Recently I came across a book I had bought for something I was writing. It was Obsessive Love by Dr. Susan Forward. The title says it all and the attitudes and behavior it describes are appalling. What appalled me the most was that it seemed to echo Miss M’s take on what happened between James Ryo Kiyan and herself. The purpose of this blog is to emphasize that Aspies (those with Asperger’s syndrome) experience the world differently from non-Aspies. They should be viewed according to who they are and not judged by inapplicable standards. As my friend Jesse Saperstein put it in an e-mail, in cases such as Ryo’s there is a need to explain the difference between stalking and benign persistence.
Following is a letter Ryo wrote to the person who would be conducting his hearing. In it he describes his version of the events that led to the charges against him. Only the names of those involved have been changed. The letter is dated July 20, 2009, and titled Re: Disciplinary Charges against James Ryo Kiyan. Here is the text in its entirety:
To the Hearing Officer:
The following is my account of events in the above-referenced matter. My purpose is not so much to convince others that my perspective is the only right one, as it is to demonstrate that I am in fact an intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive person, and that I am intellectually and emotionally equipped to make the adjustments in my behavior that will permit me to continue functioning successfully in my job as a GIS technician for the Planning Division of Sullivan County.
In January of this year , I felt that Miss M and I were developing a friendship. The validity of this belief can be discussed elsewhere, if necessary. For now, I will only say that my interest in friendship was based on my admiration for her intelligence and spirit, my feeling that we shared similar beliefs and interests, my knowledge that she was in effect a recent arrival in the area who might be looking for friends with similar interests, and her own demonstrated friendliness and trust toward me.
In mid-January, on the heels of some friendly interactions that had included a luncheon date in her hometown, I made a very awkwardly-presented suggestion that we get together again for dinner and movies at her place. It did not go well. I am sure that all the excruciating details will be discussed elsewhere. For now, suffice it to say that as a result of that proposal, and my attempt to explain it in a letter the next day—and in a very brief conversation and e-mail the following week—I felt that a terrible misunderstanding had developed. I suspected that Miss M may have come to the erroneous conclusion that my interest in her had been primarily sexual or romantic. I do not deny that I would have been open to the possibility of romance (and, indeed, a cornerstone of the evidence against me has been my frank admission that I had had an “untenable crush” on her), but it was hardly an exclusive goal, and in fact, given my romantic track record, I figured that the most likely outcome of a friendship with Miss M would be friendship and nothing more—and I was happy with that prospect and looked forward to it.
But now it seemed that that prospect of friendship had been derailed by an apparent misunderstanding, and I became overly distraught. I do not intend to “make excuses” for why I was so upset, but I think that not only was it based in my great esteem for her and what I believed to be our developing friendship, but that my emotional fragility was greatly amplified by a “perfect storm” of extraordinary events in my own life, including my own recent year-long ordeal with colon cancer and related treatments, as well as my mother’s simultaneous treatment for breast cancer. In an escalating series of e-mails, letters, and attempts at conversation over the next three weeks (January 16 to February 9), I sought to clarify the situation with Miss M, but only succeeded in making things worse. While I believe that my first communications were not remarkable, at some point, for a brief period, I crossed a line, and there was no longer a rational connection between my level of urgency and the true situation. At the same time, my behavior was never sexual, threatening, abusive, or violent. It was not until February 5, when I asked Miss M to step out for a walk to discuss the matter, that I realized how averse she was to engaging in a dialogue. In a scene that I have always deeply regretted, I essentially began begging her to talk to me. Failing to initiate a dialogue, that night I sent her a long e-mail which was the beginning of a rambling monologue conducted over the next three or four days via e-mail and hardcopy mailings of the same e-mails. I soon realized that I had gone too far, and admitted such in an e-mail sent in the early hours of Sunday, February 8. Horrified by my own behavior, I called Helena [one of Ryo’s two close friends at the office] that evening, practically in tears, and asked for her help.
