Sunday, July 15, 2012

"They hate me for it ... I am resigned." the Trope of the "Bitter Cripple"

From H. M. S. Pinafore, Act One (Libretto by William S. Gilbert, 1878):

BOATSWAIN. Aye, Little Buttercup – and well called – for you're the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead.

BUTTERCUP. Red, am I? and round – and rosy! Maybe, for I have dissembled well! But hark ye, my merry friend – hast ever thought that beneath a gay and frivolous exterior there may lurk a canker-worm which is slowly but surely eating its way into one's very heart?

BOAT. No, my lass, I can't say I've ever thought that.

Enter Dick Deadeye. He pushes through sailors, and comes down.

DICK. I have thought it often. (All recoil from him.)

BUT. Yes, you look like it! What's the matter with the man? Isn't he well?

BOAT. Don't take no heed of him; that's only poor Dick Deadeye.

DICK. I say – it's a beast of a name, ain't it – Dick Deadeye?

BUT. It's not a nice name.

DICK. I'm ugly too, ain't I?

BUT. You are certainly plain.

DICK. And I'm three-cornered too, ain't I?

BUT. You are rather triangular.

DICK. Ha! ha! That's it. I'm ugly, and they hate me for it; for you all hate me, don't you?

ALL. We do!

DICK. There!

BOAT. Well, Dick, we wouldn't go for to hurt any fellow-creature's feelings, but you can't expect a chap with such a name as Dick Deadeye to be a popular character – now can you?


BOAT. It's asking too much, ain't it?

DICK. It is. From such a face and form as mine the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination. It is human nature – I am resigned.

This exchange, which introduces the character of Dick Deadeye, foreshadows his role as "villain" -- the one who, even though he has nothing to gain by it, deliberately sets out to thwart the hero and heroine's attempts to form a romantic union. Throughout the operetta, Dick repeatedly reminds his fellow shipmates that lofty sentiments such as equality among men, or the power of love to overcome all obstacles is no more than a) empty rhetoric, and b) wishful, delusional, thinking. Since this is a romantic comedy, Dick Deadeye's machinations come to naught -- although, to be fair, his insights into the true power of rank and privilege are still borne out. H. M. S. Pinafore was written as a comedy and a political satire, and as such, this portrayal of ugliness giving rise to cynicism and bitterness might be seen as a spoof of the melodramatic villain -- if only this weren't something that comes up in serious fiction as well.

Dick's shipmates are absolved of all responsibility for their feelings and actions toward him -- it just can't be helped. And at the same time, Dick's cynical feelings toward his fellow man, and the actions he's driven to by those feelings, are painted as entirely his own responsibility -- a weakness of his own spirit. Variations on this trope persist even into the twenty-first century, when so often, in police procedural television, the only motivation for a disabled character to commit murder is to get revenge -- either on the individual he blames for causing his disability (it's almost always a man), or bitter rage against the world at large.

Meanwhile, Dick Deadeye might just be skeptical toward those egalitarian ideals and talk of "love conquering all," because he's experienced the bigotry and hypocrisy of society.

There's no physical description of Dick Deadeye in the libretto, by the way, and no further explanation of what "Triangular" or "Three-cornered" means. It could be that he is missing an arm or a leg... although I've never seen the character portrayed that way in any production I've seen (either in a live or a televised production). That, however, may say more about the difficulty of disabled actors have in getting hired, than it does about the original intent of the operetta's authors.

Wikipedia article on H.M.S. Pinafore

The Full Libretto for H.M.S. Pinafore

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"But these things are monsters" (The Etymologiae of St. Isidore)

Today is "Blogging Against Disablism Day" on the Internet, when bloggers all over the world unite in their efforts to speak out against bigotry against people with disabilities (A link to the growing archive is at the end of this post). In honor of this day, this entry will be a little bit different than most of the pieces I've posted here in the last year. Instead of examining a single story for the expression of individual experience, I'll try to examine one of the roots of the bigotry itself.


When you grow up as a child with a disablity (even though no one ever tells you outright, in so many words), you grow up with the the feeling that when others look at you, they see some sort of monster -- a being somehow caught in a state between an actual person and an animal. You're shuffled off with other children into "special programs," and regardless of how different you are from each other, you're told by the well-meaning adults that you are all the same, and belong together.

Until just a few weeks ago, all I had to go on for this notion was a gut feeling, spurred by expressions of pity and fear that I've seen in mass media, old folktales, and the gaze of strangers when I go out in public. It was this gut feeling that prompted me to start writing this blog. And then, late last month, I learned the name "Isidore of Seville," and discovered that he had, in fact, put my gut feeling in precisely so many words.

Saint Isidore of Seville, Archbishop of Spain (d. 636), was considered one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of his day. Shortly before his death, he compiled the Etymologiae, an attempt, in twenty books, to preserve the important Pagan learning of the late Roman and Greek civilizations, and link it with Christian theology. These books influenced philosophical and literary thought for nearly a thousand years onward. Book Eleven is dedicated to mankind, and concludes with a discussion of those humans who are born with marked differences, by God's Will, to be portents of the future.

Unfortunately, the only online version I could find is in the original Latin, so I've had to rely on Google Translate to make sense of it. Despite the mangled English Google presented to me in the translation, three passages hit me like punches:


Quote: "A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature," unquote.

Ah! All the times, as a child, I'd been required to skip school, to go in for a doctor's appointment so my growth and development could be assessed against the "standard deviation --" so that my differences could be named and cataloged and written up in contrast to what is known to be "normal --" the modern, scientific word for "natural."

Second (the words in square brackets are rearranged from Google's translation):

Quote: "But these things are monsters, which are given in the signs and [do not live a long time, but they have been killed immediately as intended]" unquote.

And how many women have been counselled by their doctors, family, and "community support groups" to have an abortion if the results of an amniocentesis test comes back with unacceptable abnormalities?

And third (again, the words in square brackets are my own rearrangement):

Quote: "[However, there are things written on the transformation of men, and some monstrous beasts], just as that of the most famous sorceress Circe, who [is said to have] changed the companions of Ulysses, [into] wild beasts, and of the Arcadians, who, by lot, and [were thus] turned into wolves." Unquote.

And so was born the fairy tale motif of the enchanted human, turned into a monster by a wicked witch, waiting in lonely isolation for a prince or princess to break the spell with a kiss. This motif rears its sentimental head in every human interest story on the news, when reporters speak of "heroic efforts" to cure someone of their disability, whenever well-meaning aquaintances tell me that they "don't see [me] as disabled, but rather as a human being," -- a human form which is somehow hidden by the outer, "monstrous" shell of Disability, which hides my true nature, and separates me from God's Grace ("There, but for the Grace of God, go I").

In these fairy tales, the worthiness of the Hero, the purity of the Heroine, is judged by how much they are willing to sacrifice to rescue the enchanted victim, and return them to a fully human state. In real life, likewise, parents, siblings and spouses are judged on how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to cure the "afflicted patient." And if the "patients" themselves don't want to be cured, then they are accused, either directly or indirectly, of "giving up on life," as if life itself is only possible for those who are fully human.

But. ...Except: We are already fully human. If our form, if our way of being, falls outside what you understand is the True Order of Nature, then perhaps you need to expand your understanding, rather than try to narrow our existence.


Blogging Against Disablism Day at Diary of a Goldfish Blog -- a growing archive of all the posts: check it out.

Etymologiea of Isisdore, Book 11 (in Latin).

