Why I Believe in Magic

So a few months ago, we (all the managers and leaders at Hope Network, my base camp for changing the world) took a personality inventory that gauges our leadership style. Psychologists famously pooh-pooh this kind of thing, especially because of use of the Myers-Briggs inventory*. But it is kind of fun, and, well, you know you take Playbuzz quizzes, so don’t even start with me.  We used a tool called the DiSC in this case – it analyzes people based on four personality characteristics – dominance, influence, conscientiousness, and steadiness. Most people, according to the model (which at least, in any event, is closer to the most validated five and three factor personality models) are somewhat more reliant on one of the four dimensions than any of the others. Somewhat unique to the business application of this model, it also analyzes a “natural” style – how one behaves when not under stress or pressure, and an adapted style. Some people change their style dramatically, whereas other people (like me) make more subtle changes, whether because we are self-confident or arrogant. It also provides some analysis with respect to how people perceive someone differently, under varying degrees of stress. I might seem bubbly and enthusiastic under low stress situations, and more of a shameless self-promoter under high-stress situations.

In my case, I am an “influencer” at the core (we apparently rate the only lower-case letter in the acronym, although apparently it’s just branding), and this is a very pronounced bias.

It's not because they don't like me, it's not because they don't like me, it's not because they don't like me

It’s not because they don’t like me, it’s not because they don’t like me, it’s not because they don’t like me

I like to promote and be passionate about things. I like to build an army of friends and people who love me, and act indirectly, through them. One thing that was somewhat different from how I perceived myself, but actually, when I stop and think about it, makes sense, is that I always thought of myself as not liking to make decisions and then becoming dominant when I didn’t see anyone else acting. The tool said, in contrast, that I can be somewhat dominant when I’m not under stress – but I actually become much more passive/submissive when stressed (see how the red bar drops on the left graph, below). I do think this makes sense, when I stop and think about it – I know that in high stress situations, I feel a sense of bitterness or annoyance that I’m the one who has to make decisions (although I usually feel like I’m better than many people at making decisions that value everyone’s concerns), whereas I actually don’t mind making them in day-to-day life. It can, and sometimes does, make me passive aggressive in those situations, whereas I am not very passive aggressive by nature.

Apparently, when backed into a corner, I become submissive and try to use my charm to get out of trouble....

Apparently, when backed into a corner, I become submissive and try to use my charm to get out of trouble….

My results generated some less-than-flattering generalizations about me. “Flattery will always generate a positive reaction from her**” and “Mira tends to break the rules and then attempts to sell you on the fact it was the proper thing to do***.” “She believes rules exist to serve rather than to be followed by her****.” Apparently, I really want everyone to like me, and not because it makes me happy, but because it’s good for them (it is!).

What??? Not effusive? Robbed, I tell you, robbed!

What??? Not effusive? Robbed, I tell you, robbed!

One of the things that came out of the analysis of my personality style, and this was something I was already aware of, but I’ve reflected on a lot more in the last few months (I originally took this quiz at the end of October last year), is that I am really drawn to the notion of life as an adventure. I don’t relish drama in the sense of interpersonal conflict (although I’ve learned not to always shy away from it). But, I do relish drama in the sense that I need everything – even my trips to the grocery store (okay, this isn’t an exaggeration, and so it goes in a parenthesis and not a footnote, I’ve blogged about the grocery store as an adventure at least once) – to be epic.

I remember taking the MMPI-2 back in graduate school*****, and there was a question that was something like, “I like to go to parties where there is loud, lively music,” and I used to quip, “I like to go to breakfast where there is loud, lively music!” If I were just a neuropsychologist who put on her white lab jacket and saw a few patients everyday, then wrote my notes, and hung up my jacket, I would be sincerely bored. One of the things I love about Hope is how much this is not my job. I get to create things and change kids’ lives, and I get to play, every day. And I do need that, desperately – no clarifying footnote or anything. I need my life to be an adventure. People who just have a “job” that “pays the bills” make no sense to me whatsoever – it’s like I know they exist, conceptually, and I’ve learned to understand how they think and act, to some limited extent, but I have no intuitive grasp of them at all.

I mean, seriously, do I look like I fit in with neuropsychologists who refer to their clinic as a "laboratory"? A couple weeks ago I went to work with Solo cups bobby pinned to my head.

I mean, seriously, do I look like I fit in with neuropsychologists who refer to their clinic as a “laboratory”? A couple weeks ago I went to work with Solo cups bobby-pinned to my head.

