Joe Biel founded Microcosm, a press and distro that have been a hub of the zine scene since the early 2000s. Joe is now persona non grata in his community, because he was emotionally abusive to his wife and to some people involved with Microcosm. While trying to understand and become accountable for his behavior, Joe was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. People with Asperger’s have difficulty with empathy, which makes it hard for them to have healthy personal relationships.
In this zine, Joe discusses how learning about Asperger’s enriched his perspective on his past abuses. He shares the tools that he has learned in therapy that help him to (hopefully) be a better friend and partner. He draws connections between his abusive upbringing and unhealthy relationships as an adult. It’s an informative, complex, and ambivalent read that raises more questions than it answers. How effective are accountability processes in radical communities? Is it possible to learn to authentically empathize? What can an abuser do in the present and future, since they can’t change the past?
Biel says that people with Asperger’s are mainly concerned with facts and information. Reading his writing, I can see that. The prose has a clinical tone, which strengthens the arguments being made. I learned a lot when I felt like Biel was writing in the abstract. If Biel was writing passionately about his frustrations, it would seem like he just had an axe to grind. And, in the few places where he does directly address dealing with his ex and the people that he says she has mobilized against him, I was reminded that this zine is a one-sided argument.
Ironically, the clinical tone that the bulk of the zine is written in—and the painstaking explanation of Biel’s struggles with emotional health—gave me a sense of how difficult it might be to trust this guy with my feelings. In other words, in writing this, he was so thorough that he damned himself—I mean, if you know that someone’s doctor gave them a “How to be caring” checklist, then how can you ever be sure that they aren’t just checking boxes when they do something nice?
One of the most powerful passages is when Joe has an unrelated health problem and takes medication with a surprise side effect: it increases his empathy. He finds himself reliving certain fraught interactions, understanding why the other people were so hurt. It’s a flash of genuine perspective, in the midst of pages and pages of one person’s search for just that.
I found this entire zine fascinating and disturbing, and might read it again. Still, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to read it even once. –Chris Terry (PO Box 14332, Portland, OR 97293)