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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Aspie


They are there in every school, I suppose, a couple of kids who are so weird that they are way out there in the perimeter. But generally, unlike those of a rock poet’s shamanistic vision, the only stoning they get is not the immaculate one of enlightenment and hallucinogens, but rather the sharp-cornered rocks lobbed by their peers. For there are none as conservative, as intolerant, as teenagers when it comes to those who are beyond the perimeters of what is in, and the instinct of the herd to mob the one who is different (particularly when that one is weaker) is very strong. What I learned from Brendan’s story is that this instinct remains just as active even when those teenagers have reached what is supposed to be (young) adulthood.

The family came to Sligo from America, where the children had been born, when Brendan was ten or eleven. That alone would have made them exotic in a small western Irish town, but it was an exoticism which the kids could have mined positively if they had the basic social smarts to realise it. Brendan didn’t. Clumsy, lanky, pale, wearing glasses with thick lenses and thicker black plastic frames and strange, very unhip American clothes (you could see his mother had chosen them for him) – loud check pants and windbreakers – he came as an outsider and remained one.

His accent proclaimed his American background, his opinions reinforced it; he aggressively trumpeted the superiority of the land of his birth. He was, in today’s language, in many ways a typical nerd, though his interests weren’t in the technical area. What precisely his interests were, I no longer know – and probably didn’t know then. They certainly had little in common with those of the rest of us at the all-boy secondary school we attended; football, pop and rock music, girls. Girls? The idea of the shambling Brendan – his loud honking voice, his strange conversational obsessions, his runny nose, his unconscious frequent scratching of his crotch – with a girl was simply laughable. He was never present at any of the discos where we met with the girls from the convent schools, was never involved in any of the groups of teenagers who met after school in various locations in town – strutting and flirting, smoking and preening, yakking and courting, all the rituals of puberty

And he was the butt of all the careless, brutal cruelty to which teenage boys are prone. We’re in the study-hall; a place where different classes were compulsorily shoved together when teachers called in sick. Brendan is bent over some schoolwork, trying to ignore the world around him, scratching his crotch.

“Hey, Brendan! Hey, Todd! D’ya hear the one about the Bates family?
… Well, there’s Mister Bates. And Missus Bates. And their son …little MasterBates!”
“Yuck yuck yuck … Haw haw haw … Har har har!”
“Hey, Todd! You like pulling your wire?”

I would like to say that I defended him, stood up to the crowd, befriended him. It’s not true – I was far removed from the necessary self-assurance to do that kind of thing, to take a public stance against the mob and its leaders. I didn’t like him either, found him just as weird as all the others. The most I can say is that I didn’t take part; I found the cruelty somehow shameful and kept out of it. And for this reason, I was one of the few he interacted with at all.

But our interactions were seldom. I did not seek him out, and he wasn’t in my class anyway – apart from one or two subjects in the senior cycle. He was sickly and missed an awful lot of school. I’m sure he was subject to a lot more intensive bullying and brutality, particularly on the way home from school, but we had different routes home so I didn’t witness anything. To be honest, he just didn’t figure on my radar screen most of the time. I had other, more interesting, more important interests and concerns.

With the knowledge I have now, and the generally increased consciousness of psychology and various personality differences which is far more widespread today than it was thirty five years ago, I have no trouble putting a label on the young Brendan Todd – as I believe most of my readers will have done as well by now. Brendan was a textbook example of somebody with a fully-fledged Asperger Syndrome. But for us teenagers in Sligo back then, the term Asperger had as much meaning as an artichoke.

At any rate, I left Sligo in 1977 to join the Dominican Order, and left Brendan behind too. He (and his family) had decided – largely because of his sickly nature, it was said (though I believe that the worries of his parents concerning his ability to live an autonomous life as a student away from home also played a large role) – that he would study by correspondence at the British Open University. I was sure I’d seen the last of him and forgot him pretty quickly.

* * * * *

Two years later the Order sent me to UCD (University College Dublin), Ireland’s largest university, recently moved to a modern, US-style campus in Belfield, a former estate in one of the prosperous suburbs of Ireland’s upper-middle and middle-class elite on Dublin’s south side. I was to study history and philosophy.

The first couple of weeks were pleasantly chaotic, getting ourselves organised, getting to know people, finding our way around, making first friendships. One of the organisational things which had to be done was the election of representatives of First Arts to the Students Union. There was some kind of address from the Union people in Theatre L, the largest of the lecture theatres, after a history lecture, and people interested in being candidates were invited to speak to the gathered multitude. Nobody was taking the whole affair all that seriously and there was a considerable buzz of conversation among the couple of hundred students assembled. Suddenly a strange, freakish figure gambolled up to the microphone and announced excitedly,

“My name is Brendan Todd, and I’M A REVOLUTIONARY MARXIST!!!”

He then proceeded to harangue us for a couple of minutes, honking and gesticulating like Grover from Sesame Street. The crowd loved him and cheered him on. This was entertainment pure, the weirdo was absolutely hilarious and apparently believed all the bullshit he was spouting. He apparently also believed that all the applause and acclamation was for him and his message. I was aghast.

