Strong Female Character | An Excerpt from the Narrative & Biography Category
January 18, 2024
A memoir as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Strong Female Character is both a remarkable coming-of-age tale and a dark but poignant tribute to life at the intersection of womanhood and neurodiversity.
A couple of times a week I’d have long phone chats with my dad as he commuted the two hours back home from his job in London. It was on one of these phone calls that I told him something I had dreaded bringing up since I’d found out a few days before.
‘So I got diagnosed with autism on Tuesday.’
‘Who told you that?’ His tone implied disbelief.
‘A doctor at the Lorna Wing Centre who specializes in diagnosing adult women with autism,’ I said, already irritated that he thought someone had just mentioned it in passing or that I’d done an online quiz.
‘Oh right. Traffic in London’s mental, eh?’
(One time my granda had had his leg amputated and Dad mentioned it as breezily as you would if you were making small talk about the weather: ‘Granda’s in hospital and we think he’s getting his leg cut off.’ This was followed by a call the next day with a matter-of-fact ‘Well, Granda’s deid.’)
I paced back and forth around the kitchen trying to keep my cool, my phone still pressed to my face.
‘You know, I actually had a dream where I told you about the diagnosis and you were so uncharacteristically compassionate and nice about it that I woke myself up laughing.’
‘Oh right. I had a dream that there weren’t enough blankets on the bed, and I asked Julie to put more on ’cause I was freezing.’
I began to load the dishwasher while he continued telling me about his dream, oblivious to my lack of interest. I waited for him to finish before I said: ‘Well, they say autism can be inherited from one parent, so I guess that’s answered the question of which one.’
‘Who? Your mother?’ he asked in earnest.
I slammed a knife into the dishwasher in frustration.
‘Are you kidding me? It’s you! It’s you, ya maniac! Have you ever noticed you’ve no ability to read social cues or people’s emotions?’
Dad and I were similar in that we’d both run into trouble at work for pointedly telling people when they were in the wrong. We both had odd ways of communicating.
I tried to picture his response. I knew he was driving calmly, glancing blankly at the satnav, totally unbothered by any of it.
Mildly, he added, ‘I dinnae even know what a f***ing social cue is.’
‘Right. Well, it’d be like if your daughter phones you up and says she’s just been diagnosed with autism, a normal person would go, “Oh, and what’s prompted you to get diagnosed? How do you feel? Are you okay?” You know? Any kind of response like that?’
I was shouting now. I liked talking to my dad because whereas I had to tiptoe around my mum’s unpredictable moods, I could shout at him and his emotional response would still be flatlining.
‘Well, I hope they went up and arrested your mother.’
I didn’t know why I kept putting the same information into this computer and waiting for a different output. He wasn’t capable of it.
‘Why would they do that? Mum’s feeling guilty about it, about how yous never got me help when I was younger.’
‘She’s the bloody autistic one!’ Dad is now throwing the word around joyfully, like a child who’s discovered a new swear word.
‘I don’t think so. She’s had a pretty normal, human response about the whole thing and been dead helpful.’
‘Right,’ he said, sounding distracted. I could tell from the change in tone he was checking his texts.
Actually, Mum had been crying a lot since taking part in the assessment. She was full of guilt and had been going over and over how obvious my autistic traits were: like not wanting to be held or cuddled as a baby; or having special interests, such as teaching myself Danish when I was eight; or having violent meltdowns over the sensation of my own clothes on my skin. She felt bad the signs hadn’t just been missed but were viewed as me being deliberately difficult. Growing up, I’d been told repeatedly that I was very, very clever but also very, very bad—and yet neither of my parents understood why I now enjoyed doing a job that involved people alternately cheering or booing at me.
‘I’m still waiting for you to say one normal thing about this, Dad. There’s still time.’
I could hear the cogs turning in his brain on the other end of the phone while watching the satnav.
There was a pause.
‘. . . What did you have for dinner tonight?’ he offered.
I leaned my forehead on a kitchen cupboard, opening and closing a drawer I’d smashed repeatedly over the years and had never been right since.
‘Never heard of it.’
Excerpted from Strong Female Character. Copyright © 2023 by Fern Brady. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.