[PLEASE READ THIS NOTE BEFORE READING FURTHER: Some Internet trolls have, for a long time now, been linking to this page in my site (rather than the front page) in a passive-aggressive manner in order to imply that I am some kind of monster who takes pleasure in others’ misfortune. If you have followed such links to this site, this note is, especially, for you. The reality is that I take less pleasure in others’ misfortune than the average person seems to. This page is not about how I am happy when awful events happen (because, I’m not). It is about the fact that I, like many people of many kinds of atypical neurology, have great difficulty controlling my natural facial expressions, either to add expressions that are not automatic or to remove expressions that are automatic. And that, also like many people of many kinds of atypical neurology (and even many of typical neurology who are simply able to suppress it better), I automatically smile and laugh not only in situations where I am happy or find something funny, but also in situations where I am uncomfortable, terrified, disgusted, submissive, nervous, and grieving. If I were that kind of monster, I would not even feel discomfort, terror, etc. in the situations I am describing, nor would I advertise my problem with “inappropriate” smiling on the Internet. Additionally, I do also (sometimes) smile or laugh when I am happy or find something funny. Those are just not the only situations I smile or laugh in, and this post is not about situations where I am happy. You will see, if you read the comments section, that I am far from alone among autistic people or other people who are not standardly wired, and that in some cultures it is even often normal to smile in unpleasant situations. (It is even portrayed by one woman in the film Mozart and the Whale about a group of autistic people, when she laughs uncontrollably when afraid of hearing about rape and lesbian sexuality, and later smiles when saying she is sad that someone has cancer.) I originally thought of writing this post when recalling a conversation with the father of an autistic boy who often smiled when he was upset, and was often misunderstood in the same way I have been.]
I was discussing the purpose of laughter with a friend last night. We were talking about how most of the things human beings laugh about, we’re really uncomfortable with.
I started talking about something I rarely discuss because it’s been used to make me sound like a monster before: I laugh, or smile, uncontrollably (not that I have great facial control to start with), when horrified or disgusted by something.
I know that this just puts me at the extreme end of an utterly standard primate behavior pattern: The fear grin. My brother calls it the “dead hamster laugh” because I did it when my hamster died. However, it’s often seen in a very pathological or even monstrous light, and so I don’t often talk about it.
I suspect, from the point of view of institution staff, it is highly unnerving to have a patient who never smiles except when hitting you, and who also smiles very wide when being screamed at or discovered doing something that they know will get them in trouble. I can even imagine the thoughts that were going through their heads: “This is someone who is manipulative, sadistic, enjoys hurting people, and likes getting into trouble. And when she smiles as we come into the room and see that she’s pulled herself out of restraints again, it’s a mischievous smile.”
I know they thought some of that, in fact, because they said it outright. The fact that I was smiling at certain times got under their skin in ways that other inmates didn’t. I made them very uncomfortable. I even wonder at times if it didn’t contribute to their singling me out for especially bad treatment up to and including their attempt to kill me.
It doesn’t help that so-called inappropriate laughter is considered a sign of any number of pathological mental conditions, despite the fact that the “inappropriateness” is actually fairly standard for a large minority of the human population. My friend was commenting that if an otherwise “normal” widow stared laughing at her husband’s funeral, people would consider it shock or hysterical laughter. When most people laugh when a little afraid, it’s called nervous laughter. But when someone already judged to be abnormal laughs like this, it’s automatically pathological or else a sign that we’re some kind of monster who is actually taking sick pleasure in all these horrific events.
I smile when I have done something very wrong, and know it, and am horrified by what I have done.
I am likely to smile when I know someone is dying nearby.
I smile during all kinds of emergencies when someone has collapsed or is bleeding a lot.
I smile when people close to me die, including animals.
I smile during natural disasters, wars, genocides, and terrorist attacks.
I smile while watching people physically attack each other.
I smile while thinking about bad things about people.
What’s worse, this kind of smiling is longer-lasting and harder to control than the kind of smiling that occurs across my face fleetingly while I’m amused by something or having a good time. My mouth gets stuck, painfully so, smiling, or laughing, and I can’t do a thing to stop it. My control of mouth position is limited to begin with, but this totally paralyzes it in the worst possible position for the circumstances.
The reason I will never play the tape of my interview with Laura Tisoncik on institutions for anyone who doesn’t already know me well, is because it contains me laughing throughout the entire interview, both while I’m typing and while Laura is talking, nonstop, and laughing the most in response to some of the worst descriptions.
But what people don’t realize, is that I’m not happy, and I don’t find any of these things remotely funny. While I am sitting there smiling or laughing, my actual feelings are intense disgust or horror. There is no pleasure here, and it would be really nice if people realized that this doesn’t make someone a monster. It’s actually a very basic human (and primate in general) reaction that some people take further than others.