Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tom + Tom = Bliss



About ten years ago I wrote a short story that was published on the website Nerve.com.  It was about two guys with developmental disabilities who happen to be in love with one another, and the dedication of one support person working in their group-home who helps them to get married.  The title was:  "The Wedding of Tom to Tom."  It's also in my book of short stories, The Smallest People Alive

Ten years.  Damn.  I'm not famous.  And God knows I'm not a genius.  But what's amazing to me is that this story seems to have a life beyond most of the other things I've written.  I guess it has something to do with the fact that when I wrote it I was trying to merge all aspects of my life together:  people with developmental disabilties, gayness, social work, fiction, and a philosophy honed on reading Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, in which Flannery writes, “It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”  I've always taken these words to heart in everything I've written, but in this story I think it may have yielded some of the greatest moments I could come up with.

Anyway, a student named Amanda Grace Gorman in the ENGL 375A2 DISABILITY AND LITERATURE class at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia wrote a paper about my story.  (I copied it and pasted it below.)  I read it yesterday and burst into tears.  I've been writing now for 25 years or so, and have had reviews in the New York Times, Village Voice, Boston Globe, Publisher's Weekly, and blurbs from famous writers and editors who say my stuff is great, etc., but this was the first time I cried reading something somebody wrote about my fiction.  I think it has something to do with the no-nonsense connections Amanda has made with what I write and the way people with developmental disabilities are perceived and relegated.  It also has something to do with her sympathetic yet strategic way of reading my story.  There's a moral code Amanda is targeting and she finds it in my work:  what an incredible gift to me as a writer.

A true example of 2 + 2 = 5:  me the writer writing something wholeheartedly dedicated to reinventing the way people view characters with developmental disabilities in literature, and ten years later a writer takes what I did and gives it back to me fully reinvigorated.  Wow.  Another example on the same blog is four students in the class creating monologues based on some of the characters in my story that I did not give a lot of voice and agency to.  Reading those monologues made me cry too.

Maybe I'm just some overemotional freak (well wait a minute:  yes I am that), but also I think that this is probably a pretty normal thing that happens to writers all the time.  This is just my first time.  It was Amanda and the other students' thoroughness that got me.

Thanks to ENGL 375A2 at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia...

Link to the story I wrote:  "The Wedding of Tom to Tom"
Link to the ENGL 375A2 blog:  Dislit blog

Here's Amanda's wonderful paper:

Disability and Representation in Keith Banner’s “The Wedding of Tom to Tom”

by Amanda Grace Gorman

Disabled characters, perhaps because of their inherent mystery to nondisabled writers and readers alike, have always been well utilized in literature. These characters often become walking talking embodiments of their disabilities, and help to further the plotlines of the main nondisabled characters. The paradigmatic example of a disabled character in literature is Tiny Tim, the helpless, pitiable disabled boy who acts as a moral compass for Scrooge’s change of heart in A Christmas Carol. We seem to be comfortable encountering disabled characters in literature insofar as they act the part: innocent, desexualized, childlike, bent on overcoming their limitations. In “The Wedding of Tom to Tom”, Keith Banner seems to be challenging this literary stereotype to the utmost degree. He opens the story by confronting the reader with two intellectually disabled characters engaging in gay sex, an act that many people are barely comfortable reading about nondisabled characters engaging in. Banner continues his incredibly progressive representation of disabled characters in “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” by granting legitimacy to their sexualities, asking the reader to reject an infantilized view of them, and by re-imagining the kind of impact that they might have on nondisabled persons.

The fact that Banner’s representation of the intersection of sexuality and disability is a positive one is first evidenced in the text by the fact that he clearly depicts the sexual acts between Tom and Tom as intentional. Anita, after walking in on the couple mid-blowjob and forgetting to turn the lights off as she left says that she “ was getting ready to open the door and turn them off when [she] saw that one of the Toms had already got it. Almost as soon as it was dark in there again, they were making that same crazy silly sex music” (51). This shows that Tom and Tom had not only a physical understanding of what they were doing but also a social understanding, as it is common practice that lights are dimmed during intimate sexual interaction. Anita as the main narrator also makes reference to Tom and Tom’s sexual practices within terms of normal discourse: “Tom A. and Tom B. were trying to sneak off for a quickie right then, and I saw” (59). This shows that not only do the disabled characters view what they are doing as legitimate, but one of the nondisabled characters does too. Though this perhaps should not need to be the case, the fact that a nondisabled character shares this viewpoint does seem to help encourage the reading of Tom and Tom’s behavior as worthy of being understood as mature, intentional sexual behavior.

