“I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.”
~ Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack in Say Anything (1989)
When someone asked me in the past what my favorite movie was, I struggled to come up with an answer. There have been a few movies that I watched repeatedly and, in doing so, memorized their dialogue, such as When Harry Met Sally, Dirty Dancing, and the original film version of The Music Man, but it wasn’t until I watched Cameron Crowe’s 1989 classic Say Anything a few years ago that I knew I had finally found my movie.
I had just seen Gross Pointe Blank and really enjoyed John Cusack’s performance as assassin Martin Blank, so I went searching for other movies of his. In Say Anything, Cusack plays the role of recent high-school graduate Lloyd Dobler, a lovable but directionless guy struggling to figure out his future when he falls for valedictorian Diane Court, played by Ione Skye. Lloyd is just an adorably awkward, genuinely nice guy who is completely taken by the girl he adores. How can you not love him?
Meanwhile, Diane’s father, played by veteran actor John Mahoney, is in trouble with the IRS for fleecing money from his nursing home residents. Here’s how the scene plays out when Jim Court confronts Diane after she stays out all night with Lloyd.
Jim Court: “You can say anything to me, I hope you still know that.”
Diane: “I know that … I spent the night with him.”
Diane: “Dad, yes. And I’m scared to death of what you must think of me right now.”
When I saw this scene, I was immediately struck by Diane’s words. “I’m scared to death of what you must think of me right now,” even after her father has assured her that she can confide in him. I have struggled with the fear of others’ reactions to things I say my entire life. It’s not as paralyzing as it used to be, but I do still wrestle with it more than I’d like to admit.
There are several reasons why I don’t talk much. Sometimes I just can’t. Other times I don’t know the socially acceptable thing to say. Still other times I’m just plain afraid of what people will think of me if I verbalize what’s in my head, because – let’s be honest – a lot of the thoughts floating around in there make sense only to me. I know this because I’ve witnessed people’s reactions to things I say on numerous occasions. Whenever I see that puzzled look on someone’s face and an imaginary question mark pop up above their head, I know that’s my cue to stop talking. Having a normal conversation is something that has always been especially challenging for me.
Let me try to give you an idea of what I mean. During the course of a conversation, someone says something or makes a point that really catches my interest. While the conversation switches to other topics and ideas, I am still stuck on the aforementioned point. As I try to follow the new direction the discussion has taken and simultaneously formulate a response to the previous subject, my thoughts are swimming in every different direction inside my brain and I struggle mightily to come up with something to say that will make sense to the other people in the conversation. While other people’s thoughts seem to move in a straight line from synapse to verbal response, my thoughts take a randomly circuitous route, wandering aimlessly across the far corners of my brain and back again several times over. I usually have to silently repeat something I want to say over and over in my head before I summon enough bravery to say it out loud. Inevitably, I will blurt out something unrelated to the current conversation that might have been a somewhat valid point ten minutes ago but has long since been relevant to the topic at hand. Cue the puzzled expressions.
Additionally, I will often pause or just stop talking mid-sentence because it’s difficult for me to speak and decide what to say at the same time, especially if I have to try to figure out what the other person is thinking or feeling and take that into consideration in my response. Most people seem to require an immediate response, so my hesitancy is surely nothing but strange to them.
When I was in high school, two friends and I once went to hang out with some guys from a neighboring town that I had never met. Before we left, one of my friends said to me, “If you’re coming with us, you can’t not talk.” Given that we had known each other since kindergarten, she was well aware of my idiosyncrasies and struggles with conversation. While the girls went off with their boyfriends to find some privacy, I was left alone in the living room with a total stranger. I didn’t even know his name. We sat in uncomfortable silence for what seemed like an eternity when I finally summoned the courage to ask him why there was a pair of work boots sitting on his coffee table. These boots were just sitting there right in front of me and it was the only thing I could think to say. (Remember, after all, I’d been told I wasn’t allowed to not talk.) He made a short, unremarkable response and neither of us spoke a word after that. Not exactly a riveting discussion.
According to clinical psychologist and Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood, people with Asperger’s often tend to make what others perceive as irrelevant comments or questions. In his book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Attwood states that these utterances can be caused by impulsivity, the inability to formulate a logical response, and the inability to consider the perspective of others.
During and after these exchanges with people, my self-esteem takes an immediate nosedive as I struggle to deal with others’ judgment and perception of me. It wasn’t until well into adulthood when I realized that I dwell on these events far longer than anyone else.
When I became a parent, I started making a conscious effort to ingrain in my children that they could always say anything because I never wanted them to experience the paralyzing feeling of being afraid to say something, at least to me. They will often ask me, “Can I tell you something?” And I always respond, “Of course, you can tell me anything.” Even when it’s something they know might make me angry, I would rather have them tell me the truth than feel like they can’t tell me. Fortunately, that rarely happens and I’m pretty good at not reacting punitively by flying off the handle. They might still experience that fear, but I hope they at least know that I won’t judge them. What I would have given as a young person to know there was just one person that I could have talked to without judgement or fear of their reaction …
And with that I will leave you with a completely random thought, as I do best.
Kick boxing – sport of the future.
(Hint: it’s from the movie.)