I can't even bring myself to address the way his family treated him.
I am glad that things are changing enough that he feels he can talk freely now.
Bestselling novelist, Caiseal Mor, comes out as autistic - an interview with Donna Williams
April 23, 2007
Bestselling fantasy fiction author, Caiseal Mor, was diagnosed with ASD as a child. He’d written his autobiography in adulthood but the publishers and the journalists who helped his fiction works climb to fame were convinced that public awareness of his autism would be unhelpful to book sales. He was not only strongly discouraged from going public about having ASD but a whole other persona was created for him instead.
After seeing me talking about autism on the Insight Program on SBS on Australian TV, Caiseal contacted me by email. Surely, if I too was a bestselling author and public about my autism and clearly hadn’t been institutionalized in a loony-bin for the world knowing that, he considered again whether having autism was truly a dirty little secret that needed to be kept locked away.
After hearing his story I encouraged him to bring his autiebiography, titled A Blessing and A Curse, out of the closet and send it to Jessica Kingsley Publishers. It’s now basking in the light of day, having been published and released this April. Its a wonderful book, a shocking book, and a great read. I asked Caiseal for an interview. Here it is.
DONNA WILLIAMS’ INTERVIEW WITH CAISEAL MOR.
1) Caiseal, you’re a bestselling fantasy fiction writer of many books with a wide fan following.
Did your autism inform those works?
It’s very difficult for me to be objective about my autism but I know that some of the characters in my novels share my distinctly autistic traits. Some are hypersensitive, others have trouble interpreting their world and the nature of reality. I believe that all my fictional characters are aspects of myself.
2) Your fantasy fiction works were published by mainstream publishers who managed your image as part of their PR.
How removed from the real Caiseal Mor was that image?
From the outset my image was completely managed by others; especially publicists. That’s not unusual for any fiction author. However, as my books became more and more popular, my ticks and eccentricities were seen as a liability. The people around me turned out to be quite prejudiced. Rumours went around that I was psychotic because I refused to act the part of a successful writer and conform. Those people who had influence over my career made a concerted effort to hide the real me. I suppose they let their prejudices get the better of them. They built a mythology around Caiseal Mór that has, unfortunately, persisted.
The next ingredient in the myth was the media. Either because of sloppy research or because they were repeating silly rumours they’d heard, a few journalists created a background and a persona for me that simply was not true. For example; one particular reviewer claimed to have met me at a book launch. She described me as a short, fat, bald Irishman in my late sixties. She claimed I reminded her of a dwarf version of J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, anyone who knows me would laugh out loud at that but since this bogus description was printed in a major Australian newspaper my readers believed it. It’s been quoted again and again by the international media and simply won’t go away. I’d turn up to book-signings and have to show my driver’s licence to prove I was the real deal. Journalists have a lot to answer for.
3) You were diagnosed as autistic and identify with Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD.
What kept you in the closet all these years about these conditions?
As I mention in my autobiography, I’ve been taught to be ashamed of my autism. Shame has pretty much controlled my life. I was also led to believe that autistic people were compelled by law to be institutionalised. I thought I was going to end up in a mental hospital and there was nothing I could do about it. It was threat Mother employed to calm me down. Nothing scares me like the prospect of having my liberty taken away from me. I live for my creativity and I believed that creativity is forbidden in mental hospitals. After I ran away from home I learned to present as normal so I’d slip under the radar. I thought there weren’t many people like me. Crippled by shame I went into hiding. I became an extreme recluse.
I really only began speaking openly about my autism and co-morbid disorders in the last few years when I realised I had nothing to be ashamed of in the first place. I understand that I’ve suffered terrible prejudice in my life. But I believe prejudice is based entirely on ignorance. And ignorance can be cured.
4) Autism is distinguished from Asperger’s mostly on the basis of early language history.
Whilst 2/3rds of people with autism do have speech, most of those people have dysfunctional language and many who are non-verbal are now beginning to use typed communication.
What was your own early speech like?
Did you have conversation or just speech?
