Interview of Gabriel Carlos Lopez
By Jean Braithwaite
JB: Is it accurate to describe “Small Bright Beads” as a memoir?
JB: You decided to cast the narration in third person rather than the more common first person. Can you say why?
GL: The shortest explanation is that to me it just felt like it worked better. I was trying to convey the experience of growing up autistic. I often felt dissociated from myself, as though I were watching myself, or maybe watching the world, like through a camera, or that somehow I wasn’t present in the flesh. It’s bit hard to explain, but third person conveys that sense of dissociation I felt.
JB: And alienation, perhaps?
GL: Yes, I felt very alienated from other people and the world. And, you know, I feel like writing in third person also helps me write about myself in a disinterested or dispassionate way, like I’m an entomologist examining a pinned insect.
JB: Or like a case study?
GL: Yes, something like that.
JB: And yet the effect on a reader isn’t detachment at all. The young protagonist’s experience is quite vividly portrayed. There’s an abundance of concrete sensory details…. I’m going to borrow a word from the essay: there’s a “tsunami” of sensory inputs, and we can feel how overwhelming that was for Gabriel. To that extent, I think it really does portray the autistic experience, as far as I understand it. By the way, is “autistic” the word you prefer to use, or is “neurodivergent” better…?
GL: I typically use “autistic.” I’m not very picky.
JB: Is that a concept that you were aware of in childhood? Was that word used in your family?
GL: Not at all. Not until around 2005-2006, when I was in graduate school. I was reading an article about an autistic mathematician. He described some of the things he would do, and I was like, Oh, my God, that’s describing me! It took me some time to get the money together but eventually I was assessed by a clinic and diagnosed with autism disorder. My parents really didn’t want to accept the diagnosis, even though in hindsight the behaviors were unmistakable. I grew up with them calling me “the little professor,” but they never suspected that all these traits are linked in some way. They’ve even been revising the childhood stories they used to like telling.
JB: I know a family that has an autistic son but never speaks the word “autistic.” I’m wondering whether, in the memoir, the same thing that led Gabriel’s father Manny to try to squash any feminine tendencies in his son might be the same thing that leads him to recoil from this other sort of label that would put the little boy outside of normal masculinity or whatever—I’m just speculating.
GL: I think that is possibly part of it. I also think the diagnosis made them feel guilty, like they should have caught that. I don’t think they’re to blame because it was just not as well known at the time. They’re kind, caring people. But I had a lot of social problems growing up that I suppose were invisible to them for whatever reason. When I was growing up the other kids would call me “robot.” I’ve gotten more adept at acting like other humans over time. There’s sort of a tendency in some autistic people to view themselves as something inanimate or mechanical. Writing about myself in third person is a way of expressing that too.
JB: I think “Small Bright Beads” is very effective in giving the reader a way of vicariously sharing that experience. We get it that this protagonist’s mental life is very different from the typical person’s. But, about the robot thing? It seems clear to me from reading this piece quite closely now several times that Gabriel is not at all robotic in the sense of being cold toward other people. Obviously, he’s devoted to his grandmother. He tried to make her life better. He felt bad about missing an opportunity to help even more—all of these things speak to his compassion. It’s not like he’s incapable of emotional connections.
GL: A lot of people believe autistic people lack empathy. When I was a kid, especially, I could say things that were very cutting to other people, just telling the truth, and it didn’t occur to me that I was wounding people. Over time I’ve learned not to do that. A lot of studies seem to show that some autistic people have kind of a supercharged empathy, feeling things very keenly when they do feel, going from zero to 60.
JB: Gabriel even has a sense of empathy for inanimate objects. At one point he drops chinaberries down the central hole of a giant wooden spool, then later he worries about the poor little berries, suffering alone in the abysmal dark. That supports the supercharged empathy idea.
