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.


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