But it is also made clear in the text that Tom and Tom are not merely mimicking nondisabled sexual behavior. As Tom B. sneaks back to his room, Anita describes him as

“half-demonic, half-angelic, but dramatic, like he had gone off and now he was returning from his journey filled with beautiful new things to tell” (52). This description portrays Tom B. as seeming to understand and to have personalized the complexities of sexual life, rather than merely engaging in acts prearranged by a framework of nondisabled sexual meanings. Though their pleasure itself is described as genuine, for example Anita imagines a fantasy in which a lot of people are coming towards her all “smiling the way Tom A. does during a blow-job session”, Banner does not portray their shared sexuality as functioning merely for physical gratification (73). The love between Tom A. and Tom B. is conveyed to the reader in poignant subtle detail. For example, after the two men are split apart during group time, Anita describes Tom B., smiling, “but his eyes were afraid at the same time. He blew out a sigh and let go of Tom A’s hand…” (58). The fact that the men are constantly split up ends up being read not as a necessary precaution, but rather a tragic element of their love story. The “stack of old-timey bridal magazines, worn out from looking at them”, that Tom A. has stacked in his room, clearly is meant to evoke a kind of sympathy from the reader that differs from the kind of pity one might have for two adults with mental retardation engaging in sexual acts devoid of an understanding of their meaning (65). When Tom B. talks about his relationship with Tom A. Anita describes his face as “sincere and stupid and scary and beautiful”, the kind of face she cannot say no to (66). By the time in the text wherein Anita plans a wedding for the two men, the reader understands why she would want to do something nice for these two men who are unquestionably in love.

It is because of the tender details of their love that Banner includes in the story that the reader ends up having such an adverse reaction to Anita’s boss Kate’s viewpoint on the relationship of Tom A. and Tom B. which is that it is a problematic one, characterized by a strange obsession with each other’s presences. Her view of the two men only makes sense within an infantilizing, paternalistic view of disability that denies disabled persons their own agencies to make informed decisions for themselves. In a meeting for workers at the home, Kate expresses her concerns about the two Toms: “I mean, what I’m afraid of is that they are gonna end up hurting each other. Physically. There’s all kinds of issues here. I mean when I walked in on them the other morning, Tom A., excuse me, but Tom A. was anally penetrating Tom B.” (63). It is clear that this is not a rational concern, proof being that it is indicated that the men have been together for many years without much incident, but rather Kate’s “concern” seems to be a matter of attempting to rationalize her paternalistic motives. Kate’s assumption that the two men cannot make their own decisions despite their apparent competence may be related to a belief that their choosing to be in a homosexual relationship is indicative of an impaired ability to choose appropriate partners due to their mental

disabilities*.

However, Kate is emphatically not a sympathetic character, which reveals that Banner wants the reader to reject Kate’s infantilizing view of the intellectually disabled characters. The reader is not supposed to like Kate, who is first described as “smiling like a whack-o” (51). But furthermore, her way of demeaning others and undervaluing their capabilities is shown not to be caused by real necessity insofar as she works with needy disabled individuals, but rather a manifestation of an undesirable personality trait. After the meeting Kate has with the (nondisabled) workers at the home Anita relates that it “…got quiet, like we were all suddenly little kids and Kate Anderson-Malloy was the teacher” (64). The fact that Anita constantly refers to Kate with all three of her names, Kate Anderson-Malloy, helps locate more specifically what Kate’s undesirable personality trait is: pretension. In fact, throughout the story Anita expresses her frustration with Kate’s assumed superiority. For example, she says at one point, “I mean, she’s a bitch…but also there’s this weird, loud, lovingness in her face as she pronounces her proclamations, like against her compassionate instincts she’s always having to tell us these things” (63). As Anita has trouble pinpointing just what is so terrible about Kate’s opinion that the two men need to be separated, all the while she does not doubt that the two men should have “permission” to be together. Banner seems to be saying that of course love between two adults should be allowed, this should be an unquestionable fact, one that should not need arguing for.

