I am eight. I am waiting alone for the little bus inside the doors of my school, White Sulphur Springs Elementary, in the Catskills. I glimpse a small girl not far away – tired, leaning against the wall like it was holding her up. Seeing her, I feel a sorrow for her. The sorrow is bigger than me, it blooms out of my stomach and swallows me whole like a monstrous flower. In the next instant, I see that I’m looking at myself in the reflection of a display cabinet’s glass doors. I am angry at myself – first, for letting myself look like that – then, for looking like that. Then I know that I will never be faster than seeing is. It can get even me. This means that while I’ll empathize with strangers who feel sorry for me in decades to come – having done it myself – I’ll want them to snap out of it, too – as I did.
I’ve been the only (identified) disabled student in my classes in five schools since first grade, I see children “like me” at this clinic and on tv once a year during a telethon that makes me cringe. That’s it. I have a pronounced lack of images to work with and an inability to decipher the ones I do see.
You are flat on your back under a glaring light. The bed is hard. It hurts. You don’t move because it doesn’t occur to you to do so, it’s so far beyond you. Each part of you that registers – reports in, so to speak – registers through pain. You body is mapped as a topography of pain. No face or distinguishing characteristics. You are a ground-colored shape dotted with points of glaring, popping pain. Where your head aches on the stone-stab mattress, where the gravel of the sheet is under your arms, where it rasps all along the tube that snakes down your throat, to an unidentifiable pressure on your front, low down.
Your back. Oh. Your back is a barely contained thorn patch in a mad stabber’s arsenal.
You’re not alone. There are voices, professional ones. But no one is talking to you.
There is a nurse above you, meeting your eyes. Her head blocks the light. “You’re awake,” she says. “You’re in the recovery room.”
You make a sound. It sounds dreadful. The first sound Frankenstein made on his slab. The thought of the monster brings back your past, all there was before this light, this slab, this pain. And the face in your reunion with memory itself is: Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.
I’m FEDup with feeling like my feelings aren’t really essential components of conversations about bioethics.
About a year ago, in the midst of a cross-disability Human Genetic Engineering webinar that I was a support staff person for, one (not all) of the panelists named several disabilities, some congenital, as examples where you’d want HGE to be available. One of the conditions named was muscular dystrophy, the umbrella term that my own unnamed disorder falls under. I took the panelist’s choice to name each to mean that they were conditions that are particularly undesirable. There was a vague mention of parents opting out of children who have these specific conditions. (I’m in favor of enthusiastic consent for all parenting, including the parenting of disabled children. It’s the singling out of only certain children that needs to be addressed very carefully.)
I had some feelings about that, which I have since translated into the image of the tear-down in the gentrifying neighborhood. I explained my feelings in the Q&A – though I didn’t have questions, really — and then I felt afterwards like I’d made it weird. It was a murky boundary thing; if the panelist had mentioned his own disability rather than mine, I might have disagreed but I wouldn’t have had such an emotional reaction.
It may not be a terribly marketable skill but exploring and describing the emotional landscape of being my particular type of disabled person is what I know how to do, though I usually think fiction — #criplit, specifically — is better suited to the task than anything expository. There is emotional terrain in the development of bioethical and other disability policy, law, and research — as there is in the policy, the legal analyses, the studies, and all of the work-product items — and it deserves representation. That’s what I’m trying to do here.
I can do it because of privilege: I’m white, have a college degree, and the time/money to write this; this all adds up to a baseline expectation that the world will agree my feelings matter. I also grew up in a family that, however messed up, was an oasis from ableist BS and — most importantly — treated my feelings as valuable and in need of care.
But the episode has stuck with me, I think, because it was a last straw kind of thing after nearly five decades of being bombarded with messages from random childhood people, telethons, and the famously rational that I will never, ever be envied.
One of the webinar folks sought me out at another event subsequently and was kind enough to say that my comment had value. But the episode has stuck with me, I think, because it was a last straw kind of thing after nearly five decades of being bombarded with messages from random childhood people, telethons, and the famously rational that I will never, ever be envied. I was simply not prepared to get hauled into a disability justice-branded webinar as Disaster Exhibit A while I was sitting at my DREDF desk.
