I Want to Believe (in Myself): The X-Files, Star Trek, and Autistic “Special Interests”

There’s a post at Chavisory’s Notebook today that I recommend you read before reading this, because context.  Also so I don’t have to repeat it.  Picture it cut and pasted in this space (except with more citing and less plagiarism).

I was obsessed with The X-Files as a teenager.  Obsessed enough that, unlike any of my prior so-called “special interests,” my family actually knew about this one* and, to a certain extent, supported it.**  Enough that I actually made a couple friends, the first friends my own age I’d had since elementary school, based on our shared interest in the show.

But even to my friends and family, I concealed the depth of my absorption.  I didn’t really understand it myself.  It lasted from a few weeks after the series’ premiere (“Ice,” actually) until just after the first movie- the second-longest-running special interest I’d had until that time.  The first one was Star Trek.

Watching the new episodes has been hard for me.  For one thing, they’re intensely triggering.  It took me three and a half weeks after they began running to convince myself to watch them at all – merely thinking about The X-Files was stirring up all kinds of amorphous emotional crap I thought I had resolved in my teen years but had in fact simply left behind.  Watching the new episodes themselves stirred up more amorphous emotional crap.

I almost didn’t watch “Home Again” at all.  I’m tired, tired of having spent the entire past week in a PTSD fog, tired of trying to figure out how it is that I’ve rewatched all of The Next Generation and Voyager since my teen years without my PTSD making a peep, tired of carrying, always carrying, this trauma.  I can forget about it at times but I cannot put it down.

But of course, the scariest questions are the ones that most need an answer.  And the answer to this one – why Star Trek still excites me to the point that I literally taught a class about the Borg in Voyager last year but why The X-Files is an emotional minefield – is becoming a way in for me to start to unravel the trauma of my teenage years.

I didn’t have the word “trauma” when I started watching The X-Files.  In fact, I didn’t have any words at all for what was happening to me – for what it’s like to go through puberty, without friends, with a mother who insists you pull a perfect Elsa, while autistic but without the word “autistic.”  If I’d had words like “trauma” or “autistic,” I don’t think I could have accepted them.  Not on my own; not without help.  And the help I would have needed to accept them would itself have greatly reduced the trauma.

The words I had were words like weird.  Wrong.  Secretly insane – literally; I believed for a long time that I had what my parents’ 1970s psych textbooks called “childhood schizophrenia”***.  Crazy.  And, yes, spooky.

Both Star Trek and The X-Files stick with me because each of them gave me a vocabulary for who and what I was, at a time in my life when I desperately needed a vocabulary.  They are two very different shows; they generated two very different vocabularies.

Star Trek was (as it has always been) an aspirational vocabulary.  It gave me hope for a world run by and for the benefit of humans in which I, markedly “other,” could be accepted and valued nevertheless – valued for my otherness, even.  This, I think, is why I don’t find rewatching Star Trek triggering.  The Star Trek universe in general, and Deep Space Nine and Voyager in particular, are about places I could belong.  I don’t identify with Barclay but I get Barclay.

The vocabulary The X-Files gave me was more realistic.  The X-Files was, for me, a show about the dangers of being different and the impossibility of being anything else.  It was a show about my reality: about the obliviousness with which most people go through their lives until you scratch the surface of that life, and about the incredible risks that boil out when you do.

As a Facebook friend of mine recently pointed out, autism is not an invisible disability.  It shows in our movement, our behavior, our use of language in various ways.  Difference frightens the human brain, especially when it is close enough to be “just like us” but…not quite.  Freud’s word for it was “unheimlich,” or uncanny.  Star Trek made aliens just like us; The X-Files made them….not quite.

To be uncanny is dangerous.  And we know it.  This is why parents of autistic kids spend tens of thousands on therapies whose only goal is to make the kid appear less uncanny.  Those parents are terrified.  That terror is a survival mechanism.  It arises pre-conscious thought, and so its presence, itself, is not cause for judgment.  It’s what people do once that terror becomes conscious that is a cause for judgment.

Star Trek presumed that humans would “grow out” of that pre-conscious terror of the uncanny, essentially rendering it canny.  The X-Files disagrees.  It does not have a particularly optimistic view of how people will react when faced with the uncanny – or, indeed, how they will react when faced with the idea of the uncanny.  Sure, there are moments, like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or Season 10’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” that can be remarkably accepting.  But this is largely a show about danger.

It’s also a show about the importance of being right – even when you are wrong.

The X-Files was my anti-ABA.  It taught me that one could get away with being weird or crazy or spooky, as long as one was, at least, not wrong for being so.  It taught me that “weird and crazy and spooky” and “wrong” are not synonyms – that there is a way to be right even while being uncanny.  It taught me that pursuing that sense of being right, even when it made me uncanny as hell, was good.  And it taught me that it was okay to believe that I was maybe not wrong even when the whole world was telling me I was.

That was my fascination with The X-Files, and with Mulder in particular.  I could sound completely crazy but maybe I was not wrong.  

It took over twenty years and four new episodes for that message to sink in.  Like Mulder, I wanted to believe.  But it was not the same thing as believing.

