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.


  1. Hmmm!

    It doesn't seem that the evaluators of the 1960s and 1970s thought about the differences between form and content of speech.

    (verbosity = fluency = sense?)

    On the other hand, there is a trope about "being smarter than you look".

    (What colour hair did Mary's Child have?)

    The whole confession/owning dynamic in this fable/fairy-tale.

    Speech is one of many ways to tell that someone is human. If people would lean on it...

    So much else was denied to Mary's Child ... her ability to love and to protect were called into question.

    And all the weather and the prophecies.

    What might have happened if Mary's Child hadn't met the king?

    The portrait of the Virgin is very much a domestic goddess (I am thinking of kitchen gods and other such). And yet she has this power over life and death.

    What did the Grimms think of animals and their ability or otherwise to sin?

  2. And the bit where she opened the 13th door: "the trinity in fire and in brilliance".

    The other twelve doors had Apostles.

    Rather like opening an Advent calendar, really.

  3. @Adelaide: RE: educators confusing the form and content of speech-- they're still doing it. My aide's other client is in kindergarten, and can't speak very well (he's just beginning to get control of his tongue). In preschool, he was in a special ed "Cross-category classroom" (segregating all the disabled kids in a single room, away from the rest of the school), and his special ed teacher insisted that learning to count above 2 would "too confusing." ... He's in the regular classroom, now (and getting gold stars for counting).

    Re: Mary as Domestic Goddess. I think you may be right; in many cultures, The Virgin took on the roles of the Pagan goddesses she was displacing.

  4. @CapriUni:

    "Counting above 2 would be confusing?"

    (Even animals - the domesticated ones - can and do count to high numbers. I am thinking of chickens at the moment. But then those animals might make sounds with their throats).

    And hooray for the gold stars. I think the kindergarteners I know seem to count above 50 or even a 100.

    Mental arithmetic is important too. And "showing your working".

    These cross-category rooms!

    Does he read and enjoy storytelling sessions in his school?

    Oh, it's not until the middle of the tale that we find out Mary's child's hair was golden.

    And then the gossip and the flow of speech between the group of people. The way the people talk when they rumour she ate her children is an important thing to look at too.

    Martin Luther used to write a lot about kobolds.

    So I would probably go looking for Italian and Norwegian sources.

    Thinking of the significance of how Mary's Child spent her years from 3 to 14 in heaven.

    In the other stories where kids are taken by other women, it is not justified.

    (for example: "The lassie and her godmother". The lassie chose to be beautiful and mute, whereas Mary's Child's speech being restored seems to be inevitable. I don't know why, the ending seemed rushed).

  5. Well, I think it's an example of a morality tale, reinforcing a specific Christian doctrine about the rite of Confession.

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