Q&A with Brady Gerber: “Carelessly-made art can do a lot of damage”

This week’s interview is with my friend Brady Gerber, who’s usually doing fantastic musician profiles and interviews for Vulture, but who wrote an essential analysis on the changing way autism is depicted onscreen last week: You Don’t Have to Be a Superhero. We chatted about the process undertaken to write the piece, his blogger origin story, and plenty more. 

Tell me about your background as a writer. 

I was (still am) a giant music nerd who raided his parents' record collection and tried to listen to anything and everything I could find. And in high school, I came of age towards the end of the golden age of the mp3 blog, when it was easy and still novel to start a blog and write about whatever you wanted, especially the kinds of music not being covered in Rolling Stone or even Pitchfork. With all this in mind, I figured I could start a blog to introduce my friends to new music.

That's when I began to be a writer. Writing, in the beginning, was just a means to an end of sharing YouTube links. There were zero expectations, and I'm very grateful to have those early years of being a nobody; I had the time and energy (and ignorance) to write 1,000 bad blog posts before I finally wrote one not-terrible post. 

I also think it's important to give social media credit. Social media has never not been weird, yet in the late 2000s/early 2010s, being on Twitter and Tumblr and sharing other blogs that you liked and connecting with writers around the world still felt empowering. I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where my local hipster record store was Barnes & Noble, and I didn't go to school for writing or journalism. The internet and social media were my record stores, and I learned everything about writing from reading and writing as much as I could. 

And I never stopped writing. Throughout college at Indiana University and after moving to NYC for a music day job (which I landed after connecting with someone through an internship my senior year), I continued my blog while now contributing to friends' blogs. Then I started to pitch bigger blogs, then bigger websites, then magazines for online features, then magazines for print features.

These days, I contribute mostly to Vulture, and my editor over there is a saint for taking time out of her incredibly busy schedule to hear my pitches. In 2017, I moved my blog to a weekly newsletter, and now I'm moving that newsletter to a new medium, which I'm working on now.

(Shameless plug: As I work on building this new platform, I'm going to have a temporary holding format for the newsletter that should go live in the first week of March, and I'd love for you to sign up.)

It's been a surreal trip — 14-year-old me would lose it if he knew that he'd eventually interview Conor Oberst for a print profile and Willie Nelson in the same month — but the actual journey has been full of gradual tiny victories. And mostly rejections; a big turning point was when I started to embrace Kim Liao's advice on aiming for 100 rejections a year. "Write every day and don't be an asshole" is boring advice, and it works.

I'm curious about what led you to write your latest piece, You Don’t Have to Be a Superhero, which covers TV, since your work at Vulture usually falls along what we’ve joked about as the unofficial “dad rock beat.”

I'm fascinated by the idea of "classic rock" and the younger artists who buy into this specific (and arguably outdated) lineage of monoculture, and Wilco is indeed my favorite band. But I try to pay attention to as many different arts, trends, and ideas as I can; I also write fiction and am now transitioning into software engineering to help pay the bills while I continue to freelance write. Each year, I try to challenge myself and pitch some kind of longform that has nothing to do with music. Usually, it's an idea that I think I can offer a new perspective on that also forces me out of my comfort zone. (Recent examples: How dystopian fiction lost its edge, how Tom Wolfe's "The 'Me Decade'" compares to millennial narcissism.)

Being on the spectrum was such a sore spot for most of my life — partly because everyone's impression of an autistic person was still Rain Man, and I didn't want anyone feeling sorry for me — that I made a decision to never write or even talk about being on the spectrum. I got older and became more comfortable in my own skin, but I still stayed away from writing about it. That changed when I watched Hannah Gadsby's Douglas.

Nanette is probably the overall better special, but it's hard to overstate how groundbreaking it was to watch an adult on the spectrum (who's not a sitcom character) not only talk about being autistic but also joke about it and actually be funny. It was the first time I ever laughed about being on the spectrum. 

Around that time, Love on the Spectrum also came to America, which was groundbreaking in a different way of showing multiple autistic adults on screen. I did more digging and realized that a pattern was emerging, and I had a feeling that most of my colleagues probably weren't connecting these dots. After writing for so many years, I felt like I could now take on a more sensitive story that hit personally, but as a writer who could also step out of his ego and antagonize his own bias. I pitched it, and we went from there.

What was the most surprising (or shocking) thing you learned while researching this piece? 

