Unsung Hero: Hans Asperger

Hans Asperger saved autistic children from Nazi death camps. Steve Silberman related the story:

The children in Asperger’s clinic immediately became targets of the Nazi eugenic programs and, in fact, one of Asperger’s former colleagues was actually the leader of a secret extermination program against disabled children that became the dry run for the Holocaust. So the Nazis actually developed methods of mass killing by practicing on disabled children and children with hereditary conditions like autism (even though it didn’t have a name yet), epilepsy, schizophrenia. So immediately Asperger had to figure out ways of protecting the children in his clinic. … One of the ways he did that was to present to the Nazis in the very first public talk on autism in history his “most promising cases” and that is where the idea of so-called high functioning versus low-functioning autistic people comes from really — it comes from Asperger’s attempt to save the lives of the children in his clinic. …

In fact, the Gestapo came to his clinic three times to arrest Asperger and to ship the children in his clinic off to concentration camps or kill them at a so-called children’s killing ward. But [the Gestapo officer] had affection for Asperger, he thought he was very good at what he did, so he saved Asperger’s life and so that’s how Asperger survived the war.


The Secondary Integration of Jim Morrison

To quote the immortal Jim Morrison:

The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.

He makes the case for a core self, but is there a self? Eastern philosophy has always posited there being no actual self, and science is increasingly coming to the same conclusion. The self—or the ego with a narrative that thinks it matters—is a construct created by natural selection to further the goal of gene propagation. That aside, I think Morrison’s main point is that the “cruft” of socialization obstructs who you can be. He uses the words “role,” “act,” and “mask,” which only make sense in the context of you and others, of subject and object. “Cruft” is a term we use in the software world to refer to superfluous code or architecture. You accumulate social cruft as you interact with others. Picture it… You’re at the office water cooler, listening to John and Jane talk about a third party, Fred, who isn’t around. The typical gossip scenario. They talk negatively about something Fred did or said, which just happens to be something you do or say occasionally too. In response to this, you curtail your behavior or speech, or you continue on but try to hide what you do or say from John and Jane. Either way, you’ve just sacrificed a bit of your authenticity at the altar of socialization. It’s unavoidable and you most likely do this unconsciously. After all, evolution “designed” us to be social creatures.

But as much as that “social cruft”—or the psychological artifacts experienced by an individual, in response to norms—acts as a social glue for blending in with others, it also puts up a barrier to the kind of ultimate freedom to which Morrison refers. To be what you can be, to be authentic, requires the Herculean, Nietzschean, and heroic act of rising above the herd instinct that’s been preprogrammed into each and every one of us. The Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski named this oftentimes painful path “Positive Disintegration,” which entails “disintegrating” through multiple levels until a higher self emerges1, the attainment of which is called “Secondary Integration.” Something akin to enlightenment in Buddhism? Perhaps. Few have achieved either, but it’s the journey that matters.

  1. Positive Disintegration can also be thought of as a series of cognitive dissonances, frequently brought about by neuroticism, whose resolutions result in the ascent of a ladder of authenticity and Aristotelian virtue by the individual.