Thursday, January 14, 2016

Was Robert E. Howard Autistic?

"I'm Robert Howard, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Patches and I are out for a morning stroll. We like to come here where there are big rocks and caves so we can play make-believe. Some day I am going to be an author and write stories about pirates and maybe cannibals. Would you like to read them?"
– Robert E. Howard, age nine
Robert E. Howard, age eight.
Robert E. Howard, pulp writer and creator of Conan the Cimmerian, committed suicide on June 11, 1936, in Cross Plains, Texas, upon being informed that his mother, who was dying of tuberculosis, would not regain consciousness. He was thirty years old. His mother succumbed the following day, and they were buried in the same plot in nearby Brownwood.

Howard has been on my mind since I passed through Brownwood a couple weeks ago, and, more generally, since I visited Cross Plains on the anniversary of his death in 2011. He was in many ways a man of his time and place, and my feelings about him are not without conflict. But I'm also a native Texan who lives in a small town and writes fantasy adventure stories, so he's something of a role model to me. "The Tower of the Elephant" is probably my favorite piece of short fiction, with several other Conan stories coming in close behind it.

Howard was a complex person. The one figure that looms largest in his biography is his mother, who, by all accounts, exerted an unhealthy influence on his adult life, particularly through her attempts to stifle his relationships with women. This has led some biographers – most notably, L. Sprague de Camp in Dark Valley Destiny (published in 1983 and coauthored by his wife Catherine Crook de Camp and child psychologist Jane Whittington Griffin) – to suggest that he had some sort of Oedipal fixation which ultimately led to suicide.

Hester Ervin Howard
Given the facts of the case, that's a certainly a possibility that should be explored. But to me it seems that de Camp and his coauthors leaped to the conclusion prematurely and allowed it to color their investigation. It's dangerous, this business of posthumously reconstructing a person's psyche.

Nevertheless, when you look at a life like Robert E. Howard's, with all its unexplained eccentricities and contradictions, there is a great temptation to ask Why? and expect a single answer pointing to a root cause. Such an expectation is, of course, naïve. That said, I'm about to engage in a little naivety of my own by suggesting a different root cause.

I hypothesize that Robert E. Howard, if he lived today, would be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

This is something I know a bit about from a layman's perspective, as I myself have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In reading Dark Valley Destiny I was surprised by how many of the quirks and mannerisms described in Howard struck a familiar chord. Howard doesn't necessarily conform to the popular stereotype of a person with high-functioning autism, but autism comes in many shapes and sizes. It may even come in the shape and size of a burly Texan with a penchant for writing lurid adventure tales.

Let's look at the facts of the case. I stress that this is only an informal, preliminary attempt, a setting of thoughts in order, based on secondary sources and without psychological expertise. The complete criteria from the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association can be found here, but the two that concern us are as paraphrased below:

A. Deficits in social communication and social interaction as manifested by:
  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, which could range from: abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests or emotions; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communication in social interaction, which could range from: poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, which could range from: difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following:
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
  • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).
Let's begin with deficits in communication and interaction. The reader might find it helpful to keep an eye on the deficits listed under (A) above.

Howard in 1911.
The Howard family moved around the state a number of times while Robert was growing up. These frequent changes caused him great stress. He was shy and withdrawn, had difficulty making friends, and was the target of bullying at the various schools he attended. One person later described him as a "sissy."

When he did play with other children, he would assign them all roles (usually drawn from books) and direct their actions. Later, though he tried out for basketball, he was unable to adapt to team play – his approach was to grab the ball and try to make a basket – and he was cut for being too aggressive. This sparked a lifelong contempt for playing team sports, though he enjoyed the one-on-one sport of boxing.

As an adult Howard remained a loner, retaining friendships with a handful of young men he'd met in his school days but often treating them in an off-hand manner. He'd formed his two main friendships as the result of a shared interest in writing, and with them was fairly talkative. With others he remained taciturn. Famously, he corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft and other writers, but he was regarded as an eccentric or a "freak" in Cross Plains and had no friends there. Throughout his life he gave the impression of being in his own world; he might shadowbox while walking down the street, for instance, or stop short to peer under stones.

