The British panel show Taskmaster has enriched my life in so many ways. Every season, a group of five comedians compete for the Taskmaster’s approval in a series of preposterous little games designed to test both their lateral thinking skills and their willingness to look ridiculous on television. One of the contestants in Series 14 of the show was Scottish comedian Fern Brady, who I’d previously seen on a few other shows but had not made much of an impression. On Taskmaster, however, she was a complete delight, both because of her quick-witted humor and her at times inexplicable decision-making.
If fans of the show found Brady’s behavior hard to understand sometimes, they weren’t the first. As she discusses in her recently released memoir, Strong Female Character, Brady has only recently been diagnosed with autism, a condition she first suspected she might have more than twenty years ago. She writes compellingly about the challenges autistic women face in being properly diagnosed, as their presentation differs in key ways from that of autistic males.
Brady writes candidly about her life pre-diagnosis, from being dismissed as a bad child to being misdiagnosed with conditions like depression and OCD. She struggled to relate to her working-class Scottish Catholic parents, finding their repressed emotions and social mores confusing and ridiculous. Despite being a gifted student, especially at languages, she struggled mightily at school and university, often for reasons as simple as not being able to find her classrooms and not knowing who she was supposed to ask.
At times, Strong Female Character is really difficult to read. Brady is unsparing in detailing her own bad behavior and that of others. When she describes working as a stripper to help pay her way through university, she catalogues a whole host of ugly male behavior that will make the reader cringe. She also struggles to contain her own emotions, resulting in some brushes with the law and finding herself in dangerous situations.
Strong Female Character is not your typical comedian’s memoir. Brady only glances on her television career, mainly to reflect on how her autism renders it difficult for her to understand agents, producers, and executives because they so rarely say what they really mean. (Taskmaster fans will be relieved that her experience on the show was one of the few times she’s felt supported and safe on television.) Brady rushes past the part of her life where she decided to start doing stand-up comedy, which I had hoped to hear more about. Whatever minor disappointment might linger from that choice, Strong Female Character remains a thought-provoking look at living as a woman with autism, and will challenge the reader’s assumptions about the condition.