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)

Friday, September 30, 2011

The "False-Parted" woman in "comic" ballads

A BURGLAR'S EXPERIENCE WITH AN OLD MAID (Transcribed by Jim Dixon, and posted to the Mudcat Forum May 3, 2011 (with additional transcription by myself); from a YouTube video posted by "MusicBoxBoy" April 5, 2010)

Announced: "Comic Song entitled "A Burglar's experience with an Old Maid," as Sung by Mr. John Terrell -- Zonophone Record"

(Piano introduction)
I'll sing you a song of a burglar chap
    who went out to rob a house.
He lifted a window and then he crawled in,
    as quiet as a mouse.
He looked for a place for to hide himself,
    till all the folk were asleep,
And then says he, "With all the money I see,
    I'll take a quiet peep."
So under the bed the burglar crept
    and hid himself close to the wall.
He never once thought 'twas an old maid's room
    or he never would have had the gall.
He thought of all the money he'd get,
    as under the bed he lay.
About nine that night, oh, he saw such a sight!
    In an hour his hair had turned gray.

(Piano Interlude)
It was just nine o'clock the old maiden came in.
    "Oh, dear! I'm so tired," she said,
And thinking that night of course all would be right,
    she never looked under the bed.
She pulled out her teeth and her big glass eye
    and all of the hair off her head.
The burglar had seventeen athletic fits
    as he looked out from under the bed.
He thought of a chance that he'd get away;
    which thought was a total wreck.
The fussy old maid was wide awake
    and she collared this jag by the neck.
She never once hollered or screamed worth a cent,
    but stood there as cool as a clam
And murmured, "My prayer has been answered at last!
    Thank heavens! They've sent me a man!"

And the band played Annie Laurie, and Annie Rooney too,
And the band played anybody, for any old thing would do.

According to folksong researcher Steve Gardham, ballads about the "false-parted women," who undress to get ready for bed and keep going after they've removed their clothes (much to the horror of a male witness), can be traced back to the ballad The Ladies of Hyde Park, which was printed as a Broadside in 1660. The ballad tells the story of a young man who (in our modern vernacular) is looking to "hook up" with one of the fashionable women of Hyde Park. He settles on one in particular, chats her up until dark, and upon walking her home, pressures her into letting him spend the night (Stanza 7 opens with: With many denials she yielded at last, / Her chamber being wondrous privee.); stanzas 10 and 11 have this willing suitor being more successful in his escape than the accidental bridegroom in "A Burglar's Experience":

(Quote) I peept, and was still more perplex'd therewith;
        Thought I, “Tho't be midnight I'le leave thee;
She fetcht a yawn, and out fell her teeth,
        This quean had intents to deceive me;
She drew out her handkerchief, as I suppose,
To wipe her high fore-head, and off dropt her nose
, Which made me run quickly and put on my hose,
        “The Devil is in my Tan-tivee!”

She washt all the paint from her visage, and then
        She look'd just (if you will believe me)
Like a Lancashire Witch of four-score and ten,
        And as if the devil did drive me
I put on my cloathes and cry'd, “Witches and whores!”
I tumbl'd down stairs, broke open the doors,
And down to my country again to my Boors
        Next morning I rid Tan-tivee.'

In this root version of the song, the link between physical deformity and the supernatural is explicitly made. But over the subsequent generations this element of the story was gradually dropped -- at least on a conscious level. As Steve Gardham told me, in a correspondance about these songs:

(Quote) Whereas we now wallow in the supernatural in folk arts before this became popular with the middle classes the common people were laughed at for their old superstitions. In the 16th/17th centuries having a supernatural element was a strong selling point for the ballad, but as literacy spread and beliefs changed, realism became more popular. (Unquote)

However, even though all explicit mention of the supernatural is gone by the time of the 20th Century recording, the implication is still there, with the mere sight of the ugly "old maiden" causing a man to have "athletic fits" and turning his hair grey.

The glib and sarcastic summary of this song could be, I suppose: "The one with the monster in the bed, and the person hiding underneath." Although in this case, attitudes toward the role of the disabled in society are overlaid with attitudes toward the role of women in society. The old maid's aggression in acquiring "her man" is the turning point of this "comic song's" punchline, as it inverts the melodramatic trope of the innocent maiden fleeing the sexual advances of a predatory man.

I don't have any ideas about this latter point, beyond some foggy, half-formed notions. But I'm beginning to think that attitudes about Womanhood and attitudes about Disability intersect and collide with each other in some very profound ways... Something to do with the nature of bodies and "What Bodies are Good For," perhaps.

Links and additional information:
A Burglar's experience with an Old Maid -- YouTube Video (the whole video is 5 minutes, 58 seconds long; the recording starts playing at 2 minutes, 7 seconds, and stops at 4 minutes, 20 seconds -- the rest is display of the phonograph machine and period music catalogs)

Lyr Req: The Old Maid and the Burglar: A discussion thread at, where several versions of this song are posted and discussed.

False Parts theme: an essay on the ballad and its evolution between 1660 and 1947

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hans-my-Hedgehog: when disabled children are hidden for shame


(A Grimms' Tale, retold from memory, from various translations)

Once, there lived a wealthy farmer, who had a fine house, and all the land and money he could want. But he had no children, and when he went into town, the other farmers were tease and mock him and ask what was wrong with him.

One day, this made him so angry that he came home and declared to his wife: "I will have a child, even if it is only a hedgehog!"

In due time, his wife did give birth. The baby was like a normal boy from the waist down, but his top half was exactly like a hedgehog. "Look what you've done!" the wife shouted. "You have cursed us with your foolish wishes!"

The father was too ashamed to take the child to the church for the christening, and the mother said they could never ask anyone to be the child's godfather "And there's nothing we can name him, anyway, but Hans-my-Hedgehog."