This is reflected in my icons – my namesakes who lived an epic life (Princess Mira) or wrote epic stories (Charlotte Bronte). It’s very much reflected in the stories I love. I understand and accept that there are tragedies and dark endings, but I need everything to be a love story – I don’t get stories that aren’t love stories of one kind or another. And I see the epic in everyday life. Mostly, Teri and I don’t watch much science-fiction or fantasy or anything like that, but I do get him to let us watch a lot of epic love stories (and usually he likes them as much as I do). Last night was fantasy. It was Teri’s pick, Stardust.

Okay, I kind of glow like this when I see Teri, too.

Okay, I kind of glow like this when I see Teri, too. Go watch Stardust on Netflix. They said I’d give it only 4.5 stars. Pssh. 

So, so satisfying. Later that night, I did have another one of those nights when I spent a little bit of time crying in the middle of the night, nestled in between Teri and Iago. Like the lost star in the movie, Yvaine, who fell to earth, I thought about our child, lost and alone out there, looking for us but not knowing how to find us, just as I was lost and alone, not knowing how to find Teri, until I finally did. I know our child is strong and will survive and persevere. And I thought about Teri going through things in his life – leukemia, bullying, family challenges, and so much more – and how I couldn’t be there for him, yet (Teri says I was there in spirit, and he’s right). But Teri pointed out that, like us, our child, out there, frequently lost and alone, would see life as an adventure, just like we have always seen and will always see life as an adventure. And like us, our child, out there somewhere, will have so many adventures, will make so many friends, will have so many people echo in a small way the love that they will know when they find us, before they ever come to us. Our child will know joy before we finally meet, because people like our child are the reason there is joy. Because our child may not carry the marker that they are our child because their eyes look just like Teri’s, or their smile looks just like mine, but our child will be marked in this way, and when we finally meet each other, we will know it. Just like Teri and I knew.

Way back when – and I’ve referenced back to it a couple times – I mentioned the very first book my book club read, Life of Pi, and the challenge it makes to the claim that the adventure is not “real.” This isn’t some psychotic dream. I don’t see dragons, and I am no damsel in distress. Magic may not let people disappear in clouds of smoke, or turn into doves, but it is real. It exists in this world, drawing meaning and deep structure between us. There are not wizards or Muggles, per se, but there is another kind of magic, and in some it runs deeply, and in others only a trickle or not at all. The magic runs deeply with me, and it is why my life is full of the amazing experiences with which it has been stocked. It runs in places, and those places call out to people like me, but people like me also infuse places with magic. The magic is why magical people sense a natural kinship and stay near to me, whether by miles or by the units of distance of the heart. Like the impromptu party towards the end of The Fountainhead, when we magical people draw near, we have a natural kinship that crosses boundaries of wealth and experience and time and space.

This is how I see life. It is my strength and weakness, both. I believe in it. And I embrace it.

* Oh, psychologists, why ya gotta hate on pseudoscience?

** Okay, kind of true.

*** Okay, totally true.

**** It’s like you know me. Stop talking.

***** It used to be a thing, that psychology trainees had to be patients of their professors or adjuncts associated with their department, as part of graduate school (this is more of a psychoanalysis era thing), and that MMPI’s were not only administered but had to be shared and interpreted by one’s professors, in a clear conflict of interest. We were simply asked to take it, to know how it worked and to see the results, ourselves, without having to share them with anyone. Now, this was my first year in graduate school, at the tail end of the most severe era of my eating disorder. I saved my MMPI, and I still sometimes show it to trainees as a cautionary example of understanding the resiliency of humanity. My (completely valid and not at all just suggesting I am histrionic) profile suggested fairly extreme, “lock her up, stat” distress in those days… I think I had six of 10 significantly elevated clinical scales, and this was during a time when I was making new friends, succeeding (and frequently knocking it out of the ballpark) in an extremely challenging graduate program, adapting to life in the South, training to run a full marathon for the first (and ultimately only) time, and recovering by pulling myself up by my bootstraps. That time was incredibly hard for me, but without medicines or therapies or anything but the kind of magic this post is all about, I not only survived, but this time became a gateway into thriving more than I have ever thrived.

Empathizing, Systemizing, Autism, and Trans People

Some of you may know that a big part of my professional life right now is tied up in the early diagnosis of, comprehensive treatment planning for, and early intensive behavioral intervention with kids with autism*. I kind of ❤ them, and I kind of ❤ their families. I am involved more peripherally and less intensively with adolescent/adult autism advocacy and services, but really it is preschoolers by whom I am surrounded on a daily basis. 