And maybe there would be someone – someone who wasn’t uncanny, who spoke the language that in my wrongness I didn’t speak, someone ordinarily human – who would back me up on this.

*(and still gives me shit about it, as if it were nothing but a garden-variety crush which of course had to have been on David Duchovny and could not possibly have been on Gillian Anderson – but I digress)

**By which I mean “they let me commandeer the VCR to tape episodes and rewatch them until the tapes wore out, and also bought me the show guides, several of the novels, and both “Songs in the Key of X” and the Mark Snow soundtrack,” and also “they did not actively try to stop me being interested.”  They would have said “Oh, The X-Files is her favorite TV show,” as if “favorite” could begin to adequately encompass what that show did for me.

***Turns out I was right: “childhood schizophrenia” was the diagnosis given to a great many people in the mid-twentieth century who actually had – you guessed it – autism.

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8 thoughts on “I Want to Believe (in Myself): The X-Files, Star Trek, and Autistic “Special Interests”

  1. 1. “…with a mother who insists you pull a perfect Elsa…”

    By any chance, do you happen to remember that Scully’s Quantico nickname was “the ice queen?”

    2. “…as if it were nothing but a garden-variety crush which of course had to have been on David Duchovny and could not possibly have been on Gillian Anderson…”

    Couldn’t have anything to do with David Duchovny, ha ha! quipped a friend from college as we talked about this, more than once.

    Scully actually had the way better arc of character development, I said.

    3. “Like Mulder, I wanted to believe. But it was not the same thing as believing.”

    Do you have any idea how many bright, well-educated people I have met, including but not limited to a former therapist, who have absolutely *no grasp* of the difference between believing, and wanting to believe? None. NONE. Is it watchers of this show vs. non-watchers of this show? People who have had some kind of intrinsic faith in the world broken vs. people who haven’t? It’s just wild to me, the number of people who can’t understand the difference between these two things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. I FORGOT THAT UNTIL YOU MENTIONED IT JUST NOW.

      2. I’m also just completely done with people who claim to know me well also presuming I am straight. (And yeah, Scully’s character and Gillian Anderson’s growth as an actor were the best parts of the series.)

      3. I firmly believe this is why that whole “I thought you believed”/”No, I WANTED to believe” in the first new episode. Indeed, why that whole episode exists. The difference is central to Mulder’s character and it always has been. His obsession is born of trauma, which we’re given to understand is the trauma of watching Samantha’s abduction – but it’s also the trauma of knowing what happens if he takes “it wasn’t aliens” to its logical conclusion.

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    2. “Do you have any idea how many bright, well-educated people I have met, including but not limited to a former therapist, who have absolutely *no grasp* of the difference between believing, and wanting to believe? None. NONE. Is it watchers of this show vs. non-watchers of this show? People who have had some kind of intrinsic faith in the world broken vs. people who haven’t? It’s just wild to me, the number of people who can’t understand the difference between these two things.”

      Oh my fricking GOD, yes, THIS; thank-you.
      (I remember a friend teasing me about sticking pictures of Scully as *well* as Mulder in my diary-collage *cough* in high school. I still don’t identify as attracted to women. But what would be THE FRICKING POINT of Mulder by himself? I wasn’t interested in David Duchovny (I’d already figured out that while characters weren’t perfect, actors were almost always crushing disappointments.)

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  2. I was fairly obsessed with the X-Files in my 20s (I didn’t “discover” the show until near the end of its run)

    I had no dx at all at the time (and only a semi-formal one now. Semi-formal autie dx, formal anxiety/depression). I strongly identified with Mulder, but not in a necessarilly hopeful way. He was obsessive, brilliant (in his own way, as I like to think I am), and pathologically incapable of normal human interaction. He was someone who didn’t fit in anywhere but made a life for himself.

    Scully was for Mulder what I wanted for myself (I didn’t ID as asexual yet, though I would say I was Ace then): someone who understood me as much as I was understandable, someone who would call me on my crap but out of care…

    There was some possibility of a little island of sense, purpose, and belonging in an utterly incomprehensible and soul-crushing universe…

    Granted, I now have similar feelings about Steven Universe :p

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is meant in all seriousness; I find your post uncanny. I often marvel at some of the similarities my brain shares with people with autism. Like you, I was obsessed with both the x-files a d Star Trek and like you my obsession had to do with the way the shows dealt with the uncanny which is all around us.

    I’ve enjoyed Season 10 of the X-Files but I’ve come away from it with a sense of hopelessness; why is Mulder still no closer to finding resolution and peace of mind 20 years later and why hasn’t Sculley resolved the conflict between her career and her desire to have a child and be a mother.

    Season Ten introduces us to two people who are approaching the far side of middle age.

    There was a moment in episode 1 that broke my heart. It is when the young woman who is an abductee tells Mulder that she fears that the future only gets worse.

    This moment that was traumatic for me because it spoke to my darkest fears.

    Thank you for an excellent post.

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  4. Oh, my god. How did I miss this post before?
    Hi.
    Me.
    (If I highlighted all the things that are or were *me* in your post, almost the whole page would be green.)
    <333333

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