The pastor came to the house to christen the child. And he told them that because of its quills, it couldn't lie in a normal bed, but had to lie on a pile of straw, behind the stove. And the child couldn't be nursed, because its quills would prick its mother. So they put Hans-my-Hedgehog on the bed of straw behind the stove, and left him there.

And every day, the farmer wished his son would die. But that second wish did not come true, and Hans-my-Hedgehog continued to live and grow.

One day, when Hans-my-Hedgehog was eight years old, his father prepared to go to the market, to sell his goods, and buy supplies. First, he asked his wife what she wanted, and she said: "Some meat, and white flour buns, and these things for the household," and she gave him a list. Then, he asked his servant girl what she wanted from the market. "A pair of shoes," she answered, "and fine socks." And last of all, he looked behind the stove, and asked Hans-my-Hedgehog what he wanted. "Father," he said, "I would like a set of bagpipes."

When the father came back from the fair, he gave his wife the meat and rolls and household things. And he gave the servant girl her shoes and socks. And, last of all, he gave Hans-my-Hedgehog the bagpipes.

And then, his son said to him: "Father, I have one more favor to ask you. Please go to the farrier, and have him shoe my rooster. And if you will give me some pigs and asses, I will ride out into the world to seek my fortune, and never come back."

Well, the father was very glad to hear that, and thought that giving up a few swine and donkeys was a fair price to be rid of Hans-my-Hedgehog.

And so Hans-my-Hedgehog mounted his rooster, with his bagpipes under his arm, driving his herds of swine and donkeys before him. When he came to the middle of a great dark forest, he spurred his rooster to fly to the top bough of the highest tree, where he stayed, watching over his herds, and playing beautiful music on his bagpipes.

One day, after several years, a king and his party went hunting in that same forest, and they became lost. As they were wondering around, the king heard Hans-my-Hedgehog's bagpipes, and sent his servant to find out where it was coming from.

After a while, the servant came running back, terrified. "There's a monster in the top of the tallest tree," he said. "It is part rooster, and part hedgehog, and it is playing the bagpipes."

The king had his servant lead him to the tree, and he called up to Hans-my-Hedgehog. "What art thou doing?" the king demanded.

"I am watching over my herds," Hans-my-Hedgehog answered. "What would you have of me?"

"Do you know the way out of this forest?"

"I do."

"Then I would have thou showest me the way," the king said.

Hans-my-Hedgehog flew down from the tree, and told the king that he would show him the way if the promised to give Hans the first living thing who greeted him when he returned to his palace.

The king had parchment and pen brought to him, and he wrote out the contract. But he thought to himself: "Hans-my-Hedgehog cannot read, and so I can write down anything I want." And so he wrote down that Hans would get nothing.

Hans-my-Hedgehog took the parchment, and led the king out of the forest, all the way back to the main road into his kingdom. Then, he turned around and returned to his tree, to play his bagpipes and watch over his herds. And the king continued on to his palace.

And who should be the first to run out to greet him when he got there but his own daughter. And so the king had to confess the promise he had made. But then he added: "It is all right. Thou hast no need to worry -- I know that Hans-my-Hedgehog cannot read. So the contract I wrote up said that I would give him nothing."

And the Princess said that was good, for she would never have gone with such a monster at any rate. And they both laughed.

Many years passed, and Hans-my-Hedgehog's herds grew and prospered. And one day, another king came with his hunting party into the forest. And they, too, became hopelessly lost. He, too, heard Hans-my-Hedgehog's beautiful music, and sent his servant to find it.

After a long while, the servant came back, white-faced, and said there was a monster at the top of the highest tree, and that it was part rooster, and part hedgehog, and it was playing the bagpipes.

The king had his servant lead him to the tree. And then, he called up to him: "What art thou doing?"

"I am watching over my swine and donkeys," Hans-my-Hedgehog answered. "What would you have of me?"

"Dost thou know the way out of this forest?"

"I do."

"Then I would have thou showest me the way," the king said.

Hans-my-Hedgehog flew down from his tree, and said that he lead the king home if the king, promised, in return, to give him the first living creature that came to meet him on his return.

The king gave his word that he would. And Hans-my-Hedgehog led the way through the forest, all the way to the main highway leading to the king's palace.

And when he had done that, he returned to his tree, watching over his herds, and playing music on his bagpipes.

Meanwhile, as the second king returned to his castle, who should come out to greet him but his only daughter, who threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him. But then, she pulled back in surprise, and asked him why he was so sad.

And so the king had to tell her about the strange monster in the forest, who was half hedgehog and half human, and how he had promised this creature the first living thing to run out to greet him on his return, and how he was very sorry it was her.

The daughter sighed and said she was sorry, too, but that she would go with this monster, for his sake, for she loved him so.

Meanwhile, Hans-my-Hedgehog tended his swine and asses, and the herds prospered and grew so large, they filled the entire forest. Hans-my-Hedgehog sent word to his father that every stable in the village should be emptied, for he was bringing his herds back, and anyone who wanted to take part in the slaughter were free to do so.

His father was very sad at the news, for he had thought that Hans-my-Hedgehog had long since died. But he did as his son asked. And soon, Hans-my-Hedgehog came riding back on his rooster, driving the pigs and donkeys before him. The donkeys, he gave away. And the pig slaughter was so great, as every family in the village gathered meat for the winter, that the commotion could be heard for many miles around.

And then, Hans-my-Hedgehog decided it was time to try and collect his debt from the kings he had helped. And he rode to the country of the first king.

Now, this king had sent orders to his palace guards that if any creature matching Hans-my-Hedgehog's description should be seen approaching the castle, they should shoot him and stab him with their bayonets, and make sure he was dead.

But when Hans approached, and saw the army with all their guns and bayonets pointing at him, he merely spurred his rooster and flew over their heads. He flew until he came to the king's chamber window, and his rooster perched there on the sill. "Give me what you owe," Hans-my-Hedgehog said, "or I will kill both you and your daughter, as you have just tried to kill me."

