"Since writing Sex & Death I have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and am currently writing another show explicitly exploring this. However Sex & Death is also about my experiences leading up to my diagnoses before I had the language to express it in those terms. Charlie is a person who is innately different trying to navigate how to fit into a world where she doesn't seem to belong. When we first meet Charlie her method of coping is through completely masking her differences, being passive, unemotional and hiding all her feelings." - Kathleen Lee
Question: Can you tell us about Sex & Death?
Kathleen Lee: Sex and Death is a six part web series that follows Charlie, a really bad acting student who doesn't seem to mind when her boyfriend runs off with her best friend. When Charlie meets the weird guy from the local chicken shop he quickly becomes the one person to notice or care that Charlie's world is falling apart around her.
Question: What inspired you to write Sex & Death?
Kathleen Lee: I have always felt very different to everyone else. I love other people but I never really felt like I was one of them. I used to dream of meeting someone the same as me but I never really thought it was actually possible. Then, when I was in my early twenties, I did. He talked the same as me – straight forward, blunt, bizarre – words full of emotion and earnestness but no emotion whatsoever in the tone of voice or the face. We would hang out every day and became obsessed with each other. It was amazing and I assumed we were in love. It turns out we weren't but it's the first time I realised there might be other people the same as me. That is what inspired me.
Question: How are you similar to the character of Charlie?
Kathleen Lee: Charlie is based on how I presented to the world in my mid-twenties. I have always known that I must absolutely never let anyone see the real me. There are different ways of hiding this. For most of my life the most energy efficient way has been through being passive and deflecting all attention away from myself. One good way of doing this is through befriending extroverted people, especially ones with a heightened interest in themselves. They are not selfish, in fact often they are the most generous of people, but they are so easily and completely distracted with themselves that going unnoticed around them can be very simply achieved. Charlie has managed to find one of these people for her best friend and one for her boyfriend and is comfortably existing in their shadows. So comfortable that she doesn't even complain when they run off together, so long as they don't notice her. However, when this technique of hiding begins to threaten a new connection with someone she really doesn't want to lose, Charlie has to decide if she can keep the mask up.
Dropping the mask didn't happen as simply as this for me but it is a distillation of my journey towards learning how to do this.
Question: What was it like working with Tobias Willis?
Kathleen Lee: Fantastic. He is the person who made it happen. He has a wonderful ability to draw all the best people together and create an environment where everyone feels safe to be themselves and to flourish. It is a unique and excellent gift and I feel so lucky that I got to work with him. We had an excellent team and whilst we took it seriously we never took it so seriously that we forgot to stop and laugh at some of the bizarre things we ended up doing.
Question: What message do you hope Australians take from Sex & Death?
Kathleen Lee: What I think is different about this show is that it is the main character, the character through whose eyes we see the world, that is the different/neurodiverse character and because of this all the "normal" characters are the ones who seem weird. I believe this is a common experience for autistic people. We have to fit in with "normal" people, simply because there are more of them but, to us, "normal" people make absolutely no sense. They rarely say what they are actually thinking, you have to decode their true meaning through analysing a combination of body language, tone, facial expressions and words, almost always in a setting that is too bright, too loud and too cold all whilst trying to hold in the squirming movements your body is desperate to make and forcing yourself to pull facial expressions which are completely unnatural to you. It is exhausting. Having said that they are my absolute favourite cryptic puzzle that I have spent my life trying to solve. They are a completely illogical mix of contradictions that it has been my joy to try and create patterns and rules out of. They continue to move me with fresh examples of their generosity, acceptance and beauty. This show is really about how much I love them, love being around them and will continue my life long mission to find a way to belong in their world.
Question: How did it feel to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder after writing Sex & Death?
Kathleen Lee: Incredible. I have always felt like there was something wrong with me. Something so wrong I had to do everything I could to hide it. I have tried so hard to keep up with everyone else and be a part of their world but it just kept making me incredibly sick and I had no idea why. The diagnosis was so relieving and beautiful. I now know there is nothing wrong with me, I can slowly let go of all the shame that came with thinking that and learn how to be a part of the world in a way that doesn't make me sick.
Question: How did this diagnosis change your approach to life?
Kathleen Lee: I am having to relearn everything. I have spent my whole life, apart from the first few years when I remember feeling free and uninhibited, hiding all of my natural behaviours and inclinations. Now I am slowly rediscovering what they are and letting them out. To do that and have my friends and partner accept them is incredibly beautiful. I am learning what things make me sick and how to control my exposure to them and this has allowed me to be able to make plans for the future and have big dreams – something that was impossible before.
Question: How can Australians watch Sex & Death?
Kathleen Lee: Sex and Death will be released on YouTube on the KEWL channel on March 18th. You can watch it via our website sexanddeath.online or follow KEWL for links and updates.
Question: What's next, for you?
Kathleen Lee: I am currently writing another show. This one is about discovering that I have autism. It is also a love story. I have always felt these two polar but very equal urges: one is to be a part of the world and the other is to run away from it. This show will explore how these two things can exist simultaneously. Showing how I present to the world and then the reality of my life behind closed doors and the constant and seemingly hopeless struggle of trying to balance out these two extremes.
Interview by Brooke Hunter