Cassie Mira Nicholson: I hope this message finds you well and in good spirits. I am writing you in order to initiate a dialogue about a project I have been musing about that looks at the development of intentional family. When we first met on Facebook, I initially felt an odd relief to know someone with the same last name as I did was transitioning gender on a close timeline. Discovering that we were both disconnected from our Nicholson bloodline only made me more interested in getting to know you. Over the last few years, I have learned from a distance and the powers of Facebook that there are many similarities in our personal histories. For instance, while you work for the catholic church, I at one time lived in a catholic rectory. We both have fondness for poetry, etc. ….
More so than interviewing you for the blog, I would like to learn more about you, and be an intentional sibling. Since most of our relationship so far has been casual observation across the internet, I would like to catalyze a stronger relationship, build trust and hopefully in time, be able to be a reliable part of each other’s support network. We might imagine alternative youth histories for ourselves even and perhaps do with a bit of poetry and/or art exchange in the process.
If you’re interested, let me know and we can set up a time to discuss where to go from here. I would like to have some sort of ideation about process first, so we both can bring our respective needs/desires/triggers to an equal table and plan accordingly. Is there anything you would like me to read?
N.I. Nicholson: Thank you for your email. Yes, I would absolutely LOVE to be interviewed.
I picked this one, “Letter to My Father: Neurodivergent Kinship,” because I thought it would be fitting. It appears in this version in All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism (more info at: http://autismandrace.com).
After I realized that I was autistic, I began to think of my father and I understood that he was very likely autistic, too. He was a fascinating and enigmatic figure growing up, and I lost contact with him after age 11. Unfortunately, he grew up feeling perhaps like the “black sheep of his family” and disconnected from them. He gravitated towards mechanics, and managed to put a Mazda engine inside a 1981 Toyota chassis, among other things. In this poem, I had to negotiate gender, pronouns, and … how could I best tell Dad that he really had a boy instead of a girl?
As far as schedules go, I’m now no longer employed at the seminary and am working from home as an independent contractor ghostwriting web content. Except for the last two weeks of July when I defend my thesis, I’ll be available for online chat or other methods. Part of my particular access difficulties as an autistic person is that I don’t do well with communication over the telephone (I can do it, but it takes spoons out of me).
Triggering material is ok, if I have some advance time before discussing it. A lot of the poems in my thesis have triggering material (I’m going to have to give a trigger warning prior to my thesis defense session and graduate readings, if that gives you some idea). My triggers tend to be in the areas of physical/sexual abuse, transphobia, and ABA (applied behavioral analysis) kind of stuff.
If there’s a question I haven’t answered, by all means please let me know. I look forward to this interview process and our exchanges over the new few months.
CMN: This first piece you have chosen to share makes a lot of sense to begin. Right away I can see you as an infant resisting the gendered universe you were born into, while remaining connected to those experiences and in turn to your father. I’m sure you probably just cried like bloody hell each time you were placed in it, but the moving scene in my head is of a child whose noodly limbs grow and grasp the edges pushing away from the bassinet only to retract and cling to your father with each retreat from it.
I wish I had access to my parents’ photo collection. My mom recently sent me a few photos of myself and a photo timeline I probably made in 2nd grade. So, my first piece I would like to share with you is an image of that photo timeline, but unfortunately I can’t find it (gah), so I’ve granted you access to my old photos on Facebook.
I haven’t spoken to my father in the last three years, more than hello at my children’s birthday party and that was two years ago. He worked all the time when I was a child buying and selling hay and straw. I was put to this same kind of heavy physical labor when I was about 8 years old. I remember initially wanting to help him so he could be at home more and not away so much, but it was not long until I was being punished for not wanting to go and help. This piece of work was made just before my memories shift from being a sort of “La La” out of focus and into where I feel my own sense of acrid cynicism begins. My eyes in these pictures look realistically joyful to me, so I need to cross over my own timeline in order to ask myself why I look so happy.
You mentioned realizing your autism, does that mean you are self-diagnosed? I only ask because after my eldest child was diagnosed with autism, I have been seeking clarification for myself since I have always seen him as a mirror. I’m actually waiting for some psyche test results right now. I guess, I’d just like to know more about your process for understanding and accepting your own neurodivergent experience.
As far as triggers for me go, I completely understand the need for advanced warning. I take an incredibly long time to process emotions and often don’t even know I’m experiencing them. Information about school shootings in particular can ruin me for weeks if not handled properly. I can not watch television, since the general news media’s style of breaking news is a particularly horrible way to find out any sort of news. This story is a critical part of my family history and explains why at least the Nicholson side of my family has not coped well over the years. I took Mira as my middle name in part to honor the sole survivor of the tragedy and secondly because it is the name of the binary star cluster that is closest to our solar system.
Since we are engaging with the goal of intimacy, I think it may be safe to say that each message we share may contain triggering material. I accept that those closest to me can harm me with the information I’ve shared with them. What’s important to me is aftercare. I’d like you to know that I am in no hurry and understand that responding takes time and energy. I hope to never make you feel rushed to respond.
