Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"But these things are monsters" (The Etymologiae of St. Isidore)

Today is "Blogging Against Disablism Day" on the Internet, when bloggers all over the world unite in their efforts to speak out against bigotry against people with disabilities (A link to the growing archive is at the end of this post). In honor of this day, this entry will be a little bit different than most of the pieces I've posted here in the last year. Instead of examining a single story for the expression of individual experience, I'll try to examine one of the roots of the bigotry itself.


When you grow up as a child with a disablity (even though no one ever tells you outright, in so many words), you grow up with the the feeling that when others look at you, they see some sort of monster -- a being somehow caught in a state between an actual person and an animal. You're shuffled off with other children into "special programs," and regardless of how different you are from each other, you're told by the well-meaning adults that you are all the same, and belong together.

Until just a few weeks ago, all I had to go on for this notion was a gut feeling, spurred by expressions of pity and fear that I've seen in mass media, old folktales, and the gaze of strangers when I go out in public. It was this gut feeling that prompted me to start writing this blog. And then, late last month, I learned the name "Isidore of Seville," and discovered that he had, in fact, put my gut feeling in precisely so many words.

Saint Isidore of Seville, Archbishop of Spain (d. 636), was considered one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of his day. Shortly before his death, he compiled the Etymologiae, an attempt, in twenty books, to preserve the important Pagan learning of the late Roman and Greek civilizations, and link it with Christian theology. These books influenced philosophical and literary thought for nearly a thousand years onward. Book Eleven is dedicated to mankind, and concludes with a discussion of those humans who are born with marked differences, by God's Will, to be portents of the future.

Unfortunately, the only online version I could find is in the original Latin, so I've had to rely on Google Translate to make sense of it. Despite the mangled English Google presented to me in the translation, three passages hit me like punches:


Quote: "A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature," unquote.

Ah! All the times, as a child, I'd been required to skip school, to go in for a doctor's appointment so my growth and development could be assessed against the "standard deviation --" so that my differences could be named and cataloged and written up in contrast to what is known to be "normal --" the modern, scientific word for "natural."

Second (the words in square brackets are rearranged from Google's translation):

Quote: "But these things are monsters, which are given in the signs and [do not live a long time, but they have been killed immediately as intended]" unquote.

And how many women have been counselled by their doctors, family, and "community support groups" to have an abortion if the results of an amniocentesis test comes back with unacceptable abnormalities?

And third (again, the words in square brackets are my own rearrangement):

Quote: "[However, there are things written on the transformation of men, and some monstrous beasts], just as that of the most famous sorceress Circe, who [is said to have] changed the companions of Ulysses, [into] wild beasts, and of the Arcadians, who, by lot, and [were thus] turned into wolves." Unquote.

And so was born the fairy tale motif of the enchanted human, turned into a monster by a wicked witch, waiting in lonely isolation for a prince or princess to break the spell with a kiss. This motif rears its sentimental head in every human interest story on the news, when reporters speak of "heroic efforts" to cure someone of their disability, whenever well-meaning aquaintances tell me that they "don't see [me] as disabled, but rather as a human being," -- a human form which is somehow hidden by the outer, "monstrous" shell of Disability, which hides my true nature, and separates me from God's Grace ("There, but for the Grace of God, go I").

In these fairy tales, the worthiness of the Hero, the purity of the Heroine, is judged by how much they are willing to sacrifice to rescue the enchanted victim, and return them to a fully human state. In real life, likewise, parents, siblings and spouses are judged on how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to cure the "afflicted patient." And if the "patients" themselves don't want to be cured, then they are accused, either directly or indirectly, of "giving up on life," as if life itself is only possible for those who are fully human.

But. ...Except: We are already fully human. If our form, if our way of being, falls outside what you understand is the True Order of Nature, then perhaps you need to expand your understanding, rather than try to narrow our existence.


Blogging Against Disablism Day at Diary of a Goldfish Blog -- a growing archive of all the posts: check it out.

Etymologiea of Isisdore, Book 11 (in Latin).

Isidore of Seville (Wikipedia Article)


  1. if our way of being, falls outside what you understand is the True Order of Nature, then perhaps you need to expand your understanding, rather than try to narrow our existence. So wonderful: great post!

    1. Thanks. Yeah, Monsters have sort of become my own emblem of disability pride...

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