22 November, 2010

yeah so I want to use the r-word in a story I'm writing

and I'm going to use it in this post so be warned.

I'm not actually going to use it in the story I turn in to my workshop, because last time I turned in a draft of this story it was the most awful experience ever. Basically I wrote a story about a 12-year-old boy who goes to a behaviorist school for kids with autism (but no disability-related words are used in the story, because no one has outright told him he's disabled). The boy is obsessed with lions and with the idea that he's slowly turning into a lion and will grow up to be one; his parents and teachers try to discourage his interest. He also has a lot of meltdowns and the story ends with him having a violent, swearing meltdown at school and having all his lion paraphernalia taken away as punishment.

So, everyone in my class got exactly that out of the story. A disabled kid doesn't understand he's disabled and can't control himself. (Some of them also made comments that outright assumed I wasn't disabled.) What I turned in was a really rough draft but I felt really positive about the germ of the story, and I felt depressed because almost no one reacted to it or related to it at all.

I sent the story to some of my friends who are good on disability stuff and asked them what they made of it. They got out a lot of the things I was putting in: the main character is faced with adults who try to control him, while his non-disabled twin is more wholly nurtured and accepted; identifying with lions is a way of feeling powerful and dealing with the fact that he feels like he's not human. My friend Laura wrote, "it seemed like he loved this thing/lions and nobody understands that it's something to just love and so they try to make it out to be a problem and to use it to get him to behave how they want him to... i think it seemed like a lot of it was about behavior modification and the loneliness of being told to act a certain way when you're just not naturally inclined to."

Which made me love her so much. I know it's only a workshop, but I've been in workshops for years, you know, and I've never had one hurt before.

I'm trying to write a more clear-to-my-class version of the story and the way I'm doing that is by having most of the story take place when the main character, S., is 17. The point of doing this is that by this age he would be aware of his diagnosis and stuff (in the original draft, I was trying to show that he hadn't been told about his diagnosis, but still sensed how he was being treated; but I think people just took it as typical "disabled person doesn't understand" stuff). It is also cool though because I get to address some issues of passing as ethics and passing as cure. I'm having trouble writing the story because I want S. to express his resentment of the way he was treated when he was a kid, but he's very isolated and doesn't have a lot of people he can talk about those things to. And he's also not quite sure how he feels about a lot of it.

But anyway, S. has been in a mainstream school for four or five years, and his main activity is selling his medication and making drugs for people. (The story has some magic realism elements so he's invented his own drug.) He finds this comforting, probably because he has something that other people want; he frequently accepts little or no payment even when he could ask for a lot of money. It's just what he does.

S.'s parents don't know about this and see him as a success. S. realizes that his mom has started referring to him and his sister as "the twins" when she never referred to them as a unit before. There is some anxiety about how S. is going to apply to college because his years in special ed may make him look "unstable" or like he's not capable of doing college work. But overall he has a sense of finally being someone his parents can be proud of. He goes to a normal school, he looks normal, he acts normal (with the kids he gives drugs to, he's intentionally weird and cold, and they see him as a creep; but he sort of likes that, because he's controlling their view of him).

But he is, you know, pretty masochistic with the whole throwing away opportunities to make money thing. And he doesn't really have any friends.

He desperately misses his best friend from special ed, but his friend is on a completely different life trajectory; he's still quite visibly disabled and needs help doing things. S. has no idea of what a friendship between them would look like now that one of them is supposedly normal. When he runs into his old friend, he lies to his friend's staff about how they know each other.

S. meets up with the head of his old school, and is overwhelmed by memories of trying to bite her, having her analyze and remake the way he walked, having her snap at him and take away his lions--but she's completely friendly, as if they are family members or old neighbors. S. falls into compliance, finds himself following her lead, trying to make himself sound even more successful than she already thinks he is. Wants to ask her why she cared how he walked or what was wrong with lions, but those kinds of questions don't belong in her world. He feels stupid even thinking them.

S.'s twin R., who is in boarding school and isn't around much, is the only person he's really close to. She's always known him roughly the way he is and when she comes home for Christmas he manages to tell her some of the things he's thinking about.

Anyway, for some reason I have this scene in my head: S. makes some comment about how he now looks normal. R. says, thinking nothing of it, that he doesn't. S. is really offended and scared. R. says that S. doesn't look normal to her because he's her brother, he just looks like her brother. And besides, he always says he doesn't want people to like him anyway, so it doesn't matter if he looks normal, right?

"That's retarded," S. says. "That's a retarded thing to say."

Now, the reason I won't really put this in my story is because I think people in my class may just throw this word around in their lives without thinking of it as hate speech. And I want S. to use it as hate speech. I will explain.

I feel a very intense urge sometimes to use the word about myself. Usually in some kind of school or work situation where someone is patronizing me or has failed to understand the nature of what I can and can't do. The sentence I want to say comes in two forms:

"I'm not retarded," when someone is explaining something they think I don't understand. And, more commonly:

"Yeah, I'm retarded, sorry" (little laugh)

because when things are really hard and someone is obviously kind of annoyed with you or thinks you're lazy or lacking insight/knowledge about basic things, you just...hate yourself. And them. And you're supposed to say, "yeah, I'm sort of slow, sorry," "oh yeah I'm kind of a space cadet." Like it's something small, and cute.

But it's not fucking small.

The word retarded is the most vicious word I can think of to quietly and passively explain myself. The reason I find myself wanting to use it is because it feels almost on the level of physically hurting myself or the other person, which are things I do not believe in doing (well the first one happens sometimes). And it doesn't seem like such a big deal to most people to say that word. But to me it feels like punching myself in the head, and sometimes I want to feel that way.


  1. I have absolutely used ableist words about myself with the intention of hurting myself that way, or with the intention of proving myself to other people somehow. "This is my gesture of good faith; I want you to like me so badly that I will insult myself and other disabled people in order to excuse whatever I just did." Of course, no one ever noticed what I was putting myself through using those words -- they were just regular words that people used all the time. I have tried to stop doing that because I ask other people not to do it, because I don't like the thrill I get from using these words as some sick private joke. "I am bad, I am the standard of badness." Fuck that shit.

  2. for some reason I always think of you as being really wholesome and well-adjusted, then when you say things like this I'm oddly moved and surprised.

  3. Sometimes I feel wholesome and well-adjusted... and sometimes I feel like everything is falling apart around me and I'm just not good enough to deal with it. Today I'm in the second category.