This month, I did. A female writer, a memoir, blurbed by Chuck Palahniuk, David Shields, and Andrei Codrescu, powerful men. The work promised a different structure, and it delivered: a life interwoven, chapters like shorts, a bold, clear voice. The book is The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch. A woman with a wild ride of a life, an academic, a liberal, someone who shows throughout her book that she identifies with the powerless.
Um. Except the disabled.
The first time it happened, "He [her father] opened the letter more slowly than a retarded person" (p. 46), I shrugged it off. Poor choice of words, I thought. I liked the speaker, I really did. And I wanted to keep liking her.
The second time it happened (p. 136), I winced: "So while I tied the slowest, like retard slow, most careful giant looped bow on one of my sneakers ..."
The third time it happened (p. 140), I wasn't sure, initially, how to calibrate my reaction, how to express my shock. And I wanted to re-read The Sound and the Fury. Yuknavitch tells the reader that another writer once dismissed a story of hers as trite--a story written in response to Caddy and Benjy of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. This is her partial synopsis of her own story:
In my story, Caddy is in the present. She lives next door to a tard neighbor boyman. Because she is sexually insatiable, and because he both scares her with his too white skin and his too big for body head and his giant pants bulge and the sounds that come out of him instead of language and his pure physical brute force, she goes over to his house one day and takes her clothes off in front of him.
OK. So, in Faulkner's novel, Caddy's sexuality is the central issue, and, admittedly, the last time I read this novel was about 20 years ago, and Yuknavitch does not quite tell the reader exactly what she was trying to illustrate with this story--and granted it was a story she wrote early in her writing career--well. Here we have a person with disabilities described only in terms of his physical characteristics and 'abnormalities.' He is difference embodied. Sexualized difference. Hyper-sexualized difference. And frightening. We could substitute 'black man' in the passage quoted above, and change the diction slightly to reflect that, and then this would, instantly, be racist. But it's not prejudicial, apparently, if it's about people with disabilities.
And, frankly, what bothers me the most is the casual use of the term 'tard' to describe the character. Even if this story has serious things to say about Faulkner or feminism or power or hegemony, the choice of diction to describe the character who encompasses these meanings is awfully flippant. Which is a verbal signal that, perhaps, there is a lack of awareness about the subject and the subject matter that indicates that this story is, on every level, probably deeply flawed.
Never mind the fact that Faulkner's experimental style when writing the 'Benjy' section of The Sound and the Fury is an important contribution to postmodernism and experimental writing. That the reflection of a mind with differences is used, then, by Faulkner to illustrate similarities with the ebb and flow of the human condition--that, in Faulkner's novel, Benjy as a narrator has a place at the literary table. Never mind all of that--let's just turn that character into a stereotype.
The fourth time it happened (p. 149), I was getting angry. My empathy for the speaker had vanished: "I had my bright blue tard helmet on backwards but no one noticed." The speaker is going kayaking. She's high. She nearly kills herself. I was genuinely rooting for the rocks and the river. Hey! TBI! See what it's like to lead the life of one of those poor unfortunates you're crapping on.
Lidia Yuknavitch does not sustain a traumatic brain injury.
But the fifth time. The fifth time (p. 264). That brought out all my mother-fury:
When I first began writing this story my son Miles was seven. [... ] Miles absolutely loves swimming pools. The thing is, Miles can't exactly ... swim. When Miles gets in the pool, there is no other way to say this, he's a spaz. And he's wearing more weenie water gear than a special needs deep sea diver. Don your protective gear: goggles, life vest. Then he wades in and has the time of his life, prepared for any aqua danger, looking like a water nerd.
When I was seven I won 13 trophies with little faux gold girls leaning over for the dive on top. If my seven year old me saw his seven year old in the same pool? With all the gear? Well first of all my little posse of athletes wouldn't have gone anywhere near him. Gyawd they would have gone. What's wrong with that kid? Is he special ed? But the me inside the me would have adored him. I beg my current salary I would have been the one wishing I could swim over and try out his cool gear.
