Chapter 27 – Non-verbal communication disorder
The semester was drawing to a close. No one was more aware of that than
counselor Dr. Lynn Hartman, because she was bombarded with frantic calls
from many of her clients, some of whom were going to fail classes, some
of whom were worried about leaving the university for the summer, or for
good, and some of whom simply were stressed out about not having anyone
to talk to. During the final days of the semester she thought about a
science fiction story she had read years before, by Isaac Asimov about
“Multivac” a computer that had been programmed to counsel the entire
world and was so overwhelmed with everyone’s problems that it wanted to
Multivac…Hartman muttered to herself…I know how you must have felt…
Among Hartman’s dilemmas was what to do about her client Ruthie Burns.
There were nineteen years of pent up problems and stress in her client’s
mind and no one she could share them with…so over the past two semesters
Ruthie had unloaded in Hartman’s office.
For eight months the counselor had listened to Ruthie’s deluge of
problems and complaints. She had a strong professional interest in
Ruthie, because she considered the girl one of her more interesting
patients. The girl’s mind and memories were like a jigsaw puzzle that
the counselor had to re-assemble, with some of the pieces missing and
others hidden in places where she had to spend her time looking to
Hartman may have been interested in the intellectual challenge offered
to her by Ruthie, but also she felt a growing personal bond. Ruthie was
an intense and difficult person to deal with, but she had a lot of
positive points. When a person truly got to know her, she had a lot to
offer. She was sincere, extremely knowledgeable and intelligent, and
talking to her was a nice break from Hartman’s normal dealings with
spoiled rich people, who had messed up their lives because of too much
partying, bad romances, and substance abuse problems.
By the end of the semester Hartman felt that all those hours with her
client had paid off, because she was convinced she could diagnose the
underlying cause of Ruthie’s unhappiness throughout her life. Explaining
the situation to Ruthie would require some tact, because many of her
problems with social adjustment were due to an ingrained physical
condition instead of life experiences. Hartman’s hope was that Ruthie
would realize that most of what had happened to her was not her fault
and that with the right knowledge she could avoid getting into
situations where she could get hurt in the future. However, there was no
guarantee that she would handle hearing the diagnosis the way Hartman
The counselor was convinced that, whatever the risks, she had no right
to withhold information from a patient. If she did, Ruthie would
continue to have the same problems and her collection of bad experiences
and unhappy memories would only increase. To have any hope of coming to
terms with her life, she needed to be aware of herself to avoid
repeating mistakes and move ahead. Anyhow, a large part of Hartman’s job
consisted of getting her clients to understand themselves better, to
look at them from an outside perspective and say: “here is what I think
is going on, and this gives you an explanation that you can work with to
make changes in your life.”
Hartman set aside a two-hour block of appointment time during the middle
of finals week. There would be a lot of end-of-the-semester issues to
discuss, including how she was going to occupy herself over the summer,
the relationship with Mike, the ongoing problems of her parents, her
horrendous financial problems, and the struggle with her sexuality.
That girl’s plate is full…I really wonder if I’m doing the right thing,
thought Hartman to herself.
Ruthie already was not in a good mood. Her mother’s situation upset her
tremendously, partly for purely selfish reasons. With her mother gone,
she’d have to rely on Mike for a place to live, because her only other
alternative was to go to Nebraska.
“It’s funny…how life sucks, with all its ironies. I wanted to go back to
Lincoln for five years. Go back there…and now that I really should be
going back there, it’s the last place in the world I’d want to go.”
Hartman leaned back in her chair.
“You’ve changed. As you’d put it, you’ve evolved, you’re an organism
that adapted to a new environment. Your original environment no longer
suits you. And maybe it never did.”
“I ‘spose that’s true, Dr. Hartman. But I’m not adapted to this one
either, ‘cause if I was, I’d be a lot happier.”
Hartman took the cue; that was the opening she needed to give her client
the diagnosis about her situation.
Ruthie was staring at the floor in front of her feet, but she lifted up
her eyes to look at her counselor. It was apparent that Hartman was
planning to tell her something important.
“Ruthie…we’ve been talking for almost eight months now. You’ve told me a
lot about yourself, and about many of things that have happened to you.
