Like many autistic people, I find neurotypical communication fascinating but often deficient in fixedness. Since childhood I have examined ostensibly arbitrary conversation for repeated patterns, and my social ability has been informed largely by what I have discovered. The principle I find easiest to neglect is that dialogue with new acquaintances must be comprised exclusively of topics relating to the participants themselves. Following this theory, though, naturally prohibits any discussion of my central interests, all of which are typically perceived as obscure. An intense preoccupation with a singular topic is a common autistic characteristic, and my own all-consuming interests have previously included: Recurring Lyrics in Popular Music, Ponies Native to the British Isles and Welsh Former MP Neil Kinnock (this fascination took me for several years at the age of nine and was supremely unhelpful in peer interaction). The singular issue I have been most keen to discuss in recent years, whether in a supermarket queue, at a wedding or a children’s birthday party, is Local Identity and Geographical Resettlement Patterns of the First Italian Diaspora. I can regretfully confirm that this is not a subject which promotes conversation.
Discourse between recent acquaintances usually favours domestic subjects, such as childhood location and family structure: Where did you grow up? Do you have siblings? How many? Most informal conversation runs on such limited and predetermined themes; the resulting queries are not requests for facts but an invitation to tell charming stories. Social interaction adheres to a collective rhythm as strictly and imperceptibly as an orchestra whose members look at each other and rarely at the musical score. Each speaker follows the orderly prettiness of whatever piece is played, and this with an artlessness contrived to disguise their performance. The conductor, who in conversation directs the questions, will be poised to share carefully crafted stories of their own early years; these will usually be far more melodic and picturesque than the truth. For me, the happiest element of such dialogue is this practice of telling acceptable stories, rather than relaying facts, because my sibling experience is as unstable as it is unsayable. If conversation were not music or stories but only truth, I would be obliged instead to share that I have more brothers and sisters than I can count or name, that I am one of six siblings and my favourite is dead, that I now have just two beloved brothers, and each of these is a twin only to me. There have been too many brothers and sisters in my life to accurately name or remember. Who would I treacherously forget if I tried to number them? Other families have a static and knowable cast. My own siblings cannot be counted, but only flicker at the edge of my memories, their identities as uncertain and shifting as water.
Fortunately, creativity was the first principle of conversation I learned. It was a pledge made by all the children in my home; Outside this house, we speak only of stories that will not disturb either the listener or the cadence of our shared song. This was the only rule observed by our disparate tribe, who had all been close enough to violence to know the dirty breath of it on our skin. It was the innumerable siblings themselves, those tiny and tyrannical rulers of my childhood universe, who taught me that stories or silence are safer, always, than disclosure. They trained me to creatively employ narrative as a tactic of evasion as much as one of entertainment. And, when I had no story with which to shield our unpleasant truths, I turned instead to the muteness which was my regular preference. I was usually the youngest sibling, and always one of many; my characteristic silence was welcomed rather than recognised as another of my autistic traits.
My parents married in the early 1970s and moved to an industrial town in the Swale district of Kent. They eventually had six biological children, of whom I was the last. My mother worked as a foster carer and raised us as siblings to the looked-after infants and teenagers who moved through our home over the course of almost two decades. In our household there was no distinction of feeling between those who were biologically related and those who were simply instructed to regard each other as such. Indeed, of the two siblings I love best, only one is genetically related to me. He is the twin brother who took his last breath when I took my first, as if he had been waiting to greet me but found there was enough air for only one of us. Born before me and at a sturdier weight, he should have survived. I imagine he met death as defiant and open-mouthed as a caught, shining fish, refusing to cede. He is the sibling I think of most fondly and most of all. My other favoured brother is the baby who came into care after the surgical removal of a nappy left to rot into his skin by his mentally unwell parent. He was placed with my family days after I was born and instantly became my other twin. Three years later he was sent to another foster carer, but he remains the dark-eyed face of my earliest memories, my second stolen brother.
Like each of my twin brothers, the various siblings we were assigned departed abruptly and without preparation or explanation. They lived with us sometimes for days, sometimes for years. There was never a fixed period of stay. The names and faces of these temporary siblings changed often, but my family was always in double figures and our house always chaotic. The children fostered as our siblings were those who were difficult to place in other family homes. Their behaviour was the result of significant previous trauma, which typically included physical abuse. The particulars of these horrific events, when relayed, were disturbing, yet also desensitising in the manner of a toxic exposure therapy. I came to believe such practices would inevitably happen to us all in our turn, that every young person eventually suffered these as a matter of course.
Our mother was impressively unflinching in the face of hostility and violence, and this fortitude was essential to her vocation. My oldest biological sister, who, in a pleasing symmetry, is eighteen years younger than our mother and eighteen years older than me, was similarly resolute. She and our mother sometimes reminisced with the proud and studied nonchalance of former soldiers: Remember the girl who locked herself in the toilet with the baby and a knife? my eldest sister would say, as our mother laughed. Or one of them might ask the other, variously, Who was it that stole the television/the dinner money/the Christmas presents that time? Each of them would frown identically as they tried to remember names, to separate one minor emergency from another. Their recollections were never accusatory or condemning but were shared with the fond amusement others might reserve for more routine familial missteps, those that do not involve violence, drugs or pregnant fourteen-year-olds.
The practices of our own home naturally resembled those found in institutional settings. Money, sentimental items and anything that could be easily sold was optimistically hidden or secured. Bedrooms were allocated and arranged according to gender and the number of beds that would fit into the space – looked-after children were not required to have their own bedrooms at this time, as they are now. Bunk beds and camp beds were lined up so closely that it was impossible to get up without climbing over or disturbing at least one room-mate. We were occasionally woken in the night by an emergency placement in our already crowded room. Hot food was served in multiple sittings because there were too many of us to fit around the table at once. The lengthy preparation of these event-sized dinners might be interrupted by a threatened suicide or a physical fight, an update on a missing child, or the need to telephone for immediate police assistance. And after solving these sibling crises, our mother would return to the small kitchen and continue her domestic routine without comment, apparently unmoved. We only knew about such incidents if we witnessed them ourselves; unruly brothers and sisters were not remarkable enough to invite familial review afterwards.
Luke and Andrew were biological brothers who became my foster brothers for almost a year when I was twelve.1 They came into care after being trafficked and sexually exploited for several years. Andrew was fourteen, and occasionally he overlooked the fact that we had all been designated as siblings and went into the girls’ bedroom completely naked. If he discovered you in a room alone, it was much worse. There was a long-standing brother who helped Andrew by cheerfully holding the door closed against the girls within. Andrew’s biological brother sternly forbade the unwelcome visits when he discovered them. At sixteen, Luke was extremely handsome, and extremely violent too. His rages came as randomly and unprovoked as weather. Once, without comment, he presented me with a heart locket on a delicate chain. He did not tell me where he got the necklace from, and I never asked. I wore it faithfully. One of Luke’s episodes involved throwing furniture, a door and a family pet from the first-floor landing while describing what he would do when he finished there and came downstairs. Policemen managed to climb up between falling pieces of wood and detritus, but it took several of them to restrain him in his fury.
My siblings and I did not remark directly on such incidents. We were little fatalists, as superstitious as primitive villagers in not naming what we did not wish to conjure. If we acknowledged the menacing forces that circled our home as invisibly as air, they might take shape, possessing any of the children who were amenable to them, as indeed many of us were.
Sign in to Granta.com.