CW: Abuse, body horror
I am running down claustrophobic corridors, all flickering shadows, gunmetal grey sharp-angled walls and low ceilings. The walls are too close. The corridor seems to stretch on forever. I'm looking for my mother's fetus—I know, in the way that one knows things in dreams, that it is here. I know intuitively I'm not on Earth—I'm aboard the spaceship that took my mother's child while she was pregnant and placed me in her womb. I startle awake from the dream I've experienced several times since I was little. Each time it's the same warren of hallways and the same sense of overwhelming panic that I will fail to recover my mother's real child.
Growing up I was told that I was just like the other kids. I just had ADD and a bit of trouble with reading, some handwriting issues, but nothing big. I knew that was a lie just like I knew I wasn't human. I felt it deep in my bones. As a child I found the world chaotic and confusing. Meandering through the library looking for science fiction, fantasy, and monster tales was peaceful and comforting. Through my reading I began to stockpile words and ideas that matched my experiences and dreams. I was slowly building a language to communicate. I was ten when I found a word that adequately captured the feel of the dream: changeling. I first learned about changelings in the book Moorchild. A changeling, in this case, meant a being that was part fairy/part human, cursed to never truly fit in either world because they weren't fully one thing or the other. Within Moorchild I saw a glimmer of my dream on the page for the first time. That thrill of seeing a secret part of myself written casually on the page shocked me and deeply endeared me to the story.
I was ten when I first read Moorchild. At the time it felt like there was a larger significance than I could articulate around the shift from single- to double-digit numbers. That year I stopped seeing one therapist (motor and math skills), started seeing a psychotherapist for the first time, and was diagnosed with three anxiety disorders. It was also the year I went on my first long camping trip during which I likely suffered a second concussion that, like the first, wasn't properly treated. I didn't tell J.—the person who organized the trip and whom I had been seeing for several years to address a variety of issues around motor and math skills—I just walked it off. I hadn't yet realized that my pain response was abnormal. Ten was also a pivotal year, a junction in time I can point to as the beginning of my disintegration from my family. At the time, I didn't know what was to come, but little warning signs began to appear. Suffice to say ten was a momentous year for my psyche, and when I came across Moorchild, I devoured it. I read and reread that book until it appeared to have been mauled by a small inquisitive creature. The book sparked a curiosity about changelings, and my research into changelings intensified my fascination with monsters and the supernatural.
From a young age, I knew I wasn't like the others and the stress of trying to pass caused significant damage that I'm still undoing. I turned to research as a way to try and make sense of the world. I suspect that early in life I picked up on the fact that I wasn't just quirky—my brain was wired differently from other people. Other kids had after-school events; I mostly had tutors and doctors. Other kids didn't go to the hospital twice yearly (between the ages of 4 and 8) and yearly (between the ages of 9 and 18) for testing. Ultimately I reached the conclusion that my brain wasn't "normal." I resented the lies from my caregivers that everything was fine. I understand the impulse to lie to a disabled child, to want to protect them from the seriousness of their diagnosis. In my parents' case they were motivated by a desire to keep me from sliding into hopelessness. In their minds, if I knew what was wrong with my brain I wouldn't try, but if I thought I was normal I would maintain a good work ethic. I'm not sure where they got that idea, but it didn't work—I grew up a perfectionist, convinced that I was a monster. It makes sense that a monster would seek out others like them and, finding none in meatspace, I instead turned to fiction and myth.
Monsters are built from cultural anxieties and fears. Changelings were born from anxiety around the Other and disability/disease that resists explanation. The changeling myth helped provide an explanation for a range of life occurrences such as sudden death or disappearance, mysterious illness, and eccentric and bizarre behavior. The term changeling was used to describe an individual, usually a child, who demonstrated notable sudden shifts in behavior and/or appearance. A changeling was a substitute for an infant, child, or adult who the fairies had abducted. The substitute left by the fairies might be a sickly fairy child, an older member of the fairy tribe, or an animated log that manifests as a human that is slowly dying. The changeling was characterized by a number of behaviors (such as developmental delays) and certain physical appearances (such as stunted bodies).* Changelings were similar to fairy abductions—the mysterious disappearances of children and adults attributed to fairies, though in the case of fairy abductions, nothing remained. The person simply disappeared, seldom to return and, if returned, markedly and forever changed by their time amongst the faye. The idea of a shadowy Other on the outskirts of civilization has haunted our collective unconsciousness for millennia and is one of humanity's oldest fears. The changeling myth tapped into the fear that a parent can do everything possible to protect their child, yet still lose them to a shadowy Other on the outskirts of civilization. The changeling also tapped into the fear of the imposter. Whether permanent (like the vampire) or temporary (like a possession), it pokes at the deep lizard brain fear of the Other as well as the anxiety that the Other can look identical to your child or kin. It can pass for human. Monsters are frightening enough when they look monstrous (c.f., Frankenstein), but when they look human, that amplifies and warps the terror.
The changeling myth identified the disabled as not human and thus made it acceptable to kill the child:
"A number of people...believed their loved ones—either adults or children—had been transformed into alien and frightening beings. Unconsciously externalizing a felt evil, they sought to determine its source, and, if possible, to exorcize it. If someone became a changeling, it was not neglect, disease, or a taint in the blood line that was responsible. And if the affected creature died, either naturally or as a result of changeling tests*, it had not been meant to live. Besides, the real person had been taken by the fairies. She or he was elsewhere" (Silver, 2000, 65).
