Major Project: The Lunatic of the Headlands

Bryce Anderson

When the villagers told me of the madman raving around the headlands, I made it my purpose to see this poor soul. I make my living as a traveling physician, you see. It isn’t anything like the luxury I enjoyed when I lived in the city. It took me ten years into running my own practice to realize that I was utterly miserable. I had long since sworn my oath to do no harm, but it became evident to me that their issues were rarely real. At least, not in the way they were out here. “In the wilds” my mother called it. Away from civilization, law and order, effectively breaking bread with barbarians and heathens. In villages like this one, their children rarely had enough food, and not from lack of fasting from their parents. They died of common colds the poor things. After my first week abroad, I knew that this was the right choice. The city-folk would find another doctor.

            It was only a month passed since I had visited the village of Darington and their lunatic. Much like it typically is when I come upon a new people, they were hesitant at my intentions there. It only took me producing my medical bag and stethoscope and their apprehension turned into intense interest. They set me up in a house that was much more solid than it appeared from the outside. The exterior looked built mostly from dirt or clay, supported with logs and wooden planks. It always impresses me, the machineless carpentry that they can produce, perhaps from a previous underestimation of their abilities, of humanity’s abilities. I stayed with a single man who was called Ferron. He was incredibly thin, far too thin. The skin stuck to his bones. Fats and proteins, I told him as best I could. They spoke little English, enough for basic communication with signing weaved in. They understood even less which made conversation quite hard. I told Ferron that he needed to eat more, or he would go mad during his work in the fields. He asked if I meant like Ravi and I asked him who he was referring to.

            Ferron and I stayed up past dark talking of Ravi. He was Ferron’s age, around his thirties it seemed. Ferron called him crazy, a lunatic, not right in the head. Ravi did not talk until he was a decade old. Any attempts his parents made to “pull him out of himself,” as Ferron put it, before that time were fruitless. Ravi was never all there, Ferron said. Even when he did speak it was babble, words that didn’t belong together. He would rarely even allow his parents to touch him much less hug him. Often, he would devolve into fits upon physical contact. It made the Ferron, along with the other children at the time, not want to be around him. They teased him some, mostly to get a reaction out of him. Ferron used many different words for dunce describing Ravi. When I asked him where this Ravi was, Ferron released a chuckle, his dry throat sounding off like a cymbal. He told me that Ravi left the village a decade ago. He no longer lived there, but he saw him from time to time. He would wander into the village, fidgeting furiously and raving in his usual manner. Most of the villagers gave him a wide berth when he came into town. His parents were no longer around, but another woman, an elder of the village took to feeding him whenever he made his way back. She was the only one that could get close to him, calm him, and get him to eat peacefully. I asked him about this woman, and he told me her name, Helga. I slept that night on a straw mattress, earnestly beckoning the day forth.

            In the morning, I found Helga preparing to leave by the entrance to the woods surrounding the village. She was covered all around with silk-like fabrics, dull blues and greens. She carried a basket woven from reeds and wore a shawl over her head. A kind, wrinkled face poked out of it. I questioned her about Ravi and she smiled, laughing a bit. She was his mother’s sister, his last relative, and the only one that truly cared for him. When I asked about his whereabouts, she delightfully agreed to walk me there. He lived in a cave near the headland, away from the village and she liked to check in on him sometimes.

            On our way, I asked more questions about him. Was he dangerous? Ferron had told me was mad. No, she chuckled again. Ravi was not crazy, or mad, or dangerous. He was just, she waved her hand in the air, looking for a word, perceptive. So much so that it hurt. She told me that after Ravi was old enough to take care of himself, his parents had abandoned him. They left the village. He’s dealing with it in his own way, she said. As we walked through the tree, my nose caught the subtle scent of salt water. Helga picked ingredients as we hiked. She would stop and bend down when she saw something she needed, a groan rattling in the back of her throat. When she stood, she would say the plant’s name before placing it in her basket. The wind was picking up and, on some drafts,, I could hear a voice, soft and distant. Helga told me that Ravi took in too much of the world, that he just saw things differently. She grimaced at the word saw. It wasn’t to her liking. The world is different for Ravi. You and I, we speak different, she said to me, but Ravi, he is unique. Untranslatable, I said. No, she said, just difficult. She told me that Ravi was very good with plants. For her medicine, the wrong plant could kill someone, but Ravi could tell two apart that looked identical as if they were so obviously dissimilar. Soon we cleared the trees and a clear field that ended in cliffs stretched out before us. The smell of the sea was stronger here. It didn’t come and go; it stood its ground. We were in its territory and would have to adapt.

