Why Annie? Book Hangovers and the Chameleon Effect

Why I felt the need to do so much critique of the 1980s YA lesbian romance, Annie on My Mind would be hard to say in a few words. Or rather, I would have to say “because I had so much to say about it,” but then I would have to come up with a reason for that.

This must be what a (real and Facebook) friend of mine calls a “book hangover.” Annie was one of a few books highlighting closeness between women that have kindled in me the wish to experience such closeness myself.

I do mean “kindled,” because the change in my emotions was like a flame was lit inside me. Or – changing metaphors – it is as if a bubble once kept “normal” needs from reaching my heart, but that bubble has now been burst.

Some people with Asperger’s Syndrome (Aspies) credit certain books with helping them learn to interact more successfully. But sometimes, learning the skills is only half – and maybe not even that much  – of the battle. It can also be a question of motivation.

For most of my life, “alone” came naturally. Reaching out and connecting felt like effort and took energy I didn’t have after giving my all to school or work, (which I believed I had to do). Coming home alone at the end of a day brought relief and relaxation.

But during the last few years, I have discovered that what I read affects my social motivation. Aspies are popularly supposed to lack empathy, but I have a chameleon-like power to absorb the emotions of other people, even fictional characters (although there are still some feelings I really don’t comprehend.)

Even though Liza and Annie are a couple (and I think they move too quickly from being friends to being a couple), the relationship is definitely not just about sex, and much of it could be applied to a friendship between two women of any sexual orientation. And it makes spending time with a girlfriend look fun, glamorous, and even romantic.

They meet because Liza discovers Annie singing in public, at a New York museum, and they instantly bond over their shared love of museums, art, and all things medieval. Social media and cell phones didn’t exist then, but you can find many teen and young adult period pieces where the social activities are mostly movies, shopping for clothes and make-up, and swooning over pop stars. Liza and Annie prefer walks and picnics in parks, museum tours, role-playing knights and ladies, and discussing their mutual interests – art, architecture, medieval lore, nature, and classical music. I suddenly wanted to do those things, and felt upset about the all the electronic entertainment and communication around me (even though other times I think social media itself actually whets my appetite for more direct contact.)

Ironically, considering that the book is meant to be something of an exposé of 1980s homophobia and its effects, Liza and Annie, notwithstanding their fear and stress over being gay, seem, overall, remarkably grounded in career goals and comfortable with being different from their peers, and they seem to enjoy each other and life. Annie and her family are poor and most of her classmates are involved with drugs, but she remains focused on her music and the future she believes it will offer her – with her family’s encouragement. I didn’t sense the overwork, stress and depression about life in general that seems to pervade real and fictional lives today.

Liza and Annie also have they surprisingly healthy and mature communication for two 17-year-olds falling in love for the first time. Even when their relationship hits rough patches – mostly due to angst that stems from internalized homophobia – they never stoop to the backstabbing or feuding so common in teen media.  They never gossip, play manipulative games, or seek revenge.  Fights usually end with them talking an issue through, after a relatively short amount of time – and without lingering grudges. Annie half- wishes her living situation were more like Liza’s but this makes her like Liza all the more, rather than resent her. And even though the relationship eventually becomes sexual, when they sigh over how much they love each other, they focus on each other’s personality traits and talents, not bodies.

Here’s where I become the stereotypical Aspie again.  I have little empathy with their struggles with internalizing homophobia – particularly when these struggles cause them (mostly Liza) to temporarily pull away, literally or figuratively.

(As I have already mentioned, the story is told in the form of Liza’s memories as she “sorts out” her sexuality dilemma at college, after six months of being too paralyzed with angst to even write to Annie!)  Instead, I

I envy them having each other.  I kind of want to shake them both and say, “Don’t you know there are people who never find that good of a match, or who can’t even form bonds like that.” But, most especially to Liza, “How could you be ambivalent about Annie? I’d love to have an Annie!”  (She is artsy, playful, quirky, resilient, and seems totally fun.)

But I think my reaction has more layers to it. Their lifestyles overall seemed fun and glamorous to me: in addition to having each other, the setting being New York City, they have access to multiple fun things to do and subways to get them there. (For people who don’t drive due to either disability or age, sometimes socialization is only as good as transportation.) Also, both Liza and Annie have talents that are easily parlayed into lucrative careers, and, despite the flaws of both their schools, are in academic programs that are boosting their career prospects. And despite Annie’s living situation, neither seems to have any financial obstacle to going to colleges famous for those same fields. And while I would have thought Liza’s field – architecture – would have been male-dominated at that time, it doesn’t seem to worry her. It’s never brought up, nor does she worry that smart girls are uncool.  In short, homophobia is pretty much the only real problem they have.