And so the king had no choice but to go to his daughter, and tell her that she must go away with Hans-my-Hedgehog, to save both their lives.

So the daughter dressed in her finest gown, and went out to meet Hans-my-Hedgehog, and smiled at him, and praised him for his handsomeness. And the king gave them his finest coach, with six of his finest snow white steeds, and sent them off with a treasure chest of gold and jewels. And the princess climbed into the coach, and Hans-my-Hedgehog, still mounted on his rooster, rode in the seat beside her.

But when the coach was just a little of the way outside the kingdom, Hans-my-Hedgehog undressed the princess, and pricked her all over with his quills.

"That is punishment for your dishonesty," he said. "Go home. I do not want you."

And the princess went home to her father, but from that day forward, she was afflicted with bad luck.

Then Hans-my-Hedgehog rode on to the second kingdom, to try his fate there.

Now, the second king had sent orders to his palace guards that if anyone matching Hans-my-Hedgehog's description should be seen approaching that they should blow the trumpets and lead him onward with a full-honor military escort.

And as Hans-my-Hedgehog rode up, and the trumpets sounded, the king himself, with his daughter, went out to meet him, and welcome him into the palace.

The princess was horrified by Hans-my-Hedgehog's appearance, but she did not expect anything else. And at the banquet, Hans-my-Hedgehog sat between them at the table.

And after the meal, the royal chaplain married them hastily, and they prepared to retire to bed. Hans-my-Hedgehog told the princess not to worry. And then, he pulled the king aside and whispered to him that he should have four men-in-waiting stand outside the chamber door, for he would shed his hedgehog skin as he climbed into bed. He said the men should catch the skin before it hit the floor, and throw it onto the fire, and keep watch until the entire skin was burned to ashes.

The king had all this carried out according to Hans-my-Hedgehog's wishes. And in the morning they found him in the bed -- fully human, but burned as black as coal from head to foot. So the king called in his royal physician, who washed Hans with milk and healing salves, until his skin was as white as ivory, and he was as handsome to gaze upon as any man.

The princess, and all the royal family were overjoyed, and a grand royal wedding was celebrated for real, and Hans-my-Hedgehog inherited the kingdom after the old king died.

And then Hans-my-Hedgehog brought his wife back to his village, and went to his father's house. And he told him he was his son.

But his father said: "I had a son, but he died; he disappeared many years ago."

But Hans-my-Hedgehog managed to convince him that he was, in fact, his son. And his father rejoiced, and went back with him to live in the palace.

My tale is done;
To Gussie's house
Now let it run.

When I first encountered this fairy tale, almost thirty years ago, the overtones of the 'Disability Experience' struck me immediately. Especially in the detail of the pastor recommending that Hans-my-Hedgehog be kept behind the stove for the sake of the mother -- just as so many disabled children, through the generations, have been sent away to live in "Special homes," on the recommendations of doctors and other specialists.

Also, this tale reflects the bias that it is the disabled person's responsibility to resolve the conflicts they have with their family and the world by becoming cured -- it is only after he is made completely human that Hans returns to his father and is accepted (almost as if he were apologizing for being born ugly). There is a sort of parallel, here, with doctors who pressure parents to give their children drugs to control drooling, or to "encourage" their children to wear prosthetic limbs which have limited functionality, but make the child look more normal, in order to treat the "problem of teasing" -- instead of working to teach that teasing each other for our differences is wrong. It is this last detail of the "happy ending" of this story that makes it feel like a tragedy to me.

And, finally, in spite of all the gifts he'd given back to his community, in terms of both physical and artistic bounty, Hans-my-Hedgehog, like farmer's daughter in "The Girl Without Hands" had to be cured of his monstrousness before he could be truly married, or take his full place in human society.

Some other translations of this tale:

Hans-My-Hedgehog translated by D. L. Ashliman (trans. Copyright, 2000)

Hans-my-Hedgehog translated by Margaret Hunt (trans. 1884)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Changelings: When parents fear the child they did not expect

This is a changeling legend I came across recently, from Verstermanland region of Sweden, collected in 1882:

Every intelligent grandmother knows that the fire must not be allowed to go out in a room, where there is a child not yet christened; that the water in which the new-born child is washed should not be thrown out; also, that a needle, or some other article of steel must be attatched to its bandages. If attention is not paid to these precautions it may happen that the child will be exchanged by the Trolls, as once occured in Bettna many years ago.

A young peasant's wife had given birth to her first child. Her mother, who lived some distance away, was on hand to officiate in the first duties attending its coming, but the evening before the day on which the child should be christened she was obliged to go home for a short time to attend to the wants of her own family, and during her absence the fire was allowed to go out.

No one would have noticed anything unusual, perhaps, if ithe child had not, during the baptism, cried like a fiend. After some weeks, however, the parents began to observe a change. It became ugly, cried continuously and was so greedy that it devoured everything that came its way. The people being poor, they were in great danger of being eaten out of house and home. There could no longer be any doubt that child was a "changeling." Whereupon the husband sought out a wise old woman, who, it was said, could instruct the parents what to do to get back their own child.

The mother was directed to build a fire in the bake oven three Thursdays evenings in succession, lay the young one upon the bake shovel, then pretend that she was about to throw it into the fire. The advice was followed, and when the young woman, the third evening, was in the act of throwing the changeling into the fire, it seemed, a little deformed, evil-eyed woman rushed up with the natural child, threw it in the crib and requested the return of her child. "For, said she, "I have never treated your child so badly and I have never thought to do such harm to it as you now propose doing mine," whereupon she took the unnatural child and vanished through the door.

The parents' distress, depicted in this and other changeling legends, is one that I've seen expressed many times in modern human interest stories on television and in magazines, when the rejoicing at the birth of a baby turns to fear and confusion when the child fails to grow or flourish as expected.