GL: That’s fair. I became very empathetic to insects, too, once I started thinking of them as living creatures. When I was nine or ten, I had a beetle that I would play with all the time. My brother stepped on it by accident, squashed it flat, and I completely lost it. A friend from back then that has told me I taught him how to respect life. As for objects, I think autistic people tend to care a lot about their environment, and having that be consistent, and maybe those things are kind of tied to each other. I still care a lot about certain kinds of objects.
JB: Makes sense! We have relationships with other people and then in a sense we have relationships with objects too, in the space we inhabit. I’m reminded of Clara’s collections. Do you think your grandmother Clara was on the spectrum too?
GL: I suspect that very strongly. My parents rejected the possibility, but I feel like it explains a lot of things about her.
JB: There are a couple of things in this essay which are, in a sense, underplayed. These are topics that are capable of arousing really strong reactions and could easily sustain another whole essay, but the narrator just drops them in there and then doesn’t really pursue it. One of them is the shooter in the opening paragraph.
GL: You know how sometimes you’ll read about when this famous king was born, there’s like a comet or something like that. So, you know, to me it’s kind of like, there’s this mass murder going on while I was being born, and that kind of sets the tone of my life. You know, the story is really about my coming to grips with the horror of being alive.
JB: Yes! I feel that. Let’s come back to that in a minute. Another thing which is mentioned but not deeply pursued is young Gabriel’s sense that he ought to have been a girl, or would have been better off as a girl, or maybe really was a girl.
GL: That’s something that’s never gone away. I wouldn’t say I’ve come to grips with it. Many years ago I lived something of a double life. It’s something that I’m still working through. When I was a child, I did identify more with femininity. But I never really thought of myself primarily in a gendered way, then or now. I mean, I live in Uvalde Texas, so—
JB: It’s a very socially conservative place
GL: It’s something that has always been very difficult to live with. It’s something I’ve never really talked about.
JB: And you don’t have to now.
GL: No, I mean, I thought about this. Just writing the story is something of a coming out. I guess I chose to do it at this time just because I have a sense that more and more people are being targeted for being that way, and it’s my way of showing solidarity.
JB: Being “that way” meaning gender non-conforming (GNC)?
JB: Would you go so far as to describe yourself as trans?
GL: I don’t know, I really don’t know. There was a time when I had a full female wardrobe. And I read literature about this, because I’m a researcher. There’s a common pattern of acquiring things and then purging, cyclically. For me it was only one iteration of a cycle. When I did purge, this was in my 20s, that was a very conscious choice, one that I sometimes regretted. There is some evidence that autistic people statistically tend to be gender-nonconforming more than the general public. I don’t know exactly what that connection is and I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying it’s disordered to be GNC. I mean maybe we could even argue that autism is not truly a quote unquote disorder, but just another way of being. There’s a movement of course to view it more that way. For me, it’s helpful that it is considered a disorder, because it causes me a lot of problems in life, and naming it as a condition is a coping strategy. But at any rate I do feel like autism and GNC are connected. They both go back to who I am as a person, like who I’ve always been, since even before I could think.
JB: I’ve been doing a little bit of reading about this too. Because I’ve been at least mildly GNC my whole life. Among teenagers who are showing up at gender clinics currently, seeking gender reassignment, people who are neurodivergent are vastly over-represented in that population. Compared to what the numbers should be if it was purely coincidence, I mean. So it does seem like there’s a connection of some kind.
GL: Well, very little is really understood about autism right now. The terminology is still very much in flux too. It was disorienting for me when the DSM discontinued the Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis and just folded it into autism spectrum disorder. It was a label I’d come to identify with, so I’m apprehensive now because maybe in the DSM six, maybe there’ll be something different again.
JB: You can hold onto the prior label even if the DSM doesn’t. We’re allowed to disagree with the decisions those people make.
JB: So, let’s go back to the horror of being alive. I’d like to say, I get the impression from talking to you, and from the way your memoir is laid out, and from your other writing that I’ve read, that you successfully came through the crisis, right? If Gabriel’s problem is to come to grips with the horror of life, it seems like you succeeded.
GL: Yeah, I think I did.
