An Open Letter to Benedict Cumberbatch

Dear Benedict Cumberbatch,

You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but I feel like I need to say something in the wake of your devastating comments about autistic people. If you were a friend, I’d sit you down with a cup of coffee and explain to you bit by bit why the words you said about people like me cut so deep.

But I don’t know you, so this is the medium I must use.  I am a 33 year old queer autistic person who has two children who are also autistic.  I’ve been a fan of your acting since I watched my first episode of Sherlock three years ago, and my admiration of your work has grown from there.  As a person who has admired Alan Turing and has read several biographies about him, I was very excited as a person who identified with two different parts of his identity – as a gay person, and as an autistic person (the latter which has been debated, but is almost 100% agreed upon by scholars as well as people who knew him).

I know that you’ve fielded quite a lot of questions regarding the characters you play, which is a natural part of discussing upcoming films, TV series, etc.  I’ve seen that many reporters and interviewers have touched upon the question of whether you play your characters (some of whom are not just characters, but who are people who actually lived) as autistic. It’s a difficult question, I’m sure, especially as your interaction with autistic people (to the public’s knowledge) is limited to just a few interactions in your research for Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.

I wish you would have said “I don’t know.”  I wish you would have embraced your ignorance of this topic, instead of discussing how “lazy” it is to interpret Alan Turing as autistic, despite there being loads of evidence that he was.

I personally was drawn to your interpretation of Sherlock in part because of Sherlock’s physicality, as well as his (sometimes present) social ignorance, and just the many ways that Sherlock reminds me of, well, me.  Not to mention that the word “Asperger’s” was uttered on screen in regards to him, whether you think that is canonical or not. I’ve written extensively on my feelings regarding Sherlock being autistic, which for me extends beyond your version of Sherlock Holmes, but also includes most other adaptations as well as the original stories.

I also saw a similar physicality at a much more basic level reflected in your interpretation of the Creature in Frankenstein.  I later learned of the ways in which you obtained that knowledge, which sickened me tremendously.

So to hear you deny the fact that many of your characters can absolutely be interpreted as autistic, to hear you call your fans “lazy”, many of whom are actually autistic ourselves, is hurtful. But perhaps you just don’t know that nearly 2% of the population is autistic, and therefore you probably encounter more autistic people than you realize.  Many of us have been subjected to abusive therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis in an attempt to make us appear as though we were not autistic.  Its origins lie in Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who also worked with the “feminine boys project” to attempt to eradicate homosexuality in young boys.

It’s hurtful to be called lazy or wrong.  But it’s devastating to hear the way you talked about a 17 year old who you assumed had the “mental age” of a one and a half year old infant, all because he didn’t fit into your ideal of what a 17 year old disabled teenager should be.  And it’s horrible to read that you think that all autistic people do is struggle all the time – that your idea of autism is so skewed that all you can see is suffering and struggle and not the achievements and pure joy that is being autistic.

Over the past few days, I’ve read that it’s been confirmed that you’ll be playing Dr. Strange, who is canonically a disabled person.  Now, I’ve seen you in Hawking and I think you did a fantastic job there.  I’ve seen your (probably unintentional) portrayals of several autistic or at least non-neurotypical characters.  I don’t doubt that you absolutely can do a great job.

But the way you talk about us is telling.  I spent almost a year hyped up about going to see The Imitation Game, only to be completely devastated three weeks before the premiere.  I have only a passing desire to see it now, even though I’d been looking forward to it for quite some time.  I had a similar experience two years ago when I read your comments regarding Frankenstein.  It’s a good thing that Sherlock has such a long hiatus between series.  It allowed me some time to process my emotions about the things you’d said about people like me.  I can tell you I was far less excited about Sherlock series 3 than I was about Sherlock series 2.

You spoke recently about The Imitation Game, and you said that it “celebrates outsiders; it celebrates anybody who’s ever felt different and ostracized and ever suffered prejudice”.  I felt so very happy when I read those words, thinking, “this is someone who understands the person who he’s playing”. It was just a day or two later that my hopes were dashed as you denied Turing’s neurodivergence, and I wondered if perhaps I was the wrong sort of “different” for you – is it okay if I’m queer, but I’m the wrong sort of different if I’m autistic? Is there something shameful about being autistic, because your manner of speaking about us seems to indicate that is so.

So please, open your eyes and start paying attention to what autistic and otherwise disabled people are saying about our own experiences.  Don’t listen to Autism Speaks, no matter what your Star Trek co-stars may say.  Educate yourself, and show that you actually do care about what autistic people have to say.

