I’m not used to seeing characters who think like me on television.
Sure, there are a few that bear some similarity to the complex and inscrutable way my mind functions. I can relate to Abed Nadir’s unquenchable love for pop culture, Sheldon Cooper’s penchant for facts and Sonya Cross’ tenacity. But as much as I love these characters, they’re somehow un-relatable. They’re fully-formed, functioning (high-functioning) adults who can drive cars and date and look somebody in the eye and watch somebody sneeze a few feet away from them without recoiling in disgust and thinking about the fact that a sneeze can travel 100 miles an hour and some of those germs are bound to be infecting their lungs right now, right now.
Max Braverman on “Parenthood” is not like this. He’s got an unabashed passion for bugs, which most people think is weird, but to him is fascinating. He speaks in a monotone that’s all too familiar to me, with just a hint of it trained into a high and low lilt so as not to invite ridicule. He hates change, not because he can’t handle things not going his way, but because that’s not the way they’re supposed to be. He follows rules. School is a fucking nightmare, because despite the fact that he’s the smartest person in the room, he can’t follow the complexities of how to raise his hand and answer questions. He talks too much. He’s not like the other kids, and it’s obvious as soon as he opens his mouth. They never let him rest, their teasing relentlessly cruel. They pee in his canteen.
I’ve never been formally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (or, as the DSM IV calls it now, “Autism Spectrum Disorder”), but I’ve always known that I’m not quite like everyone else. As a kid, my off-kilter brain was labeled my “gift,” an explanation for those astronomically-high test scores and my prolific vocabulary. I was taken out of class with a few other kids to participate in the Discovery program, where we did normal-kid stuff like build bridges out of toothpicks (or, in my case, count hundreds of toothpicks and whisper the running count out loud while the supervisor took notes). My “gift” which gave me the confidence of performing one-woman comedy shows at middle school lunch, the “gift” that made the other girls move to an adjacent table and made me follow them. I’ve gotten by just fine without labels, and my difficulties in communication are only really obvious on a date or at a job interview.
Like Max Braverman, I find navigating complex social situations troubling. I’m a nightmare dorm roommate because I like to go to bed at exactly 1:00, the fan setting on medium even during the winter, the room pitch black and don’t you dare make a sound. I’ll eat whatever shit you have in the room, rifling through your drawers because you said we’d share our belongings and I’ll hold you to that. I’ve fucked friendships because I said the wrong thing one too many times, forgot to “think about what the other person is feeling” and ate the cookies you were saving to bring to a club meeting. I have to stifle a laugh whenever someone says that a loved one died, bottle up my tears when I scuff my boot and the left one doesn’t match anymore. Do not even talk to me about group projects.
Like Max Braverman, I don’t know how to have a crush. I’ll either be so obtuse that you have no idea I’m into you, or I’ll overstep my boundaries and you’ll be scared off (just wait!). Don’t even try to have a crush on me. My first kiss happened on a “date” that I assumed was two friends enjoying the company of friendship and lunch, until he pulled me aside and kissed me full on the mouth, and I walked home crying because I definitely didn’t want this.
Like Max Braverman, I’m the “difficult one” in the family, the one still who throws tantrums at age 20, my bedroom wall still bearing the scars of the fork I threw into the wall when my sister told me I wouldn’t be able to watch the “Breaking Bad” season premiere live. I’ve torn apart handmade stuffed animals, kicked and screamed, engaged in screaming fits even with people who had no obligation to stick around or love me, but did anyway for reasons I’ll never understand.
And, most importantly, like Max Braverman, I’ve been victimized because I don’t think like everyone else. I’ll never forget being fourteen years old and playing volleyball in gym class, my clumsy wrists always stumbling and never making contact with the ball. After picking it up off the ground, I’ll never forget the whisper, “I think she’s retarded” coming from the girl playing next to me, the shame of hearing an illicit giggle from a boy I thought was my friend. I’ll never stop turning that word around in my head, wondering how it could possibly describe someone like me, someone who got a perfect score on her history test and can add four-digit numbers faster than a calculator. I’m labeled “eccentric,” my phobias Deschanel-chic and my obsession with television a “cute quirk” rather than my saving grace, the way I’ve learned how to stand human emotion (or, at least, the simple kind that writers create) and predict others’ behavior.
I’m woefully, woefully not used to seeing characters who think like me on television. Out of all the characters on TV, those easily-digestible human sketches who I can begin to understand even while never identifying with, there’s only one instance in which I feel like I might as well be the one on the screen. I can’t even imagine the joy that most people must feel when watching literally anything on TV, of identifying with every situation and feeling the reality of the pictures on the screen. There’s only one show, one three-dimensional and flawlessly-acted character, that I’ve ever felt that way about. I know that Max Braverman is a television character and not a real person, but to (ugh) use a metaphor here, Max is more than just Max Burkholder’s acting creation or some words that Jason Katims typed on a Final Draft document. Max Braverman is everyone who covers their mouth for six days straight when their sister is sick. Max Braverman is everyone who hates poetry, because who the hell decided to make these words mean other things? Max Braverman is everyone who hates the scratchy tags on clothes and can’t stand the feeling of silk on their skin. Max Braverman is me.