The We of Me: Playwriting, Place, and My Brother
by Claire Alston
The first exercise on the first day of playwriting class was to write to someone, a real person we knew—a letter we would never actually send. I can’t recall the details of my professor’s prompt: were we supposed to write to someone we loved? Someone we couldn’t understand?
In any case, I wrote to my brother, or rather, since he has yet to receive my letter, to his shadow.
He was seventeen at the time, and he held his hands in front of him stiffly as if he was bracing himself against the world, sharp nose sprinkled with freckles, large dark chocolate eyes fringed with a thick curtain of eyelashes, brown hair with strong brown eyebrows that were, and are, often knitted together in concentration or frustration. I could tell you how he paced, how he avoided eye contact, but I couldn’t have told you what he believed or dreamed or thought. But I figured that he did not think like me, the slew of letters he’d gathered over the years trailing in his wake—PDD-NOS, ADD, LD—somewhat distracting to me at the time.
I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember how I felt. In that moment, I felt the weight of the mystery that he was to me. I had lived with this boy (now mysteriously becoming a man before my eyes) for seventeen years, most of my life, but I didn’t relate to him. I started to wonder: did I know him at all or was he a seventeen-year-old cipher?
We were told to imagine that this person eventually responded to our letter and to reply in kind. In that fictional reply to a fictional letter—I imagined he had written to me about Batman, something I did know he enjoys—I wrote, and discovered, that there was real, mutual love there, in that strange catharsis that theatre brings: representation and reality, a true story that somehow becomes more real.
Retrospectively, those letters were an inciting incident for the rest of my life. My brother ignited my creativity that semester. Looking back at scenes and snippets of plays I wrote over that spring semester, I see common threads: usually at least one non-verbal character, nonlinearity, anxiety-inducing cacophony.
I came back home for the summer with several drafts of unfinished plays, determined to know and appreciate and love my brother on his own terms.
I started with Batman, asking questions and waiting for the answers. We began to share life together. I waited; I did things he wanted to do; I took him out for fries. I learned, because he told me, that he liked holding his hands stiffly, that he thought eye contact was pointless. “So eye contact establishes trust. But if you know I’m a trustworthy person, eye contact shouldn’t matter.”
And by the time the curtain fell on that fateful summer, I had realized so much about him and how precious he is. He’s not a superhero, he’s not perfect, but he’s a good guy—honest, stubborn, opinionated, loyal, deeply empathetic—and I am obnoxiously proud of him. Over the summer, he also made me know myself. His affirmation is such deep encouragement for me. I am incredibly grateful for the time he spent with me then and how he continues to invest in our relationship.
So when I assert that alarmist rhetoric about autism is hurtful, I mean that it hurts autistic people, undoubtedly first and foremost. But I want to be very, very clear about this: it also hurts me personally. My brother isn’t a set piece on my stage; he should never be reduced to a supporting character in my bildungsroman of a life-play. Don’t mistake this story for his story. He has his own. But he is a part of me. Being John’s sister is integral to my identity. It has been for our entire shared life. I just didn’t understand it before.
Through being John’s sister, I’ve learned to accept myself and recognize my own needs, too. I’d never marginalize the struggles of autistic people by describing myself as “a little autistic,” but I now recognize tendencies in my own interactions that seem to be consistent with a broader autism phenotype. Alarmist rhetoric demeans these parts of my own humanity; how much more degrading and harmful it must be to autistic people who are navigating social structures that haven’t been designed to welcome them.
Fortunately, love is bigger and louder and more real than the scaremongering for me and for my brother. It’s so easy to understand this now, when we feel such joy talking to each other, our goofy elation at Youtube videos or emotive Facebook stickers. It’s easy when we sit down and watch movies together. My hope and prayer is that the fear and misapprehensions will fade, because I know the love will remain, and I pray that it spreads.
I used to be so frustrated that my playwriting didn’t have a sense of physical place, even as I continued to write about autism, the harshness of the loud and sensational world we live in, families who want to reach out to each other but don’t always know how.
But now I understand. My playwriting has always been about wherever we are, our shared space, about love.