Isidore of Seville (Wikipedia Article)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pied Piper of Hamelin: the children left behind

Excerpt from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning, 1842 (lines 208 - 255)

The Mayor was dumb, and the Council stood
As if they were changed into blocks of wood,
Unable to move a step, or cry
To the children merrily skipping by,
-- Could only follow with the eye
That joyous crowd at the Piper's back.
But how the Mayor was on the rack,
And the wretched Council's bosoms beat,
As the Piper turned from the High Street
To where the Weser rolled its waters
Right in the way of their sons and daughters!
However he turned from South to West,
And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed,
And after him the children pressed;
Great was the joy in every breast.
"He never can cross that mighty top!
"He's forced to let the piping drop,
"And we shall see our children stop!"
When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, --
"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
"I can't forget that I'm bereft
"Of all the pleasant sights they see,
"Which the Piper also promised me.
"For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
"Joining the town and just at hand,
"Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
"And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
"And everything was strange and new;
"The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
"And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
"And honey-bees had lost their stings,
"And horses were born with eagles' wings;
"And just as I became assured
"My lame foot would be speedily cured,
"The music stopped and I stood still,
"And found myself outside the hill,
"Left alone against my will,
"To go now limping as before,
"And never hear of that country more!"

Of all the versions of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, this verse by Robert Browning is perhaps the most famous -- at least within the Western Anglophone world.

For a long while, I wondered if the piteous figure of the little lame boy, who desperately wanted to keep up with his playmates, but could not, was an invention of Browning's -- a romantic figure to tug at the heartstrings.

But a version of the story collected by the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Children of Hameln (Translated by D. L. Ashliman), also includes the detail of two children who were kept back by their "impairments": A blind boy, who could hear the music, but not see the trail, and a mute (deaf) child, who could see the trail, but could not hear the music.

Two things strike me about the depiction of Disability in these two versions. On the one hand, they're each an open acknowledgement that "all" doesn't necessarily mean All -- that not every child (and hence, every adult) can do everything in the same way as the majority. Some of us have to take the long way 'round, and thus we can't keep up and reach the "Promised Land." On the other hand, these impairments are also depicted as extremely isolating. Why didn't the deaf child and the blind child work together, for example?*

Of course, what seems like a tragedy at first may end up being a happy ending, and what seems a golden promise turns out to be a poisoned one. In a few other versions of the story (compiled, along with the Grimms' story linked to above, by Dr. Ashliman), the grown-ups eventually learn that the children who were led away ended up being sold into slavery, or taken off to war, and killed in battle. And thus, those marked as "Weak" and "Outcast" when things are going well, end up being the founders of the next generation after disaster strikes. Ultimately, these children -- the ones left behind -- are put in their perennial role of Omen-bearers, acting (unwillingly) as both witness and Sign that their society had fallen out of balance, and had become corrupted, incurring some Divine Wrath.**

We could, as a society, choose to be aware of those we are shutting out, and leaving in isolation. And we could choose to change, and be more inclusive. It is possible. Some would say it's even simple. That might be the first step in overturning our corruption, and bringing our society back into balance. It's far easier, though, to wrap ourselves in pity and sentimentality, and keep on doing as we've always done.

But either way, we're going to have to pay the piper, someday. How we pay is the choice before us.


*Though this particular view of Disability may be a quirk of the Western, European, culture this story comes from; for comparison, see the Aesop Fable The Blind Man and the Lame Man

**For an explanation of the link between Disability and Prophecy, see this entry, which I posted last April: Monsters: a Key motif, and a Symbol of Disability

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Goose-Girl at the Well (feelings of Distrust and Duty toward the Elderly and Disabled)

The Goose-Girl at the Well

Translated from the German in 1884 by Margaret Hunt; her source was the seventh edition of Kinder- und Hausmarchen, of 1857. My online source:

THERE was once upon a time a very old woman, who lived with he flock of geese in a waste place among the mountains, and there had a little house. The waste was surrounded by a large forest, and every morning the old woman took her crutch and hobbled into it. There, however, the dame was quite active, more so than any one would have thought, considering her age, and collected grass for her geese, picked all the wild fruit she could reach, and carried everything home on her back. Any one would have thought that the heavy load would have weighed her to the ground, but she always brought it safely home. If any one met her, she greeted him quite courteously. "Good day, dear countryman, it is a fine day. Ah! you wonder that I should drag grass about, but every one must take his burthen on his back." Nevertheless, people did not like to meet her if they could help it, and took by preference a round-about way, and when a father with his boys passed her, he whispered to them, "Beware of the old woman. She has claws beneath her gloves; she is a witch." One morning, a handsome young man was going through the forest. The sun shone bright, the birds sang, a cool breeze crept through the leaves, and he was full of joy and gladness. He had as yet met no one, when he suddenly perceived the old witch kneeling on the ground cutting grass with a sickle. She had already thrust a whole load into her cloth, and near it stood two baskets, which were filled with wild apples and pears. "But, good little mother," said he, "how canst thou carry all that away?" "I must carry it, dear sir," answered she, "rich folk's children have no need to do such things, but with the peasant folk the saying goes, don't look behind you, you will only see how crooked your back is!"

"Will you help me?" she said, as he remained standing by her. "You have still a straight back and young legs, it would be a trifle to you. Besides, my house is not so very far from here, it stands there on the heath behind the hill. How soon you would bound up thither." The young man took compassion on the old woman. "My father is certainly no peasant," replied he, "but a rich count; nevertheless, that you may see that it is not only peasants who can carry things, I will take your bundle." If you will try it," said she, "I shall be very glad. You will certainly have to walk for an hour, but what will that signify to you; only you must carry the apples and pears as well?" It now seemed to the young man just a little serious, when he heard of an hour's walk, but the old woman would not let him off, packed the bundle on his back, and hung the two baskets on his arm. "See, it is quite light," said she. "No, it is not light," answered the count, and pulled a rueful face. "Verily, the bundle weighs as heavily as if it were full of cobble stones, and the apples and pears are as heavy as lead! I can scarcely breathe." He had a mind to put everything down again, but the old woman would not allow it. "Just look," said she mockingly, "the young gentleman will not carry what I, an old woman, have so often dragged along. You are ready with fine words, but when it comes to be earnest, you want to take to your heels. Why are you standing loitering there?" she continued. "Step out. No one will take the bundle off again." As long as he walked on level ground, it was still bearable, but when they came to the hill and had to climb, and the stones rolled down under his feet as if they were alive, it was beyond his strength. The drops of perspiration stood on his forehead, and ran, hot and cold, down his back. "Dame," said he, "I can go no farther. I want to rest a little." "Not here," answered the old woman, "when we have arrived at our journey's end, you can rest; but now you must go forward. Who knows what good it may do you?" "Old woman, thou art becoming shameless!" said the count, and tried to throw off the bundle, but he laboured in vain; it stuck as fast to his back as if it grew there. He turned and twisted, but he could not get rid of it. The old woman laughed at this, and sprang about quite delighted on her crutch. "Don't get angry, dear sir," said she, "you are growing as red in the face as a turkey-cock! Carry your bundle patiently. I will give you a good present when we get home."

