You Don’t Exist, Duncan

This is an experimental essay, not in the typical LessWrong or Duncan Sabien style.

Depending on how this goes, I might try writing a companion piece in the typical style, laying out the model clearly and explicitly and deriving concrete and specific recommendations from it.

But it seemed worth it to try communicating at a lower and more emotional/​visceral level, not least because that is the level at which I actually experience The Problem. Any clear, analytical essay would be the result of me trying to make sense of the thing that I’m going to try to directly convey, below.

It is the year 1995. I am nine years old. In front of me there is a sheet of paper, upon which are written a dozen or so lines of math. The first is:

I stare at it. I know that I can divide both sides of the equation by x, leaving me with:

...but this does not seem to do any good.

I raise my hand. The afterschool volunteer comes over.

“No,” he says. “That’s not right. X isn’t a term on the left side. F is a function.”

He has explained nothing.

“F is a function, so what this is saying is to take X, and square it, and add seven.”

I look up at him, confused. I am nine. I have never heard the word “function” used in this way before. No one has grounded me in the activity of the day; no one has oriented me; no one has told me today you are learning what a function is, and you will learn by looking at a bunch of examples. No one has said today, parentheses don’t mean the thing you’re expecting them to mean. No one has said f is a thing that eats xs, and what the right side is showing you is how it eats them—what it does to them.

“So, like, if X is three, right?” he continues. “X is three? So F of X is three squared plus seven, which is sixteen.”

I say the words again in my mind, more slowly. F … of … (of? What?) … X. “”F of X”″ (okay, whatever, that’s nonsense, but whatever) is sixteen.

I look back down at the paper. If the right side of the equation is sixteen, and X is three...

“F is five-point-three-repeating,” I say, trying to inject a measure of confidence I do not feel into my tone.

“What? No. F isn’t anything. F is a function. It’s not part of the equation.”

Not part of the equation, he says. Looking back from a distance of twenty-five years, I see (one of) his mistake(s). He doesn’t tell me this isn’t really an equation at all, not the way you’re thinking of it. He doesn’t tell me the equals sign here is more like telling you the definition of this thing, F of X—what F of X is is the thing on the other side of the equals sign. He doesn’t say a function is when you set up a rule for dealing with numbers, and this rule is, whatever number you put in, you’re going to square it, and add seven.

Instead, he looks at me, and says more words, and the message lurking behind the words—the message implicit in his tone and posture and air of tolerant patience—is:

I have given you an adequate explanation. If you were the kind of person who was good at math, my explanation would have been sufficient, and you would now understand. You still do not understand. Therefore...?

My heart rate quickens.

It is 1993. I am seven years old, roughhousing with my older brother and my father on the living room carpet. We clamber over top of him, laughing, pummeling him with tiny fists. He throws us both onto the couch, where we recover and launch ourselves back at him like pouncing tigers.

My father tosses my brother back into the cushions a second time, grabs me in a gentle headlock, digs his knuckles into my scalp in a painful noogie.

“Ow!” I shout, rolling away from him and clutching my head. “Ow. Ow.”

The pain is bright and hot, feeling halfway between a cut and a burn. Five seconds pass, and it has not yet begun to fade.

“That didn’t hurt,” my father declares.

Something deep within me tightens.

It is October in 1999. I am thirteen. There is a book signing in Greensboro, North Carolina—Orson Scott Card will be there, signing copies of Ender’s Shadow.

On page 242, the character Bean has written an equation, as a challenge to his teachers:

He snarks: “When you know the value of n, I’ll finish this test.”

I have scribbled –0.378861 on a scrap of paper. I’m worried Orson Scott Card will tease me for imprecision, since clearly the whole point of Bean’s challenge was that n is irrational, and –0.378861 is just an approximation. But I muster my courage.

It’s my turn. I step toward the table. Orson Scott Card smiles at me.

“It’s –0.378861,” I blurt out—awkwardly, with no preamble. “N, I mean. From—from the book.”

He blinks. It takes a few more stuttered sentences to make clear what I mean.

“No one does that,” he murmurs.

He says it with an undertone of awe, and I can tell he’s more pleased than displeased. I’ve snuck peeks at what he’s signing in everyone else’s books (“To [whoever], a friend of Ender”), and I get a nonstandard, unique message, unlike the ten people before me.

