Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Auto-Immune Imagination: Moving On from Dr. Hans Asperger

Dr. Hans Asperger in Vienna circa 1934-44. (Photo: Booksfeat)

A review of the new book by Edith Sheffer, Asperger’s Children: The Origin of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

Dear fellow oddballs: this man is not your friend, and never was.

One day recently I was minding my own business and planning to write either a long article or a short book about how many of our seismic shifts in art, science, or culture were brought about by people who could charitably be called "not exactly normal." It was not only obvious but even well known that figures ranging from Einstein to Tesla were, to say the least, operating off the beaten path, and also equally obvious that it was because they marched to a different drummer that they came up with such simple but earth-shattering notions such as alternating current engines and wireless data transmission, long before any normals dreamed they were possible.

It was going to be called "The Outsiders Club: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again." I even had a great epigram planned to start the ball rolling, one that originated with the somewhat quirky inventor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, when he cheekily remarked, “There is no solution to the problem because there is no problem.” The basic premise was that there is a popular old adage that people who behave themselves rarely make history. We might add that people who don’t always play well with others sometimes come up with startling insights that help the rest of us while they’re in the midst of their secluded solitude.

In the interest of full disclosure (something that “my kind” are often prone to in inordinate degrees) I used to have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I had to give it up for my health. Not only am I not half-joking, I’m not joking at all. Part of what enabled me to dispense with all therapeutic labels of any kind was the discovery of a remarkable new book by Edith Sheffer entitled Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna. Recently published by WW Norton (Penguin/Random House), this book is so startling in its historical revelations that it’s almost mind-boggling why no one else since 1945 has ever ventured to look at what was staring everyone in the face for all these years.

While I was engaged in the fascinating research for this probably never-to-be-written book of mine, I encountered several articles about a new and actually published book on the secret history and hidden roots of the man whose name has become accidentally and erroneously associated with the supposedly benevolent spectrum that bears his name. It was a kind of confluence of events that overlapped; I might call it a disharmonic convergence of sorts, with several articles and essays suddenly lining themselves up for consideration in the shared context of this breathtakingly scary Edith Sheffer book.

Some of them struck me as being neutral or polite in their speculation: one by Ceylan Yeginsu from The New York Times, for instance, speculates that it was more career opportunism than genuine ideological alignments, since the “good doctor,” unlike many of his colleagues in grim classification, did not officially join the Nazi Party. This surprised me, as I suspect that he made his decision strategically, knowing that after the storm was over, those same colleagues would be disbarred from medicine and become persona non grata, to be written out of history or even jailed.

Hans Asperger (seated front right) with his colleagues at Spiegelgrund. (Photo: NPR)

And that’s exactly what happened to many of them, and he filled their vacant spots voraciously, as a result of his affinity for and practice of the same eugenicist philosophy but absent their embarrassing party affiliations. This allowed him to engage in a postwar self-whitewashing of great skill, actually conducting a kind of writing out of history of his own bizarre beliefs. Likewise, the article in The Spectator by Simon Baron-Cohen was especially vague in this regard: “Did Hans Asperger save children from the Nazis — or sell them out?”

Did Simon or Ceylan read this book by Edith Sheffer, or were they preoccupied by reviewing another book, one by Steve Silberman called Neurotribes? Baron-Cohen is billed as “our leading authority on autism,” so I’m in no way trying to besmirch his knowledge base, only wondering how anyone who sifted through the acres of documentation that Sheffer offered up in her nightmare chronicle of “science” gone nuts could have any doubt about what the true history really reveals. But of course, Silberman’s book arrived prior to Sheffer’s. In keeping with the short book on a long history that I myself now probably no longer have to worry about ever writing, Silberman’s book is still a grand contribution to what I’ve elsewhere termed “the myth of otherness.”

