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