Ultra Vires


Meeting Michael Macrae

Tali Green (2L) 

Michael Macrae (2L) sits near the front of our Evidence class, in an automated wheelchair. He spends his class time listening to the professor and asking questions. At first I could not understand his words, but once I attuned my ear to his speech I realized that his questions were inordinately insightful. I soon found myself eagerly awaiting his next question, curious to know what might have caught his attention this time.

After one of our classes, I approached Michael to introduce myself. My wrist was in a bright purple cast, and at the end of our short chat Michael said that he hoped my arm got better soon. I felt my heart drop slightly – this man, confined to a wheelchair and with extremely limited upper body movements – was wishing my wrist a speedy recovery.

I developed a strong curiosity about Michael from these limited interactions, and eventually I asked him if he would meet me for an interview. In this short excerpt from our fascinating conversation, Michael gave me a glimpse into how his physical and mental realities shape his experiences as a law student.

TG: Do you have siblings?

MM: Yes, I have a twin sister. By reason of whom I am confined to a wheelchair. Because, see, twin births are more difficult and we were born premature on account of being twins. And she and I both have cerebral palsy.

Do you think there are things about you that people do not understand that you wish they would?

Of course. Often, people do not recognize that I do not understand much of human behaviour. If they do, they do not explain it. They do not explain enough of it all. So I am left perplexed, wondering where I went wrong.

Why don’t you understand various parts of human behaviour?

Oh, because I have Asperger’s. Or what is now called being part of the autistic spectrum.

How do you know that you do not understand people?

Well, for instance, it is apparently the case that other people find it much easier to know when somebody is or is not interested in them, either as a person or in terms of what they are talking about. But for me it is much more difficult. Unless of course it is utterly blatant, such as walking away from me in the middle of speaking or playing together, as happened to me in kindergarten.

Often, people will not say outright, “I am not interested in you”, or “what you are saying bores me.” Instead, they will engage in some form of excuse making, such as “I need to use the washroom” or “I am busy with this or that.” So on account of this, they leave and I think they are telling the truth, not knowing that they are not interested in me. Over all this, I have developed a constant fear that I am not interesting to others.

How did you go from thinking people are telling the truth to realizing that they might be lying to you?

By reading stuff online. There are a lot of resources out there to help people with difficulty understanding social interaction. People criticize the internet so much because of the horrible things that do happen on it, yet I find it to be a very useful resource.

What do you wish people understood better about Asperger’s?

I wish they would understand that people with Asperger’s are not inherently violent. And that we do have consciences and senses of humor. And that we can tell a lie. That isn’t to say that I am a chronic liar. It’s just that that is one of the many misconceptions I have heard about it.

I wish that people would recognize that Aspergic people are more or less like normal people except that we have difficulties in controlling our interests in given topics and in understanding social cues. I’m not talking about committing crimes to support our interests – although that happens to people outside of autism and Asperger’s. I’m talking about loving the idea of spending hours doing nothing but reading about your topic of interest and loving every minute of that. I’m talking about memorizing stuff about your chosen subject and loving every minute of that.

Have you found that being in the law school has been complex socially?

It has been complex, more complex than in the past. For the first time in several years I am trying to make friends with people whom I meet physically. That is rather difficult and I have had some setbacks. But, you know, it’s a challenge. Maybe I’ll do better, maybe I won’t. But I’ll try. And if it don’t try then I won’t get any success or failures.

You mentioned making friends with people you meet physically. Are you used to having many friends in a virtual way?

If I were to say that, I would be considering myself lucky. As it is, I have few real friends.

How are you trying to make friends in the law school?

Through things such as our conversation. Through being polite to people. Through responding positively to those who are interested in my views and through talking to them if they are interested in me, or seem interested in me, and seeing where it goes thence.

How do you wish people reacted to you differently?

