselves in perpetuity. We also feel a need prove our self-worth because our social environments are all competitive. Academia provides an opportunity for the former attribute, while inflaming the latter.
It’s worth noting, however, that Moore didn’t have any reason to feel that way. Moore had a family, a respected position at Arizona State University, a litany of publications to his name and a high-paying job doing something he loved. His production was recognized as valuable. It still couldn’t convince him that he was missing something integral. When his children grew up, and he felt they no longer needed him, he left his wife. He imposed his own sense of detachment on himself, as a security blanket, because it was more familiar to him than the alternative. He wrote his note in a casual, humorous tone as though describing quitting a job, trying to frame his life in a way that it didn’t matter. Conditioned to see himself as solitary, from childhood, he decided to actually become solitary. He portrayed it as a natural process, and it wasn’t.
Security is not happiness; Moore’s note shows that he found solace in self-imposed misery.
Academia draws the type of personality that values its skills but struggles to share them, because it promises a means of utilizing and communicating your abilities; often times, however, it exacerbates the negative symptoms. And so, in the wake of pressure to prove your creative and intellectual abilities, the environment can lend itself to isolation, to suspicion of acquaintances as competitors and to a whole slew of negative feelings that can lead people to ignore their victories and focus on their failures. Often times, it feels impossible to get a foothold into a seemingly ironclad world of professional success; new ideas can be hard to introduce, and the path to gaining recognition can require a great deal of exhaustion and self-questioning.
In the nineteenth century, sociologist Emile Durkheim posited four kinds of suicide. The first, “egoistic suicide,” refers to people who find themselves alienated from social groups. They take their lives due to a sense of detachment. Durkheim came to this conclusion based on the notion that a person could adequately tell whether or not they were detached. It’s clear, however, that this isn’t always the case. People like Moore, who on the surface had no logical reason to feel this way, do so perhaps because they grapple with a general sense of melancholy. It seems more common, however, that Moore and people like him – neurodiverse people – feel detached because we are conditioned to feel that way from childhood. It feels safer to us, because it’s familiar, and even when we have social successes, when we have relationships, when we have the things we want, we fight the urge to get away from them because they seem unnatural.
It can seem, then, like real connection and real success are impossible. It’s not true, of course, and it’s important that in an environment as cutthroat and intensive as academia, people are reminded of their worth from time to time. Academics need to be careful not to delve so deeply into their work that it becomes inseparable from identity, something that political theorist Hannah Arendt outlined as one of the primary causes of isolation. The need to produce, and to succeed, can ultimately strip activities of their joy and interest if taken too far, which in turn can damage people’s sense of self. This becomes an especially potent danger when faced with constant criticism, as academics often are.
There’s a few steps academics can take to mitigate these negative feelings, for both themselves and for others:
1) To recognize that you are not your work, and make sure to retain an independent identity.
2) Not to dehumanize people who don’t meet your expectations; critiques should be of work, not of people, and should be aimed at facilitating dialogue, not shutting it down.
3) To be honest about your experiences, emotions and struggles with your peers, so as to foster a communicative environment, rather than a competitive one.
4) To recognize that it will never be possible to communicate all of your ideas, and that having goals you haven’t achieved gives you something to strive for rather than agonize over.
Will’s death took its toll on the Political Science community, and academia writ large. His note resonated with a number of people due to the pressures of the field and the personalities it can draw. Many throughout academia deal with neurodiversity, not just in terms of Autism but a whole host of mental conditions that may struggle to deal with the professional world. And, in such a small world, the event managed to touch a large amount of disparate people. The interconnected nature of the discipline allows for major shockwaves such as this to reverberate over a long distance. Nevertheless, it has also opened a major dialogue on issues that effect a wide array of academics.
Hopefully, the dialogue remains open.