There’s a lot that you don’t ‘get’ about why your life has been the way
it has been. As you put it, your life has always ‘sucked’, and your life
still ‘sucks’, although maybe now it ‘sucks’ a little bit less because
of Mike. The point is to figure out how to make it so your life won’t
‘suck’ in the future. That’s what we need to focus on.”
When Ruthie did not respond, Hartman continued:
“There’s something about yourself that you need to understand. It’s
probably going to be hard hearing what I have to say, but it’s something
you’ll need to know to better comprehend yourself and move forward.”
“I don’t know for sure, because for an official diagnosis you’d have to
be formally tested, but from everything I have observed about you and
what I know from my training and education, I believe you have a
condition that we call ‘non-verbal communication disorder’. Have you
ever heard that term?”
“There are several technical names for your situation, but we’ll go with
‘non-verbal communication disorder’. The short explanation is that your
brain is not wired like an average person’s brain, because the only way
you can learn things is through rote-memory. Social interaction is more
of a challenge because the nuances of non-verbal communication and body
language are not something you are capable of picking up. It’s difficult
for you to understand anything unless someone actually tells it to you
or you read it. I suspect that’s the reason you spent a lot more time
with books than with people when you were in high school. It is sort of
a learning disability, but not one that affects you in the classroom,
which is why it often goes undiagnosed. Usually people in your situation
do just fine in their studies, because our educational system relies on
rote-memorization and that portion of your brain is the most developed.
The challenge is dealing with real life.”
Ruthie stared at the floor. Tears started flowing down her cheeks.
“So this…non-verbal communication shit…it’s ‘cause my brain’s all fucked
up? There’s nothing I can do about it?”
“Ruthie, your brain is not fucked up. It just works differently and
processes information differently than most other people. It means that
you have to work harder at certain things in your life, but everyone has
their strengths and weaknesses. The important thing for you is to be
aware of your situation…understand why you might have missed non-verbal
cues in the past…learn…and apply what you learn from each experience for
the next time. If you had been diagnosed earlier, with counseling you
could have developed better coping strategies, and that might have given
you an easier time in school. But you do have to look at the bright
side. You’re just 19, not even done with your first year in college. You
are more aware of yourself than you were a few months ago, you’ve got
the rest of your life to learn from your experiences and work on coping
strategies. Just that, just knowing yourself, is a pretty good start.”
“I don’t see why it would be. The only thing I’ve found out today is why
I’m a fucking freak. I always knew I was a freak…I just didn’t know why.
Now I do. My brain’s fucked up.”
Hartman’s heart sank. No, her client was not taking the news well. She
spent the rest of the counseling session trying to convince Ruthie that
she was not a freak and that her condition was not rare at all. By the
end of the appointment, Ruthie understood that she never “fit in” not
just because of her screwed-up parents, but also because of a condition
that had a name, was identified by science, and was diagnosable.
Unfortunately, the only “cure” was learning about coping strategies. In
other words, lots of hard work just to live a normal life. Well, that
Ruthie left the counselor’s office with a hand full of articles about
the deformity in her brain that had totally messed up her existence and
made her into the miserable person she was. She could tell that her
counselor was extremely worried, but at that moment Ruthie didn’t care.
She left without saying goodbye or making any arrangements for their
It all made sense…starting with Shannon and going back…through all those
rejections in high school…middle school…now it made sense. Everyone
hated me because I’m such a fucking freak…and I bet it wouldn’t have
been any better if I’d stayed in Nebraska…’cause I would’ve been just as
big a freak there too…
Now she was convinced more than ever that she did not belong in the
world. The sooner she smashed or blew apart her defective brain, the
better. She thought about that path to the ocean…the one that led to the
cliff she always had in the back of her mind as her jumping-off point
into the void. She needed to get out there and get her jump taken care
of. Today was the day. It was totally stupid that she didn’t take care
of it back in October. Oh well, better late than never…
She returned to Mike’s room. She knew that he was out, taking a final.