But the “no one does that” cuts deeper than I would have predicted.

I’m someone, a part of me whispers.

But I don’t say it out loud.

It is 2004. I am boycotting the graduation ceremony at my high school, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. I want the place to burn. I do not want to be remembered. I put forth substantial effort to ensure that the yearbook would contain absolutely zero pictures of me.

“You’re going to regret not having this memory,” my father warns. “Walking across the stage, being with your peers...”

“I won’t,” I say.

“Trust me, give it twenty years, you’re going to be sorry you were petulant about this.”

For nineteen years, I have waited to tell him he was wrong. There’s only one more to go.

It is 2017.

“—fucking inconsiderate asshole,” she is saying. “You didn’t do that for me, you did that for you, you just wanted to feel useful, you wanted me to appreciate you for how thoughtful you were, you didn’t actually care whether I wanted it or not—”

I shrink.

It’s not that I didn’t care. If I’d known she didn’t want the pillow, I wouldn’t have tossed it to her. I just … didn’t think it was an action with downside. I had (wordlessly) figured that she would either use the pillow, or just leave it next to her where I’d thrown it. I saw someone who looked like they could maybe use a pillow, and I had a pillow that I wasn’t using, so I tossed it—it wasn’t any more complicated than that. It had nothing to do with my stories about myself.

She has a story in which that isn’t possible. She lives in a universe where I don’t exist.

It is fall in the year 2000, my first year of high school. I am in the marching band, playing clarinet. It’s time for sectionals, when the players of each instrument go off together to practice their parts in unison—trumpets in the band room, tubas in the auditorium, drums in the field out back behind the school.

The clarinet sectionals are held in the girls’ locker room. They have always been held in the girls’ locker room. There’s never before been a reason not to hold them in the girls’ locker room.

Everybody stares at me. I shift, uncomfortable.

I am pulling into the parking lot of the Four Seasons mall to go Christmas shopping in 2009. There is an NPR bit on the radio, talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I have a flashback to two years earlier, when I first read Blink, in which one of Gladwell’s interviewees said something to the effect of:

“Everybody said that they couldn’t picture Tom Hanks as an astronaut. I didn’t care whether he was an astronaut. Apollo 13 was going to be a movie about a spaceship in jeopardy. And who does the world want to get back the most? Who’s the one person that everyone in America wants to save? Tom Hanks. Everyone will pull for Tom Hanks. Nobody wants to see him die. We all love him too much.”

I don’t tremble for the rest of my shopping trip. Just for the short walk from the car to the doors of JC Penny. Just long enough to shake the echo, the memory of deep alienation.

We all love him too much.

I had never liked Tom Hanks, but before Blink, it had never seemed like a big deal. It wasn’t until Blink that I discovered that it meant I didn’t belong. That it was yet another bit in the ever-growing pile of bits all pointing toward “you, Duncan, are not a part of ‘everyone’.”

“Wow, I’m going to have to ask my manager—nobody’s ever requested that before, I’m not sure if we can do it or not!”

“Whaaaaaat? Come on, everybody likes Monty Python.”

“We all die and are reborn, over and over again. None of us are the people we were when we were children.”

“That flavor was discontinued; nobody was buying it.”

“You can’t look at me with a straight face and claim that this wasn’t a status move. That’s not how humans work.”

“Look, this is all hypothetical, it’s not as if anybody here is actually X—”

I keep my mouth shut.

It happens over, and over, and over, and over.

“No one does that,” where “that” is something I did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

“Everyone’s familiar with the urge to X,” where “X” is an urge I’ve literally never felt.

(I checked. I even drank eight drinks in an hour to see if there was something hiding behind inhibitions that I’d never noticed, something I was trying not to admit to myself. There wasn’t. I just don’t have any interest in Xing.)

Sometimes, it’s a bit more indirect.

It is 2021, and my partner Logan warns me that (yet again) someone is talking about me behind my back, in a corner of the internet where I cannot see.

It doesn’t seem all that bad. “Duncan thinks he’s good at coordination, but he isn’t,” the person has said. Not a particularly cutting insult. No apparent malice.