I get asked a fair amount about connections between autism and being transgender. One of the dominant pathophysiological models of autism is called the extreme male brain theory. (Some people in the autism world are fairly angry about this theory, but no one has put forward a scientific argument against it nor a better scientific model of the autism pathophysiology.) Although we don’t know exactly why it happens, this theory strongly implicates an excess of testosterone during a critical prenatal developmental period that essentially over-masculinizes the brain (and, to a limited extent, other parts of the body – surprisingly, hirsuitism has an elevated base rate in women with ASD). According to this model, whose chief developer is Simon Baron Cohen, there is a general pattern that some cognitive skills follow, which is:

F > M > Autism

… And a pattern that other cognitive skills follow, which is:

Autism > M > F

Where M is neurotypical (without autism) males, F is neurotypical females, and Autism is people of any sex with autism. As with most cognitive skills, individual differences are far larger than group differences in range, and so these are small averaged group effects (not every man or woman, NT or Autism, fits this pattern for every or even necessarily any cognitive skill, but on average, large groups of them do). The general pattern in both cases is that the autism population is at the extreme end of the male side of the curve. In the first case (where women have the advantage) these skills fall into a category Baron Cohen and others call empathizing skills. They tend to be holistic kinds of skills, like fine-grain modulation of production and detection and production of emotions and nuance, non-literal and non-verbal communicative adjuncts that “spice” language. They also include a number of skills that, at least to a neuroscientist, are related. The male advantaged skills fall into an area they call Systemizing, and they include analysis, classification, sequential task analysis, and a number of other skills.

So to start with, there’s already a theory linking autism with sex/gender. The theory explains the way in which the sex differences in autism occur both in terms of base rate and presentation (and why mild autism may go unnoticed in girls). To add to this, there has been some recent research linking people with autism and transgender people, with substantially higher rates of people identifying as transgender among people with autism than in the general population. One of the hardest things for this data to explain, however, is why there are autistic trans girls/women – if autism biases to male, it would seem there would be significantly more trans men among XX-karyotype people with autism, but significantly less trans women among XY-karyotype people with autism, because the pathophysiology of autism biases all people with autism of all sexes in the direction of at least certain kinds of masculinization.

I commented on this on a listserv recently, and a colleague kindly sent me an article I had not seen. This one looked at Baron Cohen’s Empathizing and Systemizing variables (EQ and SQ quotients for these can be derived from standardized, validated questionnaires, and a fair amount is known about the performance of various groups on these instruments). It found something interesting. In this study, adolescents who were transgender had EQ scores comparable to cisgender males. Whether they were MTF or FTM! The SQ’s were in the middle, without statistical differences from either men or women. In other words, the EQ/SQ measures did not classify trans youth in a way that concords with their self-identified gender identity, when in the group accuracy sense, it can do so for cis/NT youth.

And … this is how I experience the world, in terms of the same questions (you can take the questionnaire and obtain your scores here, although ideally it’s helpful to have an external source describe us, since they may see us very differently than we see ourselves):

I may not be perceived exactly this way by others, but this is how I feel, not all the pretending I’ve done all my life, to try and fit in with boys and men … on the other hand, I’m a little skeptical of this idea of the Coach store as “other personality testing” … well, the targeted marketers know me well

It’s pretty much the same way that test that classifies people accurately on sex based on answers to seemingly innocuous questions came out. Both put me overwhelmingly in female territory.

One of my observations about this is that this study is in trans youth. That’s cool and helpful, because many of these kids did not go through decades of forced pretending like I did. On the other hand, generally speaking, younger samples of trans-identified people contain relatively more very binary** and relatively less binary (transsexual) people, although there are also youth who are very binary. I am, by my own admission, and no one is jumping up to disagree, also very binary. I reap lots of benefit from the fact that I made no sense as a “man” but, aside from my height, largely fit right in as a woman. I have two more observations I think might be relevant. One is that, in different contexts, I have actually met probably a fair number of trans people with autism. Of them, only one that I can think of was “very binary” in her appearance. The second is a comment a cis-ally friend made, that in reading Jenny Boylan’s book, she doesn’t hear a woman’s voice, but rather hears a transgender voice. Now, Boylan is pretty binary, and I’m skeptical of my friend’s ability to pick a “transgender” experience out of a blind lineup of male and female voices (or really even for anyone to articulate a proposed nosology for what a transgender voice sounds like). But I have to admit, while I at first pooh-poohed this idea, I wonder now.