On the contrary, it is not that I wish that people would react to me differently. I wish that I would react to people differently because I am the one with difficulty in social interaction. They are all normal, I am not. If I could change myself to be more like them, then that would mean that I would be approaching normality more. I do not think in the terms of changing others, but of changing myself.

You mentioned that law school stresses you out. What about the law do you find stressful?

I find Canadian income tax law stressful. And I also find stressful the need to memorize many sophisticated points of law. That having been said, I find that once I do memorize them, I generally am able to understand them well enough.

Why do you find the need to memorize sophisticated points of law? Why not just write them down?

I do, but it’s easier to have things memorized than for you to have to consult a book for exam purposes and testing purposes, even for discussion purposes. To take an obvious example: you could, if you want, write down on a piece of paper 2+2= 4 and whenever you need to find out what 2+2 equals you can look up a piece of paper. But you don’t, you memorize 2+2 = 4. And hopefully you understand it. In the same way I have to memorize and understand the more complex principles of law. Writing down legal tests is a crutch. The true mastery of the law comes from memorizing basic principles and applying them to situations. That is the basis for the common law.

How would you go about learning a new concept in one of your law classes?

I would review the case law first. Then I would read over the notes based on the professor’s lectures. And I would see if I could make sense of the case law and the professor’s comments comparing them as it were to a treatise written in verse and its prose commentary, with the case law being analogous to the verse and the professor’s lecture and clarifications of point being equivalent to the prose commentary. And then if those are not sufficient, which unfortunately is sometimes the case, I will see if cannot find in some website that seems reputable some words that can make it clearer.

What difference do you hope to make with your law degree?

I would be interested if I could get involved in something related to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Ever since high school, I have developed a horror at censorship of things that are not illegal. Obviously, there are things that are illegal, with good reason, such as the distribution of military or government secrets. But I am also aware the censorship and libel are real problems in the world.

How do you want to achieve that?

I am not sure. It would be good if I could get into a private firm, but I am not sure. Because I don’t really think I am good at job interviews.

What has been your experience with job interviews?

I have sent out eighteen job applications over the past two years, of which I have gotten three job interviews. Of these three job interviews, one of them was especially traumatic because the interviewer told me later that I was not very good at it, but then that person wouldn’t tell me why I wasn’t good at it. And of course I didn’t get the job.

When you went in for the interview, did the employer know that you have these conditions?

Well, that is the thing. I have been encouraged to be more disclosing of my physical and mental disabilities. Hitherto, I have mostly focused on confining my disclosure to asking that the interview be in wheelchair-accessible rooms only. But there are things that can be done to improve that. And with the aid of my counselor, I have devised a formula that I can attach to letters to properly explain and present my physical and other flaws.

Do you think that you have certain abilities that far surpass those of the average student?

I believe that I do have an ability in terms of focusing to a very great degree upon something that interests me and learning very much about it and doing well in it. And this has served me well in my studies, academic and non-academic.

You speak very well. Where did you learn to speak so articulately, so eloquently?

I’m not sure. I have never formally studied rhetoric. Although I am aware that Quintilian wrote much about it. I just, you know…I have these full thoughts in my mind. I think more or less in complete sentences and then I just write them or say them and there they are.

Do you see yourself working as a lawyer before a court or with clients?

I much prefer personally the idea of being a researcher. Yes, I would like to gain legal qualifications and serve as a lawyer. But on account, among other things, of my defect in hearing I think it would be much easier for me to be the person who researches case law, treatises, precedents, and articles and comes up with written arguments and let others present them and cross examine and what not.

Despite these challenges that you have described, you have achieved so much. How do you stay motivated to keep going?

I keep myself going by reminding myself that there are interesting things in life, pleasant things in life, and often these two things intersect. And often, even better, these things intersect in law that I study.

Would you say that these interests that you are passionate about and want to study take your mind off of problems you are facing?

Indeed, they do. The mind is a wonderful thing. And although affected by the body, it is able to ignore the body’s weaknesses in many ways.



This interview has been condensed because of space limitations.

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