In the meantime, I’ll continue writing as much autistic Sherlock and autistic Martin Crieff fanfiction as possible in an attempt to soothe myself from the massive disappointment I feel because of your comments.
——————

Have some links.

Frankenstein stuff

Frankenstein stuff, two years later. (found on page 3 of the article)

Alan Turing autism questions

Denial of Sherlock being on the autism spectrum

Short mention of Dr. Strange and disability

Autism Speaks link 1

Autism Speaks link 2

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21 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Benedict Cumberbatch

  1. Thanks for answering. 🙂 I’ve just been wondering if there is any secret way of making people notice when someone writes an open letter to them because they always seem to be read, but apparently there is not – good to know. ^^
    Good luck with trying to contact him, who knows? Maybe it’ll work. 😉
    Btw, those snowflakes are awsome. *-*

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  2. This created a maelstrom of conflict on the TPGA Facebook page when they shared it. I did not translate the article the way you did. I did not arrive at the same conclusion you did.

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    1. Um, okay? I don’t particularly care what happened with that particular page given the people who make up of the majority of their audience (parents who aren’t autistic). Few allistic parents are going to be on the same page with me here and frankly, I don’t particularly care if you agree or not. If it bothers some autistic people (and it does ; I’m not alone in this), then perhaps it’s something that needs to be said. Feel free to agree or disagree. No one’s stopping you.

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      1. I completely agree with Brett. Don’t you think its a bit silly to be speaking for an entire group of people based upon your opinion? Although he may have worded it terribly cumberbatch is somewhat right. To assume a character is autistic without complete 100% knowledge is a tad ‘lazy’ as he put it. To jump to that conclusion just shows how today disabilities are allowed to define a person which is what I believe he was getting at. I feel you were maybe a bit upset but I see little substance to your argument.

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      2. This isn’t about a fictional character. This is about a real person, one who experts believe was autistic. This isn’t lazy. Secondly, this isn’t the only issue with what he said and I’m appalled that so many people are ignoring the other part of his comment, which completely dehumanized an autistic person.

        Finally, I want you to point out where I said I speak for all autistic people. Go ahead. I’ll be waiting.

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      3. Experts may look back now and *think* Touring was autistic, but the fact of the matter is, he was never formally diagnosed as such, and it’s presumptuous at best for any of us to claim offense on his behalf over comments made by an actor. For all we know, Touring would have been greatly offended at being labeled as autistic simply because some of us see characteristics in him that remind us of autism. So yes, he is a real person who is being portrayed in this movie by Mr. Cumberbatch. But it doesn’t give us the right to armchair diagnose him.

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      4. The offense is not limited to his comments made about Turing, which you would know if you actually read the links. I’m not offended for Turing’s sake. I’m not even all that offended. This is an attempt to educate a person who is ignorant and who has said some ignorant yet hurtful things. It matters because it matters to autistic people to see someone who portrays some fantastic autistic characters, some real people and some not, who has said some frankly horrific things about autistic people all the while doing a fantastic job at portraying them.

        But you’re focusing on some minor detail here and I don’t quite understand why. Nor do I care, really, became you’re unwilling to look past your own biases here and see what the actual issue is.

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      5. You make a lot of assumptions about people on the internet. I did read the links. In fact, I spent a few hours today doing a lot of research on Mr. Cumberbatch and his past comments relating to autism.
        This open letter is your opinion of Mr. Cumberbatch and his comments. I have read up on this extensively and I disagree that his comments were meant as an insult to autistic people. That is my opinion. No, our opinions are not the same. But that doesn’t mean I am any less informed about this topic than you are. It just means I have a different opinion.

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      6. Have your opinion. It’s oppressive and wrong but enjoy your ableism. I mean, if you think the comments he’s said are okay, I think maybe you have your own internalized ableism to deal with. If you think that it’s okay to infantilize a teenager, equating him with a toddler because he doesn’t meet Mr. Cumberbatch’s standard of what communication should be, and if you think studying autistic children and young adults in order to play a literal monster is a-ok, ans glorifying our caretakers as some sort of angels just for putting up with us is fine, well, I don’t think we’re on the same team, regardless of diagnosis and I’m appalled that you think any of this is okay.

        But hey, have your opinion. No one’s stopping you. But this is my blog, and further comments defending his words will be deleted.

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  3. Well, I read this first and then read his comments. Maybe I don’t understand something that you have taken offence to but my interpretation of his comments (even prefaced with the outrage in my expectation from seeing this) was that offence or making it sound like he was using us to make his role sparkle was exactly what he was trying to avoid. He didn’t want to treat us like some fountain of role-playing fake technique acting.