Anyhow, she was so upset by what Hartman had told her that she wasn’t
thinking about him. She was about to go back out and kill herself; smash
her freakish brain on those rocks. And yet, out of pure habit, she
logged onto her computer, for what would be the very last time in her
life. Why? Maybe she ought to find out more about this “non-verbal
communication disorder” bullshit that was messing up her life…
Find out about non-verbal communication disorder? What for? Why find out
about that shit? Now I know why my life’s always gonna suck. Yeah…and
when I go for a job interview? What’s gonna happen when I show up with
non-verbal communication disorder? Like I’ll ever get a decent job with
my fucked up brain and not even being able to look at people or talk
normally? I don’t wanna spend the rest of my life serving fucking
coffee. Now I really have had it. I’m done. It’s over…
She took a deep breath. She was about to log off…shut down…for the very
last time. Her conscience pulled at her. She couldn’t just go down to
the cliff without leaving some sort of explanation for Mike, or else
he’d think it was because of something he did wrong. Ruthie logged back
on with the intention of going to one of the suicide websites that she
had bookmarked. She remembered the webmaster had posted drafts of
suicide messages…she’d find the right draft for her situation, type in
her information, print it up, leave it on Mike’s bed, and then head out.
She got into the website and looked through several drafts of suicide
notes. She had expected to quickly find one that suited her situation,
but unfortunately none of them seemed to really say what she wanted to
express. Fuck…that would mean she’d have to write her own, which would
take time, and she had wanted to be out of the room before Mike got
back. Sighing with frustration, Ruthie started typing. She started out
by telling Mike how much she loved him…but then thought: no, that needs
to go at the end. I need to start out with telling him about my
fucked-up brain and this non-verbal communication shit that I’ve got.
She tried to explain, but didn’t think her sentences made any sense.
Fuck! Fuck-fuck-fuck! That means I’ve gotta go into one of those
websites Hartman gave me and get a definition…I’ll just cut and paste.
Finding a decent explanation took up more of the afternoon. Finally she
found a good couple of paragraphs. She copied them and pasted them over
what she had already written. She cussed yet again, because two hours
had gone by and she still was just starting her suicide letter. She
typed a couple of sentences about her conversations with Dr. Hartman,
but then deleted them and started over with some words on how she was
useless because she was so “fucked up”. She didn’t like that either, so
she deleted yet again.
I ought to be fucking dead by now…and here I am still writing this
When Mike got back to the room, Ruthie was no closer to finishing her
final letter than she had been when she logged on to her computer. She
jumped as he opened the door, agitated and totally irritated. She had
expected to be peacefully floating in the ocean, but no…here she was… in
her boyfriend’s room and still very much alive.
Mike had come back in a good mood, because he had just finished his last
final, which meant that he had successfully completed his sophomore year
in college. However, Ruthie was acting very strangely, much more so that
usual. She was fidgeting and seemed very angry, but he couldn’t tell if
she was mad at him, at herself, or at life in general. One unusual
detail was that she was fully dressed, as though she was ready to go
He glanced at the note on her computer screen. She immediately blocked
his view of the monitor with her body and forced a hard shut-off of her
computer. Clearly whatever she had been working on was not something she
wanted him to know about.
“Ruthie, what’s going on? What are you doing?”
She hugged him, but then pulled away.
“I…I…you know…like…I…uh…can we…go out?”
Ruthie said nothing more. OK, Mike thought to himself, go out. Go out
where? After an uncomfortable silence, he suggested nearby Bonnie Doon
beach. She nodded and changed into a pair of shorts and over-sized
t-shirt. Mike changed as well.
After they drove out of the university and turned onto the coastal
highway, they passed right over the path that led from campus past some
fields and ultimately to a high cliff where the waves crashed far below.
Ruthie’s emotions were in turmoil, because once again circumstances had
thwarted her final journey down that path. She was angry at herself for
having failed to carry out her plan to escape from her awful life, but
she also was relieved. Ultimately she would have to kill herself, but
meanwhile at least she could enjoy the beach a couple more times.
A few minutes later they were safely in the clothing optional part of
the secluded beach. They stripped off their clothes and waded into the
cold turbulent water. As they felt the waves against their legs they
could appreciate the chance to forget about the uncomfortable moment in
Mike’s dorm room and the uncertain summer that lay ahead.
Later that night Ruthie returned to her own room. Jen and her boyfriend
were packing up her stuff in anticipation of her return trip to her home
in Aukland. It was clear the boyfriend was totally depressed, and
equally clear that Jen could barely contain her joy of finally getting
to go home.
