Book Review: Joanne Limburg’s Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism

Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism

Joanne Limburg

Atlantic Books, 2021. 262 pages.

Although feminist and gender perspectives have been employed to analyse a number of disability-related topics, autism––and neurodiversity more generally––occupies a limited space in the literature. The experiences of adult autistic women, in particular, have been largely under-explored and un-theorised by feminist frameworks. In this lacuna, British essayist and poet Joanne Limburg’s recent book, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism (2021), establishes the foundations for a much-needed conversation between feminism and neurodiversity.

Letter to My Weird Sisters is a book at the crossroad of different genres that innovatively engages the contributions of literary, gender and disability studies to weave a feminist dialogue between the past and the present. As the title suggests, Limburg writes letters to four historical women who moved uncomfortably within the small space afforded to them by patriarchal structures and other rigid social conventions. The first letter is addressed to a well-known figure, Virginia Woolf, while the other interlocutors, each from different historical moments from the 16th to the 20th Century – Adelheid Bloch, Frau V and Katharina Kepler – are less well-known. Limburg brings these figures to life on the page, intertwining their stories with her own personal experiences of autism. In doing so, the author highlights the similarities between these women’s experiences and the experiences of women on the autism spectrum today. Limburg makes clear that her exploration of historical figures is not an attempt to attribute ex-post diagnoses but a project that uses the lens of autism to understand uncomfortable and difficult women who defied ideas about how women should be and how they should behave. Her book’s ‘weird sisters’ spoke either too little or too much, did not smile appropriately and did not demonstrate respect for authority and social conventions. Although none of these women received an autism diagnosis, neither have many contemporary women, who can live their whole lives without being recognised as autistic – notably, Limburg herself was diagnosed only in her forties.

The book opens with a letter from Limburg to the reader that explores what it means for a woman to live within the suffocating limits of femininity imposed by patriarchy. Drawing on personal experience as a late-diagnosed autistic person, in this letter, Limburg situates her analysis between intersectional feminism and disability studies:

Since my diagnosis, I have been able to look back over my life from this new perspective, from this particular intersection, and it seemed to me that many of the moments when my autism had caused problems, or at least marked me out as different, were those moments when I had come up against some unspoken law about how a girl or a woman should be, and failed to meet it. (p. 11)

While most women might occasionally fail to meet the stringent rules of femininity, the experience is much more common and painful for autistic women. In many ways, autism constitutes a failure to embody with docility the norms of femininity as, for instance, sensory sensitivity can make difficult to wear certain clothes, jewelry, or to use make-up. In social situations it can also be difficult to engage in small talk, smile and comply with the idea that women have to be warm and welcoming. Many of the women presented in this book cannot resort to the protection of benevolent sexism that the adherence to feminine norms could grant. In the foreword, Limburg underlines that she wanted to write about weirdness rather than rebellion, and that she was ‘less interested in women who chose to be difficult than [she] was in women who couldn’t help being weird’ (p.15). The author tells us about her own attempts to adhere to social norms by exercising a strict control on her way of appearing and speaking when in public. Such attempts are so extensive that she describes feeling a different person, for which she uses the acronym SGJ – Socially Gracious Joanne. It is difficult not to see in SGJ a reference to the camouflage (or masking) practices that many autistic people and especially women use to hide their autistic traits and pass for neurotypical. It is important, from a feminist perspective, to understand how and to what extent autistic masking is influenced by the strong gendered expectations imposed upon women, and what is the impact of these expectations on autistic women.

Letters to My Weird Sisters illustrates how difficult can be for autistic women to find a place in ‘in a world other people built for themselves’ (p. 19). Beyond the author’s personal experience, the book’s historical perspective proves particularly effective for exploring the power of margins across different times and contexts. In the first letter, salient moments of Woolf’s life are explored, beginning when, as a young woman, she was required to adopt the small and silent role that Victorian society had assigned to women. How to dress, how to maintain friendships and how to socialise: each concern – then and now – are profoundly shaped by gendered expectations.

The biographical events of Virginia Woolf – the death of her parents, the difficult relationship with her stepbrother, her conditional acceptance of the Victorian conventions of the time – are intertwined with her literary activity. The result are new insights in the figure of the famous writer, whose personal and literary production can help analyze experiences of awkwardness and uneasiness. Limburg does not attribute any diagnosis to Virginia Woolf, but concludes the letter thanking the writer for her ability to accurately and honestly describe difficult moments of shame and embarrassment: ‘If you had not described these awkward moments and unpretty feelings, I might never have recognized my own in them’ (p. 68).