I have been binge watching Torchwood and Dr. Who the last few days. I’m almost caught up. The last novel I read was Five Star Billionaire and I haven’t started anything new yet. What are you reading at the moment?
NIN: As far as the crib… I think what was going on with me, from the memory impressions still in my mind, is this: “You’re out there having fun, and I’m stuck in this crib!” Hence the drive to climb out of it. The crib is gorgeous, and some of Dad’s best handiwork. Although I think it’s a bit telling the fact I was trying to climb out of a bright pink crib :D.
As for being autistic: I self diagnosed at first, but then got an official diagnosis. I was 33 when I first self-ID’d as autistic, and 34 when I got the papers to prove it. I say that a bit as a joke, but getting the diagnosis was affirming and validating. It confirmed things I had seen all along in myself and could not explain. Unfortunately, it also explained why people began to treat me the way they did: mostly I’m referring to my aunt, uncle, and cousins. You mentioned your eldest child: from what I understand, there’s a genetic component to being autistic but I know it’s not been quite figured out yet, so I’m not surprised that you report similar tendencies in yourself.
I read the story you posted a link to. I had, oddly enough, heard about that shooting about twenty years ago when I was still an undergrad at BGSU. I used to travel to UIowa frequently in my early twenties, because I was on an old-school bulletin board system known as ISCA BBS. I went to a couple of their picnics, but eventually left the BBS behind. Anyway… I keep seeing stories like this, and I think to the Orlando shooting, and others like it. I definitely see how this impacted your family, and of course there’s the larger social component too. Thank you for sharing this piece of your history with me.
On the telly, it’s been mostly Later With Jools Holland and Daryl’s House. Me and Solomon are huge music lovers. Logical especially for him, since he’s an organist, and also plays keyboard and accordion. For me too, since I worked as a disc jockey in my undergrad years. We’re trying to track down Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on DVD and watch all of the seven seasons. We binge watched it on Netflix years ago and loved it. We think it’s probably the most intelligently written of the Star Trek series, and it throws back to the tradition in ST storylines of dealing with modern issues within a futuristic context. The captain, Ben Sisko, reads as autistic to me and some of my friends. There’s a gender-changing crew member, intricate storylines that deal with the morals of war and hard choices, and how an oppressed culture repairs itself. What’s not to love?
As for reading, I recently read partially through Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. I am also compiling my reading list for my thesis defense. Meanwhile, there’s a copy of Imaginary Friends (by Michael Scott Monje, Jr.) on our coffee table that I’ve not finished and keeps silently begging me to read it. Now that I’ve got more time, that will likely happen. Backstory: she’s a close friend of mine, and it’s part of a series she has been writing over the last several years and documents what happens to an autistic kid growing up in a dysfunctional family. There’s so much more going on, and it’s a bit reductionist for me to describe the book and the series that way, but I don’t want to spoiler it in case you want to read it.
CMN: Let me first say, congratulations on your recent accomplishment of receiving your MFA from Ashland University! Woo-hoo!!!
I now have the conclusions of my psyche evaluation and they informed me that they do not think I am autistic. Though they did confirm my problems with memory and processing speed. I’m not exactly sure how to feel about the way their diagnosis arose, but apparently I didn’t look autistic to them and that makes me feel as if I fooled them somehow. It is a strange feeling to have. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. In terms of self-diagnosis and institutionalized testing goes, I just wanted to know what kinds of help I need to ask for and I now have the ability to ask for it. ADHD is the other thing people around me have accused me of having, so that’s now confirmed. Same diagnosis as my younger child.
On the road, one of the books we listened to was Neurotribes by Steve Silberman. It’s a pretty fascinating chronology. We finished it almost a month ago and I am still processing the information.
And now some questions about your writing. Please forgive my somewhat simple questions. How did you come to the decision to focus on writing? Why poetry?
I was lucky and found the document I had wanted to share in my last message, so the images of it are attached to this message.
NIN: Thank you for attaching the photo and timelines. I noticed your photo of you in Scouts. :) It will be interesting as more of us are visible and share our experiences, and we’ll see more instances of men saying “I was a Girl Scout” (as was my case) or women saying “I was a Cub/Boy Scout.” Looking back on some of my old photos, I went through some high femme periods in my life, mostly where I was trying to figure out who I was and how to get my outside to match my inside. There are so many trans narratives… as many as there are trans people. It will be fascinating to see how culture changes because of it.
When I read about your ADHD diagnosis, I thought it was fascinating. I’ve never been officially diagnosed as ADHD, but I have some ADHD traits on top of being autistic. Solomon and I have observed that there’s a lot of overlap between them, and it’s not surprising considering they’re both different ways of neurodivergency. The specialist who diagnosed me as autistic had been trained by the Nisonger Center at Ohio State University here in Columbus, so she had some pretty in-depth learning and experience with autistic folk. You now have some answers, which is a good thing. But if you still don’t feel that you have the all the answers you need, keep pursuing. Women are frequently underdiagnosed in terms of autism, so that’s a thing to consider.