Actually, there are plenty of other ways to say all of this. She's a writer, she can think of them. My late-at-night, last angry thoughts before bed were simply a frothing fury: they involved expletives and threats. If anyone out there doesn't know it already, 'spaz' is short for 'spastic' which is a description of the muscle tone of children (and adults) with brain damage.
The entire passage uses the figure of the disabled child as the straight man for Yuknavitch's loving and 'humorous' anecdote about her child. So she's using my child's greatest vulnerabilities to create empathy for her own kid. Using my kid as a throw-away figure, a marker of difference, an emblem of lesser things, to sharpen the contrast between her kid and his cohort: see, she says, Miles isn't really like that, he's adorable. He just looks like he could be a 'tard'--he's not, look closer.
And given how Yuknavitch has thrown about these slurs in the last couple hundred pages, I don't buy her sentiment that she "would have been the one wishing I could swim over and try out his cool gear." No way. She'd have been snickering with the rest of her friends.
Never mind the fact that this book is framed by two particular pieces of Yuknavitch's life: her stillborn child and her living child. Which makes her casual bigotry for the disabled that much harder to tolerate, as she is, as a narrator, asking for our empathy in ways that cannot really be denied or withheld.
What makes me really livid, is that Yuknavitch is an academic, an academic who claims to have learned a lot from, even loves, postmodern theory: Foucault, Spivak, Derrida, and their compatriots. The thing is, postmodern theory is, all of it, at its heart or periphery, about power and hegemony. An ardent feminist, a champion of gay rights, Yuknavitch knows this. So why is she so blind to her own casual ridicule of the disabled? To her own use of the words 'retard' and 'tard' as hegemonic markers of difference? I may look like one of them, she is saying, but I'm not. I have the power to make fun of them. I have the power to use these words in my incidental speech without blow-back, without harm to myself. No matter how screwed up I am or my life is, I'm not one of those people.
And I am helpless to defend my own kid. Sure. I could log on to the book group discussion of this sometime this week. I could say my piece to all of these cool, experimental, avant garde types. I would be ridiculed. I would probably get ye olde 'it's just a word' lectures. I might be handed some diatribe about freedom of speech, or the rights of the artist. I would be accused of being simplistic. I would look like a prude, part of the bourgeoisie, a librarian. I don't think I want to subject myself to that. Do I lack courage, or am I just cognizant of my own powerlessness? Because some of the people who contribute to this book discussion are powerful in the literary world. And they wouldn't like it if I told them what I thought.
Hey. It's not easy being self-righteous. But I haven't yet figured another way to manage this problem.
As I finished reading the book--because at that point, I was collecting citations--my eye caught on the word 'idiotic' and I was reminded that 'idiot' and 'moron' were also once medical terms to describe people with disabilities. Now they've found a home in our language, cleansed of those associations. This is what supporters of the right to use the word 'retard' claim has happened to it as well.
But why does it still sting, then? Is it because it calls to mind an image, and not simply a reference to lack of intelligence? And why do my interactions with people who cling to this word and its subsidiaries feel so much like a power struggle? In the couple of instances where I've confronted someone and they've resisted, their impulse has been to belittle me. Power. Rights. This word is a totem, and it conveys rights unto the speaker: using it, like using the n-word a century ago, confers status on the speaker, establishes and confirms a pecking order, the 'natural' order of things.
It's not a coincidence that hostility toward attempts to dissuade people from using the word 'retard' is concurrent with the higher visibility of disabled people in society: in schools, around town, on the job.
But when 'retard' and 'tard' are printed in a book, it's more than just the author saying it. Someone edited this book, others blurbed this book, others have reviewed this book, and they have all tacitly condoned this use of speech. Maybe they didn't think about it. But, of all people, the book's editor should have had second thoughts, and she didn't. So a whole community of people, of literary people, have nothing and everything to say about this.
Toward the end of the book, Yuknavitch recalls a word, 'Salishan,' that had a totemic force for her--a positive force:
Then we all went down to the pool. The pool of my childhood hope. Miles kept saying the word Salishan. Words carry oceans on their small backs.
A word. An act of imagination.
Yes, Lidia, words carry oceans on their small backs.