The American Psychological Association Conference

There I was, a free range Aspergian in a room full of shrinks. I’d been hired to speak to the 116th annual gathering of the American Psychological Association. Imagine that. They not only invited me into their midst, they paid for me to come.

But they still made sure I knew where I stood, beginning with the registration clerks. Luckily, I arrived early enough to sort it out.

The first registrar I went to just stared. The second unit directed me to the third, which gave me a badge and pointed to the door. I walked inside, and looked around. I wondered if I’d see Larry David, or any of the crew from that other show, In Treatment.

I passed book sellers, pill merchants, and recruiters from the US Bureau of Prisons.

Larry David was nowhere to be seen, but there were shrinks from all over the world. Or so it appeared. Each of the people walking around had a name tag. The tag showed their names, where they came from, and what they were.

Some tags said STUDENT. Most said MEMBER, which I took to be a code word for PSYCHOLOGIST. A few had honorifics, like FELLOW, LORD, or EXHIBITOR. You may wonder how they distinguished me. I’ll tell you. My tag said NON MEMBER. After a lifetime of exclusion, what do I get from the very crowd that purports to help people like me?

Luckily, I am resilient. I flipped the badge over so the security guards wouldn’t read it and evict me. I looked for the Taser booth, knowing they often exhibit at trade shows, but I couldn't find it. Then it was time.

205 B

That’s where I was supposed to go. I headed for the auditorium, which had filled with shrinks in a manner reminiscent of a high school at class change. Which was, in essence, what it was. They had all these programs going on, and they were handing out credit for them. There was a guy at the door to my room, scanning badges. I waited for him to get distracted and slipped inside.

Most places I speak have one of two arrangements. Some have a wireless microphone that they clip onto you, and you are free to roam around. A few places stand you before a podium, with a fixed microphone. This place, though, was unique. Here, a stout black cable emerged from a ring in the floor, leading ten feet to a microphone that I was supposed to wear.

They had me on a leash. Six feet forward and eight feet back. Close enough to see the audience, but too far for a quick grab. I began wondering about that so-called mike cable. Maybe it was meant for more than just sending a voice signal from me to them. Maybe they had a guy in back with one of those hand-crank field telephones, ready to fry me if I said a wrong word.

That Zimbardo fellow – the rock star psychologist who wrote the Lucifer Effect about the Stanford Prison Experiments – was here. Forewarned, I tucked all the metal outside my clothing. And the soles of my shoes were rubber. The floor was dry. I was confident that I had Freedom of Speech, subject to the leash.

With that preparation, my talk went well.
The Random House Academic Marketing folks recorded it, and it will be online here as soon as they fix the link:
There was no time for questions at the end, but I invited the crowd back to the Random House booth for one on one q&a. After doing that, I slipped my leash, and headed for the exhibition floor, where I spent the next few hours answering questions and signed books.

I’d invited Lindsay and Shirley from the TMS lab, and they accompanied me downstairs. The line of people with questions on TMS was long, with shrinks of all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. There was one redhead, and one freak with glossy black plastic clothing.

One tall dark fellow approached the booth, and I read his tag. Lima, Peru, it said. Quick as a flash, I turned to Mike Gentile, the Official Random House representative, and said: Look! A Peruvian!

At first, he thought I might be insulting him, but he quickly realized that I was simply marveling that someone would travel all the way from Peru and we actually had a nice conversation. In English. I even signed a book for him to take home. For me, meeting a Peruvian there was a special experience, akin to finding an antique Alco locomotive idling in a modern day rail yard. And by the way – that actually happened to me, in Rutland Vermont. The Green Mountain Railroad still operates one. An Alco, that is. Not a Peruvian.

There were others from even farther. There were people from Fiji, Australia, Detroit and even a human Tasmanian. I signed books for them all, as long as they had money to pay the bookseller. When the show ended, there were still people gathered round. I resolved to return tomorrow, for something they called Coffee With The Authors. I do not drink coffee, but I went anyway. Someone gave me an orange juice. Dr. Zimbardo was there, along with John Boyd and a female named Janice Erlbaum, who wrote a very strange book. But of course, this was a psychology convention, so strangeness was the order of the day.

A few hours later, I was able to slip out the door on my own, without any of the guards catching that NON MEMBER badge. I returned to the scene of flooding from last week, and I photographed these rocks:

You can see the mottling dampness . . . the rocks are still drying out, having just emerged from flood in the past two days. That’s what made the whitewater I’d taken my boat over. Quite a ride, when they were covered in ten feet of water during last week’s flood. Woof.


ORION said…
water? did someone say water?
aloha from ORION...
Yes . . . water. How's that for rocks, passing a few inches under the keel in a flood.
ChrisEldin said…
I really really hoped that at the end of this, you would've grabbed somebody, you know, as a joke. Now *that* would've been funny!

