Monday, October 17, 2011

Facilitated Communication and the Spirit

In 1993, Frontline News produced a news documentary called "Prisoners of Silence." In this documentary, Frontline investigated a process called "facilitated communication," a method developed to help otherwise silent autistic children communicate with the world around them.

Autism is usually expressed with withdrawal, lack of imaginative capabilities, and, if profound enough, mental retardation and a complete lack of speech. Facilitated Communication is an idea that was developed to help people with profound autism be able to communicate. It basically consists of a specially-trained clinician who holds the autistic person's hand or arm and helps guide his or her index finger onto a little keyboard.

All of a sudden, these previously mute persons who had long been assumed to be entirely low-functioning were writing grammatically correct sentences, short stories, and poems. The Frontline program showed a few examples, including the following verse.
Am I a slave or am I free..
Am I trapped or can I be seen..
As an easy and rational spirit..
Am I in hell or am I in heaven.
As may be imagined, this gained a lot of press.

But facilitated communication had a darker side. All of a sudden, facilitated messages started cropping up all over stating that autistic children had been sexually abused by their parents. Warrants were issued for parents' arrest. Children were placed in foster care. Families were torn apart.

And it was all bogus.

There were several experiments that were done to test facilitated communication. One of them consisted of some variation of showing a picture of a random object to the facilitator, and a picture of a different object to the autistic person; and most importantly, there is a screen between the two, so neither person can see or be at all aware of the other's picture. The result?

Regardless of what the autistic person saw, the facilitated message described the facilitator's picture.

I should probably be a little careful here, because facilitated communication is still in use today and a lot of people believe in it. However, for me at least, the truth is quite clear: facilitated communication is not real.

Now, I'm going to (cautiously) transition into my real topic...spiritual experiences and prophecy.

Whether sitting in fast and testimony meetings or participating in Elders' Quorum or Sunday School class, I often hear people talk about the hand of the Lord in their lives. In a way, I admire their faith. There's certainly something compelling about the belief that a deity is the one controlling your life, and not yourself. It's a comforting notion. I wish I could believe it.

When someone says that the spirit helped guide them in their dating decision, or in choosing a major, or in any other major life situation, I sometimes wish that I too could sit back and contentedly proclaim, "God helped 'em do that!" It's a nice idea that all good things in your life (and often the bad things too), great and small, can be attributed to the great benefactor in the sky. But I can't help but think that the whole thing seems a little too much like that person is putting words in God's mouth. That's not to say I don't believe in spiritual interference or prophecy--I certainly do. I just think it's not nearly as prevalent as we sometimes wish it was.

And while I'm not trying to imply an autistic God, He is, of his own accord, withdrawn from us here on earth, and generally quite silent. We, though, are disquieted by his silence, and so we have developed a habit of attributing things in our lives to Him--even characteristics. Have you ever asked someone to describe God? You'll get the Judeo-Christian generalities, but you'll also get a healthy dose of that own person's speculations, and those are more telling of the person saying them than of the Lord. It seems like everyone imagines God as their idealized self. A conservative person views God as the ultimate conservative. Someone in management might view God as the ultimate CEO. A person who feels ashamed of some personal vice will view God as being ultimately above and beyond such things.

I know I am not above this. I do the exact same thing. Believing that there's a divine being who thinks and cares about the same things I do, who reaches out of heaven to help little old me, is a beautiful thing, and I do it more than I'll admit. But every so often I have moments of clarity where I can't help but notice my own hand facilitating the words God does not say.


  1. To clarify--

    I believe that there is a God, and that he is a loving, paternal God. I believe he intervenes to our benefit on Earth. I'm not writing against that. What I'm trying to say is that, though he loves us and cares for us, he is still separated from us. Doctrinally speaking, it's because of the fall and all that, but nevertheless, there's an impenetrable and impersonal barrier between us and him, and in the space between us we have ascribed all sorts of things to him--never out of malice or purposeful dishonesty, but out of devotion, faith, and longing. Especially out of longing; we long to know that being who created us, and through our longing we create him in our image.

  2. 1) My favorite phrase here has to be that we are "disquieted by his silence." Nice job on that one.

    2) After I saw the musical "Children of Eden" (and some other personal experiences in other areas of my life), I wanted to see if I could write an essay about man's relationship with God that was not exactly based on a happy vision of mortal life as some sort of allegory summer camp or college where we're away from home for a short time to learn. Rather the relationship is ultimately one of rejection. I called the essay "On Rejection." I don't know if I ever shared that with you guys. Maybe I should post it on my blog. I'm pretty sure it was my favorite thing I wrote in my creative non-fiction writing class. Plus I used it when I did my performance art piece where I cut off my hair.

