Learning to Be Afraid, A Manuel for Outlier Bodies

In her latest novel The Burning Girl Claire Messud has her protagonist, a young woman named Julia observe the following: “Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” Julia says. “You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.”

Julia’s words passed through me like a scalpel. Talk about intersectionality! This fits disability, the actual living of it, to a T. All disabled people know this story—the crawling inner sense of contingency, the stares of appraisal, the shrugs, the outright dismissals that happen at any moment. One can add to this “early or late”—my first dismissal came when I was four years old. Here’s how I describe it in my forthcoming memoir about life with guide dogs:

When I was very small I didn’t know I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one afternoon, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki. This had been a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sensitive children–it’s the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.  

The body I inhabited was vulnerable.

“Imperfectly fortified.” Black bodies, trans bodies, diminutive bodies, let’s be democratic about the matter. So great is the stranglehold of tacit agreement about embodied value, anyone who’s not white, male, at least of average stature, lacks the automatic agency that opposes the vulnerability Julia describes.

When Trayvon Martin, the American teenager who was murdered while minding his own business, who was shot to death for being black in a gated community, I wrote about the tragedy from a disability perspective. I said, among other things:

I know something about being “marked” as disability is always a performance. I am on the street in a conditional way: allowed or not allowed, accepted or not accepted according to the prejudices and educational attainments of others. And because I’ve been disabled since childhood I’ve lived with this dance of provisional life ever since I was small. In effect, if you have a disability, every neighborhood is a gated community. 

Last week the Rev. Al Sharpton counseled Trayvon’s parents that the engines of disparagement would start soon–that Trayvon’s character would be run through the gutter. He was right. And he was properly forecasting what happens whenever a member of a historically marginalized community speaks up for “blaming the victim” is a handy way of sidestepping issues of cultural responsibility. In a way, isn’t that what “gated communities” are all about? Aren’t they simply the architectural result of cultural exceptionalism? Of course. But as a person who travels everywhere accompanied by a guide dog I know something about the architectures and the cultural languages of “the gate” –doormen, security officers, functionaries of all kinds have sized me up in the new “quasi public” spaces that constitute our contemporary town square. I too have been observed, followed, pointed at, and ultimately told I don’t belong by people who are ill informed and marginally empowered. Like Trayvon I am seldom in the right place. Where precisely would that place be? Would it be back in the institution for the blind, circa 1900? Would it be staying at home always? 

Now the forces of revision are saying that Trayvon was a violent pot smoker. Forget that pot smokers are generally not violent and that the vast majority of teens in America have tried it–forget that it’s not a gateway drug. Forget that having been suspended from high school for minor marijuana possession isn’t an advertisement for criminal psychosis. (Didn’t we dismiss that stupid idea along with the film “Reefer Madness” some thirty years ago?) The reality here is that Trayvon is being predictably transformed from an ordinary kid into an aggressor. The evidence doesn’t support this. He was stalked and threatened and the efforts in recent days to recast him as a crazed gangsta are predictable and laughable. But I’m not laughing. I too was an “outsider” teenager. My place in every social and public environment was always conditional. Hell, I even smoked marijuana as a form of self medication. I’m not ashamed of the kid I used to be. I’m not ashamed to count Trayvon Martin as my soul mate. 

There’s a war against black men and boys in this country. There’s also a backlash against women and people with disabilities and the elderly. The forces in all these outrages are the same. The aim is to make all of the United States into a gated community. On the one side are the prisons and warehousing institutions; on the other side, the sanitized neighborhood resorts. I hear the voice: “Sorry, Sir, you can’t come in here.” In my case it’s always a security guard who doesn’t know a guide dog from an elephant. In Trayvon’s case it was a souped up self important member of a neighborhood watch who had no idea what a neighborhood really means. I think all people with disabilities know a great deal about this. I grieve for Trayvon’s family. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him and will never forget.  

Learning to be afraid, to sense your vulnerability, is to recognize, in whatever neighborhood or room your very immanence is bothersome at best—and really that’s the best you can count on. From bothersome you descend quickly to the status of a foreign problem, and then to mild or medium hot threat or worse. Consider the tragedy of Keith Lamont Scott; consider Charleena Lyles; Brian Claunch; Robert Ethan Saylor; consider that half of the people killed by police in the United States are disabled.

One wish of mine is that Americans will pay attention to the fact that all outlier bodies have been essentially criminalized—that is, the foreign body is now imagined to be illegal.

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