What could he do? He was obliged to submit to his fate, and crawl along patiently behind the old woman. She seemed to grow more and more nimble, and his burden still heavier. All at once she made a spring, jumped on to the bundle and seated herself on the top of it; and however withered she might be, she was yet heavier than the stoutest country lass. The youth's knees trembled, but when he did not go on, the old woman hit him about the legs with a switch and with stinging-nettles. Groaning continually, he climbed the mountain, and at length reached the old woman's house, when he was just about to drop. When the geese perceived the old woman, they flapped their wings, stretched out their necks, ran to meet her, cackling all the while. Behind the flock walked, stick in hand, an old wench, strong and big, but ugly as night. "Good mother," said she to the old woman, "has anything happened to you, you have stayed away so long?" "By no means, my dear daughter," answered she, "I have met with nothing bad, but, on the contrary, with this kind gentleman, who has carried my burthen for me; only think, he even took me on his back when I was tired. The way, too, has not seemed long to us; we have been merry, and have been cracking jokes with each other all the time." At last the old woman slid down, took the bundle off the young man's back, and the baskets from his arm, looked at him quite kindly, and said, "Now seat yourself on the bench before the door, and rest. You have fairly earned your wages, and they shall not be wanting." Then she said to the goose-girl, "Go into the house, my dear daughter, it is not becoming for thee to be alone with a young gentleman; one must not pour oil on to the fire, he might fall in love with thee." The count knew not whether to laugh or to cry. "Such a sweetheart as that," thought he, "could not touch my heart, even if she were thirty years younger." In the meantime the old woman stroked and fondled her geese as if they were children, and then went into the house with her daughter. The youth lay down on the bench, under a wild apple-tree. The air was warm and mild; on all sides stretched a green meadow, which was set with cowslips, wild thyme, and a thousand other flowers; through the midst of it rippled a clear brook on which the sun sparkled, and the white geese went walking backwards and forwards, or paddled in the water. "It is quite delightful here," said he, "but I am so tired that I cannot keep my eyes open; I will sleep a little. If only a gust of wind does not come and blow my legs off my body, for they are as rotten as tinder."

When he had slept a little while, the old woman came and shook him till he awoke. "Sit up," said she, "thou canst not stay here; I have certainly treated thee hardly, still it has not cost thee thy life. Of money and land thou hast no need, here is something else for thee." Thereupon she thrust a little book into his hand, which was cut out of a single emerald. "Take great care of it," said she, "it will bring thee good fortune." The count sprang up, and as he felt that he was quite fresh, and had recovered his vigour, he thanked the old woman for her present, and set off without even once looking back at the beautiful daughter. When he was already some way off, he still heard in the distance the noisy cry of the geese.

For three days the count had to wander in the wilderness before he could find his way out. He then reached a large town, and as no one knew him, he was led into the royal palace, where the King and Queen were sitting on their throne. The count fell on one knee, drew the emerald book out of his pocket, and laid it at the Queen's feet. She bade him rise and hand her the little book. Hardly, however, had she opened it, and looked therein, than she fell as if dead to the ground. The count was seized by the King's servants, and was being led to prison, when the Queen opened her eyes, and ordered them to release him, and every one was to go out, as she wished to speak with him in private.

When the Queen was alone, she began to weep bitterly, and said, "Of what use to me are the splendours and honours with which I am surrounded; every morning I awake in pain and sorrow. I had three daughters, the youngest of whom was so beautiful that the whole world looked on her as a wonder. She was as white as snow, as rosy as apple-blossom, and her hair as radiant as sunbeams. When she cried, not tears fell from her eyes, but pearls and jewels only. When she was fifteen years old, the King summoned all three sisters to come before his throne. You should have seen how all the people gazed when the youngest entered, it was just as if the sun were rising! Then the King spoke, "My daughters, I know not when my last day may arrive; I will to-day decide what each shall receive at my death. You all love me, but the one of you who loves me best, shall fare the best." Each of them said she loved him best. "Can you not express to me," said the King, "how much you do love me, and thus I shall see what you mean?" The eldest spoke. "I love my father as dearly as the sweetest sugar." The second, "I love my father as dearly as my prettiest dress." But the youngest was silent. Then the father said, "And thou, my dearest child, how much dost thou love me?" "I do not know, and can compare my love with nothing." But her father insisted that she should name something. So she said at last, "The best food does not please me without salt, therefore I love my father like salt." When the King heard that, he fell into a passion, and said, "If thou lovest me like salt, thy love shall also be repaid thee with salt." Then he divided the kingdom between the two elder, but caused a sack of salt to be bound on the back of the youngest, and two servants had to lead her forth into the wild forest. We all begged and prayed for her," said the Queen, "but the King's anger was not to be appeased. How she cried when she had to leave us! The whole road was strewn with the pearls which flowed from her eyes. The King soon afterwards repented of his great severity, and had the whole forest searched for the poor child, but no one could find her. When I think that the wild beasts have devoured her, I know not how to contain myself for sorrow; many a time I console myself with the hope that she is still alive, and may have hidden herself in a cave, or has found shelter with compassionate people. But picture to yourself, when I opened your little emerald book, a pearl lay therein, of exactly the same kind as those which used to fall from my daughter's eyes; and then you can also imagine how the sight of it stirred my heart. You must tell me how you came by that pearl." The count told her that he had received it from the old woman in the forest, who had appeared very strange to him, and must be a witch, but he had neither seen nor hear anything of the Queen's child. The King and the Queen resolved to seek out the old woman. They thought that there where the pearl had been, they would obtain news of their daughter.

The old woman was sitting in that lonely place at her spinning-wheel, spinning. It was already dusk, and a log which was burning on the hearth gave a scanty light. All at once there was a noise outside, the geese were coming home from the pasture, and uttering their hoarse cries. Soon afterwards the daughter also entered. But the old woman scarcely thanked her, and only shook her head a little. The daughter sat down beside her, took her spinning-wheel, and twisted the threads as nimbly as a young girl. Thus they both sat for two hours, and exchanged never a word. At last something rustled at the window, and two fiery eyes peered in. It was an old night-owl, which cried, "Uhu!" three times. The old woman looked up just a little, then she said, "Now, my little daughter, it is time for thee to go out and do thy work." She rose and went out, and where did she go? Over the meadows ever onward into the valley. At last she came to a well, with three old oak-trees standing beside it; meanwhile the moon had risen large and round over the mountain, and it was so light that one could have found a needle. She removed a skin which covered her face, then bent down to the well, and began to wash herself. When she had finished, she dipped the skin also in the water, and then laid it on the meadow, so that it should bleach in the moonlight, and dry again. But how the maiden was changed! Such a change as that was never seen before! When the gray mask fell off, her golden hair broke forth like sunbeams, and spread about like a mantle over her whole form. Her eyes shone out as brightly as the stars in heaven, and her cheeks bloomed a soft red like apple-blossom.

But the fair maiden was sad. She sat down and wept bitterly. One tear after another forced itself out of her eyes, and rolled through her long hair to the ground. There she sat, and would have remained sitting a long time, if there had not been a rustling and cracking in the boughs of the neighbouring tree. She sprang up like a roe which has been overtaken by the shot of the hunter. Just then the moon was obscured by a dark cloud, and in an instant the maiden had slipped on the old skin and vanished, like a light blown out by the wind.