The second letter is addressed to Adelheid Bloch, born to a prominent German family in 1908. As a child, Bloch developed permanent brain damage from contracting meningitis and was institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital in Wiesloch. As a young person, Bloch, along with about 200,000 disabled people, was killed by the Nazis as part of Hitler’s eugenicist regime. Limburg’s letter to Bloch reflects on disability and the difficulty of expressing pain and discomfort in ways that are intelligible to abled people. Limburg also describes how difficult it is for disabled people to have their humanity recognised and valued in contexts that privilege productivity and adherence to a restrictive notion of utility. Disabled people are no longer faced with the extreme experiences that Adelheid faced at the hands of the Nazi regime, but the situation can still be difficult for disabled people nowadays. Limburg, quoting data from Public Health England, notes that during the first lockdown ‘people with learning disabilities were dying of coronavirus at more than six times the rate of the general population’ (p. 92). Looking more closely at the situation of autistic people, the author discusses the results of a Swedish study from 2016 (Hirvikoski et al. 2016) showing an average age of death for autistic people of 54 years, as well as a significantly higher incidence of suicide in autistic people without a learning disability. As Limburg underlines, the suffering of disabled and autistic people is avoidable and collective efforts are needed to address the situation.

One of the most interesting figures encountered in the book is Frau V. Little is known about her, including her true name. A 1944 article by Hans Asperger – among the first researchers of autism –mentions her as the mother of one of the boys he was treating in the University Paediatric Clinic in Vienna. Using the scarce details available, Limburg constructs a portrait of a woman who cares deeply about her child’s fate but also shares many traits with him. However, notably, Asperger did not consider the possibility of Frau V being autistic herself.

Through the story of Frau V, Limburg reflects on the relationship between motherhood and autism, which is encapsulated by the infamous Refrigerator Mother theory popularised by Austrian-US psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim (e.g. Bettelheim 1967). Bettelheim’s heavily-refuted theory, which erroneously suggested that autism results from a mother’s cold and distant attitude towards her child, had and continues to have a destructive impact on many mothers of autistic children. Further, Frau V’s similarities to her son could not be read in the same way because autism was – and in part still is – understood as a ‘male’ condition. Thus, Frau V’s story represents the ways that autistic women have historically been invisible to psychiatrists and other clinicians. Psychiatry has consistently overlooked autistic women and the intersection between autism and gender oppression, with the consequences of this invisibilisation continuing to influence women’s lives. Autism has historically been considered a predominantly male condition, with discussions of autism often revolving around its manifestations during childhood, especially in middle-class white boys. Discussing Frau V’s experience brings to the fore the difficulties of being an autistic woman, but also the difficulties of being an autistic mother.

Limburg’s final letter is addressed to Katharina Kepler, a German widow who lived between the 16th and the 17th Century and whose abrupt and bizarre behaviour prompted accusations of witchcraft from her neighbors. Kepler’s trial concludes in her favor, thanks to the intervention of her eldest son, well-known 17th-century astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, who enjoyed certain prestige due to his position as an imperial mathematician. According to Limburg, Katharina was not a ‘gentle speaker’ (p. 190); instead, the pages on her life elucidate a portrait of a direct, obstinate woman who is not at ease in the small role assigned to women by Lutheran Germany. This renders accusations of witchcraft unsurprising: poor women trying to get by, widows and generally unconventional women have frequently been met with such accusations. Limburg contributes another layer to the contemporary debate about the practice’s history, suggesting that autism might have provided another justification for levelling such accusations against women.

The book ends with a foreword dedicated to the late writer and friend Caron Freeborn, and a rich bibliography for readers who want to know more about autism and neurodiversity.

‘Autistic women’, writes Limburg ‘are a minority demographic, and when you are in a minority, it can get lonely’ (p. 12). Letters to My Weird Sisters is also the story of this peculiar loneliness that many women have experienced and are still experiencing, because they lack the category of autism as an explanation of their difficulties. Autism is no longer considered a male and white condition, as more women, non-white and non-binary people are recognising themselves as autistic, with many also seeking and receiving a formal diagnosis. For many of us, this new understanding has arrived later in life, with people increasingly receiving a diagnosis during adulthood. Books such as Letters to My Weird Sisters capture this new understanding of autism and offer important insights regarding what it means to be an autistic woman and how important it is for feminism, gender studies and social sciences more generally to understand the experiences of autistic people, including women, who have usually been excluded from this discussion. In this sense, Letters to My Weird Sisters can be considered an important initial step towards a new conversation about autism in gender studies.

Cinzia Greco is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester. She specializes in the study of patients’ experiences, medical innovation, inequalities in access to healthcare, gender, and health. Between 2016 and 2018 she was been a Newton International Fellow of the British Academy. Her publications have appeared in journals such as Anthropology & Medicine, Medical Anthropology and Social Science & Medicine. Twitter: @Cinzia_Greco_

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno (1967) The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. New York: Free Press.

Hirvikoski, Tatja; Ellenor Mittendorfer-Rutz, Marcus Boman, Henrik Larsson, Paul Lichtenstein and Sven Bölte (2016) Premature mortality in autism spectrum disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry 208(3): 232-238.