JB: You arrived at some kind of comfort in your own skin. You have a PhD. You have a successful career. And you write to enlighten others and improve your local community and the world.
GL: Yeah, well, some in my local community would disagree with that.
JB: Did you get pushback on your Texas Monthly essay?
GL: Yeah, and I’m still getting it. The people here don’t really like it when you talk about who’s white and who’s not. I’m actually writing a book about Uvalde now.
GL: It’s going to be a history. I was just doing research this morning at the county library, and there are basically, like, two parallel histories of the town. The Anglo history, for lack of a better word, and the Mexican history. The vast majority is about the Anglo history, although Anglos are a small minority of the town. And then you’ve got maybe two or three books that are about the Mexican history. And they’re written specifically to push back on the Anglo history. There are these two parallel columns but it’s never been put together in one picture. I’m trying to do that now. Some people here are not going to appreciate that, but I think it’s time to tell the whole story.
JB: I’m impressed by your activism. You’d don’t usually think about people on the spectrum as getting in there and politicking.
GL: They do often become whistleblowers, I have read. You know when something is inconsistent, it bothers them.
JB: Ah, yes, that makes sense. Can we talk about your title, “Small Bright Beads,” and the scenes within the memoir that relate to that title. Because I think that climactic scene really works, with Gabriel in the backyard of his grandmother’s house and seeing one spider and then another spider. The image of the horror of the entropic world, and then glimpses of the orderly world that we don’t inhabit but we wish we could—and but then yet at the very same time those small bright beads are present in the real world too. So that the malady of being autistic also contains the seeds of this good thing of being able to appreciate with hyperfocus on the details of the real world.
GL: That is certainly intended to be the high point of the narrative.
JB: It’s triumphant, really, at least I’m reading it that way.
GL: When you write something, you telescope things. That epiphany, in reality, was probably a little more gradual than I’m presenting it. I learned to find these island universes through hyperfocusing and seeing the beauty in those things. And maybe your average neurotypical person doesn’t have to do that because they can—I’m just imagining—maybe they look at the world and they can sort of take it at a glance and see the beauty there, you know, as it is, but with my mind, the way it works—even in a beautiful panorama, if there’s something that’s ugly, I can hyperfocus on that and just sort of fall into the abyss. Learning to hyperfocus instead on what I call the small bright beads changed my perception of the universe and my place in it.
JB: Even something ugly or undesirable can be transformed in a way by artistic attention.
GL: Yes, that’s true. You know I painted. I mean, do you mind if I show you a painting real quick? This is an actual store in Uvalde. I painted this last winter, so it was before everything happened here. But it was the first thing I saw when I got to town, when I interviewed here. To me it’s an ugly building and it stands for something that I believe is ugly. (Bottle 'n Bag)
JB: I’m with you.
GL: It brings profit to people in town that I don’t really stand with.
JB: And exacerbates the misery of the people you do stand with.
GL: They don’t actually sell guns there anymore, I mean they used to. But people love to wear advertisements for this place and it’s kind of a local landmark, so to me it’s ugly and I decided, well, let me see if I can make like a beautiful painting out of this.
JB: I think it works. I appreciate this painting. One last question: a kind of sub-theme of the horror of life is Gabriel’s relationship with religion and his concept of God. Where did you end up with all that? The climactic epiphany scene seems to me to be both religious, in a way, because it's about the ultimate value of life--how to live, and why--and also secular, because it's about the things of this world, like spiders.
GL: For the record, I am Catholic, which is how I was raised, but there is some tension there, as you might imagine. At one point in my life I was a member of an end-times cult—or perhaps “high-demand group” is more accurate. I was 18 and vulnerable. The woman who later became my wife drew me into that group. We got married and then got out together. For a long time we weren't anything, I mean, had no religious affiliation. I credit math for our "escape." But it's really hard getting back into normal life after you've been in something like that for a while. I have a memoir called "The Hare Krishnas of Mexico" which I'm pitching to various places.
JB: Whoa, I want to read that. Thank you very much for this conversation….