She ran back home, trembling like an aspen-leaf. The old woman was standing on the threshold, and the girl was about to relate what had befallen her, but the old woman laughed kindly, and said, "I already know all." She led her into the room and lighted a new log. She did not, however, sit down to her spinning again, but fetched a broom and began to sweep and scour, "All must be clean and sweet," she said to the girl. "But, mother," said the maiden, "why do you begin work at so late an hour? What do you expect?" "Dost thou know then what time it is?" asked the old woman. "Not yet midnight," answered the maiden, "but already past eleven o'clock." "Dost thou not remember," continued the old woman, "that it is three years to-day since thou camest to me? Thy time is up, we can no longer remain together." The girl was terrified, and said, "Alas! dear mother, will you cast me off? Where shall I go? I have no friends, and no home to which I can go. I have always done as you bade me, and you have always been satisfied with me; do not send me away." The old woman would not tell the maiden what lay before her. "My stay here is over," she said to her, "but when I depart, house and parlour must be clean: therefore do not hinder me in my work. Have no care for thyself, thou shalt find a roof to shelter thee, and the wages which I will give thee shall also content thee." "But tell me what is about to happen," the maiden continued to entreat. "I tell thee again, do not hinder me in my work. Do not say a word more, go to thy chamber, take the skin off thy face, and put on the silken gown which thou hadst on when thou camest to me, and then wait in thy chamber until I call thee."

But I must once more tell of the King and Queen, who had journeyed forth with the count in order to seek out the old woman in the wilderness. The count had strayed away from them in the wood by night, and had to walk onwards alone. Next day it seemed to him that he was on the right track. He still went forward, until darkness came on, then he climbed a tree, intending to pass the night there, for he feared that he might lose his way. When the moon illumined the surrounding country he perceived a figure coming down the mountain. She had no stick in her hand, but yet he could see that it was the goose-girl, whom he had seen before in the house of the old woman. "Oho," cried he, "there she comes, and if I once get hold of one of the witches, the other shall not escape me!" But how astonished he was, when she went to the well, took off the skin and washed herself, when her golden hair fell down all about her, and she was more beautiful than any one whom he had ever seen in the whole world. He hardly dared to breathe, but stretched his head as far forward through the leaves as he dared, and stared at her. Either he bent over too far, or whatever the cause might be, the bough suddenly cracked, and that very moment the maiden slipped into the skin, sprang away like a roe, and as the moon was suddenly covered, disappeared from his eyes. Hardly had she disappeared, before the count descended from the tree, and hastened after her with nimble steps. He had not been gone long before he saw, in the twilight, two figures coming over the meadow. It was the King and Queen, who had perceived from a distance the light shining in the old woman's little house, and were going to it. The count told them what wonderful things he had seen by the well, and they did not doubt that it had been their lost daughter. They walked onwards full of joy, and soon came to the little house. The geese were sitting all round it, and had thrust their heads under their wings and were sleeping, and not one of them moved. The King and Queen looked in at the window, the old woman was sitting there quite quietly spinning, nodding her head and never looking round. The room was perfectly clean, as if the little mist men, who carry no dust on their feet, lived there. Their daughter, however, they did not see. They gazed at all this for a long time, at last they took heart, and knocked softly at the window. The old woman appeared to have been expecting them; she rose, and called out quite kindly, "Come in, I know you already." When they had entered the room, the old woman said, "You might have spared yourself the long walk, if you had not three years ago unjustly driven away your child, who is so good and loveable. No harm has come to her; for three years she has had to tend the geese; with them she has learnt no evil, but has preserved her purity of heart. You, however, have been sufficiently punished by the misery in which you have lived." Then she went to the chamber and called, "Come out, my little daughter." Thereupon the door opened, and the princess stepped out in her silken garments, with her golden hair and her shining eyes, and it was as if an angel from heaven had entered.

She went up to her father and mother, fell on their necks and kissed them; there was no help for it, they all had to weep for joy. The young count stood near them, and when she perceived him she became as red in the face as a moss-rose, she herself did not know why. The King said, "My dear child, I have given away my kingdom, what shall I give thee?" "She needs nothing," said the old woman. "I give her the tears that she has wept on your account; they are precious pearls, finer than those that are found in the sea, and worth more than your whole kingdom, and I give her my little house as payment for her services." When the old woman had said that, she disappeared from their sight. The walls rattled a little, and when the King and Queen looked round, the little house had changed into a splendid palace, a royal table had been spread, and the servants were running hither and thither.

The story goes still further, but my grandmother, who related it to me, had partly lost her memory, and had forgotten the rest. I shall always believe that the beautiful princess married the count, and that they remained together in the palace, and lived there in all happiness so long as God willed it. Whether the snow-white geese, which were kept near the little hut, were verily young maidens (no one need take offence,) whom the old woman had taken under her protection, and whether they now received their human form again, and stayed as handmaids to the young Queen, I do not exactly know, but I suspect it. This much is certain, that the old woman was no witch, as people thought, but a wise woman, who meant well. Very likely it was she who, at the princess's birth, gave her the gift of weeping pearls instead of tears. That does not happen now-a-days, or else the poor would soon become rich.


The opening scenes of this tale between the Witch (or "Wise Woman") and the Young Count are heavily laden with all the complexes we still feel, as a culture, when we think of the elderly and disabled.

There is, first, the voicing of admiration toward the old woman for how strong and capable she remains, in spite of her age. There is the sense that the elderly are due our respect and kindness. There is the sense of pity at the thought of how this woman is living "all alone," and obligated to do more than her share of physical labor just to survive.

But at the same time, the very same energy which draws our admiration ("Oh, it's so inspiring, Dear, that you're so spry at your age!") also draws our suspicion -- the feeling that she must somehow be cheating or lying about the level of her disability, and that she is taking advantage of the well-meaning caregiver who offers to help.

And as for the caregiver -- the young Count who has "no choice" but to endure her abuse once he's agreed to the commitment -- for him, it turns out, performing this duty was only a test of his moral character: Was he truly good enough at heart to deserve the beautiful princess?

- - -

All of these aspects remind me of current debates around the issue of "entitlements" and services for the elderly and disabled:

The "human interest" stories about the isolation and/or abuse of our society's elders, with temporary outrage over how "something must be done." And how, often, in the very same hour's broadcast (or on the same page of the newspaper), there's a piece about needing to stamp out entitlement fraud, and in our own families (regardless of how variable the symptoms of our disabilities may be), there is often distrust and disbelief if we need help with something today that we could do just fine yesterday.

And over it all, there is the broader narrative of how saintly and sacrificing the caregivers are, for putting up with the burden of the disabled.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (the Disabled would be happiest 'with their own kind')

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier"
By Hans Christian Andersen, 1838
(Excerpt quoted from the The English Translation by Jean Hersholt, 1949)

All the soldiers looked exactly alike except one. He looked a little different as he had been cast last of all. The tin was short, so he had only one leg. But there he stood, as steady on one leg as any of the other soldiers on their two. But just you see, he'll be the remarkable one.

On the table with the soldiers were many other playthings, and one that no eye could miss was a marvelous castle of cardboard. It had little windows through which you could look right inside it. And in front of the castle were miniature trees around a little mirror supposed to represent a lake. The wax swans that swam on its surface were reflected in the mirror. All this was very pretty but prettiest of all was the little lady who stood in the open doorway of the castle. Though she was a paper doll, she wore a dress of the fluffiest gauze. A tiny blue ribbon went over her shoulder for a scarf, and in the middle of it shone a spangle that was as big as her face. The little lady held out both her arms, as a ballet dancer does, and one leg was lifted so high behind her that the tin soldier couldn't see it at all, and he supposed she must have only one leg, as he did.

"That would be a wife for me," he thought. "But maybe she's too grand. She lives in a castle. I have only a box, with four-and-twenty roommates to share it. That's no place for her. But I must try to make her acquaintance."