Silberman skillfully navigates a territory that would eventually also come to overlap with the current Asperger controversy while managing to contextualize it in a large frame of reference -- one that, quite rightfully, advocates a degree of neuro-diversity that Dr. Asperger appeared to support but which, I believe, he secretly eschewed in favour of his radical value judgments about certain individuals' suitability for ongoing education based almost solely on their social abilities and smiles. In short, whether they played well with others, or whether they in fact even acknowledged others at all. Temple Grandin, in her own book Thinking in Pictures, proved herself to be a very effective (and affective) ambassador from the outside. She asked us to look at things and people from multiple perspectives. Dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, Tourette's syndrome, Asperger's syndrome, high-functioning autism, spectrum disorders, cognitive disabilities, aphasia, bipolar disorder, Williams syndrome, depression, melancholy . . . the metaphysical menu appears endless but the central issue is a simple one. Lots of fancy names for discomfiting otherness.

But as Grandin also so astutely put it in The Way I See It: “I am different, not less. What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done. In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”

A gruesome storage room at Spiegelgrund, used to house the brains of murdered children. (Photo: Getty)

Instead, we’ve had some spectacularly gifted oddballs often changing the whole definition of reality itself: Albert Einstein, Alan Turning, Nikola Tesla, John Nash, Paul Dirac, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Bobby Fischer, Bertrand Russell, David Bohm, Georg Cantor, Pythagoras, Philip K. Dick, Erik Satie, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, and David Foster Wallace, to name just a few. But these were perhaps the lucky ones, the ones who didn’t happen to encounter Dr. Hans Asperger in Vienna from about 1934-1944, when he invented his diagnosis of “autistic psychopathy,” the ones who weren’t sent away from his clinic for “curative education” to a special hospital called Spiegelgrund. Silberman’s book on neurotribes, one of which has been termed “autism” (after “self, or self alone”) is instructive in this regard. Three years ago, Jennifer Senior wrote a helpful assessment of the book, which was subtitled twice: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity as well as The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about Those who Think Differently, in subsequent editions.

In it she drew attention to the fact of two separate discoveries or approaches to the subject: “The crucial difference is that Leo Kanner had the fortune to publish his work in Baltimore, while Asperger had the misfortune to publish his in Nazi-controlled Vienna.” What she omitted was the fact that in 1937, Kanner, a brilliant child psychiatrist considered the American founder of that science, also hired a Jewish émigré named Georg Frankl from the same clinic as Asperger, who was forced to leave and became an American by default of his survival. Frankl had been Asperger’s former teacher, and he went on to devise the precursor to today’s notion of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, yet another “condition” that I must now disavow, mostly because I appear to have an attention surplus instead. It later appeared to our wonky history as if Kanner focused on the more severe cases and tried to help them, while Asperger mostly focused on higher-functioning patients (though they shared similar traits: social awkwardness, precocious abilities, and a fascination with regularity, repetitive routines, ritualized personal laws and compulsively managed schedules). One of the key reasons for this professional distinction between Kanner and Asperger, however, was also a chilling function of the era, that “[t]he Nazis, on a mad campaign to purge the land of the feebleminded or different, were euthanizing institutionalized children with reckless abandon. In so doing, Asperger accidentally gave the impression that autism was a rarefied condition among young geniuses, and not the common syndrome he actually knew it to be.” And he chose to ignore the more severe cases for some very scary reasons indeed: he didn’t think they should live at all.

(Photo: Amazon)
Thus the myth of Asperger’s benevolence was born and would be solidified in the postwar period when he gleefully assumed all the ever more responsible positions vacated by his friends and colleagues who had been too enthusiastic in their endorsement for the Nazi Party and had signed onto the official rolls. He died in 1980. He was then, in 1981, further mythologized by a British psychiatrist, Lorna Wing, who selectively transferred some and omitted others of his notions into English, and then further blurred them when he was posthumously “honoured” by bestowing his name on the syndrome in 1987. But his original paper on the subject, written in 1944 at the height of his classification of those deemed unsuitable due to their “uncooperative attitudes,” was unavailable in English for decades, and his records were “buried with the ashes of his clinic,” which was bombed that same year. Thus this cultural misinterpretation of his benevolence was an error of understanding that would not be rectified until about 2013, but not necessarily for the vividly reported reasons that Edith Sheffer divulges in her harrowing book. And this is the ostensible subject and theme of my present book review. The short form: please read it if you have any family member with the so-called syndrome, or if you know a friend, co-worker, or some other individual who refuses to look you in the eye or shake hands. They may also talk incessantly about only one subject. Most importantly, read it before you ever make a negative criticism or pass judgment on anyone else who happens to think or act differently from the way you do, especially if they happen to make you uncomfortable to be around them because of how uncomfortable you seem to make them. It’s not your fault, and it’s not theirs either. Mostly it’s his fault, the good doctor's, and Sheffer explains how and why.