And they find support from two lesbian teachers who tell them not to let the opinions of ignorant people define them. I wonder if, once I heard that, I would feel more guilt about letting the homophobia affect my behavior, than anything else. In fact,  I think part of my Annie on My Mind “book hangover” is that I feel guilt on Liza’s behalf because she did let it affect her, and wasted time that could have been spent with Annie.

“Don’t try to be normal” and “don’t let other people define you” are something I hear a lot as Asperger’s awareness grows – and the suggestion that I am letting other people define me actually hurts more than taunts or criticism of my supposed weirdness. (I actually want to be less dependent on other people in practical ways, so I have even more freedom not to be normal, whereas what is different about Liza and Annie doesn’t seem to make them dependent like a disability does.)

Then again, when I was their age (17), I would have been conflicted, but for different reasons.The one societal trend I was truly aware of then was adults looking down on teenagers. I didn’t want to be normal; I wanted to perfect in the adults’ eyes, with none of the vices of which they always seemed to accuse teenagers: obsession with beauty and popularity and significant others; a willingness to do anything to please peers; and a desire to fit in, to name a few.

But since socialization itself didn’t come naturally to me, to fit in or make friends in any way, I would have had to try hard. And I thought it was bad (or “messed up” in a teenage way) to actually try to fit in – or try to get people to like you. I thought I was supposed to be different; on some level, I probably realized that I was actually very malleable, and that I would end up mimicking my peers if I spent a lot of time with them.

Further, I heard the adults telling me to be strong, independent, and a feminist. Even “wanting a boyfriend” sounded messed up; I thought I was supposed to focus on talent and achievement and make that my identity. I don’t think I felt pressure to be straight, as much as to NOT be anything-sexual. I worried about being seen as having low self-esteem as much as or more than about the things teenage girls were said to be insecure about.

Yet, most of my “special interests” were individual people – many female. Celebrities, but also people I knew, such as teachers, but never peers. It was usually more a hero-worship thing than anything sexual. The scoldings I got for this had nothing to do with the right or wrong of liking a person of the same sex. Instead, I was told that I was too needy.

Liza and Annie have a peer relationship, but their feelings for each other remind me in a way of my fascinations – and indeed, they are fascinated with each other based on some of the same kinds of talents and traits that used to attract me.

So, I think if I were in their situation, my conflict would have been more “What does this relationship say about how strong and independent I am? Am a better feminist because it’s not guys I care about, or am I still too dependent on another person and too focused on relationships? Is there something wrong with me for wanting any relationship – aren’t I supposed to be 100% content 100% unattached?” (Liza and Annie think they’re two halves of a whole – and that’s treated as a positive.)

Moreover, while the adults I grew up around weren’t necessarily against same-sex relationships per se, they made it clear that being sexually active before age 18 was tantamount to delinquency.  And also that one was “supposed to” take it slow in relationships.

Liza and Annie meet in November, and have become physical by spring break of the same academic year. (The rules I learned would say that’s not even enough time to really become best friends!) Along the way, Liza describes what purport to be phases of the relationship – but they all seem to last only a few weeks.

They discuss whether they are more than friends within a few weeks of meeting, and are exchanging rings by Christmas. Liza describe herself as happily in love “all that winter,” but at some point the honeymoon-ish phase segues into a rough period when they make awkward attempts to get more intimate, and the awkwardness and fear lead them to fight, with what Liza describes as their worst fight happening in March. After that, they sort of own their fears and discuss them, and agree they’re not ready. Then, over spring break – it is not clear whether that is late March or April – they become intimate. After two weeks, they are caught, and Liza is in trouble at school, and she says “the old barriers were back” (meaning the fears that cause them to pull away or snap at each other).

The adults in their universe either see being gay as a defect, or else they believe love should prevail. Nobody – not Liza and Annie and not the adults –  says anything about waiting longer just to get to know each other better, or to be a bit older. In fact, their fear and awkwardness as they make moves toward intimacy is treated as a hang-up they need to get over. And no one tells them to be more independent and keep the focus on their goals (and, actually they don’t lose sight of the goals.)

Maybe at the time I would have held back out of fear of being seen as a normal, messed-up teen too focused on relationships. But since reading this book, I have wanted to visit the kinds of places Liza and Annie go, and find myself looking around for females in my demographic. Most of all, I miss my few friends from high school and college – many of whom I am in touch with only electronically – much more. It’s not a sexual thing, but I wish they were physically present. And far from feeling superior because I focused on the “right” things when I was that age, I question some of these rules I learned. (Also contributing to this, I have seen a few of my real-life friends form relationships almost as quickly as described.)

I also recognize that, given my natural tendency toward hero-worship, I did, in my own way, like people better than achievement, and was not particularly independent. So, if I had allowed my natural tendency toward hero-worship to take the form of thinking (at least some of) my peers were wonderful, and I had become known for building other girls’ self-esteem instead of my own, that would have been a way to stand out.

Yet again, a big lesson to learn here about Asperger’s is the power of this chameleon effect – reading material affects our mood and what we want.