"But maybe she's too grand. She lives in a castle. I have only a box, with four-and-twenty roommates to share it. That's no place for her. But I must try to make her acquaintance." Still as stiff as when he stood at attention, he lay down on the table behind a snuffbox, where he could admire the dainty little dancer who kept standing on one leg without ever losing her balance.

When the evening came the other tin soldiers were put away in their box, and the people of the house went to bed. Now the toys began to play among themselves at visits, and battles, and at giving balls. The tin soldiers rattled about in their box, for they wanted to play too, but they could not get the lid open. The nutcracker turned somersaults, and the slate pencil squeaked out jokes on the slate. The toys made such a noise that they woke up the canary bird, who made them a speech, all in verse. The only two who stayed still were the tin soldier and the little dancer. Without ever swerving from the tip of one toe, she held out her arms to him, and the tin soldier was just as steadfast on his one leg. Not once did he take his eyes off her.

Then the clock struck twelve and - clack! - up popped the lid of the snuffbox. But there was no snuff in it, no-out bounced a little black bogey, a jack-in-the-box.

"Tin soldier," he said. "Will you please keep your eyes to yourself?" The tin soldier pretended not to hear.

The bogey said, "Just you wait till tomorrow."
So begins the tragic story of unexpressed love, as the bogey-in-the-snuffbox (A practical joke much like the Twentieth Century snake-in-the-can-of-peanut-brittle) initiates a chain of curses that ends with the tin soldier and the ballerina perishing together in the parlor fireplace. Although the bogey's reasons are never spelled out, the implication is that the tin soldier is punished for dreaming "Above his station--" that someone as imperfect as he should never dare to dream of being with someone as perfect as she.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a wholly original story by Hans Christian Andersen -- unlike many of his earlier tales, it was not based on any traditional folktale. As such, it could be argued that the tin soldier is given only one leg simply as a plot device -- a way to set him apart from his twenty-four brothers and explain why he, alone, meets the fate he does and becomes the hero of the story when the others do not.

But the notion that he fell in love with the dancer because (he thought) "...she must have one leg, just as he did," is an assumption held by many: that, naturally, a disabled person would be most comfortable and would only want to love "Someone like them." And while it is often true that attraction comes through shared experience, there is so much more to being "like someone" than a single physical attribute -- especially if the similarity is seen only from the outside.

When I was a junior in college, living on campus in the one dorm adapted to be wheelchair accessible, there was a handsome paraplegic around campus -- not a student at the school, he was the son of one of the people in the Admissions Office. He was studying for the Bar, and rumor had it he played a role with Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July; when he came into the room, people turned their heads to watch him. Two of my dorm mates, who formed a clique of their own, were somewhat smitten with him. But they were both able-bodied. So instead, they would lobby me (and the other young woman in my dorm with cerebral palsy) to date him, saying that we "would make a cute couple," so that he would have reason to come around the dorm more often.

I resisted. I was an English Major, he was a lawyer-in-training. Other than the fact that we both got around on wheels, and needed the elevator to get between floors, we had nothing in common. Besides: I was insulted that my wheelchair use was the only thing they noticed about me, and would try to use that as a means to get closer to their crush. The other young woman they lobbied, however, did give in to their pressure, briefly, I believe as much out of her own curiosity as anything else. As I recall, the resulting "affair" was an awkward one, and lasted less than a week.

Along with the notion that if a disabled person is romantically connected with an able-bodied partner, then it must be a great burden and sacrifice on the partner's shoulders -- that, like the paper ballerina in Andersen's tale, they are destined to have their lives nobly consumed and sacrificed through the support they give -- that they are more caregivers or aides than lovers and spouses.

This creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's hard enough to find a true connection of the heart in this world, but it's harder still when many of the people you meet assume you cannot contribute equally to a relationship.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mary's Child: the Privilege of Speech and Human Identity.

I first read this story some twenty-five years ago, as part of a survey course on fairy tales in college. I admit that I've not given it much thought since then, until a reader of this blog brought it back to my attention. Therefore, I'm not as deeply familiar with this story as I'd like to be in order to attempt my own full retelling. But I still want to address some of the themes and ideas expressed in this story. So I will give an outline of the story, and point you to this translation by D. L. Ashliman: Mary's Child.

The story tells of a poor woodcutter with a three year-old daughter. He and his wife can no longer afford to feed the child, so the Virgin Mary appears to him in the forest and offers to take the child up to heaven to care for her there. For eleven years, the girl grows up in heaven, with plenty of food, fine clothes, and angels for playmates. But when she is fourteen, Mary has to go away on a trip, and she gives the keys to Heaven's mansion to the girl for safe-keeping -- thirteen in all -- and tells her she is free to open twelve of the doors, but the thirteenth is forbidden.

Naturally, as is the way with these stories, the girl disobeys, and when Mary returns and questions her about her behavior, denies her sin three times. For that thrice-repeated lie, Mary casts her out of Heaven into a forest prison. When the girl tries to call out for help, she discovers that the Virgin has also taken away her voice, and made her mute. She lives like an animal for many years, eating roots and berries, with only a hollow tree lined with dried leaves for shelter. The fine clothing she was given to wear in Heaven gradually falls apart, until she is naked, except for the long hair.

Then, one day, a young king is riding through the forest and finds her, and asks if she wants to marry him, she nods, and he takes her back to his palace and marries her.

The queen, then, over the course of three years, gives birth to three children, but each night after the births, the Virgin Mary gives her a chance to confess her sin and repent; each time, the queen continues to lie, and the Virgin takes her newborn baby.

After the third child disappears, the king can no longer defend her, and she goes on trial for infanticide and cannibalism. Because she cannot speak in her own defense, she is convicted and ordered burned alive at the stake. It is only when the flames start rising around her that the queen repents, and wishes that she could have confessed while she had the chance.

Then, the Virgin sends a torrential rain to douse the fire, and descends to Earth bringing back the queen's three children. She also gives back the queen's ability to speak, and blesses her with happiness for as long as she lives, declaring that all who repent of their sins and confess shall be forgiven.

Here's a bit of context for my analysis of this story: I have cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a broad term for several brain differences that affects control of voluntary muscles, ranging in severity from "you can only tell it's there if you squint," to "Can barely move without assistance;" most people with C.P. fall somewhere in the middle. While not the most common cause of mobility impairment in the overall population, it is the most common cause beginning in childhood. Because it has an impact on how a child grows up, it is grouped together with Down Syndrome and Autism as a "Developmental Disorder." In many people with C.P. (but not all), the muscles involved in speech are affected.

When I was between the ages of ten and thirteen, I attended a special "Sleep-away" camp for kids with disabilities. Along with segregating cabins by gender (boys' cabins and girls' cabins), we were segregated according to which sort of disability we had: mobility impairment, blindness, deafness, etc.. And the cabins were set up so that a boys' cabin and a girls' cabin shared one wall, and a communal "front porch" (So sleeping and bathing facilities were unisex, but socializing was co-ed). Each cabin housed a dozen or so campers. So for two weeks every year, for four years, I lived in close communion with dozens of other wheelchair-using kids "like me." Most of those other kids also had C.P..

Some of those other kids were fluent speakers, like I am. But several kids had difficulty speaking and were labeled "Non-verbal." They communicated by other means-- such as a picture board, where they would point at simple pictures representing things they might want; they would have to wait for an able-bodied counselor to bring the picture board within reach before they could "say" anything, and then, of course, they were limited by which pictures were available to them.