And, as in these changeling stories, the focus of these modern human interest tales is always on the parents, the horrible burden such their new baby turned out to be, and the tricks and procedures they undertake to bring normalcy back into their lives. Almost always, there's a sense of being tricked, somehow: the child (and the future) you expected was swapped for another when your back was turned -- when you blinked at the wrong time.

In 1987, Emily Perl Kingsley wrote a brief allegorical essay about what it's like to be the parent of a disabled child: Welcome to Holland:

(Quote) I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland." (Unquote)

The scariest thing about these changeling legends is that they are legends. Instead of beginning: "Once upon a time, when wishes made things true, in a land far, far away..." the setting is specific -- in this very village, or the in next county, and the time frame is always within living memory. Legends are all presented as evidence in support of beliefs, to reinforce a code of socially accepted behavior.

Each time I read one of these stories, I can't help wondering how many real infants were placed on baking stone by the oven, by desperate parents, or how many were left at the crossroads at midnight on Christmas Eve. When the trolls or fairies failed to bring back the "natural" child, how many parents progressed from pantomime to actually throwing their child on the fire?

When it was all over, did the parents feel remorse? Or did they feel relief from ridding the world of an "unnatural" creature, even if their own child is lost to them forever?


"The Changeling from Bettna." Excerpted from Swedish Fairy Tales, by Herman Hofberg (1882). Translated by W. H. Myers; W. B. Conkey Company, Chicago: 1895. Digitized by Google.

See Also:

Changelings: an essay by D.L. Ashliman

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mrs Smith from Persuasion -- Physical Disability and Illness as the great Equalizer

Excerpt from Persuasion, by Jane Austen -- first published 1818:

Chapter 17

While Sir Walter and Elizabeth were assiduously pushing their good fortune in Laura Place, Anne was renewing an acquaintance of a very different description.

She had called on her former governess, and had heard from her of there being an old school-fellow in Bath, who had the two strong claims on her attention of past kindness and present suffering. Miss Hamilton, now Mrs Smith, had shewn her kindness in one of those periods of her life when it had been most valuable. Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time;
and Miss Hamilton, three years older than herself, but still from the want of near relations and a settled home, remaining another year at school, had been useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference.

Miss Hamilton had left school, had married not long afterwards, was said to have married a man of fortune, and this was all that Anne had known of her, till now that their governess's account brought her situation forward in a more decided but very different form.

She was a widow and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved. She had had difficulties of every sort to contend with, and in addition to these distresses had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which, finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple. She had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot baths, living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.

Their mutual friend answered for the satisfaction which a visit from Miss Elliot would give Mrs Smith, and Anne therefore lost no time in going. She mentioned nothing of what she had heard, or what she intended, at home. It would excite no proper interest there. She only consulted Lady Russell, who entered thoroughly into her sentiments, and was most happy to convey her as near to Mrs Smith's lodgings in Westgate Buildings, as Anne chose to be taken.

The visit was paid, their acquaintance re-established, their interest in each other more than re-kindled. The first ten minutes had its awkwardness and its emotion. Twelve years were gone since they had parted, and each presented a somewhat different person from what the other had imagined. Twelve years had changed Anne from the blooming, silent, unformed girl of fifteen, to the elegant
little woman of seven-and-twenty, with every beauty except bloom, and with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle; and twelve years had transformed the fine-looking, well-grown Miss Hamilton, in all the glow of health and confidence of superiority, into a poor, infirm, helpless widow, receiving the visit of her former protegee as a favour; but all that was uncomfortable in the meeting had soon passed away, and left only the interesting charm of remembering former partialities and talking over old times.

Anne found in Mrs Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past--and she had lived very much in the world--nor the restrictions of the present, neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits.

In the course of a second visit she talked with great openness, and Anne's astonishment increased. She could scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs Smith's. She had been very fond of her husband: she had buried him. She had been used to affluence: it was gone. She had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable. Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath. Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? She watched, observed, reflected, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude
or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

There had been a time, Mrs Smith told her, when her spirits had nearly failed. She could not call herself an invalid now, compared with her state on first reaching Bath. Then she had, indeed, been a pitiable object; for she had caught cold on the journey, and had hardly taken possession of her lodgings before she was again confined to her bed and suffering under severe and constant pain;
and all this among strangers, with the absolute necessity of having a regular nurse, and finances at that moment particularly unfit to meet any extraordinary expense. She had weathered it, however, and could truly say that it had done her good. It had increased her comforts by making her feel herself to be in good hands. She had seen too much of the world, to expect sudden or disinterested
attachment anywhere, but her illness had proved to her that her landlady
had a character to preserve, and would not use her ill; and she had been
particularly fortunate in her nurse, as a sister of her landlady, a nurse by profession, and who had always a home in that house when unemployed, chanced to be at liberty just in time to attend her. "And she," said Mrs Smith, "besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good
to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She had a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandise. She always takes the right time for applying. Everybody's heart is open, you know, when they have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health, and Nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak. She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received `the best education in the world,' know nothing worth attending to. Call it gossip, if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour's leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one
know one's species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat."

Anne, far from wishing to cavil at the pleasure, replied, "I can easily believe it. Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be well worth listening to. Such varieties of human nature as they are in the habit of witnessing! And it is not merely in its follies, that they are well read; for they see it occasionally under every circumstance that can be most interesting or affecting. What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation: of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes."

"Yes," said Mrs Smith more doubtingly, "sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial; but generally speaking, it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber: it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of. There is so little real friendship in the world! and unfortunately" (speaking low and tremulously) "there are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost too late."

Anne saw the misery of such feelings. The husband had not been what he ought, and the wife had been led among that part of mankind which made her think worse of the world than she hoped it deserved. It was but a passing emotion however with Mrs Smith; she shook it off, and soon added in a different tone--

"I do not suppose the situation my friend Mrs Rooke is in at present, will furnish much either to interest or edify me. She is only nursing Mrs Wallis of Marlborough Buildings; a mere pretty, silly, expensive, fashionable woman, I believe; and of course will have nothing to report but of lace and finery. I mean to make my profit of Mrs Wallis, however. She has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now."