“They can’t be taking him seriously!”
“Of course not. But he’s going to be elected all the same,” Peter, one of my newly made friends, commented.
“But they can’t, he’s … he’s not all there. I know him. He has a major screw loose. He actually believes they support him and his arguments!”
“That doesn’t matter. I know some of those guys down there who are egging him on. They don’t give a fuck, but they’ll do anything for a joke. And that Todd fellow is a great joke. He’s like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers! How do you know him, anyway?”

And so I renewed my acquaintance with Brendan Todd. Apart from his conversion from a USA fanatic to revolutionary Marxism, he hadn’t really changed. In the course of time, I discovered that his Open University correspondence studies had fallen victim to an epic post office strike which had lasted over four months and that this had resulted in his decision to begin his studies once more at UCD.

He tried to get me to endorse his candidature. I refused. It didn’t matter, he was elected anyway, as Peter had predicted. In the following years he became something of a legend in College, making regular speeches and harangues and was re-elected to Union positions regularly. I have no idea how the various other people involved in the union managed him.

I honestly believe that he spent those years as a self-proclaimed political activist without ever realising that hardly anyone took him seriously and that those whom he regarded as his friends and supporters were actually taking the piss out of him. For Brendan’s social skills were as non-existent as ever. He stumbled around college like a clumsy crow, dressed usually in a baggy anorak and ill-fitting, often dirty clothes. His sense of personal hygiene was somewhat underdeveloped, which meant that he often smelled … ripe.

I mention this because it was difficult to completely ignore. Brendan was one of those people with no sense of that private space, that bubble with a radius of around two to three feet (depending on the situation) we all carry around with us, and therefore invaded it continuously. He was, as the Americans put it, continually “in your face,” with his pale face, greasy black hair and interminable loud declamations. He was always telling you about what he thought and what he was doing – he never showed the slightest interest in what others thought or were doing, unless these were directly related to what was occupying him at the time. But this difficulty in relating to others, achieving empathy, is a typical symptom of people with Asperger’s Syndrome.

He developed a strong crush on a girl I knew quite well. Anna was a well-mannered, gentle soul, who would never have been capable of telling him to simply fuck off. It is questionable as to whether this would have worked anyway; he seemed to be completely impervious to signals, hints and even insults, though he could react verbally aggressively if he felt threatened. If you were sitting in a group which included Anna in the college restaurant or bar, you could be sure that he would join it. She put up with him, pleasantly and patiently, as he sat too near to her, noisily breathing through his nose.

* * * * *

On the last weekend in January 1982, the annual Irish History Students Conference took place in the holiday town of Bundoran in the north west of Ireland, not far from Brendan’s home town of Sligo. Even thirty years later I am still certain of the date, for there was a young American guest lecturer at UCD who was with us and spent the Sunday searching frantically for a possibility of hearing the Super Bowl on radio, or at least getting the results (the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals).

It was basically an opportunity to stay in a hotel, party and drink a lot for the weekend. I was one of the few students present who was actually providing the alibi function of delivering a paper (it meant I got my costs paid for). And party we did. My hotel room-mate, who was part of the organising committee seemed to have invited around fifty people back to our room after the formal Saturday evening dinner – at about four in the morning, I evicted two people who were getting to know each other very well from my bed and went to sleep while the party roared on around me.

But Brendan was no longer there, though he was booked in for the weekend. On Saturday afternoon a couple of his “friends” had decided to have a bit of fun. The details of what happened I don’t know. What I do know is that around five o’clock Anna, uncharacteristically spitting fury, found me and asked for my help.

“Those stupid bastards! Brendan doesn’t drink, I think it interferes with medication he’s taking, or something. Anyway, they’ve been spiking his lemonade with vodka all afternoon. They thought it was funny! He’s puked on himself, and had a fall and cut himself …”
“Christ! Does he need a doctor?”
“I don’t think so, but we’ve called one anyway. Geraldine and some of the other girls have put him to bed. But I don’t know if he should stay here. Somebody said you knew his family …?”
“Well, not really, but I think I can find out his parents’ telephone number and ask them to come. It wouldn’t take them much more than half an hour.”
“You’re a dear! Would you ever?”

I phoned his father and explained the situation. He knew who I was; his family and my father’s family originally came from the same corner of north Roscommon and there may even have been some distant marital connection a couple of generations back. He grasped the situation quickly without me having to go into many details and less than an hour later he and his wife turned up at the hotel.

As his wife accompanied their shambling son to the car he thanked me for my concern. I said it was nothing and felt I should apologise for my fellows.

“Some people think that cruelty’s funny,” I said. “Brendan sometimes doesn’t realise …”
“Brendan hasn’t had it easy. There are still things that are more … difficult for him.”

His eyes said far more than his words. They showed love, and concern, and not a small amount of helplessness. We nodded farewell to each other, he got into the car and they drove away.

* * * * *

We graduated that autumn and I haven’t seen or heard of Brendan Todd since. An internet search before writing this turned up nothing. I sometimes wonder what became of him.

(Note: “Brendan Todd” is, of course, a pseudonym [as is “Anna”]. However, I think anyone who was at UCD between 1979 and 1982 will recognise him immediately.)



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