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.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"The Girl Without Hands." Physical disability as a "Divine mark" -- monstrosity versus humanity.

Once upon a time, there was a miller who'd fallen on hard times, and the only thing he had to support him was his mill and the apple tree that grew behind the barn. A mill isn't much good if no one comes to grind their grain, and a single apple tree will leave you hungry, in the end. And so the miller had to resort to being a woodcutter, and try to earn his bread that way.

One day while he was out in the forest, he met a strange man who said to him: "I'll give you all the wealth you'll ever need, if you just promise to give me what's standing behind your mill in three years' time."

The miller thought to himself: "That's nothing but the old apple tree." And so he readily agreed, thinking the bargain more than fair.

When he got home at the end of the day, his wife met him at the door. "When I came into the kitchen, this afternoon, there was a bag of gold coins on the table. How did they get there?"

And so the miller told her about the man he'd met in the forest, and about the bargain he had struck.

"You fool!" his wife said. "That was the Devil you bargained with -- and it was our daughter behind the mill -- sweeping the yard!"

And so, for the next three years, the girl prayed to God every day, and lived entirely without sin. And on the night that the Devil came for her, she washed herself well, and drew a chalk circle around her, on the floor, so that he could not touch her.

The Devil was furious, and he ordered the miller to remove all water from the house, so that the girl could not bathe, and he would be back for her the next night.

Terrified, the miller did as he was ordered. But the girl wept into her hands, and so they were again clean, and again, the Devil could not touch her.

This time, he ordered the father to chop off his daughter's hands.

At first, the miller refused -- there was no way he could do that to his own daughter. But then the Devil said that if he did not, it would be the miller himself that the Devil would drag off to Hell.

When the miller told his daughter what the Devil had said, she replied: "I am your child, do with me what you will." And she put her hands on the chopping block, and let her father chop them off.

But still, she wept onto her stumps, and washed them clean, and so, that third night, when the Devil came for her, he could not touch her. And after that, he had no more power over her. And he went away empty handed.

After that, the miller said to his daughter: "You have saved my life and my soul. And because of you, I have great wealth. From here on, I will make sure that you live the rest of your life in splendor, and have everything you desire."

But the girl said: "No. I cannot live with you any longer. Bind my arms behind me, and I will go forth into the world. I shall rely on strangers to give me just what I need."

And so, her arms were bound behind her, and she went into the world.

She walked all the long day, and when the evening fell, she came to a king's orchard, filled with beautiful fruit trees. But the orchard was surrounded by a moat of flowing water, and she could not enter. She had been walking all day without a single bite to eat, and she felt that if she could not have some of that fruit, she would die of hunger.

So she fell on her knees, and prayed to God. And an angel of the Lord appeared beside her, and closed the head gate, which stopped the moat from flowing, and she was able to cross over and into the orchard. She ate a pear straight from the tree with her mouth, while the angel stood by her. And when she had finished eating the pear, and was full, she crawled into the brush, and fell asleep.

The royal gardener was keeping watch, for all the pears had been counted, and were ready for harvest in the morning. But because the angel was with her, he thought the girl must be a spirit, and was afraid to call out to her.

The next morning, when the king came down to oversee the harvest of the pears, he noticed that one was missing, and he asked the gardener what had happened. So the gardener told him how the angel of the Lord had come down, and closed the head gate, to stop the moat from flowing, how the girl who seemed to have no arms ate the pear off the tree with her mouth, and how he'd been afraid to call out or talk to her, as she might be a spirit.

The king was intrigued. He called for the harvest to be postponed, and that night, he joined the gardener to watch and see if pear-eater appeared again. He brought the royal priest with him, to speak with her, in case it was a spirit, and the three of them sat down under the pear tree.

When darkness fell, the girl again came out from the brush, and the angel of the Lord was with her, and closed the head gate.

As she approached the tree, the priest spoke up and asked her: "Are you a spirit? Or a being of this mortal Earth?"

"I am a mere mortal," the girl replied, "abandoned by all the world, but not God."

When the king heard that, he said: "Although the world has abandoned you, I shall never abandon you." And he took her to his palace, and had silver hands made for her. And because she was beautiful and good, he fell in love with her, and made her his wife.

After a year, when she was with child, the king was called away by royal duties to travel over the world. He gave orders to his mother to look after her well, and send him news by messenger when the baby was delivered, and let him know whether or not all was well.

In due time, his wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. And the king's mother sent the news by messenger to the king.

But the journey was a long one, and after a time, the messenger stopped to rest under a tree. And he fell asleep. That is when the Devil (who was still trying to get his hands on the girl) took the true note from the messenger's pocket and replaced it with another that said his wife had given birth to a monster.

When the king received that note, he was deeply troubled, but he wrote a reply that they should both be looked after well until he returned.