What’s interesting too is that there is a LOT of overlap between neurodivergence (especially autism) and being transgender or gender non-conforming. My gender therapist mentioned this a couple of months ago during one of our sessions. You might have already seen this article –– it was written by a friend of mine about this observation.
As far as how my writing began… it started when I was in junior high. Probably eighth grade. I’d been exposed to poetry before then, but eighth grade was kind of a pivotal year because I ended up with one of the best English teachers I ever had. She encouraged us to read a lot, and read widely, and had access to information about writing and speech contests for pre-teens and teenagers in my area. I entered and won a speech content and a writing contest that year, both focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as their themes. I also started reading Maya Angelou that year, and I think Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. In ninth grade, I took an African-American history class and learned about the Harlem Renaissance. That meant exposure to more Black writers. I read Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Countee Cullen that same year.
I think what steered me towards poetry was watching what these people did with words and language on the page. It’s interesting, because you asked me the same question that my MFA thesis committee asked me. I know that prose and poetry can sometimes blur lines and be wibbly-wobbly as categories, but poetry’s specific craft tools are meant to create objects and images from language that is typically not done in prose. Meter, rhyme, other sound play, unexpected juxtapositions and metaphors, etc. During junior high and early high school, I also listened to a lot of rap and hip-hop, and what some artists did with language sort of stuck in my ear.
Funny thing, though, since I tend to write more free verse and accidentally create some poetic effects on the page without thinking about it. I think if anything, studying in my MFA guided me towards tools of craft, helping me examine what I do unintentionally, and to help me do it more deliberately, as well as to consider how to integrate structure in my work.
And as you know, I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional home. I withdrew and retreated to survive, generating the Nicole member of my multiple personality system to convince the adults that I was complying with their pushing to become a “good Christian girl.” Believe me, it didn’t work most of the time, but Nicole was frequently in front during my teenage years. Meanwhile, we strove for an interior life of thought and feeling that was sequestered far away from where my aunt, my uncle, or other family members could destroy it. Writing was part of how we built that interior world, and gave us a hope that we’d escape when we became an adult. That we could get out alive, and at least preserve some part of our true selves.
CMN: I find your use of multiple personalities to negotiate coping with identity intriguing. Since beginning transition almost four years ago, I took my old name and personality and tried to do with it what my grandmother did with her mashed potatoes during the depression, push it through a knot-hole in the basement staircase. Justin has been trying to get out from under the stairs lately, so I might have to figure out a place or exercise to work that out. Perhaps I’ll let that personality run around in some new art this semester and then guide it safely back under the stairs. I primarily have not been using this name because I haven’t wanted to share it with new people I meet and expressly forbid its use by those who already know it. I often wonder if allowing myself to invoke it will undo the transition progress I have done. Since my mother uses my new name, I feel it may not matter to me who else tries to use the old one. My mother knows who I am.
How did you navigate deciding to continue to express the Nicole persona in written form? Has it been difficult to access that persona and/or be vulnerable?
NIN: I think the best way to understand Nicole’s current state is an archive–an artificial intelligence housed inside that’s accessible only by me or our other system members and requires proper access privileges if anyone else wants to talk to her. There’s not too many that have that kind of access (mostly it’s Solomon and a couple of others)–partially to avoid triggering dysphoria (mostly for me, adult Ian) and partially to avoid people from our past who wouldn’t understand our life choices and transition to hurt us. It’s sometimes strange when I’m in front and someone calls me Nicole–the usual response is I’ll correct them and ask them to call me either Nico (which is my legal first name, and that’s what I default to for banks and official/legal type business) or Ian (if it’s anyone else).
Since we’re non-binary, the co-existence of all of us in this body in terms of gender presentation is maybe easier than it might be with other multiple systems. However, this is a case of your mileage may vary. Nicole still uses she/her pronouns, but isn’t picky about them, and identifies as asexual and agender. The remaining three of us – me, young Ian, and Nico – basically ID as male, including Nico who’s gender-nonconforming and still sometimes presents as femme. We work out presentation so it doesn’t accidentally trigger dysphoria (since I’m the most prone to it). I publish as N.I. Nicholson as an attempt to reflect everyone inside here, and also to help those who knew my work as Nicole Nicholson find me a bit easily.
Basically if Nicole wants to talk, she’ll jump to front of her own accord. If she wants to write, she takes over the pen or keyboard.
Mostly, she’s responsible for housing our memories between ages 13 and 38. Or as Data put it in the Star Trek episode “A Measure of a Man,” the “ineffable quality of memory” from those years.
N.I. Nicholson is a writer, editor, and activist from Central Ohio. As an editor with Barking Sycamores and Autonomous Press, he focuses on bringing works by neurodivergent, queer, and disabled writers into print or digital media. In July 2016, he graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. Unbeknownst to the residents of Grove City, he is actually a regenerating Time Lord. He currently lives there with his life partner Solomon.
Cassie Mira Nicholson is a visual artist and technologist currently studying studio art at Sam Houston State University. In addition to her creative and problem solving skills, Cassie bakes a mean cheesecake.