I first read Persuasion several years ago, and had almost forgotten about the character of Mrs. Smith, and the role her disability plays as a turning point in the plot, until I was just finishing up my last entry on The Squirrel and the Fox, and contemplating how Jack's blindness gave him access to crucial information that he would not have otherwise.

By virtue of his blindness, Jack has the opportunity to eavesdrop on an entire year of news from a wealthy town, from the suffering of ordinary citizens to that of the Lord Mayor and even the royal family. Mrs. Smith, by virtue of her arthritic legs, is likewise given an opportunity to meet and befriend Nurse Rooke -- a woman who, if Mrs. Smith still had money, health. and social privilege, would have been beneath her notice. And it is through the gossip of Nurse Rooke that Mrs. Smith is able to pass on crucial information to Anne which ultimately informs her decisions about the future course of her life.

Jane Austen's overarching theme in Persuasion is the contrast between being a member of the 'correct' social class, and having a correct, and strong, inner character. And she uses Mrs. Smith's rhumatism to highlight just how arbitrary and fleeting social status and privilege can be. The rich and poor alike fall ill, regardless of their "proper" breeding, and thus will enventually need the services of someone like Nurse Rooke. Though Austen is also quick to point out, through the voice of Mrs. Smith, that illness, itself, does not make one noble or patient, but only highlights a person's true character, for better or worse.

As was often said by activists lobbying for the cause, as the Americans with Disabilities Act was being crafted, and making its way through Congress:

"'Disability' is the one minority group everyone will join -- if they're lucky."

*This was excerpted from the Project Gutenberg etext edition:

Title: Persuasion
Author: Jane Austen
February, 1994 [Etext #105]
[Date last updated: April 15, 2005]
Edition: 11
Language: English

The full text is available for download, in a variety of formats, here: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Squirrel and the Fox -- Awe and fear in the face of Disability

Before I share this story, a few comments on my "process."

I've known most of the stories here for many years. And, for the folktales, at least, I've read several different translations and versions. They fit my mind the way old fuzzy slippers fit my feet. As such, I feel as comfortable claiming them as "mine," and retelling them in my own words, as I would telling a remembered event in my own childhood.

This story is new to me. It was recommended to me for this blog by a friend, this spring, and I only got a chance to read it last month, in 1984 paperback reprint of a volume originally published in 1933.* The story was originally collected and translated by the linquist John Sampson at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Folktales, at that time, were presented to the reading public unadulterated, ancient, and authentic And the role of the good folklorist was seen to be a mute and faithful recorder. I'm highly dubious of this claim, especially since the portrayals of the gypsy heroes in these tales conform to the privileged biases of the dominant culture, and show them to be simultaneously exotic, heroic, unsophisticated and slightly untrustworthy.

However, I have an even greater distrust of my own biases. And so, to ensure that I do not twist the tale, and give it meanings it was never intended to have, I present it here word-for-word from the book at hand; the only changes I've made are to substitute line breaks for pilcrows and the word "and" for ampersands.

(A Welsh-Romany folktale, collected and translated by John Sampson)

There was a little village down in England, and two brothers living there. They were poor as poor could be: they knew not what to do.

They went seek for work, but no work could they find. Said one to the other: "There is a little old woman who lives down yonder in a small cave. Let us go thither. The old woman will tell us whether there is good fortune before us." "Yes, let us go," replied the other.

They came to the little dwelling, and hallooed to the old woman. The old woman knew they were coming and what they wanted. There was a great stone before the door. The old woman bade them drag away the stone. They dragged away the stone. "Carry me outside and set me on the stone, and I will tell you everything." The old woman had neither arms nor legs: thus she had been born.

"Hearken both of you to what I am going to tell you." Then quoth the armless one to Jack: "Here is a little stone for thee." (It was no bigger than a halfpenny.) "Keep this, and do not take it out of the handkerchief until thou comest to three roads."

The two brothers journeyed on. They reached these three cross-roads. They halted and Jack pulled the stone out of the handkerchief. He looked at it. One side was yellow as gold and the other side was back as coal.

"What are we to do with this stone?" he asked of his brother. No sooner was the word utteredthan he heard something whisper in his ear: "Spit upon it and toss it high in the air. If the stone fall at thy feet with the golden side uppermost, take the road on thy right hand; and if it fall with the black side uppermost, take the road on thy left hand."

He tossed the stone high into the air, and it fell at his feet with the golden side uppermost. Jack said to his brother: "Thou art to take the road on the left, and I will take the road on the right."

Now the two sat down and had a little talk together. "I go whither I go," quoth Jack. "Do thou remember to here to these three cross-roads in a year and a day; and if thou arrive before me wait here for me, and if I arrive before thee I will wait for thee, if I am still alive."

They set off. It was a hot summer's day. Jack tramped mile after mile. He could see no house, and night set in. He walked all night until morning broke. Now he hears dogs barking: he stood still to listen again.

He went on a little farther. He beheld a giant beside a tree, and heard a young woman weeping. She was crying out: "Stop, father! Leave me alone! do not treat me thus!" She was the giant's daughter. The giant was about to put a rope around her neck; he meant to hang her. The giant wished her to marry a certain man, but the young woman did not love him.

What did Jack do? Jack took the stone and threw it, and it struck the giant on the head and killed him.

What said the young woman to Jack? "If thou bury my father somewhere in a secret place where none may find him, I will give thee as much gold as you can carry away with thee." "Good!" quoth Jack, "I will lay him where none may find him.

He was about to bury him, when he found the little stone in the giant's head. He heard something whisper in his ear: "Leave him where he is, and place the stone at his left foot, and he will never be seen again."

Now they both went to the giant's house. The young woman opened a cupboard: in it were the giant's bags of gold. She gave one of them to Jack, who put it on his shoulder and departed.

