07 October, 2011

surprise sanity!

I've written about this before a bit. but does it make anyone else really sad when you're reading a book or watching a movie, and a character who originally seems really stereotypically disabled (this especially happens with mentally ill characters) starts to get more complex and less stereotypical and turn into a cool character, and then it's like, surprise...they actually weren't really disabled. or they weren't, like, organically disabled, if it's a mental thing. they acted like that because of something wrong that someone else did to them and/or because society is messed up.

I'm leery of saying this because it kind of sounds like I'm saying PTSD and other stuff that comes from trauma isn't a real disability. I don't think that but I do think there's this weird division in fiction between people who are "really" mentally disabled (usually: depression, psychosis, autism, social anxiety, sometimes intellectual disability) and people who appear that way, but actually it's someone else's fault, making them actually at their core non-disabled.

obvious example: lisbeth salander!!

I'm not saying some of these characters are proven beyond a shadow a doubt to have entered the world non-disabled. but there is a revelation that at least some of their disability is related to trauma, and they are "sensible" at their core even if they are eccentric. and it's like, other people think that they don't know what they're talking about, and think that they don't know what really happened to them and/or what's really wrong with the state of the world, because they're disabled--but surprise, because they aren't innately disabled, they actually DO know what's going on and what they're saying is actually true.

I read a book recently that didn't exactly make clear whether it was doing this or not. it was a great book but I felt disappointed, I guess, by the one element.

early on a (now absent) character is referred to and described for the first time. she's kind of a typical mentally ill/depressed character, there's a big focus on the strange things she did and how difficult it was to live with her and take care of her. as the book goes on she is described/flashbacked to again and again, and seems more complex, human, nice, and interesting each time. in the second half of the book we learn that she was abused, and that the way her family treated her when she was depressed actually kept her from recovering at least as much as her actual depression did. when she finally appears at the end of the book, she is a heroic character.

I thought this was really cool, but I guess I felt a little sad too, because I knew that most people would perceive the book in the ordinary model of mental illness--i.e. this apparently mentally ill character turned out to be a smart and heroic person who was wronged by other people, therefore she wasn't REALLY mentally ill, it was just because of her family, and by defeating them, she can stop being ill. the book doesn't really assert this but it also doesn't assert the opposite--that she would have had mental health problems anyway and they were exacerbated and used as an excuse by her family. it just doesn't really say.

so I've read lots of reviews of the book that are like, "IT TURNS OUT THAT HER 'MENTAL ILLNESS' WAS ACTUALLY BECAUSE OF HER FAMILY!" wah wah. this may seem nitpicky of me, especially because the author may not even have meant for people to have that reaction--but I just find it disappointing because it would be cool to see an inarguably mentally ill character who's also smart and a hero. also a portrayal of interaction between mental illness and life experience, instead of the idea that you can only have one or the other.


  1. I'm not certain I completely followed. The implication (they sorta come right out and say it at one point, but it wasn't anything that anyone actually indicated was 'officially' diagnosed) was that Lisbeth Salander had Asperger's. . . that yeah, all the crap her father put her through made her hate police and doctors and society and etc. . . but she still had Asperger's.

    She just wasn't quite as angry.

  2. I feel like it's kind of fuzzy. There is the part where her guardian is like "well, she has all these special skills and I guess she'd be different anyway but she doesn't exactly seem like people I've read about with Asperger's, but she kind of does," but I don't think this has sunk in for a lot of people. Also, she is wrongly thought to have psychosis and intellectual disabilities (and maybe be a sociopath, I can't remember?) so regardless of autism there are a lot of disabilities people THINK she has, that she doesn't really have.

  3. (I mean people in the world of the book)

  4. hahaha. . . thank you.

    I'm obviously coming at the book from a different perspective, but I think the perceived psychosis was always essentially thought to be media hype. We the reader were always privvy to the fact the Sally was the unfortunate victim of a corrupt government or whatever.

    I'm actually reading the book right now. . . and I have 10 pages left, but I can't finish it because I'm at work.

    Unless something changes, I've been sorta happy with the fact that just because she's been cleared of all charges and the government wants to make restitution, her 'differences' didn't just evaporate. She still prefers her own company to being with others. She's still somewhat socially awkward. She still makes unconventional choices (like not taking the money/estate). She just makes all that stuff seem "cool

  5. I actually didn't have that problem with Salander--I thought a large theme of the trilogy was about the ways that the powerful exploit the vulnerable with impunity, and get away with it because of the things that most people are all too ready to believe about anyone who's disabled or different from majority expectations. Lisbeth's autistic at her core, and for the most part, I didn't think the book tried to explain or apologize it away.

    But I get what you're saying. I'm not sure I know of another example off the top of my head, but yes, it would be really effing annoying.

  6. confession: I haven't actually read all the books all the way through. but IIRC, she's not labeled with autism, she's labeled with intellectual disability and some kind of mental illness which causes her to be violent. those are the labels that are used against her, but she's actually super smart and every time she was violent it was with good reason. a lot of the triumphant moments, especially at the end of the trilogy, have to do with Lisbeth revealing herself to actually be smart and to have always been acting reasonably.

    I don't know if I would consider her to actually be disabled. she doesn't seem to have any actual impairments, she's just different. I love that there's a popular work of fiction with a character that people think of as "autistic" who's really competent and self-aware and a good person. but it doesn't mean to me what it would mean if she really was impaired.

    maybe she's a bad example of this kind of thing. the book I just read is a better example because the disabled character actually is really disabled; when we first learn about her, we're learning about all these things she did when she was depressed and how difficult it was for her boyfriend to live with her. she's kind of portrayed just as a burden. then she becomes more likable and then she becomes heroic, but unfortunately with that comes information that implies that her mental illness wasn't who she really was.

    maybe what I'm thinking is, I would like to see a character who IS a burden sometimes. I'd like to see a character be introduced as, like, the protagonist's roommate or sibling who is having a psychotic or depressive or manic episode and is in danger of hurting themselves or causing trouble, and the protagonist has to go in and deal with the situation. we see that kind of thing all the time. but then we see the character developed and despite having a real mental illness (that is not revealed to have been caused by aliens/abuse/magic/being psychic) they are likable and have something to contribute.

  7. I guess part of what I'm interested in is the complexities of support and caretaking. when I watched s1 of six feet under (SPOILERS), I was thinking they would do a good job with Brenda and her brother Billy, who is bipolar. obviously Brenda has taken on more responsibility for Billy than she should have, and he's asking for more support than she can reasonably give. but instead of just addressing this as a relationship that is unhealthy, there's a big reveal that Billy was never suicidal as a teenager like Brenda thought, he was actually homicidal, and he turns out to be violent and basically starts functioning as a villain. I was really disappointed, because I thought the way the story originally seemed to be going--Billy and Brenda aren't bad people, but he needs a lot of support and no one has figured out a better way to deal with that--was more complex, realistic, and original.