Ben is a 26-year-old in New York City who's working toward a master’s degree in public administration, and I talked to him a few days before he moved back home to Colorado.
Jia: Hey Ben. How’s your day going?
Ben: It’s been pretty good, I’m just working on a paper. Can I preface all of this by saying that I’m not great at phone interactions? Just stop me if I ramble on.
Well, I want you to ramble on! Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from? What is your family like?
I grew up in Colorado, in an affluent suburb of a little college town, in this area that for awhile had the highest density of post-graduate degrees in the nation. My dad’s a doctor, so I guess we fit into that. The people in my family are pretty WASPy, uptight Lutherans. We don’t talk about a lot of things.
So you didn’t get the sex talk from them?
I don’t think so. Although we were laid-back in terms of actual religious practice growing up, my family is still very reserved. Combined with my PDD, it meant that I grew up without a real sense of what other people were like and what they did.
I do remember certain formative things about sex. I lived out in a subdivision surrounded by corn fields, and I remember this shocking day when my friends and I were out there playing and found a porno magazine between two rows.
Can you talk about PDD? When were you diagnosed?
PDD stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and it encompasses a nonspecific group of disorders on the autism spectrum. What I have is characterized by “stimming” — repetitive movements — and difficulty in terms of socializing and communicating. I think I was diagnosed at age five or six, and I remember that as just being like, “So now, at this time in the day, you go to therapy.”
Actually, I remember being taken aback by some of the other kids in therapy. Relative to other people with autism, I’ve always been pretty high-functioning. Most of what I worked on was my stimming behaviors — the pacing, walking in circles. Really, I still do it, but I just sort of sublimate it now by going on long-distance runs. Another thing you’ll often find in people with PDD and Asperger’s is stereotyped interests. For me, this was a really intense interest in video games.
Socially, what my PDD comes down to is this: I’ve always had a strong difficulty in terms of interacting with people, but I’ve also always had a strong interest in fitting in. And that was tough, growing up.
Do you remember your first crush?
I do. I think I’d just hit puberty. It was in 8th grade. There was a girl in my shop class, my first class of the day. I’d come into class straight from home, right? Straight from the shower — and it was winter, and my hair would freeze, and I’d sit down next to this girl who always told me, “Watch out, you’ll get split ends.”
I got this feeling whenever I was around her, this moony feeling. I just felt good around her, and it was the first time I’d ever felt anything like that. I wanted to sustain the feeling, so I’d stand around and try to talk to her, I’d stare at her, I’d try to hang around her in the hallways. I had no idea that what I was doing was out of the ordinary or creeping her out.
Then I got her number from someone, and that’s when it went downhill. I called her and left a message, and I had a moment where I became cognizant of just how inappropriate my behavior was in reference to social norms, and so I panicked and called her back. I tried to explain myself on the second message, and it made me feel worse, and it sort of snowballed. I must’ve called six times consecutively, thinking, “I can still fix this.”
The school took it very seriously, which I think is to their credit. They got me into a room with all the counselors and told me how badly I was freaking out this girl. I was horrified. It was like one of those dreams when you suddenly realize you’re naked. I felt awful, I felt so guilty. It was the first time I realized that my PDD wasn’t just a benign quirk I had — that it had serious implications for other people, specifically women.
Oh! That is quite a first crush story.
Yeah. The worst part was that my parents reacted badly. Like I wasn’t a child anymore, but some volatile lunatic. In the conference they had this look on their face like, “What have we done wrong to raise a child like this?” I really internalized that moment. After that I felt like I was someone that needed to be contained, and all of this culminated in my first depressive episode.
But mostly I feel bad for E—, the girl. It must have been scary for her.
Were you able to talk about this with anyone?
All my life, I think I viewed my friends more as activity partners. And, after this incident, I developed all these axiomatic beliefs about who I was — that I would never form the deep, meaningful connections that other kids seemed to make with each other so easily. I told myself that I’d fuck up and hurt people if I tried to form bonds with them.
Do you have any siblings?
I do have a sibling, a little brother eight years younger than me, but I wasn’t close to him growing up. Back then I interacted with people by following certain scripts, and I did the same with him. Like, I’d seen on TV that siblings should always be teasing each other, so I’d tease him, needle him. Only later did I wonder why I was acting that way. Plus, like all teenagers, I tended to be solipsistic and pigheaded. During adolescence, I closed myself off to everyone.
Also, although my brother hasn’t been diagnosed with PDD, he exhibited some of the same behaviors that I did. Actually, my mom used to do these things too. It’s not as severe with either of them, and neither of them has had a clinical diagnosis, but I remember being young and just trancing out and running in circles around the house when I was little — and my little brother would just follow and follow me.
So, I know your ideas of friendship began to change in college. Why was that?
I guess I just met people who really seemed to want to be around me. They sort of put me back together, and gradually I started to feel like a new person. I started questioning all these assumptions I’d made about myself. With them I started trying to see myself as a normal, happy person who was a little peculiar, but not objectionable.
Did you find yourself relying less on scripts with your college friends?
Definitely. I try not to do it so much anymore, but I still do feel like a lip reader when I’m out in the wild, i.e. around people I don’t know. I have a sense of being blind to what people are actually saying.
Still, my college friends — these people who didn’t flinch when I loved them, and actually loved me back — made me feel like I could take the next step, which was to think about tackling romantic relationships. I moved to New York, because that’s what you do when you’re 25 and you’re not sure that something is possible but you want to make a go of it anyway.
(Yes!) What was your first step?
The OKCupid thing. It was good for me, because I’d learned how to be sociable on the Internet. I’d been a part of Internet communities for twelve years, and through that, I think I got really good at moving through online spaces.