As progressive as the narrative is in representing the intersection of disability and sexuality and rejecting the appropriateness of infantilizing mindsets, it runs its biggest risk of falling back into the conventions of the archetypal disability narrative in making the disabled characters somewhat auxiliary to the dynamic narrative of the main character. Not only this, but it does seem to be the implication that the protagonist Anita, a nondisabled character, is looking to learn something from the disabled persons at the group home. In fact, she describes her job there as her “antidote” to what she had been through with her ex-boyfriend. She explains that she feels like she is “paying penance too but just for being a total fucking fool” (57). But Banner now departs from the typical nondisabled character learning from disabled characters structure. The familiar storyline might include disabled characters overcoming their limitations in some way or learning to cope with their disabling conditions and a main nondisabled character that finds that inspiring. In “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” there is no talk whatsoever of overcoming disability, and what the nondisabled Anita finds inspiring about Tom and Tom is their love story and the endurance of their love through hard times.

Banner makes it very obvious at certain points in the text that Anita draws analogy between her relationship with Archie and Tom and Tom’s relationship. For example, she admits that when picking up the Toms before their impromptu wedding that she is “thinking: well it’s me and Archie in my head, if you want to know the truth” (69). Later on, Anita imagines within her prophetic fantasy of Tom A. and Tom B.’s happy life together, “Love-light. Lava-lamp light” (73). She then immediately connects this to a memory of Archie: “Archie has a lava lamp in his bedroom, or used to. He would turn it on in the dark while we made love. “Real cheesy,” he would say (73). There are also more subtle comparisons in the text that truly bring to light the resonance for Anita of Tom and Tom’s love. In the car with the Toms in the back seat, Anita remembers a moment with Archie: “…and this was love, without crack and without any lies and without his petty-assed, trashy ways. Maybe, maybe not. I see them back there in the rearview. Tom A. and Tom B. Looking straight ahead” (70). Here Anita is looking back to the past to recall a pleasant memory of Archie before they began to have problems and questioning whether or not she loves him. This stands in stark contrast to the reflection in her mirror of the two Toms sitting in her backseat, looking straight ahead, unflinchingly, resolutely, in love and looking towards the future. In addition, Banner even seems to evoke the blowjob motif first encountered in the opening lines of the story when Anita decrees to the reader in a moment of unbridled passion for Archie, “if he had a crack-pipe I would let him stick it into my mouth” (75).

Ultimately, though, it ends up being not just the inspiration of Tom and Tom’s relationship that leads to Anita’s epiphany of her love for Archie at the end of the story. It seems rather to be the fact that he on some level grasps the fact that Tom and Tom are in love, and would never think to question it. This almost seems to conjure the archetypal image of the disabled character acting as a moral compass, but I argue, differs in a fundamental way. Archie can in no way be seen as a moral hero for the way he treats disabled characters, for in fact he does not even interact with the disabled characters. He merely hears the crazy sex music of the Toms through the wall separating their hotel room from his and Anita’s and “isn’t disgusted” or “even perturbed” (76). It is this, instead –his attitude towards love, that it cannot and should not be denied no matter how difficult or unusual the circumstances, which is evidenced by his seemingly natural acceptance of Tom and Tom, that makes Anita realize that she loves him.

By representing the disabled characters as sexual, adult individuals capable of making decisions for themselves, and capable of inspiring people in ways other than attempting to overcome their impairments, Banner breaks from traditional uses of disabled characters in literature. Instead he comes closer to representing people with disabilities as they actually might appear in the world, as nuanced, complicated individuals with their own ideas, goals, and values. Banner’s story might be read as an argument for the transcendent quality of love, for its ability to reach beyond the socially sanctioned places it is supposed to be confined to and manifest itself in anyone. By including disabled characters in this argument, Banner in a small way begins to right the wrongs of his predecessors. He gives disabled characters back their humanity.

* I am indebted to my peer, Helen Alston, for this insight. Her complete explication of this passage through the joint lens of sexuality and disability is available at our Disability in Literature course blog at http://dislit.umwblogs.org/2010/11/03/he…