Glad you had a good time. Sounds like an incredible experience, except for the Non-Member part. Ick.
ChrisEldin said…
Instead of Non Member, they could've written "Guest" or something like that.
LEBecker said…
You met Janice Erlbaum?!! I hope the two of you swapped reselience factors.
A room full of shrinks would make me rather nervous. I'd be waiting for them to say,"Hmmmmmm..." after anything I said. But that's just me.

I'm glad it went well, and that you made it over those rocks with only mild prop damage. Those are serious business! It sounds like fun, though.
Blair said…
Very funny--and that "changing classes" bit so well with my experiences at the couple of APA conventions I've attended. (As a "member" I have to confess. It's my day job,when I'm not writing or playing the accordion :-)

But that "non-member" tag business made me cringe! So sorry. (Mental health professionals, I'm sorry to say, are not always known for our social graces!)

Good luck with the rest of the tour, John.

Blair (aka Susan B from AW)
Samwick said…
claire danes will play temple grandin in a movie about her life.

who will play robison in the movie about his life?
Oh, to have been in your shoes! it would have been so memorable if you had acted extra-weird. Just to mess with them. Something like sniffing elbows then offering yours for a sniff. Just to see their expressions, and to see how many play along. Maybe you could have asked "are you wearing any band-aids?" Then offered them one. My daughter is wickedly funny around shrinks. She likes to see how they react when she creeps them out, then whether they can take a joke or not.
jess said…
it never ceases to amaze me just how insensitive a group the most self righteously 'sensitive' folks can be.

a favorite story .. (but shh, if my mom finds out i'm telling you this i'll NEVER hear the end of it.)

my mom is a therapist. (i'll refrain from telling you that that's why i don't trust shrinks. oops. did that slip out?) anyway, a couple of years ago she was talking to my sister in law, who was interested in becoming a therapist as well. she was asking all kinds of questions about what qualities my mom thought were necessary to be successful in the field.

my mom went on and on (and on and on) about how important it is to be a good listener. it's all about being sensitive and aware and REALLY hearing people. my sister in law nodded knowingly.

during the entire time that they were talking, my then 3 year old daughter was standing at the table between their two chairs. "Grammy?" "Auntie?" "Grammy?" "Auntie?" "Scuse me, Grammy?" "Scuse me, Auntie?"


No response to this sweet and remarkably polite three year old who was literally standing IN BETWEEN the two of them as they talked over her head about what good listeneres they were.

So am I surprised by your story? Not so much. But I still just LOVE the way you tell it.

Your barbs kill me. I wonder how many of them flew over their heads. (How many barbs, not Peruvians.)
Michelle O'Neil said…
Great post John. It's like we were right there with you. Love your humor!
Kim Stagliano said…
Did you speak from the reclined position on a black couch? Leave with fistfuls of drug samples? ;)
Kim, you have to watch more TV. On In Treatment, they make it pretty clear that psychology is the talking cure, not the pill cure.

And now they sit in chairs because we're more fitness aware.

Bethany said…
Hey! Thanks for stopping by my blog! I think you're absolutely fabuluos and I loved your panels at Backspace.

Hope to see you again, preferably when you're on book tour!

Oh, and I responded to a few of your comments. :)
Hilary said…
I was at the conference too (my label said Guest as I was support person for my friend presenting at another session). I thought I was the only one overwhelmed by such a huge crowd of psychologists (or such a huge crowd in general as there were apparently 16,000 people at the conference and there are only 4 million people in my whole country). Unfortunately, I couldn't get to your session and there was too much of crowd around you at the book stall so I didn't get to ask you the question that has concerned me about autism in the US from my trip there. Do you find the Combatting Autism Act offensive? Do you see it as an attack on your identity that there is an official act wanting to combat you?
By the way we have some railway enthusiasts (including our government), and some antique locomotives here in New Zealand(not sure about Alcos though). See in Praise of Rail at our local autism community blog
Hilary, the Combating Autism Act i not particularly troubling to me. I agree that we should try and find ways of lifting some of the disability burden from people whose autism affects them in a negative way.

There are indeed many disabled people with autism. If we can use emerging therapies like TMS to connect those people to the wider world, that's a great thing.

It's easy to read negative things into announcements like that but it's not generally my nature to do so.
susan hardman said…
I was so excited to hear about
your recent TMS Therapy. Please
keep us posted. I think about it
as a possibility for Sam my 38 yr
old son with Aspbergers.

Do you ever come to The Twin Cities?
It would be great to have you here.
Susan Hardman
Another fun post, John! Amazing that you can make a psych conference so funny! Glad to hear you'll be visiting CO again soon. Happy trails, K.
Jess said…
You should have come up with your own honorific, like "Grand Poo-Bah" or "Escapee" or "Inmate" something campy like that...

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