            We reached Ravi’s cave after about half an hour. It had a great view of the sea and the gulls’ screech was more relaxing combined with it. As we approached, I could hear a man grunting, he had heard us approach. He appeared at the mouth of the cave, a rather tall young man. He looked normal; some might even call him handsome if it weren’t for his dishevelment. His hair was relatively straight, just long and uncut, a good face, no obvious impairment. When he saw Helga, his arms flapped like the gulls circling around us, but they ceased, wrapping around his own body in a self-embrace, when he saw me. Protests shot forward like a departing locomotive, increasing in speed and intensity. Until the birds scattered. Helga managed to calm him down but in a manner I wasn’t expecting.

From Ferron’s accounts, I assumed this man to be volatile. I expected Helga to be somewhat gentle, but as soon as his grunting in protest grew too loud Helga shushed him, assertively, but friendly. Oh hush, she said, you have a visitor. Say hello. Ravi’s armed clenched. He did not look at me, but his arms relaxed after more coaxing from Helga, and then he smirked and said the seagulls like fish before walking into his home.

The interior was well furnished, relatively. There were furs and a place to sleep and a fire. Next to said fire were two fish, skinned and ready to be cooked. Helga dropped her basket and got to work silently. She washed her hands in a stone bowl then washed the fish. She dug into her basket for the plants she picked on our journey. She placed two of the same plant in front of Ravi. He now sat across from her, mesmerized by her workflow. Which is seasoning, she asked, which is medicine? Ravi smirked again, pointing at the plant to his right without a moment’s hesitation. Are you sure, Helga asked? Ravi nodded enthusiastically. She picked up the plant. Hmm she said. She looked at me, quietly observing this strange routine. He sees things clearly, she said. Better than you and me sometimes. Helga focused on cooking the fish for the next few minutes.

From what I could see of Ravi, he was not the raving madman of the headland I had imagine in my head. Nor did he appear to be mentally deficient. It even brought me joy to see his enthusiasm for company grow as the day went on.

Helga and I stayed there until the Sun began to set. The walk felt shorter on the way back and I passed out from exhaustion at the moment I lay my head down to rest. The next day, I decided that I had spent enough time here and packed my things. The people of the village were taken care of and a traveling physician can’t be so if they stay in one place for too long. I said my farewells to Helga and Ferron and the many children I had treated during my time there. During my trek through along the dirt road along the headland, I could see Ravi there standing at the edge of the cliff, his back to me, watching the seagulls circle around him. He joined in earnest.

Final: Unkindness of Ghosts and a Neurodivergent Revolution

Bryce Anderson

Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is the story of the HSS Matilda, a generation ship socially structured like the antebellum United States. For her whole life, the protagonist, Aster, has been berated and abused because of her stature and manner of speaking. An Unkindness of Ghosts’ characters are an expression of neuroqueer and poses a potential revolution for neuroqueer. In this paper, I will focus on the three main characters Aster, Theo, and Giselle and how their actions represent a neuroqueer revolution.

A revolution requires something to revolt against and the Matilda is ripe for change. It functions mainly around class and gender. While there is no reference to why it was setup this way, there is somewhat of a rationalization. The Matilda is run under a sort of Mandate of Heaven with the Sovereign and everything extending outwards from him having divine right. There are heavy references to Christianity’s influence on Matildan culture. Their destination, while unknown, is called the Promised Land, the upper deckers feel that the lower deckers lack spiritual purity and must be where they are as a result of said impurity. To the guards that police the lower decks, the people there are lower than dogs. When Lieutenant becomes Sovereign, he calls, “a four-legged beast with a snout for a nose, that doesn’t bathe itself” more beautiful than the people of the lower decks (Solomon 242). Their distaste and dehumanization of the lowdeckers, specifically lowdeck women, result in frequent sexual assault at the hand of the guards as a form of punishment. The Matilda shares many similarities with our history, and arguably the world we live in today and these make it a perfect launching point for a revolution.