Most changeling incidents involved children, i.e., those perceived as dependent or subordinate in the social hierarchy: "The belief in supernatural etiology and intervention permits the more dominant group—here adults—to reject an imperfect infant ('It's the fairies' child, not ours') and allows as well for denial ('We didn't do anything; it was born normal')" (Silver, 2000, 66).
It has been speculated that the story of changelings was a way to explain over 100 diseases and disorders such as PKU, autism, and progeria as well as explain the signs of neglect. While changelings have largely fallen out of the cultural lexicon—newspapers and other news sources no longer report changeling cases, as was the case in Victorian times—, but the anxiety around the Other, and around disability, is still very much with us.
Monsters provide a convenient holding place for the things we don't want to look at or consider. Culturally, we still hold a lot of anxiety around disability. Certain fears—the Other, disease/disability that resist explanation—are deeply embedded in the human psyche. So while the fear and anxiety might change shape and name, its rudimentary form stays the same. The monster adapts to changing cultural norms and values holding ancient fears dressed in conventional attire. Thus we see the changeling myth in one of the earliest stories of space travel (The Man in the Moone) and in how many refer to autism. Many of the changeling references in regards to autism are on a science fiction angle, i.e., phrases like "children from another planet" or "living with a martian." What is interesting to note is that the language surrounding changelings is eerily similar to the language surrounding autism and vaccines. In both cases the narrative goes: I had a good child, the good child was taken, in its place is a bad and/or sickly child, I want my good child back.**
When I was 18 I gained access to my medical records and saw the initials NLD for the first time, along with several other diagnoses. I was both relieved and enraged that I had been right all along. I was not normal, but disabled, and notably disabled in some ways—the current diagnosis is autism, severe SPD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. I suspect that the feeling of otherness born from a neurodiverse autistic brain led me to feel that I wasn't my mother's child. My mother's child was elsewhere, I surmised, in outer space. This makes sense, considering that I turned to science fiction and comics at an early age as a way of coping with feeling so culturally out of place. Outer space equaled safety and, in many respects, felt like where I truly belonged. It would make sense, then, that if I belonged there, that would be where the real child was. These days I now jokingly refer to myself as an alien changeling—melding science fiction with the changeling myth. Admittedly, however, I have largely accepted the fact that I will likely never leave this planet.
*Typical characterizations of the changeling included unresponsiveness, resistance to physical affection, unexplained crying, atypical social development, often physically ugly (large heads, stunted bodies, old distorted face, dark or sallow skin), developmental delays in walking or speaking (though some showed exceptional ability in a specific area), gluttonous appetites, and disruptive behavior. Some were active while others were immobile and doll-like losing any semblance of life over time. Prompt baptism was considered an excellent preventive but if the child (or in some cases the adult) had already been changed there were various tests or exorcisms to try and return the child/adult. Infants were almost never returned, but there was the possibility that adults might be returned (though even if returned they were not quite right having spent some time with the fairies). The tests or exorcism ranged from mild (such as tricking the changeling into betraying its nonhuman nature by doing something preposterous before your eyes or having the changed person touched or sprinkled with holy water by a priest or minister) to severe (leaving the child outdoors such as at the foot of a hill in particular those thought to be inhabited by fairies or by rivers, flogging, having bits or hunks of iron thrown at the afflicted individual, branding with fire, abandoning it in a ditch or on a grave, and shoveling which entailed placing the suspect on a hot shovel or over a hearth fire with instructions to go up the chimney). The idea was that exposing the changeling to peril of life would compel the fairies to return the "real" person, i.e., rather than see their own offspring suffer, the fairies would intervene and bring back the human child. Exorcisms would have been done by a priest or minister, the family/local community, and/or a fairy doctor who, amongst other things, treated changelings.
**One autism parent memoir considered a "classic"—The Siege by Clara Claiborne Park—uses the "autism as child-thief" metaphor at length, referring to the birth of an autistic child as akin to myths of fairies stealing babies in the night, only to replace them with mimicked shells of their former selves (C. Park). To quote Dr. Mitzi Waltz, a lecturer in Autism Studies at the University of Birmingham, "This metaphor is redolent of changeling myths, which may represent the oldest legends concerning autism as such. In these stories, the changeling must be killed, beaten, or abandoned, or the correct spell must be said, to force the return of the 'real' child it replaced" (Waltz). Unfortunately, the acts of killing, beating, abandoning and even searching desperately for the correct "spell" to "cure" autism and thus return the hypothetical normal child are all too common amongst parents of autistic children, as they continue to play out the only autism paradigm most have ever known: a pyrrhic quest for a non-existent cure. This topic deserves further elaboration: what effect does the concept of cure have on parents who are reluctant to face the reality that the child born to them is different from the child they desired? (Ne'eman, 2007, The Empty Fortress: The Fallacy of the Missing Self section, para. 3, https://case.edu/affil/sce/Texts_2007/Ne'eman.html).
About the Author
JACK is a genderqueer autodidact and HSP autistic with severe SPD with interests in developmental psychology, anthropology and film theory. They live in Seattle with their husband and a vocal black cat and work as a medical massage therapist. For more of their writing please visit tk746.wordpress.com.
Silver, C. B. (2000). Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford University Press.
Eloise, J. MG. (1996). The Moorchild. Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Ne'eman, A. (2007). "Dueling Narratives: Neurotypical and Autistic Perspectives About the Autism Spectrum." Atlanta, 9, 11.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srul5Xd2kT4 ("Designing the Other: Aliens on Film Chez Lindsay")