Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

Easter Wings

My father died on this day 19 years ago. Though he was nearly 80 he was in good health and his sudden passing was therefore unexpected. In the subjective I’ve never been able to celebrate Easter since by which I mean the easy, fanciful, chocolate bunny American Easter. Because my dad died on this day I’ve been compelled to confront the resurrection of Christ in its ur-ontologies—if we’re stricken here, with death inevitable, what does the promise of life everlasting through Jesus mean?

Augustine wrote:

“And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here.”

Note the demarcation of sight and heart—the old Christian insistence that we see as through a glass darkly or in turn we do not really see at all. Faith is sight according to the church and that sight is inward, unlimited, joyous.

Strictly speaking everything you can no longer see is in your heart. Your poor heart. It must stand for memory, soul, eternity, and be the church itself.

The Christian heart is a big thing.

Sight and heart and memory and faith become one with the resurrection of Christ.

You might say it’s easier to believe in the chocolate bunny. Augustine:

“Consider seriously, how much we should love eternal life, when this miserable life, that’s got to end anyhow some time, is loved so dearly … So you love this life, do you, in which you struggle, and run around, and bustle about and gasp for breath; and you can scarcely count the things that have to be done in this wretched life: sowing, plowing, planting, sailing, grinding, cooking, weaving. And after all this, your life has got to end anyhow … So learn, brothers and sisters, to seek eternal life, where you will not have to endure these things, but will reign with God forever.”

Now Dear Saint Augustine, seeking eternal life is so much harder than getting ahold of some chocolate eggs.

The striving for optimism—an ontology of meanings, good meanings, affirmations beyond just this one life—this is what striving and the heart are for.

This much I know.

And here is my favorite Easter poem….Easter Wings by George Herbert:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Goodbye, Bird That Shat On Me

My mother was an alcoholic and not a functional one. Her life was marked by drawn curtains, broken fingers, phantom pains and prescription drugs which, mixed with scotch tended to make her psychotic. When I was a college freshman and no longer living at home she stalked my younger sister around the house clutching a knife. My sister took refuge in a locked bathroom and waited it out. By dawn our mother was asleep on the living room floor in a tangle of shoes and bottles. This story is in no way singular—my sister and I are just tiny dots in the ocean of abused children. The story of my adult life has been the relentless pursuit of self-acceptance, forgiveness, emotional intelligence, and compassion. I think forgiveness and compassion are different as forgiveness can be merely political and compassion is more concerned with lovingkindness.

I work with people who don’t necessarily like me. Chances are good you do too. You may be tougher than I. You might not care about the ghosting malevolence of the workplace, the soiled superegos of competitively unhappy souls who turn up in every meeting, warehouse, classroom—or for that matter even in leisure spaces. Me? I tend to care too much about the opinions of others. This is because the long emotional after effects of my upbringing make me prone to a knee jerk impulse to fix things. If people are ugly I think it’s my job to improve them.

That’s of course its own addiction. I’ll solve your problem. Get you another drink so you won’t hit me. Disguise the damage to the best of my ability. I’ll make excuses for you. I’ll imagine your unhappiness is my fault.

Until one day I don’t. One day after attending Al Anon and undergoing some excellent therapy I decided my mother was on her own.

Nowadays I attend to my own esteem though not without set backs. There’s a senior professor at the university where I work who went out of his way to sabotage me behind my back—an ableist, smug, privileged “shyte” as the Irish would say. I don’t think I can forgive him and I certainly can’t imagine offering lovingkindness.

I know this is what I should do.

I’m a lefty Episcopalian.

Then it dawns on me: I can let him go like a pigeon one has restored to health. Out the window he goes with a spark of feathers. He soars through tangled clothes lines. I shut the window. Turn up Mozart on the radio.

Lovingkindness can in fact be letting the bird who once shat on you find his own way.

A Perfectly Level Headed Note Now that I’m 64

I was born on this date 64 years ago. My twin brother died in the next room.
I was born prematurely by three months. I lost my vision in an incubator.
I’m aware that even today there are “bioethicists” who’d argue against my existence.
I know who they are. There are one or two at the university where I teach.
Sometimes I tell myself I know more than I used to. I know that not all Greek infants with disabilities were put out to die on mountains. I know that Oedipus means swollen foot and his story is a perfect disability dumpster fire. I know his story still haunts the blind. I know there are one or two at my university who believe the blind shouldn’t be on campus. Or the lame. Or the mute. They ruin a perfectly good agora. I know these things but care less about them since I know the arc of history bends toward disability justice. I really do believe that. I also know that universities hate hiring the disabled. I believe that will change. I have to believe these things. Tap your shoes together three times Dorothy. Sam Cooke: “A change is gonna come.” And maybe not today. On the other hand….

What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

Believe in Your Own Flight and the Flights of Others

Alert, gravid, a bit edgy thinking of the republic where I reside, wondering if it’s possible for 21st century Americans to acquire the self awareness required for true citizenship. I’m not a pessimist. I don’t believe Facebook and iPhones have destroyed our body politic. I don’t think the polarization of the so called left and right are inevitable and permanent. American history proves otherwise. And yet, at its best, citizenship is about informed discernment, knowing what you think and why you think it. These days it seems few Americans routinely ask “how did I acquire this position and what might be wrong with it?”

On the right people think anything that smacks of socialism is bad. On the left they think the profit motive is bad. Meanwhile the nation runs on both.

How to not hold one’s head? Take a walk in the winter garden. The earth smells of damp pears.
There are tracks of animals in the snow. I feel a tremendous, terrible freedom under my shirt.

I’m going to ask questions. And here I am, walking on ice polished by the wind.

What’s required to be optimistic?

I’m a believer in life much like proteins “are” life.

There’s a smell of smoke from my neighbor’s house.

Today he is believing in life.

Be in your own flight but believe also in the flights of others.

Typing Mister Roberts

As a ten year old who though he’d become a writer I attempted a novel. My model was “Mister Roberts” which meant that I was writing about the Navy and imagining the doings of grown men at sea. How I wish I had those pages now and could see what a blind kid thought the maritime world of wholly fictive adults would be like. I suspect I imagined an adult world that was honorable as a distinction to my grade school life of constant bullying. As a disabled child in public school I was a target for physical and emotional abuse. The novel “Mister Roberts” and the film based upon it suggested shipboard life was decent.

I think of this now because I know better. As Wallace Stevens famously wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad”—and while that may not be a life’s goal, that is, to live in wantoness and depression—these are factors in the reality principle. The Navy may have honorable men and women but their stories and presences aren’t always probable. We’ve a land of permanent wars and poverty and bigotries of every kind. And the grade school bullying I once endured still goes on for children everywhere and I even experience adult forms of it in the workplace.

It’s the utopian hope of writing that’s so compelling to me. When I write I clean streaked windows with vinegar. Animals come. Some eat from my hands. Strangers come to understand each other. And these things are not entirely of imagination Wallace Stevens notwithstanding.

Yesterday I took an Uber ride. My driver spoke very little English. He was from Central America. He loved my guide dog Caitlyn, a yellow Labrador. Suddenly he said in his halting English: “I wish her long life!”

The world is ugly but people still have love. In turn I’m not certain I’m all that different from my ten year old self. That kid was insisting on decency.

His grown up variant still does.