Secretly Ruthie was every bit as depressed as Jen’s boyfriend, because
yet another of her sexual fantasies was destined to go unfulfilled. How
many times had she studied Jen’s body, thinking about touching her and
being touched…but it was all illusion, no different from the illusion
she had years before when she sat in class admiring Mrs. Peters. Just
like the imaginary Mrs. Peters, the Jen of Ruthie’s imagination, the one
who responded to her sexual desires, existed only in her fantasies.
Ruthie reflected that in one way all that time with Dr. Hartman had
helped her, by allowing her to understand her habit of projecting her
sexual fantasies onto other people. As painful as that truth was, at
least with Jen it prevented Ruthie from doing or saying anything that
would make her look stupid or offend her roommate. She accepted the
reality that the Jen who existed in her fantasies was not the Jen
standing in front of her. Jen would be leaving the next day, without any
unpleasant rejection that would have soured Ruthie’s memories of her.
Jen and her boyfriend said goodnight to Ruthie and went out, presumably
to have one last night of “snogging” before Jen had to go to the
airport. Ruthie was just about to strip and get ready for bed when she
Shit! All those printouts about her fucked up brain were still in Mike’s
room! She had to go back and get them! Like she needed him knowing about
that non-verbal communication disorder bullshit!
She ran down five flights of stairs and winded herself rushing over to
Mike’s dorm. She did not see any irony that the only reason she was
still alive was because she had wanted to write a suicide note
explaining something to Mike, that she now was desperate to keep a
secret. She entered the building, then cussed at herself because she
forgot her cell phone and couldn’t call him. Fortunately the night clerk
knew who she was and buzzed the door for her. She ran to Mike’s door and
knocked, terrified that it was too late and that he already had seen the
Mike opened to let her in. He was on his cell-phone, clearly very upset.
Ruthie glanced at the papers lying next to her computer. The articles
were right where she had left them. She breathed a sigh of relief and
collected them with some other papers, trying to act as though she was
just straightening her desk. Then she paid closer attention to what was
going on with her boyfriend.
Ruthie correctly figured that he was talking to his sister and that she
was updating him with yet another piece of bad news about their parents.
Sure enough, that was exactly what was happening. From listening to
Mike’s portion of the conversation Ruthie realized that the Sinclairs
had separated and that Mike’s mother had left California.
Colleen related that their father had sunk into a deep depression and
had become impossible to deal with. As much as both his wife and his
daughter had urged him to get counseling, he had refused. He became
totally morose and all he wanted to talk about were topics related to
death and oblivion. Finally Mrs. Sinclair couldn’t stand him any longer
and gave him an ultimatum: either he see a counselor or she would go to
her parents’ house in Arizona. The deadline she set came and went. There
was no indication Mr. Sinclair wanted to do anything apart from spending
his free time sitting in the living room listening to Kansas songs on an
old cassette recorder. So…she left.
Ruthie could tell that Colleen and Mike disagreed whether or not their
mother was justified in abandoning her husband during his moment of
crisis. Mike was furious, but Colleen defended her.
“Dad’s getting more and more messed up. He won’t listen to anyone: it’s
kinda like he’s off in his own world. I can’t deal with him, and Mom
shouldn’t have to deal with that shit either.”
“What if I talked to him?”
“OK…talk to him. And say what?”
“I don’t know. I’d think of something…”
“Oh really? Something? God knows, I tried with every ‘something’ I could
think of, but every time I try to cheer him up, all he does is get more
pissed and depressed. He keeps saying stuff like: ‘most people live too
long. Life passes them by, and they don’t know when to call it quits’. I
know I shouldn’t say this, but being around him is like ‘the night of
the living dead’. I can’t deal with him any more. If you want to talk to
him, you’d better think long and hard what you want to say. If you can
get him out of his funk, then you’re a better person than me.”
The conversation dragged on a few more minutes, but finally Colleen hung
up. Mike set down his cell phone and looked at Ruthie as she sat quietly
on the spare bed. She looked blankly ahead, her eyes not focused on
anything in particular. He sat down next to her. He did not touch her or
try to take her hand. He just joined her in blankly staring ahead and
told her about the phone conversation. When she didn’t respond, he
decided to change the subject.
“You know…today…when I got back…you were acting really weird…like you
were freaked out about something.”
“I had a good reason to be freaked out.”
“And that reason was…?”
