Sarah Kurchak spent nearly the entirety of three months in 2019 writing, and worrying about, her manuscript for her new book, to the point where she became physically ill. That was all going to be worth it, however, after the book launched, when she would celebrate with her mother in Las Vegas and attend book launches.
Then 2020 happened.
“It was incredibly tight and terrible and I would never recommend it to another soul,” Kurchak says. “And apparently I could have just spent a year writing it instead.”
Pandemic or not, Kurchak is now the author of I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder. The memoir examines various stages of her life full of personal stories and anecdotes about how being on the autism spectrum affects her perspective of the world, and the world’s perspective of her.
Like many people with autism, it would be hard to guess Kurchak was on the spectrum at a glance. She’s able to speak and doesn’t need much support to get through day-to-day life, as some other people with autism do. Her most visible form of “stimming,” a behavior of repetitive movements or sounds sometimes associated with autism, is casually twirling her hair. But as is the case for many people with autism, that’s not to say it hasn’t had a profound effect on her life and those around her.
Kurchak writes that she had felt alienated from her peers since childhood, and had suspected that she was autistic since her early twenties. However, with no means of easily paying the pricey fee for a post-childhood diagnosis, it took a crisis to push her to finally get diagnosed at 27.
Since then, Kurchak had written about autism for a few years, becoming increasingly frustrated with there seeming to only be space for the most surface-level conversations around the subject. In response, she wrote what was supposed to be her final essay concerning autism, reflecting on these frustrations.
Soon after, an agent reached out to her with an offer to write an entire book on the subject. Kurchak accepted.
“Sarah had announced to us in Grade 1 that she was going to be a writer!” Jane Kurchak, Sarah’s mother, wrote in an email. When her daughter told her she was about to be a published author, she was “happy, proud and grateful but not surprised.”
While Kurchak hunkered down to write the book’s manuscript, she spent the majority of those three months at her home office at the time, in a narrow room with just enough space for her desk to fit. The desk is mostly clear, with only her Macbook, a few pens and sticky notes. Above it, however, is an extensive collection of keychains, figurines, a lunchbox, and drawings.
On one of the walls to the side of her desk hangs a poster with large, flashy letters: “REAL WOMEN. REAL FIGHTS. PILLOW FIGHT LEAGUE: FIGHT LIKE A GIRL.”
Kurchak was a part of this “pillow-fighting” group for a couple of years, as a spin on professional wrestling where women would create fake personas for audiences to follow and fight using pillows as a source of contact. She chose “Sarah Bellum” as her persona, “a weird, overcompensating smart girl with a chip on her shoulder.”
“Sarah Bellum was everything I had done to be hated as a kid, suddenly in my control.” Kurchak says. “[But] people didn’t necessarily hate everything about her, so I ended up learning some more interesting things about myself along the way.”
Looking at old YouTube videos of such fights, that doesn’t mean they were any less intense. Kurchak—or rather, Bellum—slams into her opponent until she pushes her onto the floor, at which point she leaps on top of her, pummeling her opponent’s face with her pillow until the referee declares a knockout. A packed audience screams in support of its favorite wrestlers, each of whom has their own stage name and exaggerated personality.
In both her writing and speech, Kurchak uses humor and irony paired with more serious topics, including the occasionally painful personal stories she details in her book.
“Just for my own self-preservation, I just want people to think [the book is] funny,” Kurchak says. “I just needed it to be something other than just open wounds on page after page… And I guess people are laughing, so there we go.”
There’s another person known for her combination of painful personal stories and comedy who is also on the autism spectrum: Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose 2018 Netflix comedy special Nanette propelled her work to international acclaim.
Whereas Nanette focused on Gadsby’s identity as a lesbian woman, her 2020 follow-up special, Douglas, examines how she thinks of the world, and vice versa, as a person with autism. Despite being overwhelmed with working on her book, Kurchak wrote an article defending what she believed was unfair criticism of the special. Gadsby returned the favor by reading Kurchak’s book ahead of time and writing a recommendation for the cover.
“I’m really, really thrilled to have her name on the cover,” Kurchak says. “It’s really huge for any autistic… feeling that you’ve done something of value for other autistic people. But I think it means even more to me that in a moment where the world was just not fucking getting it, one autistic felt seen because another took the time to write something.”
Kurchak says she wants to be a voice among other autistic writers and speakers, not a leader. She wants to be able to write more “autistically,” a style she notes within Gadsby and other autistic people’s work that obsesses over details other people may not fully understand or appreciate. In the future, she hopes to write an “autism teen sex comedy” with the working title “Special Needs,” which she claims she’s been “threatening” to write for years.
Although she makes it clear that I Overcame My Autism is not intended to be a definitive text on autism and rather a collection of personal experiences and observations, Kurchak still hopes that it can help people off and across the spectrum think more about how being autistic may affect how one experiences self-worth, love, work, hobbies, substance use and every other aspect of life.
“I just really hope that I can get across to anyone knowing that they aren’t autistic, and maybe a lot of privileged autistics, think ‘wow, I know even less that I thought I did, and I want to start learning more,’” Kurchak says. “And I have been getting some of that reaction, so that has worked out well.”
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.