Liana Finck draws like someone who has spent a great deal of time unlearning how to draw. She describes the process herself while watching on & off boyfriend Mr. Neutral at work: “When I watch you draw, I get a glimpse of what it would be like – if I could still draw the way I was a kid. If I’d met you when I was younger, I bet I wouldn’t have stopped drawing.” Situated at the beginning of the narrative, that statement lays out a map for much of the territory that follows in Passing for Human, Finck’s memoir of her and her family’s history of strangeness.
“Strangeness” is her word, not mine, used to describe what she refers to a variety of terms. In a section on her father, who seems to have shared a similar or related strangeness, she states, “nowadays, if you don’t know how to act around people, you might be labeled ‘mildly autistic.’” But the book isn’t about labels, and there’s really only one part it’s even mentioned. As she states: “The labels set you apart from the world, but they also give you a place in it. They make you feel more different, but less alone. In those days, though [her father’s youth] there were no labels.”
Finck traces a kinship strangeness back through four generations of her mother’s line, as well as to her father. There is a great deal packed into these surprisingly dense pages. Reading the book I found a number of instances where Finck’s description of her family’s idiosyncratic understand of their inherited neuroatypicality rang true with my own experiences – in my case it’s mental illness, but the same principal applies. Families develop their own languages to describe shared intimate experiences, and certainly find more to laugh at than might seem readily apparent or even appropriate to the outsider. Old events can often be recontextualized with a better understanding of the neurochemistry involved. Within living memory there just weren’t names for a lot of these things, or if there were names they were little known or used improperly. People were left to deal with the “strangeness” in their lives and families as best they could more or less on their own.
Learned primitivism notwithstanding, Finck remains a very readable artist. Her self-effacing prologue shines a spotlight directly at her halting, seemingly insecure line: the insecurity and detachment are intentional effects. Much of the rest of the book is dedicated to exploring precisely these sensations of insecurity and detachment, a process that requires the work of decades to situate oneself fully in a world that does less to accommodate than it believes or even cares to pretend. The main metaphor throughout the book is Finck’s shadow, a living and thinking creature who comes to represent (at least to the reader) an externalization of Finck’s sense of purpose, as well as her sense of difference. The reality is far more complicated, I’m sure. Highly personal symbolic alphabets articulated plainly can seem half-legible runes to interested strangers. The reader doesn’t have the same personal attachment to the symbol, so the author’s attachment to the symbol often seem nothing short of uncanny.
Passing for Human is structured as a series of attempts to tell the same, or similar stories. A framing narrative shows Finck’s numerous attempts, beginning each time with a title page announcing the latest iteration of Passing for Human. She tells us directly what’s at stake: regaining something lost, be it the ability and passion to draw or simple self-acceptance. There are sequences on Biblical themes, such as the story of Ruth & Boaz, which was the camp play at the summer camp where Finck’s parents met when they were 15, as well as the Garden of Eden. We meet Mr. Neutral, a distant and sporadic “boyfriend” who disappears for weeks at a time, we meet her mother’s first husband, her grandmother – lots of stories, disparate threads all coming together to reflect the book’s title, the seemingly flip figure of speech “passing for human.” When knowledge of yourself is walled off and away, when your attempts at making sense of a frankly bewildering world succeed in nothing but misery, you long for just that, to pass as human, as a member of the species of which everyone else around you is a part. Just, y’know, not actually you.
Passing for Human gains much power from the rhythm of recurring themes and figures. The structurally ambitious framing narrative of Finck’s own attempt to tell her family’s story give the book the momentum of an orange being slowly peeled apart, skin by slice by seed. Finck’s secret weapon is her confident pacing: this isn’t a thin book but it carries you right along. You want to learn more about her life as you go because her stories build on each other, metaphor and allegory feeding into anecdote to craft a whole picture of an occasionally difficult but never less than compelling legacy. Passing for Human does not stoop to simplify for the sake of anyone unwilling to accept Finck’s ruthlessly narrative on its own terms.