    3) I think one of the most beautiful explorations of this idea, that God is created in man's image is in Carson McCuller's book "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." There is a man named Singer who is deaf and mute. He is completely isolated, cut off from everyone. But he moves into a town and eventually everyone starts talking to him. While he doesn't understand any of them, they each create in their own minds that he is exactly how they each want him to be. His identity is eclipsed by their projections onto him. It is SO GOOD. I cannot recommend it enough. Southern Gothic novel that is so compelling. Tour de force, no doubt.

    4) Yeah, creating God in my own image. That's an interesting thing to think about. He has kinda become a very left-leaning pluralistic post-structuralist as of late. And here I thought he was just so progressive. Haha.

    5) Last but not least, this post reminded me of a quote. It's from Angels in America: Perestroika (the second half of the epic). There's a scene where Harper is in the Mormon Visitor Center and starts talking to diorama figurine who is a Mormon Pioneer Mother.

    Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?
    Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.
    Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.
    Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending. That's how people change.

    Here's a clip of it.

    The magic of the theatre or something.

  3. I think there's a lot of comfort on the idea that God is directly oversees so many aspects of our lives, and can be a lonely feeling to believe otherwise. My own belief is that God intended it to be that way, that if there weren't legitimate cause to doubt there would be no basis for faith. That's sort of hinted in Alma 32, although it moves toward the idea of Certainty as an ultimate temporal goal. But if we truly have agency and God values that above everything else (one of my absolute favorite LDS teachings), it makes sense to me that God allows and expects us to construct meaning and see His hand wherever we can.

    Suppose, for example, I'm stopped at a red light and as it turns green, my leg itches, which distracts me and causes me to delay going through the intersection. That delay saves me from being broadsided by a driver running his red light. Did God make my leg itch? Someone could tell a fairly inspiring Sunday School tale to that effect. My guess, however, is that He did not. My leg just happened to itch by random chance, and I was fortunate to avoid catastrophe. After all, how many better people than I have seemingly no assistance in similar circumstances? While I could use the incident to prove how much God loves me, that holds him responsible had tragedy occurred. Does this mean that there can't be any faith-promoting experiences? Can't anything be rationalized away through that thinking? Well, probably - these are wells of thought where others have gone deeper than I have. But I think there's a way to approach this that ultimately promotes faith.

    Suppose my near-disaster causes me to reflect on life's ephemeral nature, and on what would have happened had I lost it. Who would have been hurt? What would have been left unfinished? Perhaps this inspires me to be more appreciative of my wife, to be kinder to people I meet, and to try and be a little more righteous. Isn't that a genuine spiritual experience? I may not believe that God caused that leg itch, but I believe that life can turn on small things, and that we are expected to make use of what we're given. If I choose to make that incident a catalyst for becoming better rather than simply shrugging it off or forgetting it, it has brought me closer to God and salvation regardless of His direct involvement.

    There's a circular aspect to this sort of thinking that's unavoidable, and while it can lead to the loneliness I mentioned above, it's at least a sort of "sacred loneliness" similar to what Brett talked about in his first comment (not to be confused with Todd Compton's book...). Our very alienation and distance from God can draw us closer to him if we choose.

    That, at least, is my faith, and it's the best way I've come up with to reconcile the unfairness and nastiness of the world with its beauty and awesomeness. Excellent post, and good food for thought.

  4. I personally prefer to comfort myself in thinking that God is a lot more directly involved, that "everything happens for a reason," but I have to admit that this is the best argument otherwise. I know many scoff at the idea that everything is intricately connected and controlled by God and I think I finally understand that viewpoint, so thank you Brett.

    I do, however, find it extraordinary that there is enough wiggle room for each individual to decide whether God is involved, merely spectating, or nonexistent. It's one of the most beautiful things about this world - it goes about in such a way to allow each individual to form their own opinions about how it came to be, how it functions now, and whether it will meet its end.

    In short, well written.

  5. Thanks for your comments!
    Allan--I'm looking forward to reading through some of the things you mentioned in your comment. I'm currently sitting in a class, waiting for the instructor to show up, so if he takes a little longer, maybe I'll just start. Also, I'm glad you liked the "disquieted by his silence" line, I thought of that when I first started typing this up and couldn't wait to actually get to use it. I'm looking forward to your contributions to this blog...
    Casey--Very interesting thoughts. When I've thought about this in light of your comment, I've kind of thought that maybe I missed an important alternative, namely, that even if God or the spirit aren't physically creating every coincidence, perhaps they are still there in that they assign meaning to it. For example, if I lose something and then it miraculously turns up again, it's not the situation that was a miracle, but rather the impact that it had on me. Two different people could have very similar experiences, but for one there is no meaning attached, while the other sees it as divine intervention. Maybe it's that that is divinely given, like the spirit has spoken to me and told me to pay attention to what just happened.
    Brooke--I agree that it's extraordinary how much wiggle room there is, and that's one of the things that builds my faith the most. It gives room for your faith to be increased by something that I don't agree with, and vice versa. It's like what I just said in response to Casey, that the meanings we attach to things have the ability to build faith, and indeed may be divinely given. I'm also very interested to see your posts here in the future.