A. Iwasa interviews essayist Rikki Branson from Microcosm Publishing’s zine Neurodivergent Pride #5

Cover for Microcosm's zine Proud to be Retarded #3: Autistic People Interacting with Authority. Black and white line drawing on blue paper of a guy of indeterminate race and light skin seated on a bench outside the closed door to a classroom in a school hallway. (Perhaps the principal's office?) He's got a backpack next to him on the bench.

While reading Neurodivergent Pride #5 I became interested in interviewing Rikki Branson because of her essay “Faith and Authority:  A Generation X Spiritual Journey”.  We are acquainted from both being involved in publishing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid 2010s, and I had been raised Roman Catholic but have both had a complicated relationship to organized religion since the 1990s.

AI: You were already in Jr. High when your parents took you to an evangelical Protestant church.  Did you have any exposure to organized religion before that?  Do you mind sharing more specifically what kind of church it was?

RB:  Sure, it was a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, which at the time was pretty much a mainstream Protestant megachurch in the suburbs. I think my experience is similar to many people’s experiences, though, regardless of what denomination of church they attended.

And I had heard of Christian religion before, I was actually the one who got my parents to take my brother and I to church when I was little! I had read in books about people going to church and thought it was a way to meet other kids and be part of some grand and meaningful cause, so I kept asking them to take us to church, which they finally did.

AI: You mentioned Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott for her description of her spiritual journey as like being lily pads, meandering like a frog. Do you still feel that way? Is there more you’d like to say about Lamott’s writing?

RB:  Yes, and what I meant by that was that my spiritual journey wasn’t a straight line from one point to another. In some seasons I thought more about faith and spirituality than in other seasons, and I’ve found myself re-learning similar lessons and re-thinking the same issues. And I’d end up re-examining the same thing sometimes but from a different angle based on a person or event that had entered my life.

Even the times in my life when I was cynical towards religion were still part of my journey, because I was still engaging with the concept of faith, even to dismiss it. And while I haven’t read anything by Anne Lamott in awhile so can’t speak to her current writing, I do still identify with the “lily pads” metaphor.

AI: You mentioned that your parents told you as a teenager that you seemed autistic, but you didn’t actually get diagnosed until you were an adult. How important do you think a potential adult diagnosis is for others?

RB:  I do think an adult diagnosis can help people of any age who want to better understand themselves. When I was diagnosed, a lot of the focus (understandably) was on helping me with job searching and money management as those were issues I was facing at that time, but we did briefly bring up other topics such as relationships and friendships and faith and spirituality. There are things therapists said to me that I’d like to go back and explore and would bring up in a session if I were still in therapy at UCSF, and I do think the therapy experience gave me things to consider that were useful and interesting.

I think some people don’t pursue diagnoses because they feel that putting a “label” on themselves will limit them or they want to make it in life without making excuses or getting special treatment. But I think that now with autism and other conditions, we have a deeper understanding that autism can affect people in very different ways and that there are many ways to be autistic (just as there are many ways to practice faith/spirituality!) A diagnosis isn’t a statement of your destiny or an excuse, it’s more of a guide to how your unique brain works, where you have strengths and where you might need more support.

I think a diagnosis can help if you are able to access support systems (job coaching, accommodations at work, etc) because of the diagnosis. Or, if you choose to just use the information for yourself and Google “help for autistic people to organize their closet” or something like that, if regular advice for non-autistic people isn’t working for you. There is less stigma attached to mental health and neurological diagnoses now due to more knowledge about them and more people getting diagnosed, and if you choose to get diagnosed and tell people, you can help to lessen that stigma even further.

That said, I would never want to be someone who reduces stigma by claiming “not to be like those other autistic people” who don’t blend in as easily to neurotypical society or have more support needs. We are all valid and all deserve respect.

AI: I like/identify with your “uneasy mental truce with” your faith after college. I consider myself to be culturally catholic (small c no mistake), do you feel like your faith or lack there of is similar? Jesuscentric is a concept I read about on livejournal if I’m not mistaken that I liked back in the ’00s. Unitarian Universalism can also be pretty cool.

RB:  I’ve not heard the term “Jesuscentric” but I do hear “Christ follower” to express that someone is inspired by and hopes to emulate Jesus, but without all of the cultural and political connotations that can come with the word “Christian.” I think it’s a way to say things a bit differently, to get a chance to explain what you mean before you activate people’s cultural stereotypes and have them put you in a box before you get to define yourself.

Yes, I would say that I’m probably similar to what you’re getting at with culturally catholic, although I do think there’s more to being a Christ follower than the cultural Christianity that involves, say, putting up a Christmas tree around the holidays or taking Sunday off. It’s about choosing to live in a more mindful and intentional way that’s inspired by how Jesus acted in the Gospels: love your neighbor, forgive your enemy, treat everyone and the natural world with respect. Getting back to the basics without all the modern cultural and political associations that can come to people’s minds when they think of Christian religion.