Howard (left) with his two best friends, Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith.
Howard generally dressed the same way day in and day out (work clothes consisting of a shirt, unpressed pants cuffed two inches too short, and high-topped boots, attire considered eccentric by his peers), but sometimes sported incongruous additions like an oversized Mexican sombrero and a nineteenth-century frock coat. These idiosyncrasies were often adhered to with an air of defiance following a period of unawareness and then social embarrassment. He paid little heed to grooming, and sported a brush cut throughout his adult life.

He took a number of odd jobs to support himself while writing, doing best at jobs in which he worked alone with an explicit set of instructions (e.g., as a geologist's assistant). The authors note that he was seemingly unable to grasp verbal instructions; he did poorly in socially complex work environments, where his employment generally ended with his being fired for insubordination. He also shunned organized religion, the one exception being his brief attendance at Sunday school to pursue a romantic interest. The girl never became aware of his affections.

In speech Howard affected the working-class diction of Central Texas to an exaggerated degree, while his writing was fairly polished and verbose. This apparent inconsistency once led a long-distance correspondent to break off the friendship in disgust after a visit to Cross Plains. Though subject to bouts of violent emotion, particularly upon seeing rules flouted, Howard's face always remained remarkably placid. He often failed to recognize acquaintances when he passed them on the street. As a young man he had a peculiar handshake (described as a "dishrag shake"). He was poor at reading the emotions and motives of others and imagined himself surrounded by enemies.

The young Howard's fear of the opposite sex was noted by his friends. When he did first kiss a girl (as the result of a prank), he copied what he had seen in the movies to such a ludicrous extent that it was noticed by the girl. (This copying from movies is fairly common in persons with high-functioning autism.) Sometime later, he thought he saw the girl in a public library, and, in a panic, escaped by climbing out the window. (It wasn't her but someone else; perhaps this was a manifestation of prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a condition often associated with autism.) His approaches toward the opposite sex were faltering and generally unnoticed.

He and his one girlfriend, English teacher Novalyne Price, were brought together by a shared interest in writing rather than social interaction. She is the one who initiated the relationship. At Howard's insistence they avoided gatherings and public places on their dates. For Christmas one year he gave her a French book about lesbianism, not exactly a typical gift.

So here we have a man who was unable to function in the milieu in which he'd been raised, to form and maintain normal relationships, or to understand and communicate with the people around him. The angry contempt for society noted by the authors was, I suspect, an emotional defense developed in response to his utter inability to navigate social settings, rather than an effect of his attachment to his mother.

Howard's bedroom at his parents' house
in Cross Plains.
Let's proceed to the second criterion. The first deficit listed is not particularly noticeable in the data cited by the authors, but may certainly have been present. The second (insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior), is, I believe, supported by their statements.

I have noted the strain put on the young Robert by the Howards' frequent moves. As an adult he continued to live in the tiny walled-in porch behind his parents' bedroom until his death at the age of thirty, despite his modest commercial success. His dress, as we have seen, was markedly unvarying. His mother cooked for him throughout his life, and he experienced distress during her absence, when he was forced to fend for himself by eating out. In an emotional letter, Novalyne Price makes reference to his constant irritation at having his "the well-ordered routine of [his] life" disrupted by his love interest. Even small changes seem to have made Howard deeply insecure, while large life transitions were met with something verging on horror.

Bust of Cleopatra purchased by the
fourteen-year-old Howard.
As for the third deficit (highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus), we have, among other things, Howard's lifelong fascination with weapons like knives and guns. He had an extensive collection with a number of unique items, stored, for lack of a better place, in the family bathroom, and experienced intense anxiety at the prospect of traveling without a pocketknife.

But his main preoccupation was, of course, writing. In the epigram to this post, we see the nine-year-old Howard interacting with an adult by spouting off his interests, which indeed remained lifelong, and well-nigh excluded all else.

A few facts might point toward the fourth deficit (hyper- or hyporeactivity). Howard was, for instance, quite agitated by the sights and sounds of night life in a boom town. His work as a tailor's assistant caused him significant distress for reasons having to do with the senses, and his eccentric choice of wardrobe may indicate tactile hyper- or hyposensitivity. He could also take a good deal of punishment as a boxer, indicating an insensitivity to pain.

There is, admittedly, less evidence either for or against his having the deficits listed under (B), for the simple reason that the de Camps were not looking for it. As I said above, this post is only a proposal; a systematic search of existing correspondence, interviews, and other evidence would have to be made before a more certain conclusion could be drawn.