“My counselor, you know, Dr. Hartman…she…uh…kinda told me something. I
mean…they always say it’s best if you know everything about yourself…and
I’m wondering now if that’s really true. Maybe you’re not supposed to
know. Anyhow, she told me…she kinda…”
Ruthie stopped, totally regretting what she had just said. However, it
was too late to take it back. She didn’t know how to continue. Finally
she grabbed the stack of articles she had wanted to hide only minutes
before and shoved them in Mike’s face. He took the papers and skimmed
through them. Ruthie fidgeted and finally interrupted his reading:
“Sucks knowing this, doesn’t it?”
Mike shrugged his shoulders:
“Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything. Now you know a couple of
new psychology words, but what difference does it make?”
“I dunno. It doesn’t bother you that Hartman’s saying that I’m a fucking
“No. And I don’t think that’s what she’s saying. It says right here…” he
pointed at one of the paragraphs “…that it’s fairly common. And just
looking at all these articles; they don’t even have it pinned down. I
mean…here it gives a different name: ‘Asperger’s syndrome’. This
article’s saying non-verbal communication disorder is the same as
‘Asperger’s syndrome’ and over here it’s saying it is not. Typical
science…these writers don’t know themselves what they’re talking about.”
Ruthie didn’t respond, so Mike continued:
And even if you are fucked up, so what? Who isn’t fucked up? Me? Your
roommates? Your cousins? Our parents? The potheads downtown? The drunks
running around campus? Your church? My church? Who isn’t fucked up in
some way or another? You’re a lot less fucked up than most people I
Ruthie hugged Mike. For a long time the couple sat on the bed, with
Ruthie in Mike’s arms. Mike’s words did calm her down a bit, but she
knew that there was so much that she had not told him. The urge to smash
her defective brain on the rocks and then float away in the ocean had
retreated for a moment, but she knew it would return.
Ruthie stayed the night with Mike. She knew that Jen would be leaving
first thing the next day, but decided not to depress herself by saying
goodbye. Later in the morning she would return to her room and only her
stuff would remain; that Jen would have already left and that would be
the end of her. Ruthie could not have explained herself why she did not
want to say goodbye to Jen, but she didn’t. Better to spend the night
with the one person who did care about her than to worry about someone
who didn’t, and would be out of her life within a few hours anyway.
Her mood had improved enough that she approached her boyfriend about
making love. She rubbed lubricant into her vagina and on Mike’s penis
and massaged him until he was hard. Then she laid back and waited for
him to finish.
Ruthie was one of the last of the students to vacate her dorm. During
the final two days she was in her room, she was the only student
remaining on her floor. She reveled in having not only a room, but an
entire floor to herself. Of course, she took advantage of her solitude
by being totally naked anytime she was on the fifth floor. On her very
last afternoon in the building, she went out on the roof and relaxed in
the warm May sunshine.
Ruthie had a serious issue hanging over her once the semester ended:
where she was going to live. Salinas no longer was an option. There was
no way she could afford to live anywhere in the Santa Cruz area by
herself and with that fucking non-verbal communication disorder bullshit
messing up her brain, her chance of finding a compatible roommate was
zero. She realized that, unless she relented and went to Nebraska, she
faced the prospect of being homeless.
Ruthie was still on the roof of her dorm, lying on a towel and doing
stretching exercises, when Mike came up looking for her. He had a big
surprise for her: announcing that he was about to sign a lease for an
apartment and asking her if she wanted to have a look at it.
Ruthie was stunned. An apartment? At first her instincts told her to not
go with Mike, because she really did not want to live with him. However,
she knew that she had no other choice if she wanted to stay in
California. She resented being forced to rely on him, but at least the
problem of where she was going to live over the next year was resolved.
She nodded, picked up her towel, and went to her room to put on her
favorite skimpy dress.
Ruthie wasn’t sure what to expect from Mike’s choice of apartments, but
what she saw convinced her that he did understand her needs to some
extent. The unit had two bedrooms, one of which would be for her. All of
the windows faced away from the complex and overlooked a hill running
down to the highway, which meant that no one could see in from any of
the other units. The place had more privacy than most houses. Best of
all, there was a balcony that was concealed by opaque panels, a place
where she could sit out wearing nothing looking at the ocean, and even
sunbathe during the afternoon. It was as close to a perfect place as
Mike could have gotten.