If I could respond to the panelist, here’s what I’d say: “To be very clear: Difference in emotional reactions is a good thing, I’m not pleading for conformity here. But I have a problem when feelings aren’t identified as such. I get it — muscular dystrophy is frightening or repugnant or whatever to you. Some folks with MD hate it. But it’s not a given. It’s a feeling. And you presented your feeling as a fact. You’re regarded as a bioethics expert, plus you’re disabled yourself. That’s why you harrowed up my feelings so deeply.”
If You Don’t Care for Satire, Beware of This Greek Director Filming Rabbits
The Verdict: The Favourite is full of shitty people, shitty behavior, and shit. It is a magnificent film about that most favored form of disability: crippling whilst posh. It centers a disabled woman fucking and then fucks with your head about disabled women fucking. So. It’s complex. It portrays a disabled woman being sexual and a jackhole. Also: I laughed. A lot.
(The 18th Century; The Court of Queen Anne But Not Really) If you took Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, shoved them into Watership Down with any of John Waters’s pre-Hairspray films, the surviving film that hopped out might be Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.
Christ on a cracker, the FuckAbility™ Research Council hates being serious but needs must on the issue of casting and representation. Olivia Colman has a disability history that is, in fact, relevant to her role in The Favourite. Ruling that she’s not disabled enough, or has the wrong disabilities to qualify her for the role, reduces us to our diagnoses — something we have long fought against.
Bawdy without any ameliorating jolliness, The Favourite has an essential meatiness that’s mostly missing from the lives of bodies on the mainstream screen, including physically disabled, ill, or aging bodies. It got to me. The night after I watched it, I had a dream that I went to use the toilet and found I had shit smeared all under my clothes. When I woke up I knew it was because the reeking sensibility of The Favourite had made a powerful impression on me.
My question seemed to make everyone relax. That made me, at 10, the person I wanted to be: In control, competent, helpful. This was difficult for them. It was a good thing for me to recognize and care about. But it was also an ability that helped me avoid feeling much of anything about the word “degenerative.”
By the time I was ten in early 1976, my father finally found a job he seemed likely to keep and we settled into our second tiny Connecticut town. I’d been to three public schools during fifth grade and was wearing the Milwaukee back-brace 23 hours a day.
I’d started being seen in the pediatric neurology clinic at Newington Children’s Hospital, up by Hartford. (It had been formerly known by the delightful names Newington Home and Hospital for Crippled Children, as well as The Newington Home for Incurables.) Dr. Russman and Dr. Drennan, my neurologist and orthopedist, respectively, questioned my diagnosis of cerebral palsy atypical but continued the familiar routine of x-rays and exams every 3 months to monitor my always-worsening scoliosis.
After growing the tissue from two nerve and muscle biopsies taken from my upper arm and calf (an experience that included my first overnight in a hospital, my first pre-procedure Valium, and hearing the words, “Skin stretcher, please,” uttered in connection with my own personal calf), they scheduled an appointment for the verdict. I was interested in a detached way; I was comfortable with not really being one thing or the other, medically.
I’m FEDup with “debates” about my sexuality, my reproductive choices, my existence. There is so much to love about social media and one of those reasons is the experience of going on Twitter to
quickly check my popularity see what I can do to better the world and finding an objective discussion underway regarding whether someone like me should be “allowed” to reproduce. The person who asked the question may not even understand that, by placing my reproductive choices and existence within the frame of public approval, they’ve reinforced bias against me, a woman with a congenital disability who lives “like that.” Check out another guy who asks rational questions just like you did.
I’m not answering on Twitter because — unlike when I was in my 20s, 30s, 40’s — I no longer feel required to justify my existence just because somebody decided to have an “objective” “discussion” about whether I’m really worth the hassle.
Yup, even when your purpose is ostensibly positive, how you frame the conversation matters. Growing up with muscular dystrophy means I’ve heard more times than you can imagine that my particular disability places me — of course! — on The List of Lives That Suck. What’s newer or less personal to you is very different to me as a woman with a congenital disability. So here’s an excerpt from a longer past post that elucidates where I’m coming from. Continue reading