Lo! he travels now over lofty mountains until he reaches the sea. He was weary, and the bag that he carried was heavy. He sat down and slept for three or four hours. He awoke and saw a man coming towards him with a great sack on his back.

The man came up to him. He recognized him. He stated to him: "Good God, thou art my brother!" "Yes, I am thy brother, and I am weary." He sat down and opened his great sack. "I am hungry. See, I am going to eat!" "And I am hungry, too," replied Jack. "Why dost thou not eat, then?" quoth the other. "I have naught to eat." "What is in thy sack?" "I have no food," said Jack, "I have nothing but gold." "Then if thou hast gold, buy thy food." "Gladly," quoth Jack, "give me my bellyful." "I will give thee thy bellyful if thou give me a hatful of gold."Jack opened his sack and filled his brother's hat with sovereigns. His brother gave him a little bread and meat.

The two tramped for miles and miles. They met no one; they grew hungry again. They sat down to eat. Jack was obliged to give his brother another hatful of gold before he would give him anything to eat.

And thus they went on until they rested again. They had not much food left. The brother would not give Jack anything to eat. "Thou hast all my money," quoth poor Jack, "I have no more; and if thou wilt not give me a morsel of food, I shall die of hunger." "No, I have told thee, I will give thee nothing except for thou pay for it." "I have nothing left to give thee." "I will tell thee what I will do will do with thee," quoth his brother. "Give me one of thine eyes and I will give thee a little food."

Jack plucked out one of his eyes and gave it to him. His brother gave him a litttle food. They finished their meal, and went on their way again.

Another day passed; Jack grew hungry once more. He was afraid to ask his brother to give him something to eat. Jack grew hungrier and hungrier. He asked his brother to give him a morsel of food. "Not I," quoth the brother, "I have not much left. If thou wantest any more, pluck out thine other eye and give it to me." He plucked out the other eye and gave it to his brother. His brother gave him a tiny morsel of food.

Poor Jack was blind now. The other brother took all the gold and left Jack alone. Jack knew not what to do. He crawled along on his hands and knees. He knew not whether it was day or whether it was night. He crept under a big tree. He did not care whether he lived or died. "If I am to die, I will die here."

Presently, he heard creatures talking in the tree above his head. And who were they? A Squirrel and a Fox talking together. These two were in the habit of meeting here once a twelvemonth to tell each other the chief discoveries they had made during the year.

Said the Fox to the Squirrel: "There is a great city four miles on the other side of the mountain, and all the people are dying of thirst. The water is dried up. And if they only knew it," continued the Fox, "were they to dig a well near the great clock they would find enough water to serve for three towns."

"And hast though heard, thou old Goose-stealer, that the mayor of that place lost his sight last week?" "Not I," quoth the Fox, "I have heard naught of it." The fox plucked a leaf. "Dost thou see this leaf, White-tail?" "Yes," quoth the squirrel. "What fools the people of those parts are! If they were just to rub his eyes with this leaf, he would recover his sight."

"Wait a minute, Sir Fox, I will tell you something." "Let me hear it," quoth the Fox. "In the same town there is a princess with two horns growing out of her forehead." "Well," quoth the Fox. "If they were to give her oranges, the horns would dwindle away. There is a reward offered by the queen to whomsoever rids her of them."

And the poor blind fellow beneath the three was listening to everything they said. Then the Fox leaped down and the Squirrel scampered after him.

Poor Jack arose and took a few of the leaves, and rubbed his eyes with them. As soon as he rubbed them, lo! he recovered his sight. He was astonished. "Well, I will be off to the city now."

He crossed the mountain and came to the hall where the blind lord dwelt. He knocked on the door and was invited inside. "I am a doctor come to restore the lord's eyesight."

He went upstairs. There was the lord seated in his easy-chair. Jack drew near to examine the lord's eyes. He boiled the leaves and bottled them, dipped a feather in the bottle, and passed it twice across the mayor's eyes. The lord regained his sight. His spirits rose, he did not know how to reward the doctor sufficiently. "What is thy fee, doctor?" quoth the mayor. He gave Jack what he asked.

"Wait a minute," quoth Jack, there is one other thing I should like to do before I leave the hall. I understand, my lord, that the water in your town is dried up." "In truth, it is dried up." "Come with me, and I will show you where there is plenty of water." As soon as the mayor heard this, he ran up to Jack and clasped him to his breast. "If thou find water for us, I will give thee three bags of gold pieces."

They went forth, and Jack led him toward the town clock. "Seest thou this spot? Bring thy men hither." "I will bring them at once." He brought them. "Now then," quoth Jack, "dig down here." The men stripped for the job. They dug down a little way. They found enough water for three towns. The mayor paid Jack, and Jack departed with the reward. He shrugged his shoulders. "I am doing well in this town, and I have still the king's daughter to deal with."

Then he bought a basketful of apples and a basketful of oranges, and set them down close by the gate of the palace. He waited there for three days. On the third day the old king and queen and their daughter came forth in their chariot. And the girl had two horns growing out of her head.

The young lady cast her eye on the apples. "Stay, mother, look at those beautiful apples over yonder!" "Would you like a few of them, daughter? "Yes," quoth the young lady. They bought a few. The young lady ate two or three that day. She arose in the morning. She looked in her mirror. The horns had grown bigger. The king's daughter was horrified.

Jack disguised himself again as a doctor, and went to visit her a day or two afterwards. "Welcome, doctor, I am rejoiced to see thee," quoth the princess. "Thou seest these horns on my forehead; dost thou know of aught that will reduce them?" "Yes." quoth Jack, "but though must give me such and such a sum of money." "Thou shalt have it," quoth the young lady.

Jack pulled an orange out of his pocket, cut a slice from it with his knife, and went up to the princess. "Open thy mouth, my lady, put out thy tongue." He placed the slice on the lady's tongue. "Swallow that. I will return to-morrow morning." The doctor took his leave.