    I have to say that I feel he is a ‘method’ actor with quirks. ( method acting – an acting technique introduced by Stanislavsky in which the actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed) Now, if you really think about that, what does it tell you? (2%) Read more about him than just that one interview and I think you will see what I mean without explaining. Why are so many of his roles perceived to be on the spectrum?

    I do find it a struggle. That does not mean I would trade this gift (yep – I like that I am a Mac in an IBM world) away for things to be easier. I find it a struggle every day to not put people off and a struggle to accept that people I genuinely liked and wanted to get to know, can’t see past something so simple to want to know me back. I find it a struggle not to be hurt every single time and I am not ashamed to say that many aspects of this do make me suffer and have for years because rather than just accepting that I work on a different clock – they (with the best of intentions) tried to make me fit, force me to hide, taught me to blend. I can do those things, and it is still a struggle. I start medicating the inevitable migraine that will happen when I have to put on that normal mask and maintain it for any length of time before I even leave the house.

    I sound so reasonable on paper…then you meet me and … lol…oh well…

    What am I? Who knows. My mom wouldn’t let them label me anti-social personality disorder back when that was called sociopath and then as the spectrum definition expanded and I was obviously included, she refused to even acknowledge the possibility. ADHD – they didn’t know what they were talking about! When the pills calmed me down, she still would not call it what it was, but you can bet every time she gets frustrated with me she asks if I have ‘had my pill’ like it will fix any disagreement. I only admitted this stuff to my own family in 2005. (I grew up when crazy, and freak were tossed out like it was a kindness that they didn’t say something even more horrible) Maybe she was right – labels change – I am still here.

    I think my problem here is that he didn’t want to trivialize our experience and you have interpreted it as he’s insulting us rather than acknowledging. If you say this isn’t a struggle or that it causes no suffering – then you must live in a very protected world and I don’t think you do because you would not reach out and try to help others understand the best parts of us if it was all a peachy world. He didn’t call autistic people lazy or even his fans lazy – he said it was lazy to say that was all HE put in each role – that it was dangerous for him to say that they were or were not anything in particular. (He acknowledged that he did not assume a role with that in the forefront of his characterization because he didn’t see it as defining a person nor trivialize it as a simple matter of putting some label on people who are so much more than just one thing.) How is that not respectful? He is not a frivolous mean-spirited man.

    You made it sound as if he only met some people with autism so he could play a monster and it made you sick. The research I found said – ( watching severely mentally or physically damaged patients learn to use their limbs again,) and an autopsy. Johnny Lee Miller watched his baby – learn to walk. It isn’t an insult to babies. Seeing how a body with damaged motor-skills of some sort progresses in function would certainly be helpful if I had to pretend to come back from the dead – seeing a baby learn to use his little brand new legs would be of value too. They each play Sherlock as well – and both are quite brilliant at it.

    I honestly think this letter is exactly the sort of thing he feared because he is constantly vilified and misquoted and his words are skewed here and there to be more sensational. He does play Sherlock brilliantly no matter what the label is – My own kids make their friends watch the show and call it their ‘Mom field guide’ and it seems to actually work because their friends meet me with a different perspective and give me a chance to show them that my world is full of adventure in tiny things and I am in awe that they could take something I found a little insulting at first (because they were not giggling at the brilliant bits but the part where he flops on the couch and steps up on the coffee-table in his bathrobe and when he drives Mycroft away with his violin.) and made it a bridge to show off that their Mom may have some odd quirks but if you are willing to see them as they do – the odd bits have a value all their own.

    I would have never known that my children adore me for exactly the things I have spent my life trying to hide – trying to keep out of my public persona – apologizing for – embarrassed that I couldn’t control it at that moment — They like it. (But they never knew anything else and would hate a June Cleaver kind of Mom) But it also let me see me through their eyes and how they could love what didn’t fall into the perfect mean of human behavior.

    Now there is this actor who is a little zany and offbeat in a good way and this show — they don’t have to explain Autistic Spectrum with severe ADHD and see the blank stares and the shuttering of expressions – they say Sherlock. They have a Mom who Shot a hole in the floor on Christmas Eve (long story but funny not dangerous) and put a skull on top of a Christmas tree for our pirate theme then really did get out the violin to play songs while the others socialized. They have a Mom that they appreciate even more because a similar (but not exactly the same) personality shines as unique rather than weird and they get a stepped back perspective of exactly what it is like to work with a different operating system. Nobody has to explain – it is what it is.

