12 December, 2010

This isn't really complete and it's like 3 posts in one

Hi, kids. Today I want to talk about sadness and rage. Or basically any related emotion or combination of the two that causes the people around you to be uncomfortable. An easy way to talk about this is by talking about Autism Every Day, which has been beaten to within an inch of its life, and I certainly don't have anything new to say about it, but look at this:

This is the title card of the movie, which as you know is basically a propaganda piece about how hard it is to live with someone who has autism. If I remember right, the movie features montages of young people with autism crying and screaming.

A friend of mine, who is usually pretty social-justice-y and good on disability stuff, watched this movie for the first time, and after watching about a minute of it, she said, "Wow, I didn't know autism was this bad, maybe I wouldn't be able to handle this either if I was a parent." And I felt sad that she had this response, because to me the portrayal of emotion in this movie is very obviously incredibly slanted.

Because here we have a picture of a girl crying being used to prove that people like this girl should not exist. We basically have someone's emotions being used to devalue her. And to me, it's very obvious how emotions mean completely different things depending on the privilege or the role of the person showing emotion.

If you see the family member of someone who's identified as "the disabled person" expressing emotion--crying, screaming, expressing that they want to kill themselves or kill someone else, seeming very annoyed about something pretty small like not being able to go out to lunch--this is taken of evidence of how wronged the person is by the disability that "the disabled person" has (which, I'm sorry, is not that different from saying they are wronged by "the disabled person," straight up).

For the record, I should say that I don't have any problem with the one mother in Autism Every Day complaining that she can't go out to lunch--I don't think she's being petty or something, I think it's something that represents, to her, how much pressure she's under. What I do have a problem with is that if "the disabled person" complained about something small like not being able to go out to lunch, it would probably be used to show that "the disabled person" is unreasonable. And definitely in the cases of crying, screaming, and verbally or physically showing an interest in violence against oneself or others, "the disabled person" cannot do these things without showing how undesirable their disability is, or how unbearable they are.

So if you have privilege, when you show emotion that causes discomfort in someone else, it just shows that your life sucks, and turns the viewer's discomfort toward the cause that you want to promote. If you don't have privilege, and you show the same emotion, the viewer's discomfort stays with you and is turned back towards you. I made this swell picture at artpad showing how to respond when a family member of "the disabled person" is upset to a degree that makes you uncomfortable, vs. how you should respond if "the disabled person" herself is upset.

a very messy drawing showing a standing woman crying and obviously upset, and on the other side of the picture a woman sitting with some mannerisms suggesting she has autism. a two-faced figure looks at them both. from the standing, non-disabled woman comes an arrow that says, discomfort, then asks, why is the person upset, and points to the disabled woman. from the disabled woman comes an arrow that says, discomfort, and simply points back at her

This is sure to turn out really well for everyone except the disabled person.

Someone in my family who I'm very close with has a mental health condition and I know they don't want people to know about it. But it is also very hard for me not to write about it, because in retrospect I can really see how it fits into "the disabled person" vs. family member in terms of expression of emotion. (I'm talking about this in the past tense, somewhat disingenuously, but whatever.)

I was seen as "the disabled person," while this other person wasn't. And it only became apparent to me fairly recently that I, and another family member, who regularly experienced this person screaming and crying at us, didn't just deserve this because of the way we were.

I wasn't nice always. Sometimes I felt threatened and would hit or shove the person to get them out of my space. If we were having a conflict, I would sometimes get really upset and say things that I knew were hurtful. Sometimes I was sad about things that were going on, and I cried, which caused the person to be upset.

However, I've eventually come to realize the incredible amount of room this person had compared to the amount of room I had. The person could say all kinds of small hurtful things and it wasn't considered wrong for them to do that. If I said anything back, even if I tried to be really diplomatic, what happened next was my fault. If the person cried, it was because I was hurting them. If I cried, I was hurting them by crying. If someone apologized, it was usually me. If someone tried to calm someone else down, it was usually me.

I know, now, that this person can't help being very emotional and sad sometimes, and that what happens is no one's fault. But the person never really sat me down and said, "I have depression. Sometimes things will be scary. It's not your fault." Instead they allowed everything to go into this frame, where the people they cried and yelled at had brought on this reaction by not having certain abilities. This is the only thing I resent them for, not the actual crying.

Sometimes I think that my whole interest in anti-ableism just comes out of growing up this way.

But the reason I wanted to write this in the first place is because I have this really good friend. Let's call him K. It feels like every few times I hang out with K, I end up not only crying really hard and talking about every sad thing I can think of, but I actually say mean things to K and accuse him of not caring about me. K gets upset by this, of course, and wonders if he's a bad friend. I feel bad because I'm putting the huge emotional burden of these conversations on him--but I can't seem to stop.

Today, I started trying to write K an email apologizing and telling him that he really isn't a bad friend at all. Then I started trying to explain why I treat him this way, if I don't think he's a bad friend. I ended up realizing that the reason I get so angry and difficult is that I know nothing bad will happen; K won't be mad at me long-term, he won't stop being friends with me, he won't hate me. When I'm with him, I have a safe place to get upset.

Obviously this is a problem, since I don't want to punish people for making me feel safe. But it made me think about how anger and sadness can kind of be a privilege. We think of crying really hard as being an undesirable experience. But really, the ability to cry really hard and not have it be used against you means that you have power. You have so much control if even losing control doesn't matter.


  1. I watched Autism Every Day (or part of it, anyway) some time ago, and I remember being struck by this one scene where (IIRC) a woman was talking about the frustration she felt trying to get her son to play on a swing. I remember thinking, "Why is it so important to you that he play on the swing, even if he doesn't want to?"

    I mean, obviously parents make their kids do stuff all the time (brush their teeth, go to school, etc.), but playing on a swing is supposed to be something you do because you want to do it, not because somebody else is making you do it.

    I haven't noticed anyone else discussing that part of the movie. I think the awfulness of the infamous "George Washington Bridge" story kind of overshadowed some of the other weird/troubling stuff in the film.

  2. This is perhaps a little abstract thinking, but this post made me think of Kafka's Metamorphosis which I've always read as a metaphor for the stages in which the outside world and "normal" people react to a disabled or mental ill person.

    K sounds like a fantastic friend (not that he isn't equally lucky to have you)I think I must come off as "normal/non-disabled" cos I seem to not have the hardest time make friends then repel them totally when my behaviour becomes weird or difficultand my differnce becomes apparent. Though some make the pretense of sticking by me, it's like when the "shock reveal" happens things are never really the same. I wish I had a friend I felt safe being all of me with.

    Gosh, sorry for the angst xx

  3. well, K is also disabled. which is probably why this is possible with him. And I think I know how you feel about the shock-reveal stuff, not with friends but it's sort of why I don't try to date.

    I fucking love the Metamorphosis and I read it the same way. I think Kafka was physically and mentally ill, IIRC, and worried a lot about being a burden on his family.