Lynne Soraya

Asperger's Diary

The Wisdom of Billy The Kid

The Wisdom of Billy The Kid

Posted Jan 12, 2009

I first learned about Jennifer Venditti's documentary, "Billy The Kid" some time ago -  when I was pleasantly surprised to find a link to my personal blog on the movie's blog site.  Reading through the blog, my curiosity was piqued.  I was driven to find out more.  What was this movie?   And what was it's angle?  What was the connection to Asperger's?  

Googling the film, I learned that the documentary followed a few days in the life of a 15 year old from Maine named Billy.  Billy is eccentric, loves movies, rock and roll, and martial arts.   He also happens to have Asperger's, although it's never mentioned in the course of the film.  

So, how well did they handle the subject matter?   I read the reviews, and wasn't sure what to make of them.   Many reviews were positive, the movie won many awards, but there were some very critical reports.  Most troubling was a review in variety, which condemned the film for having a "freak show aesthetic."  So, I wondered would this be another exploitative media treatment that plays the "tragedy" card, sensationalizing Asperger's?    Was it, as some indicated, set up?  I had to see. 

For quite some time, I have been watching for a screening in my area, but had not been able to get to one.  This weekend, I got my hands on a copy of the DVD.   Immediately, I felt recognition, as well as discomfort.  Billy's language was my language.  His awkwardness was my awkwardness.   His heartaches, mine.  

So many patterns in his behavior were painfully familiar.   His intensity.   His focus.  His stream of consciousness style of speech.   It hit a little too close to home.   

I found the lack of references to Asperger's was simultaneously disconcerting and refreshing.   To me, it was clear that was what he had, however,  the lack of label led you to forget the diagnosis (if you knew about it at all).   To view Billy as just another kid, versus just another kid with Asperger's, which was what the filmmaker intended.  In an interview included on the DVD, Ms. Venditti says:

"My whole thing was about not wanting to put any kind of labels even if this was just speculation because I believe that once you do that, you, as a viewer, disconnect and go, 'Oh, that's them and this is me.' 

...The purpose of this film was trying to experience understanding someone's life without any of these guiders, y'know, the guides to take you through and so there's no way that you can kind of jump out of it and say, 'Oh, well, he has that and I don't, so I don't understand him.'"

This approach was a part of the reason that I found the film disconcerting - but at first I wasn't sure quite why...  In thinking about it, I looked again at Ms. Venditti's words.  An Asperger's label would only cause a viewer to "jump out of it" or "disconnect" if they don't have Asperger's.  So, in the end, I was left feeling a little distanced - this movie was not made for people like me, it was made for the rest of the world.   Not to say that that's necessarily bad - but it's a different feeling for me to feel when watching a movie about someone with Asperger's.   Typically, such movies make me feel less alone, more included -- "There's goes another of my kindred."  I didn't get that here.  

That being said, I think the film accomplishes what it was designed to do.   As a movie which is designed to help "normal" people see through the eyes of someone who is different, it does admirably well - and such understanding is needed...if removing a label will get us closer to the understanding, then I'm all for that.   In essence, that's what has happened to many of us who grew up when no diagnosis was even available.  Had someone chosen to do a documentary on us, they would not have been able to give a diagnosis at all.  Would that have taken away from our lives, experiences?   No.   They are what they are independent of labels.   

Having read the reviews beforehand, I found it interesting to note the differences in the moments in the movie that resonated with reviewers, and those that resonated with me.   Time and again, whenever I watch a movie, or read a book about someone like me, it's the little things that jump out at me.   Things that maybe would slip by someone else.  

While the reviewers were brought to tears by Billy's attempts at romance, what triggered my tears was a moment in which provides a tour of his yard, and talks about how he would never want to leave.  "Mostly because my cat is buried out in the backyard. I mean, it's a sin to, like, disturb a grave to move it to another location. She died on July 30 on the year 2003.  Of course, I was at war with myself when that happened. I was fighting my emotions."  

This speaks to a deep connection to a pet that is very different from average children.   I really identified with this, as I was this way, too, at the same age.  My best friend was my little dog - and I, too, was "at war with myself" when I lost her.   Decades later, I miss her more than some humans I have had in my life, as strange as it may sound. 

When he goes on to talk about depression, and "demons" in his past, well, I get that too.  Then, in a  humorous moment which brings you up short -  the momentum of these deep thoughts are suddenly interrupted with an outburst of, "And stop poking me in the balls!!" 

This is the appeal of Billy - you never quite know what he's going to say.  It could be disarming, it could be amusing, it could be surprisingly wise.  He's a combination of uncommon maturity, wisdom, smarts, and innocent naïveté -- which is not that unusual in an Asperger's child.   

In interviews, and the commentary, Ms. Venditti repeatedly refers to him as an "old soul" -- a phrase I also heard frequently applied to me as a child.   But, there are several scenes in which his naïveté is all too clear, where childish sarcasm flies right over his head.   It makes you worry for him, and hurt for how he is being treated.   This also resonates -  it was very true of me as a kid.   

It seems that the world struggles to understand how these children can be so gifted, and so challenged at the same time.   It doesn't compute by "normal" rules.  "Normal" rules say that you're either dumb or smart.  You're either socially gifted, or not.  You're either "cool" or "not cool." But the reality, for everyone, is so much more complex.

We are all gifted with our strengths and our weaknesses.  In those with Asperger's, the dichotomy is simply easier to see.   That's the lesson that Billy brings to us.    

“I’m not black, I’m not white, not foreign…just different in the mind – different brains, that’s all…” - Billy

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