Ruthie wondered if Mike expected her to split the rent, but he mentioned
nothing about that. Nor did he ask her to put her name on the lease. It
was very strange, what was going on, especially given the conversation
he had with his sister just a few days before. Very strange indeed.
Ruthie pushed aside her doubts and accepted Mike’s offer. He was giving
her a real refuge, a place where she could be herself and enjoy her
body, a place that she could never hope to have without him. Yes, it
came with a commitment to a relationship she really did not want, but
what alternative did she have? Go to Culiacan and look at her dying
grandfather? Go to Lincoln and have to look after Debra’s kid?
So that was it: she had just committed herself to living with her
For the next couple of days, Mike took charge of setting up the new life
he wanted to have with Ruthie. He rented a van and took stuff out of her
dorm to the new apartment, then asked her to go with him to pick up some
furniture from his father’s house. When they got to the house, Ruthie
was surprised how much the property had deteriorated since the last time
she had seen it. Mike seemed not to notice or care. His goal was to take
all the furniture out of his own bedroom and a couple of items from
Colleen’s room that she didn’t want. He also grabbed a sofa and a coffee
table from the living room.
Ruthie was surprised by Mike’s brazen raiding of his parents’ house for
furniture, but he explained that whatever was not off the property when
the bank foreclosed would either be seized and auctioned, or simply
would be tossed onto the sidewalk. Mike raided the kitchen for
silverware and utensils. He then went into the garage to look for tools,
only to find that his father already had sold off the tools.
Ruthie looked around the desolate house, wondering about some of the
nicer furniture that was missing. Mike explained that Colleen had some
of it in storage, and the rest had been sold at a garage sale.
Ruthie was immensely depressed by what she was seeing. The house was
rotting away, the family’s belongings were scattered, and its members
were going their separate ways. She understood that Mike had the best
intentions with his father, but she also knew that having a couple of
conversations with him was not going to change what was about to happen.
It was blatantly obvious that Mr. Sinclair had lost the will to live and
that the state of his house matched the state of the man’s mind. He had
become morose and self-destructive. Already his marriage was gone and
his kids were becoming estranged from him. Ruthie suspected that was
exactly what Mr. Sinclair wanted, to chase everyone out of his life
before oblivion overtook him. As for Colleen, Ruthie suspected that
Mike’s sister simply was biding her time and wanted nothing more than to
get away from her relatives.
Mike had the van full of what he wanted by the time his father got home.
When she saw him, Ruthie was shocked by how bad Mr. Sinclair looked.
Mike described what he was taking and the older man indifferently
shrugged his shoulders. Mike invited his father out to eat. Mr. Sinclair
again shrugged his shoulders and handed his car keys to his son.
Mike had wanted to talk to Mr. Sinclair about…well, about what? Suddenly
he realized why Colleen had become impatient with him, because it seemed
that there was nothing the older man wanted to talk about. It was Ruthie
who stepped in and managed to engage Mike’s father in conversation. She
got him to talk about the group Kansas and why over all the years the
music had fascinated him so much. He responded that, even in the 1980’s,
during a time the impending decline of the US was not so evident, he had
a premonition that life was going to get much worse. He ordered a
whiskey, and then another. The drinks shut down his train of thought and
he became quiet. Finally they took him back home and helped him into the
master bedroom. Mike, not sure what else to do, took his father’s car
back out and filled it with gas.
Neither Mike nor Ruthie had much to say as they returned to Davenport.
Ruthie quietly stared out the passenger window into the darkness. She
dreaded the hours of lugging heavy furniture that awaited them as soon
as they got back, but more than anything else she was thinking about how
much life sucked. Her thoughts drifted to her impoverished mother, now
exiled to a small cinderblock house in a crappy neighborhood in Culiacan.
Without looking at her companion, she commented:
“Our lives are so fucked up. And you know what really sucks when your
life is fucked up?”
“You keep thinking…my life’s fucked up, but at least it can’t get any
worse. And that’s bullshit, because it always can get worse, and it
does. And then you think to yourself. OK, it did get worse, but now
that’s it. Surely this is as bad as it’ll get. But it’s not. It never
is. It never ends.”
“Not ‘till you die, at any rate.”
“That’s right, Mike. Not ‘till you die. That’s when things quit getting
worse, when you’re dead. Your dad’s right about that.”