Aster represents the neuroqueer’s struggle in assimilating to neurotypical standards. Her amputation of Flick’s foot shows us her trouble with social queues and a matter-of-fact way of speaking. Flick’s great-grandmother calls her Insiwa or Inside one saying, “you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning” (Solomon 23). Similar to how, in Amanda Baggs’s “Up in the Clouds” her “ability to fit words into familiar patterns outstrips [her] ability to understand the words themselves” (Baggs). Many times within the book, we’re shown Aster cataloguing words. While her lexicon is vast from spending so much time reading Ainy’s dictionaries, she lacks the context to use them in and so must add and relearn it each time. When it comes to speaking Aster, “always thought thrice before talking, having said the wrong thing too many times” (Solomon 189). We’re shown throughout the book that Aster, just from her bulkier physique and oddness has been treated as lesser, not there, too dumb to understand what was said to her, even though she understood clearly. Her struggles match Baggs’s and many other autists’ experience when it comes to communicating. Like Baggs, “typical language takes place in the clouds” coming effortlessly to the people around her, neurotypicals, but for Aster, it is a constant struggle to decode what people mean. Because of this degrading of her value as a person, Aster just wishes to have the dignity of a living being. This comes to a climax in the Bowels with Ty and Seamus. The adrenaline wears off from the confrontation, Aster had to fight like many times in her life and she bursts out saying, “Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive…I’m alive” (Solomon 276). It is her desire to be entitle to basic human decency, the benefit of being alive. Her sister, Giselle, however, performs in a different way.

Giselle performs her neurodivergence in a different way than Aster. It follows more with Dr. Walker’s fifth “definition” of the term. “Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity” (Walker). She is much more brash and unfettered by others’ perceptions of her. We are told that “Aster’s mind wasn’t as cursed by voices and visions as Giselle’s, but she knew madness well” (Solomon 63). From this frame, we could interpret any of Giselle’s actions as a reflection of her “madness,” but I would argue it is more an expression of her own neurodivergence as well as an extension of her trauma from the guards. Her actions, like burning down Aster’s botanarium are not involuntary to her. In the midst of doing so, she wonders that “Sometimes it’s like I can’t help it, then I think, no, I could help it, I could hold it back, like a sneeze” (Solomon 319). Her lashing out is a response to, from her perspective, being abandoned by her closest friend and sister, Aster. Because of this, Giselle is put up for execution, the second within several days under Lieutenant’s rule as Sovereign. But the system of the Matilda will not be her death. She takes it into her own hands, denying them of further control over her life by taking her own life. Her death, while not the cause of the lowdeckers’ resentment for the Sovereign and the upper decks, certainly serves to ignite the flames of rebellion within the entire lower deck of the Matilda.

Theo performs Walker’s ninth definition of neuroqueer. He as Heaven’s Hands made Flesh is the one binding agent between the decks. Matildans respect and revere the Surgeon and because of this, he is especially suited to affect change throughout the ship. Walker’s ninth example explains one practice of neuroqueer as follows, “Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged” (Walker). His less masculine presentation when it comes to Matildan upper decker standards makes him the target of ridicule and even sexual advances from his uncle. From his high station and the circumstances of his birth, Theo is particularly posed to set the Matilda and by extension humanity, on a better path as it returns to Earth.

An Unkindness of Ghosts uses its characters as a means of initiating a neuroqueer revolution aboard the Matilda. Their experience on the Matilda has only been defined by the qualities that they lacked. Their journey and the obstacles they encountered brought them to a sense of self-actualization, realizing that there is no absence, only a different kind of richness unique to them.