I had to cut most of it due to my final word count, but during my research, I did a deep dive into the anti-vax movement(s) and how much of it evolved as a reaction to the (disproven) fear that vaccines caused autism. Going straight to the source and reading the infamous Wakefield Paper and the testimonials of parents who forced their kids to drink bleach because they were so afraid that their kids would turn into someone like me became more overwhelming than I anticipated. 

I became clinically depressed for a little while from all this research, and I had to stop writing to recharge. (I think it's worth noting that this was when I finally started taking meditation seriously, and that, along with becoming more comfortable asking for help, was how I was able to get back to a more stable mindset. I now try to meditate for 5-10 minutes each day using Ginger.)

What brought me back to the story was remembering that so much of this fear of autism, along with the spread of false information and a few other factors, stems from one stupid movie, a work of fiction based on someone who wasn't even autistic. I hate that pop culture can hold such power. It's a testament, good and bad, to the power of art creating images and feelings that we latch onto to connect with people or ideas that we might not experience in our own lives. I don't think pop culture is the enemy by default. I do think that carelessly-made art can do a lot of damage, and careless art is made all the time.

In the end, I'm glad I stuck with the writing. I also found Jonathan D. Quick's and Heidi Larson's great summary on the history of the "vaccines cause autism" myth, and I was glad to link that in the feature so I could spend more time on what was going on in 2021.

Your piece is all about TV depictions, but I'm curious if you also have thoughts about how media portrayals of autistic adults have evolved, either in a similarly nuanced way, or if you think it actually lags behind what we see on TV.

It's tricky. Autism affects the senses in different ways in different people, yet we mostly talk about how it manifests physically in a person. When you're describing someone on the spectrum, you're usually describing their behaviors; if they're able to make eye contact with you or hold a conversation; what they say, how they say it, and if they have any sort of filter or grasp on social cues; even how they walk and move their hands and limbs. 

TV, film, and, in theory, staged performances are probably the mediums most apt to depict this. You just have to point a camera at someone and see if they "look" or "act" autistic. So screen art is the main stage for debating about autism in art and how well (or poorly) it's done, and how it's evolved over the years.

I think it's a testament again to the impact of Rain Man. Outside of film and TV, to my knowledge, there aren't as many towering equivalents. In literature, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Fortress of Solitude, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are well-known examples of dudes neuro-splaining autism via lead characters who are socially awkward boys. I think these books received more eye-rolls than outright hatred. (“It’s evocative for me. I’m enticed by it,” is Jonathan Lethem's literal quote on how the idea of autism inspired The Fortress of Solitude.)

In music, the world I know best, there aren't really any well-known "autistic albums." Courtney Love is one of the few music celebrities who's talked about her autism on record, but I don't think she's attempting to make The Great Autistic Album. I don't think she needs to do that, either?

I have a feeling that there are many musicians who are on the spectrum who, for one reason or another, either don't seek to confirm it or mask their autism. And though there is science exploring the unique connection between music and autism, it's not like you would describe a song or album as sounding autistic, or would criticize a song for being too autistic, or not autistic enough.

What was the decision-making process like for you to choose to finally write about your experience being on the spectrum for this piece? 

I usually try to stay away from inserting myself into the reporting. Yet this time, I felt like I needed to make it clear that this is coming from someone on the spectrum. There are thousands of books and articles written by neurotypical parents talking about autism and how they raised their autistic children — and those are valid experiences with their own nuances. 

We're also finally reaching the point where more and more of those kids are old enough to tell their own stories. I knew this story was going to be seen by a decent amount of people, so this was an opportunity to show readers — some of them perhaps having never read a magazine article written by someone on the spectrum talking about the spectrum — that autistic people are capable of self-reflection and self-awareness.

With all that said though, at the end of the day, my job, no matter what I'm writing about, is to seek out and present certain dots for the readers, who then have to make up their own minds about how they want to connect them, or how well or poorly I connected those dots for them. I can introduce new ideas and make a case, but I can't tell people how to feel. 

I also don't buy the idea that no one can ever criticize an autistic writer who's writing about autism. Like any writer, I have my own bias and blindspots. I'm sure that I missed a lot of key points in my feature that another writer would have caught.

This is where I had to be more objective. My first draft included a lot of dramatic "this is The Autism Condition and I Am Right" moments. It felt good to write and get out of my system, so that on the second draft, I could go, "OK, am I actually helping the reader, or am using up their time for my own therapy session?" Anything that didn't contribute to the story, I cut.

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