Apart from all such biographical details, however, I think it's worth considering Howard's writing in light of a possible diagnosis. I find it significant that he wrote an autobiography (Post Oaks and Sand Roughs) while in his early twenties; perhaps this was an attempt to cope with a life that didn't make much sense. His stories almost invariably consist of a single protagonist thrown into a world of strangers, pushing through a kaleidoscope of transitory allies and enemies. Relationships between characters range from simplistic to juvenile, especially when it comes to dealings between men and women. He's been derided as a hack who specialized in male wish-fulfillment fantasy, but I think he might equally well be viewed as an autistic writer trying to find order in a confusing world and work his way through the rigid framework of his mind.

Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard
It's easy to assume that an unhealthy sexual fixation on his mother led to Howard's death, especially as she was so skillful in thwarting his attempts to find love. However, his father also expressed anxiety about losing him to Novalyne Price, and seemingly had a hand in separating the two. Both parents engaged in their own forms of manipulation. Howard was, in fact, caught in a lifelong tug-of-war between his mother and his father, and between his parents and the outside world.

And then, too, there is the fact that, when the family dog Patches was close to death, Howard was so distressed that he took a room in Brownwood until it was over. He returned only after the dog had been buried and the yard plowed so as to hide the spot, and carefully avoided alluding to it in conversation with his parents.

Bedroom of Dr. and Mrs. Howard, with Robert's bedroom visible
through the window on the right.
Howard had a morbid apprehension of death and a lifelong preoccupation with decay and corruption. This was, I believe, tied to his fear of transition. Speaking from personal experience, I can affirm that suicide may indeed seem a positive alternative to a life change as seemingly innocuous as moving out of the family home. The approaching death of his mother must have been like the brink of a cliff. Yes, there was something deeply unhealthy in their relationship, though not, I think, of a sexual nature. But I see it as one of many factors. Indeed, perhaps Howard's fear of transition and difficulty outside the home contributed to his mother's overbearing protectiveness just as much as her protectiveness contributed to his difficulties. In fact, given that autism is tied to genetic factors, I wonder if Howard's mother exhibited many of the same deficits, though in different ways.

In the end, of course, a man is a man, not a bundle of disorders and complexes. Howard's life was a desperately lonely one, and ended in darkness. Any simple explanation of that fact is going to fall short. Perhaps the hypothesis I've offered here is the key to new understanding of Howard's life and death; but then again, perhaps not. At any rate, I think it's an idea that merits further exploration.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting hypothesis. Some of the evidence might be found in the fact that Robert E Howard had some real deficits in his imagination. For example, his Conan stories are populated time and again with the SAME woman. Time and again, the barbarian encounters "ivory-skinned" "ebon haired" "lithe" women with blue or grey eyes.The reason that Valeria and the Sonyas stand out so strongly is because they are among the very few non-black haired women in his entire compiled works! Further EVERY woman Conan ever encounters save the witch from "Hour of the Dragon" is described as "supple." It became a game for me to see how soon the word supple would appear after an ingenue was introduced. The longest gap was three sentences! Significantly, both Howard's mother and Novalyne Price had black hair and blue/gray eyes! and were trim and fair skinned. It was as though he could only conger up one fantasy woman and that woman never strayed far from home. I understand that men and women have types they prefer, but with Howard there is no variation in that type. His limited vocabulary in describing women pops up in other places. A dagger is never just a dagger it a poinard every single time! Like an autistic, he returns to familiar words over and over which reveals itself in the fact that despite the wide use of military and architectural terms, Howard's world has a rather limited vocabulary. I think there is a very good possibility that the creator of the ultimate he-man died a virgin. I've read the stories Howard submitted to the "Spicy" pulps. They read as though written by a stranger to actual sexual intimacy. Comparing his stories to other writers who worked "blue." His lack of real female emotions becomes especially stark. He pushes all the same buttons as the other guys but he is not on the same elevator.
    I wonder what would have become of Howard if Weird Tales had not rescued from oblivion. The magazine described itself as "strange" and it was, strange, subjects, strange writers like H. P. Lovecraft, strange and sexy illustrations, and a strange editor. It was very much a nerds collective in which the strange Texan found kinship with other odd ducks. Had Weird Tales not existed would Howard have cracked any other market aside from westerns?
    I think your thesis is pretty close. Although most autistics are not so overly attached to their mothers, His parents messed him up and multiplied any problems he had in the first place. Oh, what a modern shrink could have done for him!

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