AI:  For clarification, for me, being small c and/or culturally catholic isn’t about the church as an institution, high holidays or mass on Sunday.  To me, that is what mainstream religion is.  For me it’s more like the Catholic Worker Movement or Ecclesiastical Base Communities.  Feeding the hungry, offering clothing and shelter to those in need.  Opposing imperialism and the death penalty.  Penpalling with, and sending books to prisoners. 

It’s like the story of the father who asked his son to do some work, and the son said he wouldn’t, but he did it anyways.  His other son said he’d do the work but didn’t.  Faith without works is dead as they say, I’m far more interested in the work than the faith. I was raised Roman Catholic but became an atheist in my youth, then an Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian as a young adult, but left that milieu largely over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also the total indifference to things like sweat shops, the environment, and practically everything wrong with the world except a very narrow definition of what’s “wrong.” 

RB:  I can relate to that!

AI: Do you feel like the publishing executive you mentioned is a good example of non-religious mentorship?

RB:  Yes, I would say so. I think that mentorship and just adult friendship in general is something that people are really lacking in Western/American society. So much of what I heard about adult friendship when I was growing up as a teen was focused on how adults should grow up, settle down, stop hanging out with buddies and spend their non-working hours with their families. I’m all for people being good spouses and good parents, parenting is a very important form of mentoring. But I think we just spend so many hours working, job searching, networking, commuting etc that we don’t have enough hours left to invest in our communities and relationships so we’re forced to ration out the little time we do have and direct it to smaller and smaller circles of people. That’s the problem we should really address, why we’re kept so busy that we can’t maintain normal relationships the way we did when we had a village to support us and we interacted with that village. And friendships don’t have to take you away from your family. I have friends who have children and I’m always down for spending time with them with kids included!

You don’t need to be religious to be a mentor or be mentored, but I think that one good thing that religion provides is a structure where people can meet each other and become friends or mentors/mentees, where platonic friendship is encouraged and supported. I think we need more of this in the world.

AI: do you consider yourself to be on a third path outside of the worldliness vs spirituality world view?

RB:  Yes, I’m still somewhere on that third path. I don’t know how to describe the stage of spiritual life that I’m in now, but I do feel that I’m still on the journey somewhere. I still consider myself a Christ-follower.

What I’m focusing energy on now is working to rebuild communities and social structures that went away during the height of the pandemic. Covid hasn’t totally gone away and I’m all for accommodating people with disabilities or people who are immunocompromised, and am looking forward to rebuilding our social connections in more mindful and inclusive ways. Where I live in Northern California there’s a lot of media talk about how our cities are in a “doom loop” because of violence and economic problems, and I’m writing and speaking about remembering and honoring the role cities have played in America in terms of safety and community for some POC, LGBT and immigrant people and about supporting the communities that exist in our cities. Not sure how that all fits into my Christ-follower faith journey, but I suppose it’s about community and respect which I think is a big part of the good that faith and spirituality can bring to society.

AI: I agree with your critique of submission being linked to “traditional” gender roles, but would add it’s also part of the inherent violence in the white supremacist aspect of the hyper segregated, white dominated churches in the US. The flip of this to me is Liberation Theology, minority churches and actively anti-racist/peace churches can be liberatory. How do you feel about this five years further along in life?

RB:  I related submission to gender roles in my essay because that was what I’d heard growing up, and that’s what I thought I was qualified to speak about, as a white woman.

But all of our unjust social power dynamics, including racism and white supremacy, manifest in our mainstream churches, and I do think it’s important to be actively anti-racist and actively oppose and work against in society and call yourself out for racism and other issues. A few racist things I now recognize from when I was younger from my mostly white church were that we put on a play and listened to music about the sacrifices of some white missionaries who were murdered by native people but didn’t look at the whole story in context. The natives were presented much like the Orcs in Lord of the Rings and it was only as an adult that I read a book that mentioned that the indigenous tribe in question was not “unreached by civilization” but engaged in legal and sometimes physical combat with oil company representatives who wanted to take their land and that the murders happened because one Indigenous man lied to their chief to cover up a love affair, not because they had a cultural habit of murdering all trespassers. But the story was told in an extremely white-centric way.

I also remember missionaries saying that people in other countries who practiced other faiths were under demonic influence and that their religious music was obnoxious, and someone who adopted a boy from East Asia changing the boy’s name to Noel and saying that he was now God’s gift to him and his wife. White supremacy, which I believe was unintentional there, just stemming from a culture saturated in that, would manifest as looking at problems in other countries as horrific but problems here in the U.S. as just sort of unfortunate, and as a hyperfocus on relating every Bible story to something to do with our individual lives or families without considering social justice or social implications. The story of Rahab hiding the Jericho spies, for example, was about how you should follow God before it’s too late, and the illustration was of a man who couldn’t accept his wife’s forgiveness for his affair and didn’t try to get her back until she was already remarried. Not about genocide or war or the role of women or marginalized racial groups, but about American suburban marital drama.

But when I was in my “cynical phase” in my twenties, I didn’t have the tools or language yet as a white person to critique racism and classism in the church. That’s something that came later as I matured. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t immediately notice the toxic aspects that weren’t directly aimed at me, and I am committed to learning more and doing better. And I think consciously anti-racist and anti-oppression churches can help with that.