But, like.

That is not a thing I have ever thought. Not a thing I have ever said. Not a thing I have ever attempted to imply—not in those generic terms, not absent some specific context where I have evidence (like “at a rationality workshop that I am running”).

This person’s behind-the-back criticism is not quite the thing; they aren’t directly telling me that I don’t exist.

They’re merely so confident that [anybody who emits the words and behaviors I emit] must [think he’s generically good at coordination]—

(while being wrong about it)

(do they think I’m just blind? That it’s patently obvious to everyone but me?)

—that it does not even occur to them to flag this statement as a hypothesis. To them, it doesn’t seem like a hypothesis, doesn’t feel like they’re making any intuitive leaps. They seem to think that they are directly perceiving ground truth. They really believe that I think this thing that I have never, ever thought.

They’re looking at me, and perceiving something I am not.

The real me doesn’t even occur to them as a possibility to hedge against.

When you’re poked and prodded and paper-cut in the same place a thousand times, it can get a little sensitive.

“Desires don’t bottom out in reasons,” writes the guru. “They’re unmanipulable, can’t be reasoned with or argued away. If I want something FOR REASONS, and I wouldn’t if the reasons were to change, then it’s not a desire. It’s a strategy. And if I can’t tell the difference, it’s because I’m avoiding feeling the REAL desire, because I’m scared—scared of the world, and maybe scared of the desire too.”

I am triggered. I want to scream.

The words GET OUT OF MY HEAD occur to me. You don’t know what it’s like in my head, so stop making claims about it—just because your experience of desires is that they are unmanipulable doesn’t mean my desires aren’t manipulable. Just because you get scared of your desires and flinch away from them doesn’t mean I do. You don’t know me. You are typical minding, and I am a white raven, and you are wrong.

Other words occur to me, too.

But the main thing I want is to stop hearing that I don’t exist.

To stop being the-thing-that-gets-rounded-off. To stop being the extraneous detail in the model, simplified away. To stop hearing people say that such-and-such is true of everyone, such-and-such is How It Is, when I am Different.

I block the guru. I probably shouldn’t have. Or rather, I probably should have blocked them years ago; it’s probably not particularly reasonable for this to have been the final straw. It probably doesn’t make sense, from the outside, because from the outside, people don’t see the through-line. They don’t see the common factor. They don’t see that it’s the same injury, again and again and again and again and again.

It wouldn’t be so bad, if I only heard it fifty times a month. It wouldn’t be so bad, if I didn’t hear it from friends, family, teachers, colleagues. It wouldn’t be so bad, if there were breaks sometimes.

My society doesn’t even say “everybody with Property A also has Property B.” My society barely even perceives a distinction; the median member of my society thinks that Property A is Property B.

Here I sit, A-ful, B-less. Very few people care.

It’s not your fault.

You’re not doing it on purpose.

You don’t mean it.


But that doesn’t change the impact all that much.

When you carpet-bomb the conversation with your typical mind fallacy, I don’t just hear overconfident and underjustified assertions. I don’t just hear someone being sloppy with their speech, or making an error of rationality.

I also hear that the people unlike you—

(People like me)

—do not exist. That we matter so little that it hasn’t even occurred to you that we might exist. That we might be a factor to be accounted for at all.

(“Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable,” says a person who knows, on some level, that there are people out there with eidetic memories. “The details of people’s accounts cannot be trusted.”)

(I went back and checked my memory of the quote from Blink against the actual text. I think I did pretty okay, given that I only read it once, fifteen years ago.)

Most of the time, I can deal. Most of the time, I can process my own reaction, not make it everyone else’s problem. It’s not that hard. This thing that’s happening to me, it’s not as bad as (say) racism, or sexism, or the kind of homophobic bigotry that’s still dominant in over half the world, let alone any of the actually terrible things that happen to people all the time.

It really, really isn’t that bad.

But sometimes—

Sometimes, it’s just a little too much, and it all spills over.

I’ve been told that I don’t exist almost every single day of my life. When you just did it again, five minutes ago—if the vehemence of my objection to your total lack of nuance took you by surprise—


Some people out there actually care about that sort of thing. To some people, those distinctions genuinely matter.

Who knew, right?