Is there a possibility that, rather than FTM and MTF spectrums, what is going on with people who are binary transsexuals (meaning they want to transition, and more specifically to transition into an easily genderable masculine maleness or feminine femaleness) is fundamentally different and separate from what is going on with relatively less-binary people (that is, people who may or may not transition, but do not particularly desire to pass or blend, and who are not particularly seeking an easily genderable presentation)? I’m not saying anyone would be a “true” transgender person and certainly not that anyone would be a false one. I reject this whole line of nonsense that calls me some complicated non-homosexual transsexual male instead of just calling me the intuitively obvious trans woman. If this were the case, is it possible that the former category of very binary trans people would generally classify like cisgender peers who match their gender identity? And this less binary group, whose core experience may be gender role non-conformance (rather than a gender identity that is more directly “opposite” their birth-assigned sex), could in actuality have its own place on the EQ/SQ matrix (and perhaps even on some as-yet-unidentified third orthogonal plane, in which these individuals would be highly differentiated and cis males/females would not, nor would highly binary trans males/females), rather than mirroring male or female values? Like the data on the extreme male brain theory, one would also predict that, alongside gender nonconformance, these brains may be optimized, on average, to do certain things way better than the gender conforming brains many of us have. And put all together, could they, indeed, have transgender voices rather than male or female voices? 

And the final what if: what if among people with autism, this latter proposed grouping were represented at higher base rates, but the former group were not? This might explain the presence of so many trans women with autism and also draw a parallel explanation that could shed light on the experience of less binary NT trans people. It might also explain the fight between the spectrum narrative and the woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body narrative. I have no recollection of being uncertain, ever, of where I really belonged on the masculinity-femininity continuum. I didn’t know it was possible that I could be a girl, with all the external evidence pointing against it and all the internal evidence pointing towards it. But I’ve always known I don’t have an ounce of masculinity in me. I just didn’t know how to get to womanhood without being killed or benefitting from magic or the technology of an advanced alien civilization. Without being able to experience such a world, I can also say that, for me, being allowed to dress and act like a girl but still grouped with and identified as a boy would not have been enough. The spectrum narrative doesn’t explain why, the first time I put foundation on my face (which is pretty much enough to make me look female), I knew immediately that I was seeing me for the first time. It doesn’t explain why, once I finally accepted the insane idea that I could find my womanhood, I knew exactly what it should look like, whereas I’ve never known how my supposed masculinity could look. To be indelicate, it also doesn’t explain why, when you ask many very binary trans women like me, outside of financial, safety, and outcome considerations, once we start transition, the question “do you want surgical options” this is not much of a question at all. That is, of course I do – given that it is very safe, the outcomes are generally very good, and I can afford it, it’s been a question of when and not if, ever since I decided to transition, and again, once I accepted womanhood, this has always been a foregone conclusion.

Let me stop here and take a really deep breath, because I sound like Professor Bailey from Northwestern, and the next thing you know, I’ll be doing the kind of shoddy research that is performed in gay bars and published in sexology journals. That person and others before him get caught up in trying to prove/disprove transness, as well as a host of other things (most prominently male bisexuality). I don’t care about that at all. And they are connected to traditions that gatekeep access to healthcare services to trans people (particularly access to hormones and surgery). Again, I’m firmly against that – I’m not saying less binary people should not transition, and I’m not saying they should. Actually, all I’m saying is that, while I still kind of hate calls to signal amplify, it may be really important to improving trans peoples’ quality of life to better understand the experiences of less binary trans people. And for that to happen, more of them, both autism and NT, need to tell their stories – neuroscience may also be informative, but it’s a concern that non-binary trans people are doubly marginalized, living trans in a cis world and then damned again by living less binary trans in a binary trans world.

Then, if our experiences are deeply and fundamentally different, us very binary people and less binary people, then maybe we would stop bickering over defining our supposedly common space and instead be allies and co-advocate for our common causes, while respecting each other’s right to have and celebrate their own narratives. I’m not saying I’m sure this is the right answer, but I’m curious. I’ve always thought people with and without autism have a lot to offer each other. I do think very binary and less binary people have a lot to offer each other, too. And what if transgender and autistic people were more involved in the process of trying to identify sub-types or sub-entities? Would we ask different questions based on our desire to help each other and understand ourselves, or would be just as driven to be “right” or to prove/disprove our own experiences’ validity as the sexologists are?

* With respect, I am just going to say “autism”; I mean people diagnosable with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s Disorder, although my hope is that most of them are thriving and living life. I’m also bypassing the question of using the phrase “people with autism” instead of “autistic people” – I use the former because I work with children, and their parents seem to prefer it, but I understand why and respect that autistic self-advocates frequently choose the latter. Finally, I generally use neurotypical, or NT, but I celebrate neurodiversity and I do also like what some people do, which is to say autistic and say allistic for non-autistic people

** I’m making up the wording as I go, sorry, but what I want to delineate is not the difference between genderqueer/genderfluid people and transsexual-identified people, but rather between people who identify deeply with the binary and those who identify weakly with the binary, whether or not they choose hormones, transition, surgeries, and so on.