Trigger Warning: Institutional mistreatment
I chalk up my inactivity this month to one third insecurity, one third physical illness and a resulting lack of spoons and one third good old procrastination. My rant about why I don't support Autism Speaks received a lot of attention from some cool people in the community. This inspired me to blog more, but it also happened when flu like illness got so severe that 100% of my energy went towards surviving a days work.
I was on a planned stay-cation this week, which would have been a week off of work regardless because I finally became completely too sick to function. I did manage to catch up on some necessary viewing while I was ill. I'm speaking about Wretches and Jabberers and Loving Lampposts. I loved them, they were moving. They were everything others in the neurodiversity community made them out to be. I also watched a documentary about a guy with Aspergers who was arrested for stalking 80s pop idol Tiffany that I passed out in the middle of. I'd rather not remember. I will rave and cite and quote and gush over Wretches and Jabberers and Loving Lampposts in the future repeatedly. Of this I am sure, but today I want to bring to attention an autism film that I have never seen mentioned in the community before.
Her Name is Sabine is a documentary made in 2007 by an acclaimed French actress named Sandrine Bonnaire about her younger sister Sabine, who is autistic. Sandrine has captured a lot of her beloved sister's young adulthood on film. Young Sabine, is intelligent, witty, charismatic autonomous, and infectiously happy in the footage provided. This footage is interwoven with the shocking footage of present day Sabine (age 38 at the time of filming), who is unrecognizable.
The documentary is available on Netflix to stream and Amazon to purchase subtitled in English is you would like to watch it first, if you are up to it. Huge Trigger Warning on this film, it is at times heart breaking, emotional and difficult to watch. Otherwise, huge spoiler alert for the rest of this post.
In an opening monologue, Sandrine tells us that Sabine is autistic. She was different, but happy. She was talented. At age 28 she wound up institutionalized and heavily medicated. She spent 5 years there. Then we are introduced to the aftermath. Sabine lives in a group home at the start of shooting. She is lethargic, anxious, stubborn and extremely violent. She attacks her caretakers and other residents with her fists and eating utensils, she spits and screams. She melts down frequently. She is verbal but it is tough to have a coherent conversation with her. She challenges her caregivers and her sister at almost every opportunity. Honestly, she is everything that the rhetoric of tragedy pushers stereotype us as.
But then this footage is broken with footage and information from her past. Her past which is full of everything that the tragedy pushers don't want you to believe. Young Sabine is vibrant, confident and competent. She is not the biggest on eye contact but she is engaging and capable of sophisticated conversation. She can dance, she can swim, she knits sweaters, makes dolls and plays the piano. She loves America and taught herself English. She composes her own music, she travels alone, she drives a scooter. The film goes back and forth between Sabine's present struggles and her past, and Sandrine slowly introduces more facts about her life pre-institutionalization, family history, how she wound up in the institution, and some details of her maltreatment there. The difference between Sabine pre and post institution is so profound that they do not physically resemble each other at all, and I did research after watching the film to confirm that this was in fact a documentary and not a dramatization with actors or a work of fiction.
This documentary is heavy on human experience, and light on science. Neither Sandrine, nor medical professionals treating Sabine, during her institutionalization or afterwards seem to have much expertise on the definition of autism. The lack of science is quite frankly one of the problems that led to Sabine's deterioration. The film displays the importance of presumption of competence. Sabine's family in her youth always presumed her competent, and she found her own ways to flourish as a human being.
Medical professionals presumed her incompetent and thus rendered her. Though very dark, the film has a very touching ending and leaves Sandrine with hope that her sister may someday recover from her institutionalization and mistreatment.