Learning to Gaze

Emily Dickinson

 

By Andrea Scarpino

Marquette, Michigan

 

The gaze. As my computer dictionary defines, a particular perspective taken to embody certain aspects of the relationship between observer and observed. The gaze has been on my mind the last few weeks as I reread What Becomes You by Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz. A book in part about the gaze, when the gender that one understands oneself to be isn’t the gender of the body, isn’t the body that others see. The observer—Aaron’s mother Hilda, his family, friends, strangers—saw a female body when they looked at him. The observed—Aaron, born Sarah—saw a man.

There are many ways that the gaze can betray us. That we can look upon another body and just not get it right. This is unsettling. After my father died, people told me again and again how sick he had been—that he had died after a long illness, that I must feel some relief. But I didn’t understand my father was dying until he was dead. There were signs everywhere that other people clearly saw—years of fighting pneumonia, a series of strokes and seizures, a tracheotomy, wheelchair, old age. I can’t say I didn’t know these things—I did—but when I looked at him, I saw my father as he had always been. Then, maybe—maybe—a man living with some profound disabilities. But living with are the key words here. Not dying.

There are limits to every system of inquiry, even the most progressive or radical, even the ones that try to be the most inclusive. That’s a lesson I learned from feminism and disability studies—the male gaze or the gaze of the medical profession or the gaze of society at large doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about myself, my body, my experience of the world. And my gaze doesn’t necessarily get anything right about those I observe.

I saw my father as living with; others saw him as dying. I don’t know how he understood his own health struggles—in all honesty, I didn’t ask, assumed I knew. Aaron saw himself as male; others labeled him female. They also didn’t ask, made assumptions. Until the moment when testosterone and surgery rendered him male to the gaze. Then they made other assumptions.

I don’t know what I’m getting at here. My mother is ill. I’m worried about my step-mother. In another 5 years, all of my parents (and I have many) will be in their 70s. I’m worried that my gaze is limiting, that I can’t see them as they need or want to be seen. Because I am their child, I’m afraid I have a fixed vantage point. I’m afraid I won’t ask the right questions, will make assumptions based on who they once were, based on my belief that disability is normal, that living with disabilities is just another kind of living. That I won’t understand what their changing bodies signify until it’s too late.

But maybe that’s just the nature of the gaze. It holds as much and as little as it can. It makes mistakes. Maybe the task before me isn’t to blame the gaze, to admonish my powers of perception, but to understand its limits. Because aren’t we all living with until we aren’t any longer? Aren’t our bodies always in flux, in change?

 

Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino is a frequent contributor to POTB. She lives in Marquette, Michigan. You can visit her at: www.andreascarpino.com