Now it was morn. The young lady arose and looked in the mirror. Both horns seemed smaller. The doctor paid her another visit. The lady sprang up and gave him her hand. "The horns have shrunk a little, doctor." He gave her a slice of orange. "I shall come for my fee, your highness, in the morning."

She awoke in the morning and looked in her mirror. The horns had disappeared. The king and queen heard how the horns had been removed by the doctor. They gave him as much money as he could carry.

Jack took his money and went back to the three roads, where he was to meet his brother. It was midnight: he fell asleep under the hedge. In the morning he saw his brother approaching. "Who comes there?" "It is I," quoth his brother; "so thou art here before me, eh?" "What sort of luck hast thou had, my boy?" "I have gained naught, I am destitute, I have lost all my money. And how didst thou reach here, being blind?" "I have had better luck than thou," quoth Jack, "I have got new eyes, and a bag of money twice as big as the one though didst take when thou madest me blind."

So now the two brothers set off together to the cave to visit the old woman, the armless and legless one. They found her and rewarded her with a few gold pieces. And the thwo brothers went to their own little village and built a new house there. And there they live together with a little maid-servant, and now, they never fall out with one another.

That is all I know of about these two brothers. Find out more for yourselves if ye would.

There are two primary instances of disability in this tale: the old woman, who was born with neither arms nor legs, and the hero Jack, who is compelled to inflict blindness on himself. The princess with horns is a third instance, but the consequences of her affliction are not explored, outside the reward bestowed on Jack for the cure.

The old woman takes the ancient Roman idea of monstrum -- a creature born with missing or extra limbs, and seen as a bad omen -- one step further. She is more than a "sign" to be interpreted by seers; she is the seer. And while she is presented in the context of good luck, rather than bad, she is still kept away from human society, sealed away in the cave. In many ways, she is the personification of the Earth, itself, rather than a human -- like the stone on which she sits when first giving her prophecy to the brothers, and like the gold and black pebble through which she advises Jack.

Jack's trial with blindness is more a reflection of sighted society's fears than actual, lived, experience -- such as not knowing whether it is day or night without his eyes, and how being left alone and blind is equated with being left for dead. And the cure Jack learns of -- rubbing an herb over his eyes, when he no longer had eyes -- belies the sighted society's attitude that sight is more a spiritual than physical sense, thus making it easier to attribute moral and/or spiritual meaning to the state of blindness, itself.

However, I can't help but recognize one truth of life with a disability that's reflected in Jack's adventure: the fact that having a disability seems to cast a "Cloak of Invisability" over your shoulders, so those around you (like the Squirrel and Fox of the title) speak as freely as if you weren't there at all.

Since this is such a new story in my personal collection, I don't have deeper thoughts than that, at the moment. But I welcome your insights.

*Published in the United States by Salem House, 1984. A member of the Merrimack Publishers' Circle, 47 Pelham Road, Salem, N.H. 03079

Thursday, June 30, 2011

I wish I could say more about this ...

In 1697, Charles Perrault published a small volume of folktales polished into fine literary form.

The frontespiece featured an illustration of an old woman sitting in front of a roaring fire with her distaff and spindle telling a story to a man, woman and child. On the wall above her, a plaque reads: "Contes de ma Mere L'oye" (Tales of my Mother Goose).

Andrew Lang (Famous for his 'Color' series of fairy tale books) translated Perrault's tales into English, and they were published in 1888. In his biographical introduction, he claims that the figure of Mother Goose was first mentioned in verse in 1650, and that that's what Perrault's frontespiece refers to (Here is his footnote on the subject, via Project Gutenberg's etext: footnote 14).

And ever since then, perhaps, people have been around trying to attatch the name, somehow, to an historical woman.

The most intriguing candidate, at least, in context of this blog, is: "Queen Bertha, of France."

In an article published on the Web (Dated July, 1997): The History of Nursery Rhymes & Mother Goose, Vikki Harris (Waterloo University, Ontario, Canada) wrote:

The first possibility is the French Queen Bertha, wife of Pepin. She was "known as ‘Queen Goose-foot’ or ‘Goose-footed Bertha’, possibly because of the size and shape of her foot which was said to be both large and webbed…The other was Queen Bertha, wife of Robert II, also of France… It was rumoured that the close blood-tie [with her husband] had caused her to give birth to a child with the head of a goose" (Delamar, 3). In each case the Queen has been represented, and is often depicted by the image of a child’s storyteller.

Both of these "Queen Berthas" are thus linked with the "monstrosity" of disability -- one, through herself, and the other through the son she supposedly bore.

Ever since I've come across this paragraph, I've been trying to find out more about either of these legendary figures. But all I find are these same tidbits of "information," along with the sober reminder that none of it is historically accurate. But I don't care about historical accuracy.

What intriques me is the link, in the social imagination, between the figure of the storyteller and disability, especially since Aesop was also pictured as deformed (Dwarfish, with a severe hunchback, and ugly face); I'm starting to wonder if this is A Thing; A Motif.

So I'm putting this out there, in case any of my readers may know more of the story, or has an idea where to look.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"The Lame Man, the Blind Man, and the Donkey" -- a Fable on the Birth of a Fable

This is a story I learned from my mother. My memories of her telling it go back at least forty years. She would retell it often, to the point where just mentioning it would make us giggle. She mentioned, once or twice, that it was from the Bible -- a parable. That was something I never once thought to question.

When I got to college, I'd refer to the story to my friends, as we'd walk along, and they'd nod and chuckle, too. As if they knew the story from their mothers (or fathers, or cousins, or grandparents), too. It was one of those jokes that you didn't need to tell, anymore, because everyone knew the punchline. But it was still funny.

This is the story my mother told:

Once upon a time, there was a blind man and a lame man, who had but one donkey between them. So, one day, they decided to travel to the city. The blind man rode the donkey, and the lame man walked, leaning on the donkey for support. And this worked out very well.