What type of online community were you a part of? Was it a video game thing?
Actually, I sort of shifted from the video game obsession after I realized it was taking over my life. I realized, “I can’t get rid of this interest, but I can change it a little bit.” Sort of like moving a bubble around in a piece of Scotch tape. So instead of video games, I became obsessed with music. It fit a lot better into a normalized life, and it’s much easier to talk to people about music than video games.
I know this is an annoying question to ask a music obsessive, but what music are you into now?
Well, I tend to focus really heavily on one band. My first musical obsession was Nine Inch Nails. And then I remember when my dad got the Trainspotting sountrack, it was the first time I’d ever heard techno or house, and it was like a revelation, like “This is the music I’ve always been waiting for.” I like repetition, synthetic sounds. I’ve always wondered if that part of my taste has anything to do with PDD.
Wait, this is really interesting. But for the sake of the theme, I should probably bring it back to OKCupid!
Sure. Well, as I was saying, I think I’d become pretty good at making myself seem interesting and dynamic online. I also think that a lot of guys don’t actually read the profiles of the women they want to date, and I always read them carefully. The thing is, I need to know what to talk about, or else I’ll be paralyzed with social anxiety. I’m afraid of someone joking or being sarcastic, but I’ll have no idea and will take them seriously. A lot of people on the spectrum experience this — you want to take people’s words at face value, but you can’t.
So even though I try to put my doubts aside and go with the flow, I still have to prepare for each date. I always make a list of things that my dates are into, things we have in common, and I put them on my phone and also memorize them. Now that I’m saying this, I guess I am still scripting, in a way.
The face value thing has to be difficult, especially since so many people — or, specifically, me — flirt so much through sarcasm, or somehow saying the opposite of what they mean.
Definitely. But I went into this endeavor understanding the challenge. And, at first, there were several awesome-seeming women who were quite pleased to meet me. Meet me once, at least. This year, I’ve dated eight women, and none of them has really worked out. And I know that first dates don’t always work out. But I still feel terrible and exhausted after leaving a date with an awkward goodbye and a handshake.
So my old fears have started to resurface a little. I’m not the best interpreter of body language, but I felt a lot of hesitation from most of the women. I could tell when they were bored, when they were going to leave intending to never see me again. And I know part of their hesitation comes from my own hesitation. I minored in women’s studies in undergrad, I’ve had a fairly extensive feminist education, and I’m so afraid to cross someone’s boundaries. The physical part of dating is just so fraught for me.
I have a female friend with Asperger’s who’s in a long-term relationship, and one day I was talking to her about it and I realized I was interrogating her like she was an astronaut who had recently come back from the moon. And my therapist has told me that the thing to do is just put my hand on the small of my date’s back, on her shoulder, to see if she’s receptive. I was like, “THAT SOUNDS TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE.”
I don’t think that sounds unacceptable! Does sexual physical contact unnerve you in general, or do you want it to be a part of your life?
I definitely do. I learned that I could be emotionally intimate with people in college, and I think I can be physically intimate too. It’s like Pinocchio. I just want to be a real boy, and dating and relationships are the final frontier.
At the same time, I was molested as a child by an older peer, and although I’ve gone through intensive therapy and no longer feel broken or corrupted, I’m still not sure how to deal with it. When do I bring that up? When do I bring PDD up? If I get naked with someone, am I going to take to it like a duck to water, or am I going to start crying and lock myself in the bathroom?
What you’ve already done seems pretty significant, though — pushing yourself to go on dates.
I have to. I’m pretty sure that if I’m not actively pursuing dating and sex, it just won’t happen. I don’t live in a film, right? There’s no down-to-earth woman waiting for me to cross into her orbit so that she can snatch me up.
You never know. Do you feel okay talking about what happened to you when you were a kid?
Yeah. What do you want to know?
Whatever you want to say. How you dealt with it?
Well, the background is this: strange child that I was, I wanted to fit in. I wanted people to like me. An older boy told me that he had a club I could be in, but there were things I had to do first. I was about eight.
I didn’t realize in full what had happened to me until I was a freshman in high school. I told my mom immediately, and she told my dad, but they tossed it to my therapist, and we’ve never discussed it. They’re not blasé about it; maybe it’s too hard for them to talk about it. But I did have to deal with it myself, on my own.
I know that it’s affected me. But it’s like veins in marble. I can’t tell exactly how.
How do you feel about all of this moving forward? Now that you’re leaving for Colorado in just a few days?
Well, I’m beginning to think that I’ll never be “ready” to have sex, I just need to do it. I’m thinking of it like how people talk about becoming a parent — there’s no perfect time, you just have to go for it. I don’t want to end up in the same boat twenty years from now. I know that being a virgin is a liability which will only increase over time. Women don’t want to deal with a neophyte.
I think you will not be in this boat twenty years from now.
My friends say that.
Yeah! And you’ve only been dating for a year. Can I ask what your ideal woman would be like?
I know I need an assertive partner. I want to be with someone who’s very strong, because I don’t feel strong very often. Aside from that, I think I want to be with a woman has a job and has goals and a life and a knowledge of what she wants. I’d also love to be with someone who is just, you know, simpatico — someone who can put up with my bullshit, someone artistic, someone with a new perspective. Someone who sees life differently and more clearly than I do. Someone who loves me, or would love me. Someone who is gentle but also very independent.
Sometimes I think, why would a woman like that ever want me? But then I try to remember that for so long in my life I didn’t think of myself as someone who would ever be capable of being in a relationship.
Well, I wish you luck and success. It has been a pleasure to talk to you.
Thanks. It was good to talk to you too.
Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.