Day 6·Q&A

Sarah Kurchak talks about 'overcoming' autism and the damage done by trying to be 'normal' in new memoir

Sarah Kurchak was diagnosed with autism at 27 years old. For her, it answered a lot of her own questions. But it also raised a new one: Were all those years of pretending to be "normal" really worth it?

Toronto writer also performs as Sarah Bellum, a 'cranked-to-11' version of herself in pro wrestling ring

Toronto writer Sarah Kurchak's first book, I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, is a memoir about her personal experiences with autism. (Submitted by the Kurchak family)

When Sarah Kurchak was a child, she knew she wasn't like the other kids. The other kids knew it too.

She spent much of her childhood trying to fit in, mostly by pretending to be more like the students in her classes.

Kurchak was diagnosed with autism at 27 years old. For her, it answered a lot of her own questions. But it also raised a new one: Were all those years of pretending really worth it?

Now, Kurchak is a successful writer living in Toronto and has just released a memoir: I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder.

Sarah Kurchak spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about her book. Here's part of their conversation.

You've launched [your book] during a pandemic. How has that changed the way the book is going to be feted?

Well, for one thing, I had a launch planned. I don't get to see all of the people who helped me and supported me through this process and celebrate with them in person. I don't get to read for audiences, which I was really looking forward to. So it's entirely different than I planned. 

Also, my friends and my colleagues and just my fellow human beings in the disability community are disproportionately affected right now.

And as much as I want to try to celebrate that, the truth is a lot of the people I wrote this book for are in danger right now. And it's a really, really bittersweet moment for me.

You don't want people in the autism community to think that you're speaking for everyone. You're very careful to say that your opinions are your own and that you're not like a spokesperson.

But there are people who are going to hear the title of your book, I Overcame My Autism, and they'll immediately get their backs up because they don't get the joke. You don't overcome autism. But what do you mean when you say that you overcame your autism?

Well, we actually had a debate with my publishers going back and forth as to whether there should be ironic quotes around the "overcame" in there.

And since the book has been promoted and about to be published, I've been talking to more non-disabled people who have a very different relationship to the concept of overcoming than sort of the jokey tone it has taken on when I talk to other autistic people and disabled people. 

For me, it was very natural to know that if I said I overcame my autism, I was talking about sort of an inspiration porn — like, "I didn't let autism get in my way!" That maybe doesn't translate to greater audiences.

So what I'm really hoping is that even if they do get their backs up, they at least realize that even if I were claiming that it was possible to overcome autism, which it is not, the rest of that title is still not a happy story.

You mentioned several times in the book that people question whether you're really autistic. But how does it make you feel when someone says, "You don't seem autistic to me"?

Well, when we could still have conversations in person, I think a really good way to just sort of set them off on the wrong foot is like, well, what does autistic look like? And then you'll get some really awkward and really interesting answers.

If they don't have any autistic people in their life the stereotype is still mostly based on sort of a Rain Man-esque caricature, usually like a younger white man who's like some sort of hyper genius but socially awkward. 

Kurchak as a baby smurf. (Submitted by the Kurchak family)

Or they've sort of internalized the basic soulless void of a child that's going to ruin your life story. And so if you don't fit into this like super quirky, inspirational story, who's usually a dude, or this absolute tragedy, who is usually also a young boy, they have no actual framework to know what autism looks like.

And if you're actually ... a complex person who doesn't present as, you know, high-functioning or low-functioning as they start to see it, they just don't comprehend that you can be.

There are lots of things that define you that we learned about in the book. And I know that you love wrestling, because I follow you on Twitter. And you have a level of interest that's really, really exceptional. 

You were part of a professional pillow fighting league. And for that, you created a wrestling persona for yourself called Sarah Bellum, which, it's pretty clever. How does being Sarah Bellum, this whole other person, change Sarah Kurchak?

Well, I think part of what I realized is that she wasn't a whole other person. Something that's interesting about wrestling, or professional wrestling-style entertainment, is that you can play a complete character there, or you can play sort of an exaggerated, cranked-to-11 version of yourself that becomes this onstage persona that's an extension of who you want to be, or who you want to pretend to be. 

So Sarah Bellum, I wanted to be a bad guy. I thought bad guys were more interesting. So I just took all of the elements of my childhood that I thought had made me hated — like ... my tone of voice, my super nerdy interests, my ostensible intellectualism.

Sarah Kurchak's pro wrestling alter-ego, Sarah Bellum as part of the Toronto-based Pillow Fight League. (Submitted by Sarah Kurchak)

And so I think I've worked out a lot of demons that way. But playing a character and figuring out how live crowds responded to it, and what was actually hated versus what people actually kind of found endearing, allowed me to test out a lot of my personality with a safety net. 

And then when Sarah Bellum did something that people didn't hate, I was like, oh, maybe I'm allowed to do that in my real life. Maybe Sarah Kurchak can do that too.

Do you think you'll ever write that autistic teen sex comedy that you pitched when you were first approached to write a book?

Oh, God, I hope so. Both because it's indulgent and that's what I want to write. But also, I think there's a lot of frustrated young autistic women out there who need some sort of outlet and catharsis in addition to representation.

Written and produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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