After months of build-up and numerous people asking me about it, I finally went to see the movie Adam, starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne. Adam is about the life of a young man named Adam Raki, who has Asperger's Syndrome, and Beth Buchwald, the woman with whom he falls in love and has a relationship. I had forearmed myself before I went in to the film, realizing how important it was not to get my hopes up about strongly "identifying" with the character of Adam. I had read postings on an Asperger’s Syndrome listserv from several people who had already seen the movie and their feelings on it. With maybe one exception, however, these people were men. I knew then that what I was going to see in Adam was a depiction of the “male version” of Asperger's Syndrome.
Although there were several moments that resonated with me, as I expected, I did not completely identify with Adam.This is not to say that the portrayal of a person with Asperger's Syndrome was unfaithful or miscalculated. It was realistic, and it did capture some of the frustrations and pain I have experienced in my own life. But this was still being told through a uniquely "male" lens.
It makes sense that a mainstream film (or almost mainstream, because I did see it at an art house theatre) featuring a titular character with Asperger's Syndrome would be a man, because more males than females are diagnosed with the disorder. However, this does not mean that women on the spectrum aren't out there. They are, although many are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and I have hope that one day their stories will be told, too.
I was struck by one scene in particular in Adam, when Adam discovers that Beth has lied to him about the circumstances surrounding his meeting her parents (he thought they ran into them coincidentally at a theatre for an off-Broadway show, but it was actually preplanned). Adam flew into a rage at this, calling Beth a "liar" and throwing things around the room.
On the one hand, I understand why Adam became so agitated—he thought Beth lying to him meant that she was pulling away from him and didn't care about him. On the other, this was another "male" Aspie moment. The tantrum itself was a pure outburst--his emotions didn't even have time to flow through his body, they just came flying out at 100 miles per hour.
I have had meltdowns in my life, but for me, how it’s worked is thatthe emotions have filled and overwhelmed me completely to the point where they spilled out of me. Nor were my meltdowns directed at other people, as Adam's was (and Beth later states that she was afraid he was going to hit her). The anger or frustration I felt in my younger years was directed mostly at myself, and I wouldn't have dreamed of hurting someone, and if it did happen (albeit unintentionally), I would be wracked with guilt.
This also speaks to the dichotomy of "male" versus "female" gender roles in society. For men, it appears more permissible to have a "temper," to express rage in an outward fashion like that. Women, by contrast, are taught to contain their emotions, to behave and repress and act "ladylike." We see Adam throw this fit and feel sympathy for him; yet, I feel that if it were a woman acting similarly, the primary thought emanating from the audience would be, "What a crazy bitch!", and no sympathy would be given whatsoever.
The other issue concerning gender roles again comes from the onscreen individual with Asperger's Syndrome being a male, and the love interest being a neurotypical (NT) female. Beth steps into Adam's world, reading the book Pretending to be Normal to learn more about AS, and drills him to help him prepare for a job interview.
Simply stated, the idea put forward in the movie is that because she's a woman, it's "expected" that she would do these things forhim. It may be a challenge at times and rather difficult, but it's never mentioned that there's any other possible route for her to take (i.e., not reading books, not making accommodations, expecting him to fit into her world). She, instead, takes measures to fit into his world.
Speaking from my own experience, I can tell you that I have yet to find an NT male who would do any of these things. I'm not saying that they're not out there, but I don't think there's any way a neurotypical male would make these sort of accommodations for an Aspie female.
In our society, women are portrayed as "nurturers"; they are the "carers,” protecting and providing for everyone else. Society would have us believe that a man can be damaged or screwed up in all sorts of ways, yet all it takes is a woman to come along and "complete" him, to repair him.
Sadly, I do not think women have this luxury, but rather seem required to be put together, stable, and calm at all times. To put it bluntly: if I had a tantrum or meltdown like Adam did in the movie, the NT guy I was seeing or hoping to see would be out the door in seconds flat.
Not that I'm not giving NT guys any credit. But when it comes to a relationship, that's a whole other basket of eggs. Longevity just does not seem to be in the cards for a person like me. Indeed, in the movie, Adam and Beth do not end up together, which is representative of the romantic foibles of most real-life Aspies.
In addition, the fact that they courted and began dating soquickly also seems to be an anomaly. I know that this is part of the magic of the movies, but the fact is that Adam's "quirks" and "idiosyncrasies" were very endearing to Beth, and sadly this is not representative of real life. I myself have learned the hard way that certain qualities of my personality annoy or irritate more people than they enchant.
While I do understand that the focus of this film was meant to be more on the romance between Adam and Beth, I do wish it would have delved more into the employment aspect. When the movie starts, Adam has a job, but is soon fired due to a lack of productivity. He sends out something like eighty résumésor cover letters, and in what seems like no time at all, he hears from a company that doesn't think he's right for the job for which he applied, but they "have one that they think [he'd] be perfect for."
Employment is a huge struggle for people with Asperger's Syndrome--both obtaining and keeping jobs. Upon Adam's termination, I felt the very same sting that I could tell he was feeling, numb and disoriented as he stumbled out of his office. His former co-workers attempted to offer sympathy, but he was too aggrieved to be receptive to such condolences. When he stepped outside, everything seemed louder, more jarring, moving him ever-closer to being totally overwhelmed.
I experienced something quite similar when I was fired from a few tempjobs when I lived in Seattle. They weren't even real jobs, like Adam's, but my heart was shattered when I was told to pack up and leave, and I remember looking down at the floor as I made my way to the elevator, ashamed and upset.
But for Adam to bounce back so easily is, unfortunately, very atypical. The fact that he found a job through sending out online applications is also improbable, as many folks with AS go through organizations that look for employment for people with disabilities, or use other assistive services. The success rate of these is often low, and is even worse when these individuals look for jobs on their own.
I was also confused by the fact that Adam became terribly agitated when a character suggested that he move out of his apartment, yet he seemed to readily embrace the idea of moving across the country to California for a job. The film was attempting to portray the difficulty with change and changes in routine that many individuals with AS have, so throwing in that latter plot point seemed to be one heck of a contradiction.
By now, I'm sure you're all wondering, "All right, Amy, enough. Just tell me straight: Is Adam worth seeing?" My answer is yes. It does provide a neurotypical viewer with a better understanding of Asperger's Syndrome. For the Aspie viewer, it provides a fresh opportunity to identify with a character (which may have been much more of a challenge with the film Mozart and the Whale, which was based on the book of the same name and the lives of two real Aspies, Jerry and Mary Newport).
Adam is truly a unique character, and it's much more possible for someone with Asperger's to say "Hey, that's like me!" because there are no preconceptions with which to contend. Many AS folks may feel like Adam is showing or telling them things that they already know, but even I can't deny that I got a serious lump in my throat the first time the words "Asperger's Syndrome" were uttered onscreen.
In my entire life up to this point, I had never seen a character in a movie that I thought was really at all like me, and so this was a monumental step forward, both for cinema and for people with Asperger's Syndrome everywhere.
The story is far from over, however, and I still do hope to one day see the tale of a female protagonist with Asperger’s Syndrome make it to the silver screen, because it is the yin to Adam’s yang, the other side of this rare coin that we've finally been privileged to see. And it deserves a chance to shine.