I didn’t speak until I was four. I screamed and cried but I didn’t use or understand words. I describe in my book how I listened to animals and accurately copied their sounds and calls. Even after I began to use words I rarely strung them together in conversation. Most of what came out of my mouth was learned by rote off the television. I was eight or nine before I began to grasp the rules of conversation. I’m in my 40’s now and I still struggle sometimes to hold a conversation. I much prefer the written word. Interaction can be very frustrating for me. My brain is wired differently from most people.
5) Your book, A Blessing and a Curse, has been compared with international bestsellers like Nobody Nowhere, Sybil and Forest Gump.
In what ways do you think your life compared with the central figures in those books.
From the start the odds were stacked heavily against me. I wasn’t able to get the best out of the education system because it couldn’t deal with someone like me. There were no special schools in Australia in the 1970’s. I was labelled as an idiot who’d end up digging ditches for a living. As a teenager I’d come to terms with the fact that I’d always be alone in life. That was very hard but it enabled me to survive without peer pressure to conform and that released a terrible burden from me. At nineteen I got it into my head to do as much with my life as possible before I was put away in a mental hospital. This led me to go off overseas on an adventure. My incredible good fortune led me to meet some amazing and inspirational people. I was fortunate enough to have some truly wonderful experiences. My adventure soon transformed into a kind of pilgrimage. I was away from Australia for five years. When I returned I was inspired to go to university and by pure chance I was accepted into one of the premiere theatre courses in this country. The next thing I knew I was writing bestselling novels. I’ve had a quite miraculous life really when you think about it. I suppose that’s because I’ve always stayed fairly positive.
6) There’s no avoiding that your book is shocking but it’s also poignant and beautiful at times.
Tell us about the Green-tree-man and your aunt’s later take on this important encounter.
I tell the whole story in my autobiography so I’ll tell it very briefly here. When I was a boy I used to climb up into an old mango tree to hide from Mother. One day, while I was sitting on a branch I saw a green tree snake shedding its skin. I called him Green Tree Man. I had a very close encounter with that snake but I took it the experience in my stride. Mother on the other hand totally freaked out. She pressured Father into killing the snake. I felt extremely guilty about the snake’s death and still do. Perhaps if I hadn’t drawn attention to him he might have lived. I kept his discarded skin for a long while.
It so happened that I was telling my aunt about this encounter some time later. My aunt was a born-again Christian. She’d always seemed quite a reasonable person. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her about the snake. Serpents were representatives of Satan in her mind. She was convinced that my autistic eccentricities were caused by the Devil or, at the very least, one of his minions. To her way of thinking my close interaction with a snake linked me with evil and explained why God had decided to punish me by making me abnormal.
I’m autistic. I’m not stupid. I never really took her seriously after that.
7) Your parents really come across as the height of ignorance in their times. Their brutality, including your mother raping you in an attempt to manage your behaviour, is almost unfathomable to most people but do you think this sort of child abuse is still prevalent behind closed doors today?
When I read this question it deeply affected me. I had to spend a while processing what it meant. Before I wrote my autobiography I’d never told anyone about Mother’s mistreatment. I thought I’d had a normal childhood and those sort of things happened to everyone. I’d never considered that what she’d done to me was rape. Now that the word has been used I can see that it certainly was rape.
Violation of my body was used as a way to control me, when other forms of physical punishment failed to elicit any response. But the way my parents treated me must be viewed in the context of the times. Autistic behaviours were viewed by my parents as a form of extreme non-conformity that could be cured, or at least managed. I was considered wilful and uncontrollable. Psychologists and doctors led my parents to believe that punishment could transform me into a normal little boy. All that happened was I learned to present as normal while developing PTSD and other co-morbid disorders. I’m still autistic; so the punishment certainly didn’t cure me. It just forced me to learn to hide my true self.
I’m certain this sort of thing still goes on behind closed doors. I know of one boy who is subjected to punishment by a mother who believes she is preparing him for the real world. Conformity is one of the devastating obsessions of western society. It makes me shudder to think that autistic children are still mistreated by their carers.
8) Today autistic children and teenagers are still among the most likely to go into residential care homes and some are murdered with their families often blaming lack of services. Many of these families truly believe they have done all they could and love their children. Do you think the severity of a child’s autism puts them more at risk of institutionalisation, even harm at the hands of their carers, or do you think that the picture is far more complex than that?