    It opens conversation. ‘Is that what it’s like?’ — not exactly but (and they are inquisitive and interested rather than automatically running for the hills — no matter what, that works in my book)

    All I am saying here is that if you look at a thing wanting to be offended, no matter how a person struggles to say exactly the right thing, somebody will find a way to be offended. (my life in a nut shell) So if you truly feel that he set out – on purpose – to be cruel or to hurt autistic people then you have every right to be offended. If, on the other hand, you feel like his intent was to do the best he could with saying how he felt and maybe flubbed it a bit in your eyes, then what purpose does it serve that you are offended?

    Do you expect perfection from him when he’s nervous, distracted, maybe not feeling well and trying to soldier through his commitments? (Being an actor does not give you the golden ticket to all things human to be simply erased — but we watch them like vultures waiting to pounce on the slightest error or even the most minimum off the cuff reply being not ‘What WE wanted them to say!” and then we judge their work based on glimpses of their opinion?

    I know a doctor who does not play golf! (I thought that was doctor law or something and I adore golf.) She is still a good doctor. She just can’t putt worth a darn.

    We all need to step back and realize that even actors (yes they are very pretty and usually smile and look like all is perfect in their world on cue even when it isn’t.) have no idea what they are doing and are just winging it most of the time. They don’t get to call in sick unless it is life threatening or get to just blow off an appointment because they are not in the mood – they push themselves until they drop and if you really handed a coffee to a few of them in the morning and saw what they put up with, I think you would be very disappointed with the ‘dream’ life. It isn’t bad and there are amazing perks – but if you had to deal with it day in and day out – you would see it also can get exceedingly tiresome and the expectations to be flaw free in every moment get terribly frustrating.

    If you want to be understood – be understanding.

    Okay – I am done. There is an experiment in the kitchen I hope to pretend is a brilliant dinner and not chasing the cat because it went monster on me.

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    1. I feel like you’ve missed my point entirely. Do you think I honestly believe that autistic people don’t suffer because of the way that NT people treat us? Because about 90% of this blog is devoted to the fact that the world doesn’t treat us so well, that there are people out there who quite literally wish we would disappear and some people who justify the murders of people like me and like my kids with words like “mercy killing” and “walk in their shoes”.

      I wonder if you’ve read the attached links in the post because the first post on Frankenstein is the first post I ever wrote about the way he talked about autistic people, and I wrote that over two years ago. I didn’t demonize him. I said it’s perfectly acceptable to still like him and his work but have an issue with something he said. This is a bit of an emotional issue because it hits close to home but I’m not approaching it in an overly emotional way. I’m very logical and the words that he said, the things he said to describe us were quite awful. I am not primarily talking about the “lazy” or “dangerous” comments. I’m primarily talking about the comment where he reduced a 17 year old to the mental age of a toddler, and then further reduced the young man to only bodily functions. He did all of this while he was in the personal space of said 17 year old. Imagine if someone came into your home, and you talked about things that were relevant to you and they made what sounded like a joke out of your words, or used it to mock you. Because that’s what happened here.

      And you bring up Jonny Lee Miller and I’m glad you did because Benedict wasn’t alone on that trip with Nick Dear (who has an autistic son). But Benedict is the one who opened his mouth about autistic people. Similar things were not said about the people with Parkinson’s. He didn’t say anything about how noble it was that the people who care for Parkinson’s and other motor disabled people chose to do so. But he did say that about the caretakers of autistic people.

      And Jonny Lee Miller was someone who sat right next to Benedict while he shot his mouth off and didn’t make one negative comment about the experience. And he’s someone, who quite frankly, makes a far better autistic Sherlock in my opinion, though I do think they both have traits there.

      I’m not denying that acting is a difficult job and being in the public eye is difficult, not at all. I’m just saying that maybe he could learn to do better, to be better. That’s the whole point of this and I don’t know how someone reads this and assumes that I hate him or want to demonize him. No. I want him to learn and do better. It’s ignorance, I think, not hatred that fueled said comments. But over the past three years, his comments about autism have become worse and worse and that’s a problem.

      And I’ve never said a thing negative about how nervous he gets in some interviews. And I don’t know his state of mind in this one, because it was a print article. I suffer from anxiety, and if I were constantly questioned, I’d have a lot of things I wouldn’t be able to answer. But instead of inserting an ignorant opinion, I’d say, yeah I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. I wouldn’t wax on about what a depressing life autistic people live by nature of being autistic, rather than the lack of support we have and the way the public treats us.

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