But the journey back to the palace was still a long one, and the messenger fell asleep in the same spot. And again, the Devil replaced the true note with a false one, demanding that both the child and his wife be killed.

The king's mother was horrified when she read the reply. She immediately sent another note, asking if that was his true desire. But because the Devil always substituted a false reply for the true one, the message came back that the order stands -- and further more, that his wife's tongue and eyes should be kept as proof of the deed.

The king's mother was terrified of disobeying the king. But she could not allow such innocent blood to be shed. So she ordered a wild doe to be killed in the girl's place, and its eyes and tongue be kept.

Then she said to the girl: "It is no longer safe for you here. You must leave this place forever." And she strapped the baby to the girl's back. And the girl ran away into the forest.

She wandered a long time until she came to small hut in the center of the darkest part of the forest, with a sign above the door: "All who approach may freely enter here." An angel of the Lord was there, and welcomed the two of them in, and he gave them food, and held the babe up to the girl's breast, so she could nurse.

Meanwhile, the king returned home, and his mother brought him the tongue and eyes, as proof that his order had been carried out.

When the king cried out: "What have you done?!" his mother realized that the order she'd received had been a false one. And she consoled him, saying that she could not bring herself to really kill the girl, but killed a doe in her place, and sent mother and child into the world.

The king left immediately to search for them, vowing touch neither food nor drink until he found them, or died trying. And though he kept that vow, it was with the power of God that he was kept alive and searching.

Seven years passed, and the girl and her child (whom she named "Sorrowful") continued to live in the hut in the forest with the angel of the Lord. And in due time, because of her purity and devotion to God, the girl's natural hands grew back.

Then, one day, the king stumbled upon the hut, and saw the sign that read: "All who approach may freely enter here," and he went in. The angel of the Lord appeared before him, and offered him food and drink. But the king declined, saying that he only wanted to rest a moment, because he was so tired. And he lay down on a bench, turned his face to the wall, and draped his handkerchief over his face.

And the angel went into the other room, and said to the woman and her son: "Go into the other room, for your husband and father is here."

So she and Sorrowful went into the other room, and saw the king lying there, as if asleep. But the handkerchief had fallen from his face. "Sorrowful," she said, "pick up the handkerchief and cover your father's face again."

But the boy grew impatient. "How can I?" he asked. "You taught me to pray: 'Our Father, who art in Heaven...' And you've told me I have no father on this Earth. How am I supposed to know this wild man as my father?"

The king heard this and sat up. "Who are you?" he asked.

And she answered: "I am your woman, and this is your son."

The king shook his head. "But my wife had silver hands," he said. "I had them made for her myself."

"By the Grace of God," she said, "My natural hands have grown back again.

Whereupon the angel brought him the silver hands he'd had made for her, as proof that she was speaking the truth.

And he rejoiced, and kissed her, and proclaimed: "A heavy stone has fallen from my heart."

Then they ate and drank together, and he brought her home to his elderly mother. There was much rejoicing throughout the land, and they had a second wedding.

And they lived together happily, until their happy deaths.

Although this story is of Germanic, northern European, origin, it nontheless reflects the ancient Roman belief that those with missing or abnormal limbs were oracles sent by the gods (monstrum, in Latin) .1 I have not done research on this point, but it would not surprise me if this belief traces back to the Indo-European root culture of both the Romans and the Norse.

The heroine of the story is not born with her deformity, yet she is still marked by it, and thus, made a pawn of Cosmic Forces. This tale also reflects the belief, perhaps a survival from our Indo-European anscesters, that physical deformity is the mark of sin -- if not of the child's sin, then sin by the parents. Nor was she fully embraced by her society, and welcomed back as fully human, until her own, flesh and blood, hands had grown back (at first, the story says, merely, that the King "took her as his wife;" it wasn't until he brought her, healed, back from the wilderness, that there was any mention of public celebration of their wedding).

And this is not simply "an old superstition." Even today, in this modern, urban-centric culture, those with visible disabilities are routinely approached by strangers, and exhorted to pray to God for a cure; I, myself, am among that number.

It is perhaps too easy, with the Devil and the angels so central to this story (and life sustained without food or water, and magical regeneration), to see the entire narrative as dreamlike and symbolic, and not relating to real-world experience at all. But I cannot help but be struck by the dilemma faced by the king's mother: torn between Government decrees that deformed infants and children be abandoned (or put into institutions) so as not to be "a burden on the State," and a love of family members, and the innate knowledge that they have done no wrong.2

Citation links and footnotes:

This is my own interpretation from Google's auto-translate of the original German (here: 31. Das Mädchen ohne Hände ). There is also an English translation by D. L. Ashliman, here: The Girl Without Hands

1I discussed the origin of the word "monster," and how it relates to our narratives about Disability, back in April, here: Monsters: a key motif, and a symbol of disability

2For more on this topic this blog article is a good place to start: Researching Disability in Ancient Greece