The Great Leap Backward

The Great Leap Forward:

The Great Leap Backward:

Songs of the Gorilla Nation
Dawn Prince-Hughes

In this book, Prince-Hughes gives some compelling first-person accounts of life viewed through autistic lenses (Part One). Specifically, she lived with symptoms of undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. Although this caused her some difficulties in relating to other people, most of her problems as a child were caused by (1) public school, (2) alchoholism, and, most of all, (3) stupid parents.

Public school “socialized” her properly: She learned that she was a freak and deserved only ostracism and aggression against her because of her differences. This was not an unusual public school or one that needed more diversity seminars; it was a normal collection of insensitive, self-centered teenagers, full of self-righteousness and loathing for nonconformity. Consequently, she dropped out at 16 and became a homeless runaway, until she got a job at a strip club. Just imagine how much worse her self-esteem would have been if she had not been properly socialized!

Her drinking started in seventh grade mainly because of the stress of trying to fit in at school. Her mother’s friends helpfully bought her plenty of alchohol and even dropped it off for her at school. Of course her school friends also helped her out by inviting her to parties with free alcohol, where boys/men repeatedly tried to rape her. These experiences left her with a distaste for crude boys. The boys reciprocated by branding her a lesbian, quite apart from the fact that she had no overtly sexual feelings for anyone. Her political views and her reading of Kant led her to the intellectual conclusion that she must be queer.

When her parents found out that she thought she was a lesbian, they helpfully took their 14-year-old daughter to a youth brainwashing group for homosexuals, where she was freed from the oppression of the “two-gender system.” This was helped along by her readings from Psychology Today and the National Organization for Women, as provided by her parents. The book portrays her parents as providing no structure or guidance but plenty of hippie psychology about finding her own way.

She also gives touching descriptions of using coping strategies to overcome obstacles related to autism (Part Three). One coping strategy was to pursue her education as far as possible, since autistic people tend to have an unusual ability to concentrate intensely on subjects they are interested in. They do become overwhelmed in a traditional classroom, however, so she acquired her educational credits through independent study courses.

The benefit of advanced education is that it is greatly valued by neurotypical people (who have difficulty concentrating for extended periods of time on anything), so the autistic person can achieve a kind of social status and employability. Apart from certain requirements for social interaction in academia, autistics seem to fit in quite well, leading me to wonder if college professors exhibit a higher incidence of autism spectrum symptoms than the general population.

In between the factual, autobiographical parts is a romantic piece of fantasy fiction about gorilla men and women trying to cope with the unsympathetic homo sapiens around them, a kind of zoological Dawson’s Creek or Seinfeld. It seems that long ago, all the best parts of “human” nature were expressed in unadulterated form among the unevolved primates of the world. Their nonhuman descendants naturally continue to express the best of human nature, as evidenced by the fact that they have not yet developed MTV or Internet blogs. Since they are unable (or unwilling) to translate their more complex thoughts into our feeble sign systems, we must use special empathic powers to create metaphors for their thinking. This part of the book is a pure distillation of the most unbelievable crap to ever come out of evolutionary psychology.

Part Two does have value in the descriptions of close observation of animal behavior, but the author should have asked the gorillas for permission to quote them verbatim rather than guess at their thoughts. Without the mindless romanticizing of primate psychology, it is clear that relating to animals is simpler and more comforting for a wide range of human people, but most distinctively for those who may have obstacles in relating to other people because of mental, emotional, social, or physical disabilities.

Overall, this book is just another first-person account of coping with a neurological disorder. It has a few lessons for parents as a cautionary tale. It will also provide vindication for the sentimental idealism of diversity to those predisposed to romanticize it.


2 thoughts on “The Great Leap Backward

  1. Hi,

    I came across your comments about my book, as I try to find real people’s opinions about my work and not just listen to “literary experts.” I was touched by the way that you seemed to sympathize with the way men treated me earlier in my life — but I also wanted to make it clear, to be fair, that there were many men throughout my life that have been amazingly good and kind to me. I can assure you that if these men had had the power to “make me straight” their love would have done it. Prior to my involvement with the group you feared brainwashed me, though, I was clearly attracted to women not because men were bad, but because I appreciated what women were. I’m sure you can relate to that.

    It was difficult to read that you felt that my parents were stupid and you opinion that gorillas are not really as intelligent and conscious as I have experienced them to be. I always wish, in these cases, that people would get to know gorillas — to spend as much time with them as I did — before they dismiss their capabilities out of hand.

    As for my parents, I think that rather than being stupid, they themselves had profound social difficulties much like mine and did the best with what they could muster. I can say with certainty that both of them did much better by me than their parents had done by them. We can always hope that these things improve with each generation.

    In conclusion, I wanted to let you know that I gained a different perspective from your review; perspective of a nature that I don’t usually get when people err on the side of flattery.


  2. Dawn,

    I commend you for your courage in seeking out alternative viewpoints.

    I was certainly sympathetic to your mistreatment, as well as to your trials with respect to autism.

    I did not mean to suggest that your appreciation for women was artificial, or that any man could have altered your perspective.

    However, I am firmly convinced that homosexuality is a socially constructed identity. I draw this conclusion from the logic of queer theory, which postulates that heterosexuality is socially constructed. I believe that the sexual persona is unformed until it responds to biological and social pressures which lead the individual to consciously select a model identity, along with its concomitant attitudes, behaviors, and politics.

    I am sorry to say that my opinion of your parents was based entirely on the descriptions in your book. The primary source of my conclusion that they were stupid was the way they ignored your problems, exposed you to irresponsible adults, and left you in your corrosive school environment. The fact that you do not hold that against them is testament to your maturity, but I see it as a warning to other parents.

    I have no prejudice against gorillas, and personally I am guilty of secretly ascribing an inordinate amount of intelligence to my cats. However, I recognize that my conclusions are mostly projections based on my own imaginings, and that I would diminish the dignity of their animal nature if I valued them based on how much they resemble humans.

    They are what they are, and my treatment of them is dependent on my moral center, not on my emotional attachment to an idea of their similarity to me. The question of communication has no bearing on their dignity–just as it does not with autistic people–but it does bear on any evaluation of intelligence. To tie dignity to intelligence would be quite unfair to a large number of people and animals.

    Thank you for your response.

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