Over the last ten years a moral panic has been steadily growing about a rise in diagnoses for neurodivergent mental disorders. An apparent increase in autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has triggered breathless debates about its possible causes, what it means and whether we are over-diagnosing. The people at the heart of the issue are often drawn in a crass, stereotypical way in such discussions. Their own voices are almost always absent and they are rarely given space to be seen as anything beyond reductive labels.
This is exactly the space that Marianne Eloise aims to create in Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking, an essay collection out on 7 April that charts her interests and reflections through the lens of her uniquely obsessive brain, driven by autism, ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Eloise is best known as a culture writer, whose work on television, music and wellbeing has appeared in New York Magazine, the New York Times and the Guardian. Her book covers similar territory to her usual work; it is split into three sections — obsessive, intrusive and magical — and its essays range from academic-style deep dives on popular culture (Eloise says she cited the Twilight series in her master’s dissertation) to thoughtful meditations about the allure of Los Angeles, where she has lived.
In July 2020 Eloise was already pitching Obsessive to publishers when, aged 27, she was diagnosed as autistic with ADHD. She wrote about the experience for the New York Times: “I expected to be ambivalent [about a diagnosis], but I wasn’t: I was euphoric… After pursuing it for five years, the diagnosis gave me certainty, solidity and the strength to articulate my needs to others. I looked back on the past anew, seeing my own behavior through a softer lens and pinpointing where others could have been kinder. I wished only that I hadn’t lost so much of my life hating myself.”
She tells me over Zoom, from her home in Brighton, that the diagnosis made everything click. “In the case of being autistic, it explained my sensory issues and how I had struggled with certain things socially,” she says, “but it also explained my being so obsessively interested in things.” She tells me that she would often skip school to play with Lego for hours or would stay up all night staring at maps.
Though she has spoken about it infrequently, Eloise tells me that since her autism diagnosis people have judged her through their own beliefs about how she, as an autistic person, should act in the public eye. When her New York Times piece went viral, for example, most responses were positive but there was an aggressive slew of criticism from a small handful of people arguing that she didn’t seem truly autistic.
“I talk about being autistic, but I really don’t talk about the hardest parts because it’s embarrassing and it’s my business,” she says. “But then, because I don’t do that, people say I’m lying.” She says it’s similar to women who speak about having been assaulted. “They’re like: if you don’t give us every single gory detail, and leave your heart on the table, we just won’t believe you.”
This issue of language is one that persists in discussions about neurodivergence: arguments about how much or little people should say about being autistic, or whether neurodivergence should be seen as a blessing or a curse. Eloise finds that many of these opinions have been projected onto her without context.
“When my book was announced some people were like, ‘Oh, I’m just so proud that she’s so honest about suffering from autism,’” she says, “and I was like, ‘I never said I was suffering from autism.’” This, she says, is not uncommon.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘It’s a gift!’” she adds, “but I never said it was suffering. I don’t want to be ‘cured.’ There are certain things I could live without, but I like things about myself that are probably because I’m autistic, and I wouldn’t want to get rid of that.”
While Eloise’s experience of autism is embedded into every one of Obsessive’s essays, she stresses that this isn’t a book about autism. And she’s right: it instead explores topics from finding a sense of place, to overcoming fear, to Greek mythology, to (arguably the best essay) the history of Disneyland. Autism is simply one of the reasons for the intensity of her interests. “I do talk about being autistic very briefly in the introduction,” she says, “but it’s just a primer, to be like, ‘This is why my brain is like this.’”
Many of the essays are also underpinned by Eloise’s experiences of physical illness. She suffers from chronic pain caused by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — which is, for reasons unknown, common among autistic people — and crippling migraines that can last days. I ask if she finds she receives more sympathy for her physical illnesses than her mental ones. “I think people are equally dismissive, whatever it is, if you’re not like bleeding on the floor in front of them,” she replies.
Having read Eloise’s work for years, it did not come as a surprise that the book wasn’t entirely about her experience of being autistic. She largely writes about culture and the world in general. However, she tells me that interviewers and reviewers have been narrow in their focus, casting her sensationally as “the woman diagnosed late”.
“It feels voyeuristic, basically,” she says. “When there’s a hundred different topics in this book and there’s so much going on, why is this the one fundamental thing about me that is interesting to you? I want to talk about Disney!”
Overcoming this reductive view of autistic people is fundamental to what she wants Obsessive to be — using her brain’s obsessive predisposition purely as the fuel to delve into pop culture, place and how we learn to understand ourselves. “So many books about autism are by parents, and about autism being such a horrible burden on them,” she says sarcastically. “I want people to understand that autistic people also have opinions and a voice and interests, and that neurodivergent people don’t have to cut themselves open and do things they feel uncomfortable with just because someone wants permission to exploit their identity.”