The Assumption of Normalcy

Originally published on 2/24/10

For three years, the vast majority of the gossip I overheard involved who was marrying whom and who was having (another) baby. No, I wasn’t part of an underground cult. I just worked at a business run by Orthodox Jews, and such discussion among Orthodox Jews is natural. At the end of high school, Jewish parents– who have sent their children to single-sex schools for the past twelve or thirteen years– start searching for husbands and wives for their children. The parents compare their children’s interests with children of other parents for common ground, and then send them out on dates. After a certain amount of dates (the number depends on the sect– with Lubavitch it’s twelve, although some sects don’t set a limit), the children decide whether or not to marry the person they have been dating, and the process continues until the children are “married off.”

 

Trying to imagine how highly religious parents could tell their children, “It’s time for you to think about getting married” in the same manner as secular parents might say, “It’s time for you to start thinking about college,” I mentioned to my mother how much this disturbed me. She more or less shrugged it off, saying that had I grown up in that culture, I would have just understood that I would have been expected to get married after graduating high school. I reminded her that when I had finished high school, I had had still-undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. For a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome– a form of high functioning autism– the idea of getting married so young (or for some people, even at all) is terrifying. My mother conceded this point.

I understand that I am the exception, and not the rule: most people don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome, and most people growing up in religious Jewish culture look forward to getting married and having children– many children. Actually, I don’t know that they do or if they are just doing it because it is expected of them. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the life goal of most of these people truly is indeed to marry and have large families. The keyword here is MOST. Most people don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. Most people also aren’t gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or asexual.

But some people are.

And thus I introduce one of my many problems with religion: The assumption of “normalcy.” Religion assumes that people are all hardwired one way. It assumes that everyone is gender-conforming, sexual– heterosexual, and not autistic. I can only imagine how many children of Jewish families have been “married off” by their parents and are miserable. How many gay or transgender people are married and living a lie? How many asexual people endure sex instead of enjoying it? How many people with Asperger’s Syndrome– who often enjoy LIMITED physical contact– are going through the motions of kissing their spouses in the morning and having sex in the evening, and then having to do their best to be affectionate to their many children? How many tormented people, frustrated by the expectations of their religion, are going through this? And how about people who are simply independent and may want to get married SOMEDAY, just not now and not through such controlled dating? Or people who simply prefer to be alone? Or how about people who want to marry but don’t want to add to the population of 6 billion?

 

To be fair, Orthodox Judaism is the lesser of the evils, especially when compared to fundamentalist Islam, where people are forced in every sense of the word to get married. I am sure that there are many Orthodox Jewish families who respect their children’s right to not marry (although if it’s about sexual orientation or gender identity, the child is likely keeping this a secret) and will understand that their child with Asperger’s Syndrome– let alone profound autism– probably SHOULDN’T get married. But I would wager that many other families are not like this. After all, just look at the pressures to marry and have children in the SECULAR world. My ex-best friend, who I’ll call Melanie (and I say ex-best friend because now that she’s married she’s cut off communication with me entirely!), got married a couple years ago. Prior to that, when she was working at Macy’s for $8 an hour, her mother began pressuring her about grandchildren. Melanie wants to have children, but when she’s ready. It probably is good that Melanie got married– I am sure her overbearing mother would be pressuring her to find a husband!

As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who grew up locking herself in her room on Friday nights and drawing or writing instead of dating, I can only imagine what may have happened had I grown up in a religious household, or even a secular household like Melanie’s. I am lucky to have had parents who didn’t automatically expect their children to marry and bear them grandchildren; they only care that their children lead happy and fulfilled lives.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Happiness isn’t living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

 

 

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