A Microinterview with Devon Price

Emerson Whitney
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PART I

THE BELIEVER: One of the main through lines in your work seems to be an offering for us to collectively heal shame. Can you talk about how your books link back to this idea? 

DEVON PRICE: My first two books were about particular kinds of shame. Laziness Does Not Exist is about the shame of being useless under capitalism, and feeling like you can never actually earn the right to be alive. Unmasking Autism is about the shame of trying to hide autism, of feeling fundamentally broken or evil or fucked up. So you try to conceal, to fit in, and to overcome some stigma that you can’t ever actually overcome, because who you are has been marked as defective. That book is so much about how trying not to be who you are is never going to be an answer to that. In Unlearning Shame, I’m putting all that into the container, along with the shame of being closeted, of living under capitalism and trying to make a difference, of not being a good enough activist. They’re all part of the same conversation for sure.

PART II

THE BELIEVER: I’m curious if—particularly as a trans and neurodivergent person—putting out public thoughts on the subject of shame can be shame inducing. 

DEVON PRICE: I’m making things that are commodities. It really freaks me out. I’m working for one of the Big Five publishers, and sometimes they’re like, Oh, you should go talk to Goop about this. There’s this balance of, like, Am I reaching people and hopefully radicalizing them a little bit? Hopefully bursting bubbles for them? Or am I making books that are just helping privileged people feel better about where they are? That’s a deep and abiding terror that in some ways is kind of good for me to have. I am very much not a perfectionist. I am doing it thinking I’m making positive changes. Even if my work doesn’t connect in that radicalizing, abolitionist kind of way with every reader, I hope it puts people down that pipeline. And it’s better to get these ideas out into the world so others can build upon them and improve them. And that helps me make peace with how sometimes I’m going to mess up and I’m going to cringe at something I wrote a year ago, because my politics get more and more radical each year. 

PART III

THE BELIEVER: Western medicine’s diagnostic way of interrogating personhood creates shame so distinctively. What can we do with this whole field if so much of it is harm based? 

DEVON PRICE: The only way to work justly in an unjust field is to betray it at every turn, if even that. I don’t know how much is worth salvaging in psychology. I really don’t. I come to this as someone who, like you, was a young person at Barnes & Noble reading The Sociopath Next Door. This really dehumanizing stuff. I looked at it and I was like: I guess I’m a sociopath. I guess I’m evil. I guess I’m Hannibal Lecter. It’s something I joke about, but it is a real shame that I carried in me, because I was autistic and didn’t know it, and I was reading all these books that pathologize all these traits: BPD [borderline personality disorder] traits, narcissistic traits—those are my kin. I identify with those traits as much as I identify with the autistic community, but that kind of writing about people with autism and BPD did a real number on me and it does a number on a lot of people. All these posts online about narcissistic abuse: they do a lot of harm. This way of seeing things makes it seem as if “evil” deeds are done by a type of person rather than understanding that harmful behaviors are something we’re all capable of. 

PART IV

THE BELIEVER: Can you talk a little bit about how you see your work at the intersection of transness and autism? 

DEVON PRICE: Every time I have conversations with people, I have new idols to knock down within these power structures. When it comes to the diagnostic process, we should not be working to reform it; we should be working toward phasing it out, in the same way that informed consent [the idea that those seeking care are able to choose the forms of support services they want] for trans people is phasing out gender identity disorder. You don’t need to have a psychologist decide you’re crazy with transness in order to get hormones in the US and some other countries. We can do the same thing with autism and so many other neurodiversities. I always get questions from people who are down with this, but are still learning. They ask things like What will happen if there’s no such thing as a diagnosis for a young kid who is autistic and needs services? I always have to say, Look at the services they’re getting right now. The services involve being taken out of the classroom and othered. What we need is community. 

PART V

THE BELIEVER: What does community mean to you in the context of healing? 

DEVON PRICE: What community is—especially in the West, because of colonialism—is a problem. We have such a twisted view of it. To be frank, when I was pursuing community for myself as a queer person, as an autistic person, I thought of it as this territory I had to claim. Your approach is often colonialist, if that’s all you’ve ever known. People go to the LGBT center like: There’d better be things for me. I have these needs. I need this programming. There’s a degree of entitlement in the idea that community is something you can take from. 

PART VI

THE BELIEVER: What writers and thinkers inspire you right now? 

DEVON PRICE: Ayesha Khan and her pro-Palestinian work. She’s been making amazing work about how people in the individualist, capitalist West are incredibly neurotic because we don’t know what being in community means, because we’re in a system that erases culture and community ties. Particularly, I’ve come to learn—I think a lot of us have to learn this, those of us who are white—that community is something you have to build. It’s a thing that is composed of individual relationships with people, and it happens through conflict, through service to the community, through humbling yourself to learn the shared history. It’s only then that you get the benefits of closeness, acceptance, understanding. Feeling not broken is not just something that’s given to you—it’s something you’ve got to put a lot of work into. 

PART VII

THE BELIEVER: Do you have hopes for your writing in relation to the field of psychology as a whole? 

DEVON PRICE: I aim to use my tools and training for combing through the literature and putting more tools in the hands of people. I’d like to take the great work people are doing and put that up on a pedestal, too, to be seen as “scientifically” legitimate. So I am trying to dilute and dismantle psychology one bit at a time, through things like advocating for an informed-consent approach to psychiatric medicine, phasing out the diagnosis… Anything I can do to take down the authority—not exactly from the inside, but I guess kind of from the inside—by holding open the door so people can rush in, until there is no inside. 

PART VIII

THE BELIEVER: Your work seems to both refute and substantiate some of the labels that Western psychology works through. How do you relate to the language of diagnosis? 

DEVON PRICE: We’re still in a place where we emphasize individual identity rather than naming social conditions and experiences that bind almost all of us. I hope we move to a paradigm where people realize that every personality disorder—so many things in the DSM—they’re all different manifestations, slightly different takes, on how people respond to trauma and attachment distress. The need to separate them out into separate diagnoses and separate labels makes us miss the actual core experiences that give birth to them. We’re treating it as: You have evil-person disease or crazy, overly attached person disease. No, both of these people have attachment trauma. Let’s talk about the different behaviors we reach for when we have attachment issues and when we’re seeking attachment. I hope this is the paradigm we get to. 

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