To a one, all the "non-verbal" kids with C.P. had also been labeled as "retarded" (Which was still the standard medical term used, back in the 1970s). But none of the fluently speaking kids were.

What made this especially appalling was the way in which the so-called "retarded" kids were treated. I witnessed counselors, who, while helping a camper to eat, laugh with each other about how that camper chewed, or comment, in public and out loud (and at the dinner table): "Oh, look, you can tell she's having a bowel movement." After all, they don't really understand what's being said. So what does it matter? And when these same campers expressed an outburst of rage or frustration, that was counted as further evidence that they were, in fact, retarded, and unable to "modulate their behavior."

In the stories we tell ourselves, whether they are fairy tales or abstracts in medical journals, fluent speech is the brightest, hardest, line dividing humanity from other animals. In Mary's Child, the heroine's loss of speech is the first step in her descent to an animal-like life: sheltering in a hollow tree, and with only her own hair to cover her nakedness. The king's advisers, witnessing her lack of speech, attributed bestial qualities to her nature, and jumped to the conclusion that she had eaten her own children. And without the ability to speak, the queen could not affirm her humanity.

Modern-day doctors, psychologists, and educators still rely, for the most part, on a child's fluent speech as the first means to assess their intelligence. Without it, mental retardation is often assumed; a search of the Web for information on cerebral palsy is likely to bring up this statistic: "Between 30% and 50% of all children with cerebral palsy have some level of retardation." Even if that range is absolutely accurate, imagine the shift in bias if that equation were given the other way around: "Between 50% and 70% of all children with cerebral palsy have normal (or above normal) intelligence."

And from the moment "retardation" or "cognitive impairment" is mentioned, the person is often treated more like an animal than a human-- not accused of violence, these days, but cooed at and petted as if they were a puppy or a rag doll. And without the ability to speak, they cannot affirm their humanity.

But the thing is: these stories (Whether fairy tales or medical abstracts) are just stories. And they can always be rewritten.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Tiny Tim and the Role of Disabled as Object Lessons

A Brief Excerpt from
A Christmas Carol
a Ghost Story of Christmas

By Charles Dickens (first published 1843)

So Martha hid herself, and in came little Bob, the father, with at least three feet of comforter exclusive of the fringe, hanging down before him; and his threadbare clothes darned up and brushed, to look seasonable; and Tiny Tim upon his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!

"Why, where's our Martha?" cried Bob Cratchit, looking round.

"Not coming," said Mrs. Cratchit.

"Not coming!" said Bob, with a sudden declension in his high spirits; for he had been Tim's blood horse all the way from church, and had come home rampant. "Not coming upon Christmas Day!"

Martha didn't like to see him disappointed, if it were only in joke; so she came out prematurely from behind the closet door, and ran into his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim, and bore him off into the wash-house, that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.

"And how did little Tim behave?" asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart's content.

"As good as gold," said Bob, "and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."

Bob's voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty.

Let me just begin by saying that A Christmas Carol is one of my all time favorite stories. If you are not yet familiar with Dickens' original, I will be so bold as to recommend it; no movie adaptation, no matter how well done, can capture the skill of Dickens' wit and word-craft.

Part of the reason I love the book is, also, the story of its own creation. Dickens started out, in February of 1843, trying to write a political pamphlet describing the hardships of poor children working in the tin mines of Cornwall. But he came to realize that what he really needed, in order to motivate people to change their society for the better was art, and a well-told, emotional story, rather than logical arguments, facts, figures, and political slogans. Charles Dickens had such faith in his story that he paid for its publication himself, and while it didn't earn him the monetary income he was hoping for at the time, his story did work at least some magic on the culture, and has been credited with making people fall in love with the idea of Christmas all over again, when the traditions had been all but forgotten, except by a few cultural historians and "folklore geeks." What writer wouldn't dream of having such a legacy?

However, it is the story's very power and popularity that makes Tiny Tim such a problematic character. It's an odd thing about human beings, that, no matter how much true life experience we may have, we are unlikely to give it much credit, until we see it reflected back to us in the form of a story. Tiny Tim, having such a central, symbolic presence in a story that has been told over and over, for almost 170 years, is, arguably, the most consistent image of "What Disability Looks Like," how the Disabled should behave, and how Society, as a whole, should respond to the presence of Disability.

In many ways, Tiny Tim reflects the early origins of the word monster: as an omen or warning from the Divine to the citizens of the city. His frailty and disability, made visible by his crutch and iron brace, served as a "warning" that the industrial capitalism of England, at the time, was leading the society into social sin. And the vision of Tiny Tim's empty stool and abandoned crutch, as revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, was a personal warning to Scrooge himself about his own death.

Inside that broad allegorical framework, Tiny Tim displays nearly all the beliefs about disability that are held by the able-bodied privileged, and are reiterated in nearly every 'human interest story' on the news. The message is, that as Disabled People, we need to be as "Good as gold, and better," and to do that, we should welcome the stares and pity of strangers, and accept that our primary role in life is to Inspire Others (especially the able-bodied), by being sweet and spiritual at all times, and, especially, in the end, to Overcome our Disability, in the end, by being cured, and leaving our crutches and our braces behind. I also note that, except for his one line: "God bless us-- every one!" we never actually hear Tiny Tim speak in his own voice, but that everything we know about him we learn through his parents' (primarily his father's) emotional response to his existence, and that, within his own family, Tiny Tim is depicted as a Beloved Burden.

This last facet of the Tiny Tim trope is reflected in our modern, public discussions of "Disability Policy" when the family members of the disabled are treated as the Ultimate authorities, but the experiences of the disabled, themselves, are ignored or discounted.

As wonderful a story as A Christmas Carol is, it's important to remember that it is fiction, and that Tiny Tim is an allegorical figure-- and does not reflect the actual lived experiences of people with disabilities.


Wikipedia article: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at Project

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A-Begging We Shall Go: the accusation of faking disability for the sake of ill-gotten "benefits"

A-BEGGING WE SHALL GO, or "A Jovial Beggar" (from a seventeenth century broadside; attributed to Richard Brome, for use as a chorus in his play The Jovial Crew

[1] There was a jovial Beggar, he had a wooden Leg;
Lame from his Cradle, and forcéd for to Beg.

[CHORUS] And a Begging we will go, we'll go, we'll go,
And a Begging we will go.

[2] A Bag for my Oat-meal, another for my Salt,
A little pair of Crutches to see how I can halt.
And a Begging, &c.

[3] A Bag for my Bread, another for my Cheese,
A little Dog to follow me to gather what I leese. [or "leefe"?]
And a Begging, &c.

[4] A Bag for my Wheat, another for my Rye,
A little Bottle by my side to drink when I'm adry.
And a Begging, &c.

[5] To Pimlico we'll go, where merry we shall be,
With ev'ry Man a Can in's Hand, and a Wench upon his Knee.
And a Begging, &c.

[6] And when that we are disposéd, we tumble on the Grass,
With long patch'd Coats for to hide a pretty Lass.
And a Begging, &c.

[7] Seven Years I servéd my old Master Wild;
Seven Years I beggéd, whilst I was but a Child.
And a Begging, &c.

[8] I had the pretty knack for to wheedle and to cry;
By young and by old, much pitied e'er was I.
And a Begging, &c.

[9] Fatherless and Motherless still was my Complaint,
And none that ever saw me, but took me for a Saint.
And a Begging, &c.

