Tuesday, November 1, 2016

When You're Not Normal Enough

This afternoon, while stuck in the click-bait quagmire of trashy gossip sites, I landed on an article about Trisha Paytas and her online "stalker", Daniel Carroll. Until two hours ago, I had no idea these people existed (though I vaguely recall that My Strange Addiction episode). Because of my own experiences with cyberstalking, I was interested to hear the story. After watching Trisha's side of the story, I fully expected to be disturbed when I hit "play" on Daniel's video response. I WAS disturbed. Because when I watched his video I saw... an older version of my son.

My son has what was once called Aspergers Syndrome, but is now referred to as "High Functioning Autism" by the DSM V.  A person on the autistic spectrum doesn't have anything physically remarkable that would distinguish him or her from a "Neurotypical" person, so until it shows behaviorally or socially, we naturally assume he's just your Average Joe (or Jane). My son looks like a regular kid. He's friendly, outgoing, and good-looking. He's also got a lot of quirks that eventually clue people in that he's "different".

He has only recently discovered Facebook and online friendships. He has only recently tried to reach out to girls he's had crushes on. And he has only recently had his heart broken for the first time. We all go through that, but most of us don't face such extreme social challenges to get that far. To the girls he tries so hard to impress, those quirks seem weird. His attention isn't flattering or cute, it's creepy. People don't like "different". "Different" is scary, threatening, unknown. Assumptions are quickly and unfairly made about those who don't fit our comfortable and safe definition of "normal".

My son handed over his laptop to me a month or so ago, saying he didn't trust himself not to lash out at this most recent girl, his most serious crush, whom I will call "Lisa" for purposes of this blog entry. He told me to read his messages. He was ashamed of himself. He said I probably wouldn't like what I saw.

Fearing the worst, I opened his account and saw that for months my son had been awkwardly, yet gallantly, trying to win this girl over. He wrote her that he wanted to be a jedi knight so he could fight for her honor. He told her she has the prettiest eyes, that she's the most beautiful girl in the world . He talked about his favorite tv shows: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Puffy Amiyumi. He talked about Star Wars. A LOT. Then he'd tell her again he wanted to be her boyfriend.

Lisa was not responding much as the months went by. Stepping back, I can see how his child-like attempts to woo her were a little odd, so I can't say I blame her. Luckily, he and Lisa had grown up together, so she knew him and was familiar with autism. But we moved, and they haven't seen each other in years. They grew up.

Reading through their conversation, I could tell Lisa was increasingly unsure how to respond to his messages, and it probably did scare her a little, though she is too polite to admit that. My son was jealous. Lisa had a boyfriend. He couldn't handle this new set of emotions, so he became angry. He wrote her lines of heated script he'd heard from movies, tv shows, and friends, not really understanding what they meant, only that they would get a reaction. He had no idea how lucky he was that Lisa's family knew him, and the only "reaction" he'd get would be a stern talking-to, and not a swift kick in the ass by an angry boyfriend, or, worse, legal ramifications. I explained this to him, and his eyes widened. I said, "You didn't know that could happen, did you?". He shook his head, "I do, now!".

I spoke to Lisa and her mother (who is my best friend), and they were both very understanding. They were used to the little boy they knew, not the young man he is, now. But it's easy to forget that his mentality is closer to that of a child. In his innocent mind, life is a cartoon. Things will always work out in the end. Sending Lisa those hateful messages was no worse than pulling a little girl's pigtails in the schoolyard. It's a hard lesson to learn that society, the law, even those of us who should know better, see it much, much differently.

When my son handed over his laptop, he did so out of self-punishment. He's a good kid with a conscience. He knew what he did was not right, but did not know the extent of its wrongness. He felt guilt. He felt remorse. He didn't want to hurt Lisa's feelings anymore, but couldn't trust himself not to. He was emotionally beaten down, lost in scary new territory, and didnt know what to do. He needed to hand control over to someone else, and felt the only way to do that was scare Lisa into "ratting him out", because this was scary new territory. Since Lisa refused to do so, he ratted himself out to me. He didn't want to be alone and unguided. He needed to feel safe, again. Safe from the ones who were afraid of him.

And that brings me back to Daniel and Trisha.

Daniel Carroll's video was the harder of the two to watch. His world has been flipped upside down because of one woman's misguided accusations being broadcast to her 2+ million followers. It's maddening to think that somebody would be so quick to jump to conclusions,  so willing to put another human being through such hell. What sickens me, and what sets this case apart from my son's, is that this may not be as simple as a lack of understanding. After a little research, Trisha Paytas's story seems to be a calculated attempt to take advantage of her viewers' naïveté, for personal gain. Whether it was to gain more viewers, or to take the spotlight off of herself after her video proclaiming her support of a certain presidential candidate didn't sit right with her viewers, I don't know. What I do know is that she is receiving considerable backlash after declaring Mr. Carroll her "stalker", as evidenced by the number of video responses defending him on Youtube, and in the comments sections of online articles. Thanks to the vocal minority, perhaps there's a silver lining, after all? I hope Daniel Carroll can find some solace in that.

I'll close out, now, on a more uplifting note: Ms. Paytas clearly misjudged her audience. And I've made a lot of sweeping assumptions of my own in this entry. I would love to be wrong.

To those speaking out in defense of Daniel Carroll:

Keep talking.

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