Deeply ashamed of myself, and wanting to give Miss M some breathing room, I did not go to work the following Monday. When I did go to work on Tuesday, I discovered that Miss M’s work station had been moved to the other side of the office, and I found myself further distraught by this tangible and irrevocable mark of my disgraceful behavior. On Wednesday, I initiated a meeting with the Commissioner to discuss the situation. My recollection of that meeting is that he wished to avoid something called an “EEO investigation” and wanted to handle the situation within our department, and I now believe that he also mentioned that I should refrain from sending Miss M any more e-mails of a personal nature. The one concrete directive that I took from that meeting was that I was to “cc” him on any e-mails that I did send her.
In the following days, I came to realize that my relations had been damaged not only with Miss M, but also with Helena and Jayne, two people whom I held in the highest regard and whom I thought of as friends. Over the course of the next several weeks, I alternated between deep despondence about my ruined relations with my three coworkers and a hope that I could win back their esteem and trust. Jayne, at first, seemed to be the least affected by events, although she became increasingly critical of my work, which I attributed to lingering resentments. Helena was chilly toward me, but over the weeks started to seem more like her old self. Miss M often acted like a complete stranger, but at other times I drew encouragement from a seemingly genuine smile or a thoughtful response to a question I had posed to her.
Toward the end of March, Eric [an office friend] sent around a notice about an upcoming concert. As he had done on one or two prior occasions (when sending out announcements of cultural happenings in his neck of the woods), he addressed the e-mail to an exclusive group consisting only of Jayne, Helena, Miss M, and me. As far as I knew, Eric did not know anything about the troubled relationship between me and the three others. I was at once honored to be counted as part of such an exclusive and estimable club, and guilty that I was the reason it was essentially a lie. I also felt bad about the possibility that Miss M’s lingering uneasiness about me might hinder her full social integration into “our group.” Prior to the troubles, I had noticed that Miss M kept to herself and rarely, if ever, joined coworkers for lunch or walks. I attributed this to shyness and perhaps to financial difficulties, but assumed that with time it would change. But now I worried that I myself, because of my terrible behavior a few weeks earlier, was an obstacle to the development of Miss M’s social bonds with her coworkers. I therefore decided it was time to break the ice, and make a gesture that would demonstrate my belief that she could function as part of the same social group to which we both seemed to belong. I handed her a short note inviting her to the concert, and indicated that Eric was going, too. A couple of days later, she told me only “no thank you.” Sensing a chilliness in her response, I felt there was little more I could do than to extend an open offer of friendship that would be redeemable “in perpetuity.” I wrote a long letter to that effect, and handed it to her (March 30), preceding it with an e-mail in which I attempted to explain that the unusually long letter was not written in the same spirit as the rambling e-mails of early February.
Of course, it is now quite evident that she—and everyone else—felt that the communications of late March were indeed a continuation of the earlier behavior. To my mind, it was different because my earlier correspondence had been needy and desperate, begging for a dialogue to work out an apparent misunderstanding. Now I was proceeding from the observation that I had screwed things up so badly that all I could do was start over from scratch and let my coworkers know that I had nothing but positive feelings and was looking forward to building friendships.
It is now painfully evident that my way of thinking about friendship and social belonging does not make sense to most people. In the long term, I hope that I can improve my understanding of social interaction by working with experts and by practicing and growing outside the workplace. In the short term, I am confident that I can avoid any further troubles on the job by clearly identifying the issues and situations that have led to problems, and avoiding them in the workplace. I believe that these issues are the pursuit of friendship and social belonging. While it should seem odd for a person to swear off the possibility of making friends at work, I realize that the horribly painful events of the past six months demonstrate that in my case, it is entirely warranted. Essentially, my conscious pledge must be, and is, to maintain a polite and professional social distance from my coworkers, which I will balance with a commitment to improving my ties to family, friends, and community outside of work.
It is my hope that by recounting events honestly, and clearly expressing my awareness of the problems at issue, I can demonstrate that far from being out of control, I am an intelligent and sensitive person who truly wants to do well toward others and be respectful toward them, and that therefore I am fully qualified and capable to remain in my job and perform its duties.
James Ryo Kiyan