Until they met a man coming the other way. The man scolded the rider: "How dare you," he said, "with two good legs, ride in comfort, while you force the lame man to walk?"

After the stranger had passed, the two of them thought maybe he made a good point, so they switched places. It was a little bit trickier, because the lame man had to remember to call out whenever there was a stone or sudden dip in the road. But after a while, they got the hang of it, and were going along quite comfortably.

Until they met another stranger, who scolded the rider: "How dare you, with two good eyes, ride in comfort while you force the blind man to walk?"

So, again -- they switched places.

But for whichever was riding the donkey, their impairment -- whether blindness or lameness -- disappeared in the eyes of any stranger they met coming the other way. So they spent all their time switching places, in order to avoid censure, that they never did get to the city.

The lesson, my mother said, was "to find your own way through the world, and if it works, stick to it, and don't let yourself be swayed by strangers who think they know the situation, but don't.

It wasn't until this last spring, when I was starting to collect stories for this blog, that I thought of finding my mother's original source, so I could talk about its meaning in context.

And that's when I came upon the following surprise: apparently, this story doesn't exist.

I tried Googling "Lame Leading the Blind" and "Bible," and got zero (0) hits. There were many references to "The Blind Leading the Blind" (Mathew 15: 14) but that's about sinners looking to other sinners for advice, because they like what they hear, and both of them wandering into ditches and trouble. And its take-away messege is exactly the opposite of the one my mother taught me -- that you should trust your own experience. It also equates "blindness" with helplessness and sin, rather than perfectly capable, as long as you have the tools you need. Taking "Bible" out of the search term, I got several more hits. Nearly all of them, however, were from modern articles, written about the modern state of affairs in the Disability Advocacy movement, without a single mention of a donkey.

But what about all those other people -- friends of mine -- who would nod knowingly and chuckle when I'd say: "here we are, the lame leading the blind." (often, each were, in fact, visually impaired, and following the sound of my motorized wheelchair as we went together from one place to another, on campus) ? Why did not one of them say: "Wait a minute -- what are you talking about?" Were they just being polite, while I put my foot in my mouth? How could an artifact of such common social currency just disappear?

Late at night, frustrated to the point of pulling my hair, I posted a retelling of Mother's story to my personal journal. Two well-read friends, from different sides of the globe, each recognized motifs of stories they'd seen before. Anna recognized this one: The Blind Man and the Lame Man (this is most likely the story my college friends thought I was referring to); Paul recognized another The Man, His Son, and His Donkey.

Both stories are available as etexts on exactly the same site (i.e. a Web version of a single book): Aesop's Fables, by J. (Jenny) H. Stickney, originally published in 1915. There are 21 stories listed between the one and the other -- so, in a paper-printed book, less than a dozen pages between them.

My mother was born in 1934. I would not be at all surprised if Aesop's Fables were on her family bookshelf, or perhaps she borrowed it, once, from the the local library (either schoolhouse or public), and mother, in her youth, wolfed down several stories in one sitting, the way you do, when the stories are short and witty. Years later, I came along, J. H. Stickney's anthology had long been out of her reach, and she could not go back and disentangle the two of them from the knot they had formed in her memory.

Technically, I suppose, this story (as I learned it) is beyond the perview of this blog, since it is neither a traditional folktale nor has its origins before the start of World War I. But I'm including it as an illustration of how lived experience (especially the lived experience of Disability) shapes the formation of our stories, and how we then use those stories to support and give meaning to our experiences.

No parent expects to be confronted with the prospect of raising a disabled child -- certainly not back in the 1960s, before the existance of prenatal testing. So here was my mother, raising me, facing down doctors, and therapists, and psychologists who were all too ready to tell her all the things I couldn't do, and all the things she should do, for my good.

One hospital-appointed psychologist was ready, when I was two years old, to label me as "Profoundly retarded," and was going to recommend that I be placed in an asylum. And then, there was the occupational therapist, who recommended that Mother keep a sandbox in the house for me to play in, to help develop my fine-motor skills, disregarding the fact that we had four housecats. (...) These professional experts were like the strangers on the road to the city, who, in the original Aesop tale The Man, His Son, and His Donkey, were ready to tell us we were doing everything wrong, even though they only saw us for a brief moment, and knew nothing of the road we'd traveled before we met them.

Meanwhile, at home, my mother saw that I was far from helpless -- she recognized that, as in The Blind Man and the Lame Man, the only thing I could not do was walk, and that if I had help with that, there was a lot I could do to help others.

And, looking back now, I can see how it was her own experience, and powers of observation, that gave new purpose and meaning to the donkey in her story that never existed in either of her sources: the power of aids and assistive devices to effectively "erase" the appearance of disability. Give me an alternative way to get up the stairs, and let me have a desk I could roll my wheelchair up to, and there was absolutely no reason why I couldn't go to a regular school with the other children in my neighborhood. I can also see how, as she argued with experts and fought to maintain her composure while pleading my case, this new wrinkle would become the most important part of the story, and the hinge-pin on which the moral turned. And because the two fables, taken together, reflected a truth she recognized so deeply in her day-to-day life, she mistakenly thought it was a truth that many people had shared, going all the way back (at least) to the writing down of the Bible.

But I'm convinced this is a case of reverse Cryptomnesia. Usually, people read something written by someone else, and when, after many years of being nearly forgotten, experience brings the memory back, they think it was theiir own, original, idea. My mother invented her own story, and attributed it to something she read in a book of wisdom, long ago (even though she was a bit fuzzy on which book it was).

There is no mention of cerebral palsy, or hospital corridors, or meetings with teachers and principals before the start of a new school year, but that, ultimately, is what my mother's version of "The Lame Leading the Blind" is all about. And so, I believe, it is with so many stories of the outcasts and the odd that appear in folktales through the years. Sometimes, though, the telling details get blurred, without the lens of personal experience to bring them into focus.