A shocking new study recently published in the journal awkwardly named "Molecular Autism" by the medical historian Herwig Czech reports on eight years of painstaking research that included the close examination of previously unseen Nazi-era documents. His study revealed that Asperger participated in the Third Reich’s child euthanasia program, which aimed to create a more “pure” society by eliminating those it considered a “burden” to the national identity and culture. Those, in other words, who were not at his so-called “high- functioning” end of the scale. Asperger referred disabled children, often merely those who could not or (he believed) refused to learn to be friendly and fit in, to the incredibly horrifying Spiegelgrund, where hundreds were either drugged, starved or gassed to death. The study’s findings have obviously prompted heated debate among both those with the so-called spectrum disorder or those who identify with its namesake as a hoped-for helper.

Carol Povey, director of the London-based National Autistic Society, was quoted recently as saying, “No one with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history.” Huh? Easy for her to say. I tend to agree more with Sheffer, who feels we should no longer even use or mention his name, as well as with one social media commentator who said, “My overriding feeling is one of anger, that I thought Hans Asperger was someone who tried to protect and save children who were just like me. Instead, it appears he tried to exterminate us.” Or at least the ones who didn’t quite rise to the acceptable scale of his own declared intelligence quotients. How about having instead an empathy quotient, though? As Sheffer points out about Asperger, “The name remains in common usage. It is an archetype in popular culture, a name we apply to loved ones and an identity many people adopt for themselves. Most of us never think about the man behind the name. But we should.”

As she so diligently chronicles, the doctor was long seen, usually as a result of his own rewriting of past history, as a brave resister of the Third Reich, yet his own work was inextricably linked with the rise of Nazism and its deadly programs. He first encountered Nazi child psychiatry when he traveled from Vienna to Germany in 1934 at the age of 28, where his senior colleagues, mentors and teachers were just then developing the diagnosis of “social shortcomings” for children who they claimed lacked an appropriate connection to their community, and were largely uneager to join in collective Reich activities such as the Hitler Youth. Why wouldn’t they? Something must be seriously wrong with them.

Andreas Danzer's Field of Glowing Sticks memorial to the 800+ children killed at Spiegelgrund. (Photo: VoidIndex)

At first, in 1937, it appeared that Asperger advised and warned against classifying children, stating that “it is impossible to establish a rigid set of characteristics for a diagnosis.” However, only one year later, after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 (accompanied by the purge of all his Jewish and liberal associates from the University of Vienna), he announced his belief that all medicine should be brought into alignment with the principles of National Socialism. He then introduced his doctrinaire diagnosis of social detachment: “autistic psychopathy”, referring to autists as “intelligent automata,” and warning that “less favourable cases” would wander the streets as adults, “grotesque and dilapidated.”

Such was the fate of those who innocently appeared to display behavioural defects, such as wanting to spend more time alone than to be in the company of other children or engage happily with communal cheering activities. Naturally enough, never having committed himself directly to formal membership in the party, in the postwar period he distanced himself and engaged in a kind of public relations campaign designed to rehabilitate his stature. Ironically, Sheffer states that he would most likely have been merely a footnote in history if not for Lorna Wing, who re-introduced his notions under the rubric of a “spectrum,” followed by his namesake "condition” being added in 1994 to the American manual of mental disorders, where it remained until being re-classified in 2013 (hence the Andrew Lerner satirical gravestone shown above).

In Sheffer’s words, “We should stop saying 'Asperger'. It’s one way to honour those children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it.” Suits me just fine. Another way to do that was the 2012 art installation of a memorial to the children themselves in a lasting and beautiful, if haunting, manner. A detail of this memorial art work was also suitably reprinted on the cover of Edith Sheffer’s remarkable, sad, disturbing but so very important book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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