[10] I begg'd for my Master, and got him store of Pelf;
But Jove now be praiséd, I now beg for my self.
And a Begging, &c
[11] Within a hollow Tree I live, and pay no Rent;
Providence provides for me, and I am well content.
And a Begging, &c.

[12] Of all Occupations a Beggar lives the best; For when he is a weary he'll lie him down and rest.
And a Begging, &c.

[13] I fear no Plots against me, but live in open Cell; Why who wou'd be a King, when a Beggar lives so well?
And a Begging, &c.

(notes: Leefe, in verse three, means "like," or "desire;" Pelf, in verse ten, means "money" or "ill-gotten gains.")

I have seen this song cited, by some, as evidence that, back in "ye olden days," people would fake the need for prosthetic legs, because having one made begging more profitable. But while it may be possible for an actor on the stage to make it appear as if one or more legs is missing (by binding a leg bent back at the knee, and hiding it in a pant leg), such an illusion is sustained, in large part, by the fact that the actor has a great deal of control over how the audience sees him, and by the fact the audience, for the sake of enjoying the performance, is willing to suspend its disbelief. There is no such leeway given to disabled people in real life. In fact, we live, as a whole, under extra suspicion, in case we are using our disability to "take advantage of the system." As if living in a hollow tree, or sheltering under a bridge, really were preferable to living in a palace.

An able-bodied person may hear, in this song, a sense of smugness and gloating. As someone who lives with disability, I hear the voice of sarcasm and "laughing so I do not cry."

Monday, October 31, 2011

"Sammle's Ghost" -- a Tale for Halloween

This is a retelling I composed something like thirteen or fourteen years ago, as best as I can recollect; I've not been able to find an etext version on line, yet.

Source: Briggs, Katherine. "Sammle's Ghost" British Folktales. Pantheon Books, New York. 1977. Pages 191-192.

"Sammle's Ghost"

Once, a young man named Sammle was killed in a fire which blazed until his body was nothing but ashes scattered on the wind. When everything was calm again, he woke as a spirit and rose up. The new Sammle was very disoriented, because now he could see all the other spirits and bogles the he never saw when he was alive. It was as if he were lost in a strange and crowded city, and he didn't know where to go.

Finally, another soul noticed his confusion and said to him: "You must go to the graveyard, and see the Great Worm. Tell him you're dead, and ask him to have your body eaten up, because until then, you won't be able to rest in the Earth."

So Sammle wondered about looking for the Worm, asking all the ghosts and spirits how to get there. Finally, he came to a great underground cavern, with passages leading off in all direction, like a maze, and he followed them down and down until he got close to what he was sure was the center point. The air was hot and damp, and smelled of mold, moss and sulfur. Strange, glowing, creatures clung to the walls, illuminating everything with a strange, blue-green light. Snails and slugs and other slimy things that Sammle could not name crawled over and under his feet. Fluttery things, like bats and giant moths, flew about his head.

After what seemed to be an eternity, Sammle came to the great central chamber, where the Great Worm himself lay coiled on a flat stone, as though he were king on a throne.

He raised his head as Sammle entered, and swung it from side to side, sniffing the air, for he was completely blind. "Sammle!" he called out, thrusting his giant head into the lad's face. "Sammle, you are dead and buried, is that it? Dead and food for worms?"

"I-I suppose so, Your Honor," Sammle answered, surprised that this creature knew him by name.

"Well, then, where are you?"

"I, um, I'm right here, Your Worship," he answered, not wanting to offend, but unsure of the proper form of address.

The Great Worm scoffed. "You don't think we can eat spirit, do you?" he asked. "We need your body before you can rest in the Earth. Where is your body buried?"

It's not buried, that's just it. It was burned to ashes, and scattered by the wind."

"Phew! You'll not be very tasty, then. But that's not important. Just gather your ashes and bring them back to me."

So Sammle wandered high and low, picking up every ash and bit of bone one by one, and putting them all in a sack. He then returned and gave them to the Great Worm, who crawled down inside and sniffed around."

"Sammle," the Worm said, from inside the sack, "You're not all here."

"Well, I've gathered all my ashes, of that, I'm certain."

"There's an arm missing."

"Oh, that's right," Sammle said. "It was amputated when I was young."

"If you want to rest, Sammle," the Worm said, "you must find it and bring it back here."

"Well, I've not idea where the doctor put it. But I'm willing to look." And so he journeyed over the wide world, and eventually found his arm, and brought it back to the Worm. ...Where it had been kept, and whether anyone noticed it was missing, I don't know. But Sammle couldn't worry about that, now.

The Great Worm turned it over and over, sniffing it carefully. "No...." he said, slowly, "there's still something missing. Are you sure you never lost any other part of you?" he asked.

Sammle wracked his brains. "I lost a pinky nail," he said at last, "and it never grew back."

"That must be it, then. You'll have to find it, too."

"I'm afraid that's impossible," said Sammle. "But I'm willing to try." And try he did. He searched high and low, in places only a ghost could go. But years passed, and he couldn't find it. So at last he returned to the Worm to report his failure.

"I've looked high, and I've looked low," he said, "and I'm afraid I couldn't find it even if I searched a thousand years more. Are you sure you can't make do with what you've got? A nail is such a small thing, after all."

"I am sure," the Worm said. "If you want to take rest in the Earth, the Earth must have all of you. If you're certain you can't find it . . ."

"Certain, unfortunately."

"Then you must walk for all eternity. I'm very sorry for you. But try to make the best of it -- you'll have lots of good company."

Then all the creeping things and fluttering things turned Sammle out of the Great Worm's chamber for the last time. And, unless he has found it, his is still searching for his pinky nail.

Earlier this month, when I was trying to figure out which story to retell here, in honor of Halloween, I thought first of all the stories with witches in them, where the old women are identified as witches because they walked hunched over, with a crutch, or had a shaking palsy in their hands and/or head. And then, "Sammle" floated to the surface, and I remembered the detail about his amputated arm.

I've loved this story from the time I first read it, back in my teens, especially for the way the world of ghosts and spirits is depicted as a parallel society -- dark and eerie, perhaps, but neither particularly evil nor mournful... just different (and even having its own sort of humor).

The loss of Sammle's arm is treated the same way; until he'd died in the fire, it's implied, he'd lived most of his life with one arm. And yet, that difference was so incidental to his sense of Self that he had to be reminded of it by someone else. This is also a reminder of how common amputation was, "back in the day," before doctors had such things as antibiotics to stop infection from spreading from a wounded limb to the rest of the body.

In the universe of this story, then, it can be inferred that most ghosts (like pirates) are missing body parts. And thus, as in life, the disabled are living in a separate, parallel, almost inivisable community from the world of the "Wholes" and the "Normals."

But still, that doesn't make it especially tragic or mournful. Just different. And we often do have our own sense of humor about it all.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halfman -- navigating the barriers of mockery and hatred

Source: Halfman: a tale from Greece (Collected and translated into German by Johann Georg von Hahn in 1864 -- Translated from German by D.L. Ashliman, Copyright 2011)

Summary (of the plot points relevant to disability -- check the link above for the full story):

Just as in the Grimm Brothers' tales "Thumbthick" and "Hans-my-hedgehog," which I've posted about earlier, this story begins with an elderly person who desperately wishes for a child. This time, it is a single elderly woman who wishes for a child -- even if it is only half-a-child. And, as in those other tales, her wish is granted absolutely literally: the child she gives birth to has half a face, half a trunk, one arm and one leg. At first, she keeps him at home, whether from shame (as with Hans's parents), over-protectiveness (as with Thumbthick's) or a combination, is left for the audience to decide.

