Why I Adore Marty Feldman

Photo: Stephen Kuusisto with a dark suit jacket over his head, his face showing,  eyes rolling and “cat who ate the canary” smile.

By now my wife is sick of this image, a photo of me doing my Marty Feldman imitation taken in Iowa City around ten years ago. I tend to post it a lot. I admit this. It’s my way of saying “what hump?” (I’m of course talking about Mel Brooks and his film Young Frankenstein, and the scene where Gene Wilder as the ambitious doctor apprises Feldman as “Igor” the hunch back and says in the supercilious and jaunty manner of all physicians to all disabled people, “Perhaps I can cure that hump!?” Feldman: “What hump?”

Like Feldman I had a childhood eye problem. His derived from a thyroid condition that left him with exophthalmic bulging eyeballs. Mine was retinopathy of prematurity and severe nystagmus–I couldn’t see much and my eyes moved uncontrollably. Everyone knows if you’ve flicking, wandering eyes you’re either a crook or a comedian.

“What hump?” was my introduction to what we call nowadays “the medical model of disability.”  

When Young Frankenstein came out in 1974 I was a struggling college sophomore whose legal blindness was both a social and intellectual obstacle. The ADA was far off in the future and frankly I’d no language for my circumstances. I told people I had eye problems rather than tell them I was blind. I’ve been lucky to meet hundreds of brothers and sisters for whom disability was first a problem of language, then a matter of declaration. Closeted disability is legion.

And there I was in a dirty little theater in upstate New York when Marty Feldman hit me with satori. I saw my true self. I understood I could be joyously “Abby Normal.” 

OK. It took me years to get joyous. You don’t become Igor overnight. And yes, I still worry about what others may think of me. One imagines some parts of the super-ego are healthy. But I don’t care what strangers think of my disability. Not a whit. Your ableist, facetious, shriveled, suck the persimmons exceptionalism means nothing to me.  I even wrote a blog post about why I feel sorry for sighted people.

Marty Feldman did some artful jujitsu with his deformed eyes. I loved him for that. What a thing! And of course I was living in a provincial culture. Small town America. Middle of nowhere. No disability guides. Years away from meeting and joining the disability rights movement. Surrounded by fraternity boys and the faculty who loved them. But you see, when people show you possibilities with overt celebrations of abnormality even a kid with glasses thick as padlocks sitting in the front row of the Exchange Street Cinema, who felt like a crushed cigarette butt, who had no idea how he would “make it” in the world, well shit a brick, you change lives for the better.

I suppose I’ve now written my true teaching statement. Perhaps I should send it to the administration?