Love is a very strange word. My aunt thought she was expressing her love for me by trying to have me exorcised. To my mind love is defined by acceptance. I think acceptance has been confused with tolerance in our society. Tolerance implies there is some imaginary line that must not be crossed- once it is all rules of decency seem to be abandoned. Acceptance runs a lot deeper than that. Without acceptance in the mix love just isn’t love. In my opinion if love is built on tolerance it inevitably leads to enforced conformity.
I believe I was exposed to a level of abuse that would have been unthinkable if I’d been born without autistics traits. I found it difficult to communicate with anyone when I was young. Mother came close to literally killing me on several occasions. She reconciled her violence by telling herself I didn’t have the same feelings as normal children. She never thought to ask me how I felt.
I can’t comment about other autistic people because everyone’s experience is unique but I suppose it follows that someone with severe autism will be more at risk because they have trouble communicating their concerns. To me it is most disturbing that parents who murder their autistic children so often claim to have been acting out of love. They are frequently exonerated or merely given a slap on the wrist by the justice system. Often it appears that autistics aren’t considered as human as other people.
9) You live independently, are an accomplished author, musician, artist and have a background in film. You have technological abilities, you can speak articulately, have friends and a partner. If autism is a life long disability, what’s left of your autism in terms of struggles with daily and social functioning?
My autism is always with me. I’ve learned to present as normal but that doesn’t mean I fit into any boxes. I’m constantly discovering new things about the world that other people take for granted; especially when it comes to relationships and social signals. These days I’m more relaxed about my autism.
When I’m by myself I often slip into a trance-like state where I conduct planning for my creative endeavours. To someone who doesn’t know me this trance might seem like a catatonic fit but I’m actually very much awake; just shut down.
I tick when I’m anxious, stressed or exhausted; and sometimes for no reason at all. I hate being touched or distracted from my focus. As I’ve matured my autism has changed and evolved to the point where I can achieve results that would have been unthinkable for me as a child or a teenager. Also I don’t tend to struggle to understand or please others as much as I once did. I let them struggle more with me. I’m much more myself. If someone doesn’t like the autistic me they don’t usually gain admittance to my inner circle. If someone wants to get to know me they have to pass some stringent tests. My wife, Helen, is a very accepting person so she passed the test easily.
10) Given the often poor prognosis of people with autism and that you’ve come so far, how far behind was your development at age 3, age 5, age 10 and what do you attribute your progress to today?
I was so far behind in my development as a child that I was considered incurably brain-damaged for a long while. It wasn’t until I was seven or eight that I apparently showed any intelligence. That forced the doctors to reassess my condition and that’s when they came up with autism. I developed slowly even as a teenager. I was behind all my peers both socially and academically. It wasn’t really until my late twenties that I really began to achieve good academic results and then only because I was extremely focused.
I attribute my success in life to the fact that I’ve always been able to achieve anything I set my sights on. It’s the savant aspect of my autism that has probably eased my way through life. If I’m interested in a subject I will absorb everything there is to know about it in record time. I can watch a master craftsman making a drum or a musical instrument and I can do as good a job in no time. I learned to fluently speak both German and Spanish in a matter of weeks.
I was in my early thirties before I began to realise my potential. If I’d been encouraged instead of isolated as a boy, just imagine what I could have achieved in this life.
11) Brutality played a big role in motivating you to control a lot of involuntary challenges in order to survive. But this has come at a price - rage, DID, PTSD. Do you think the price is worth it? Can you think of any other type of affordable approach which would have brought you this far?
I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I know this is hard for some people to understand but I’ve long ago forgiven my parents, despite their abuse. I have a wonderful life and I’m very grateful for my journey. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my parents were doing the best they could with limited resources. If they’d been able to accept me for my quirks perhaps things would have been easier for me. I really believe that acceptance is the key.
12) When is your autobiography due out and how can people find out more information about the book and what you’re doing now?
My autobiography; “A Blessing and A Curse; Autism and Me” is published in May 2007 and can be pre-ordered on the amazon.com web-site. I have a web-site of my own- www.mahjee.com where I keep my readers informed about my latest projects and I post a blog.
Caiseal, welcome out of the closet and thanks so much for being involved with this interview.
… Donna Williams