Halfman, however, is bored being stuck at home, and begs his mother to give him a mule, an ax, and a rope so that he can go out into the forest and collect firewood. At first, his mother says "no," assuming that such work would be impossible for him. But, like all sons and daughters in wonder tales, Halfman won't take no for an answer, and his persistent begging pays off. His mother lets him go.

And he does the work so well that she is happy to let him keep doing the work. And it's on one of his subsequent trips into the forest that the story really begins. For on the way, he passes below a princess's window, and she points, laughs, and mocks him loudly to the point where he becomes so embarrassed that he drops first his ax, and then his rope, which, in turn, gives the princess (and all her handmaidens) even more reason (in their minds) to laugh at him.

Halfman then has a choice to make: stay there, and figure out the best way to pick up his ax and rope (and thus expose himself to even more abuse), or get away. He chooses the latter, and hurries past the castle and into the forest. Once there, he has to figure out how to do his work without his tools. While he is pondering this, he sees a fish swim close by the shore of a lake, so he takes off his coat and throws it, like a net, over the fish and catches it.

The fish begs for its life, promising, in return, to teach Halfman a chant that will make all his wishes come true. And to prove he's telling the truth, the fish uses the chant himself to load the mule with firewood. So Halfman lets the fish go and starts back for home. But he has to pass in front of the princess's window, again. This time, she and her handmaidens laugh even harder at his success than they had at his apparent failure. And, provoked to anger, Halfman uses the magic spell to wish the princess pregnant.

This brings shame to the royal family, and when it's Halfman who's revealed to be the father, the king is so disgusted that he orders the princess, her child, and Halfman sealed into an iron cask, and thrown into the sea with just enough figs to keep the child alive a little longer than either of his parents. But in return for one fig at a time, Halfman reveals the truth of his powers, and wishes, one-by-one, for all the things they need, and all the things the princess desires, until they are living on an island in a magnificent, magical castle.

Eventually, the king discovers the castle, and after keeping her identity secret at first, the princess gets him to see the injustice he's done to her (but not Halfman, I may note), and so he welcomes her and her son back into the family. He marries her off to a nobleman, and makes Halfman his chief bodyguard. As a reward, he "gives" Halfman a beautiful slave girl to marry... And they all live happily ever after (except the slave girl, who has no say in the matter, and Halfman, who loses custody of his child, and is demoted from royal consort to bodyguard ... But who's counting, right?)


This story highlights just how great a barrier bigotry is, in the overall scheme of things. For those of us with physical or mental differences, it's the often the idea of being made a spectacle of that's far more daunting and discouraging than the idea of actually working. If we flinch and fail under scrutiny, then that's taken as proof that our differences make us defective. If we manage to succeed in our endeavors, then, that, too, is used as a reason to stick us in the spotlight, and comment on all our differences, and make us an object of entertainment for those watching us from their windows (or watching "Inspiring Human Interest Stories" on their TVs).

This is just one of several stories collected, edited, and translated by D.L. Ashliman on the motif of The Fool Whose Wishes All Came True. In all the other stories, however, the princess brides demand that the titular fool wish himself "Handsome and Clever," so they don't have to be embarrassed to be married to him (and that is like so many of the Disability Narratives around today -- where the focus of the story, supposedly about "living with disability," is actually about the able-bodied relative or 'friend,' and the embarrassment or burden they feel, being around us). In all those other stories, the fools end up accepted as heirs to the king. Only Halfman remains physically unchanged at the end of the tale. And only he is denied the right to call himself part of the family.

I'm reminded of the ending of "The Girl Without Hands," where the daughter was only publicly acknowledged as the queen after her flesh and bone hands grew back, and she no longer needed her silver prosthetics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Just a quick note: how I've done things, how I will do things

Up until now, all the folktales I've chosen to discuss are those I've known well and long, through several translations; this has given me the confidence that my words are my own, and I'm not inadvertently plagiarizing someone else.

However, this project has led me to several stories which are new to me, and I would love to share and talk about, but only have one translation to work with (this is particularly true for stories outside the European tradition, many of which are new translations, only a few years old).

In those cases, I will only summarize the tale here, but will include a link to the online source where I found it, so the original translator and copyright holder gets the credit (and traffic) they deserve.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"They that went on Crutches" (the intersection of disability and old age)

The Winter's Tale
(Act 1, Scene 1; lines 20-45)

I think there is not in the world either malice or matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came into my note.

I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man.

Would they else be content to die?

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should desire to live.

If the king had no son, they would desire to live on crutches till he had one.


I first saw The Winter's Tale on a high school field trip to New York City, over thirty years ago; I believe it was the first Shakespeare play I'd seen performed live on stage. And I fell in love with it (it's a play structured like a fairy tale, after all, which was already one of my favorite genres of literature, even back then).

But it wasn't until I reread it, a few years ago, that I took note of the closing lines of this opening scene, and the comment about how "they that [go] on crutches" will want to keep on living, even if those around them look at their lives from the outside, and conclude they have nothing to live for.

I mentioned this to someone at the time (but I forget who that someone was). And I commented that, despite all the rest that has changed over the last four hundred years, this aspect of life for the Disabled has remained constant. People who say to themselves or others: "I couldn't bear life if I had to be wheelchair-bound!" would probably discover, should they actually need to use a wheelchair or crutches, someday, that life is still bearable, and even enjoyable, after all.

This person then reminded me not to attribute to Shakespeare's philosophy what he never intended (which is always a risk when looking back at the "Greats" of history and the arts), and said that he was probably not talking about Disability at all -- at least, not in the way in which I was thinking about it. In his day, "a crutch" was a shorthand symbol for "elderly," in much the same way as walkers (walking frames) and scooters are for us.

Fair enough. But...

The enduring cultural division between "The Elderly" and "The Disabled" as two distinct groups (even though the elderly often are disabled, and those who are disabled in youth often live to old age) reveals more about the nature of our assumptions and bigotries than it does about the actual world and people we live with. "The Elderly" do not count as "Disabled," in our minds, because we expect a loss of ability and health as a person ages. And we look on disability in youth and middle-age with horror because it is unexpected. Disability among the young is taken as a sign that something in the world has turned topsy-turvy, and therefore, we fear it more than when it shows up in old age.

The statistics bear this out. According to the United States Census from 2000, nearly twenty percent of the entire population is living with some form of disability. But that twenty percent is skewed heavily toward the elder years. For adults between eighteen and twenty-four, slightly more than four percent are disabled. That percentage increases to over forty percent for those seventy-five and older (see the link to the "Office of Minority Health and Health Disparity," below).

We tell ourselves that The Elderly and The Disabled are two distinct populations. We give lip-service to the notion that our elders deserve respect, but the disabled deserve our pity. But when people speak of their fear of old age, it's often disability that they mention -- needing crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair, losing their eyesight, growing deaf, needing help in their own home. There is nothing inherently terrible about any of those things, except for the social stigma attached to them: the fear of being resented, forgotten, excluded from society (often because the built environment where social events happen is full of barriers). These terrible fates have almost nothing to do with actually being old or being disabled, and almost everything to do with entrenched bigotry and social stigma.

As long as humans are mortal, old age and disability are inevitable. The good news is: Superstition and bigotry are not.

Links and Sources:
The Winter's Tale -- entire play (etext)
Office of Minority Health and Health Disparity -- Disability; Centers for Disease Control (U.S. Goverment branch)