Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beautiful Souls

"Holding Hands for Safety" is in my collection of stories The Smallest People Alive, available on Amazon...
L. A. Fields, a sweet and kind MFA student from Chicago,  messaged me about answering a few questions she had about what I do fiction-wise for a class she's in.  Here goes...

I looked up the anthology where I first found “Holding Hands For Safety” (in Men on Men 7) and found a review calling your story “fierce and funny,” which is not at all the impression I got (it seems very quiet and serious to me). How would you characterize this story? Or at least what is the impression you hoped to give with it?

It’s both funny and sad to me, and I don’t think you can have either in a story like that without both humor and tragedy working at the same time together to get you through. That said, I also think the class aspect of everything I write can sometimes be misinterpreted as insouciance and “black comedy,” when really it’s just the way people live, point-blank. Poor people, like rich people, have beautiful idiosyncrasies – it’s just that rich people often have more elaborate and intricate ways of hiding those idiosyncrasies, or to transform them into sweet little eccentricities. When Flannery O’Connor talked about why many of her stories featured “white-trash” people, she said something about how many of her characters are stripped of manners and decorum, and that allows the reader to look into their souls. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist. And I think in “Holding Hands for Safety,” all the characters are stripped down to their essences to the point you have access to their souls, and while those souls might be a little ugly and a little worn out, they are beautiful souls none-the-less, especially the souls of the three main characters: the teenaged gay narrator, his punk step-cousin, and the six-year-old girl the step-cousin kills.

You said in an interview with Donald Ray Pollock that you’ve written another novel since The Life I Lead—would you mind telling me what it’s about, and if it’s any closer to finding a home?

Actually it’s Holding Hands for Safety turned into a novel, funny enough. I opened up the story to include many other points of view (including Courtney and Troy), and what happens after the murder. It’s going around now to different places. No good news, yet. Or maybe ever. But I keep trying. That’s the essence of all this stuff: you can’t get deterred. I have a draft of another novel I’m working on now called Johnson City Divas. It’s a homage to James M. Cain and other noir writers. It’s kind of like Mildred Pierce spliced with Jean Genet. A middle-aged drag-queen who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee is one of the central characters. I liked the idea of going with a plot-driven gig for a change. In The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Cain’s plots have both an artificial dexterity and a weird existential necessity. It’s the nexus between reality and phoniness where murderers live. A lovely place for a story.

Having written both novels and short stories, which do you enjoy writing best? Are there differences in how you approach long and short pieces of fiction?

I like writing short stories, but then I get sick of them because I want the terrain of a planet instead of the intimacy of a condo. But they go well together, and most of the novels I write come from the short stories. They intermingle. And some of my favorite novels, actually, read like collections of interrelated short stories. The best I’ve read recently: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Us and Them

I'm teaching a Disability Studies class at Miami University this semester titled "Allies and Activists."  It's been great so far, as we delve into the meanings and absurdities around the way people with disabilities often have been relegated and erased, and how we might counteract the erasure and relegation through thoughtfully considering how to create "alliances" and forms of "acitivism" that actually matter.  This post is a combination of a lot of the stuff we've been doing and talking about... 

Image from Lest We Forget:  Silent Voices, a documentary about Ohio's institutions for people with developmental disabilities.  The film includes interviews with "disability professionals," parents and other family members, and people who lived in the institutions when they were open.   

Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized:  "The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity.  They are this.  They are all the same."

In the classes we've had so far we've discussed how representations and ideas about people with disabilities are often about Us and Them, "Us" being people who consider themselves "able," and "Them" being the colonized other, a mass of people separated from civilization often in order to "fix" them, or to protect us from them.  This historical vantage point allows us to understand why, even in a contemporary society that prides itself on the integration of people with disabilities into the mainstream, actual inclusion hardly ever happens.  When a group of people are colonized and then decolonized, the apparatus and attitudes that created the colonization in the first place still exist -- only now in a still pervasive yet more hidden form.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization:   "Modern man no longer communicates with the madman [...] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence."      

Without a "common language" (outside of the language imposed by medical professionals), the colonized (people with disabilities) and the colonizer (everybody else) don't have to speak to one another.  The colonizer can maintain a "silence" for the rest of time, comfortable in the fact that a language isn't necessary unless someone needs to be diagnosed or told what their IQ is.  We've done a lot of in-class writing about what "power" means in the lives of people with disabilities, and how people not labeled with a disability often participate unknowingly in a power structure that keeps Us away from Them.  The power of  Us comes from that lack of a language spoken by both sides:  whoever controls the one-sided mechanism to speak and label, to assign and diagnose, wins. 

We read and discussed Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, as well as watched Lest We Forget: Silent Voices, a documentary paying witness to the historical horrors of some of Ohio's large institutions for people with developmental disabilities.  Both Kesey's novel and the documentary try to create a language for the other side of colonization.  In Cuckoo's Next, this language is created and spoken by a Native American who is labeled "deaf and mute."  Chief Bromden is the storyteller within the colony of "insane people," and as he tells us about McMurphy's struggles with Nurse Ratched (whom the Chief calls "Big Nurse"), we begin to understand how devastatingly and existentially vast the inside of the insane ward truly is, so immense that the Chief nicknames it "the Combine," defining the institution, and therefore the culture that operates and adminstrates it, as a machine so anonymously huge no one recognizes it as a machine except those who are being processed into it and eventually consumed by it.  "Big Nurse" is at the controls of this Combine, overseeing a strategy of rewarding and punishing that allows for no critique and no escape.  

Lest We Forget creates a language and a dialogue from the actual voices and images of the inhabitants of large institutions for people with developmental disabilities, showing us how groups of people when housed together in order to be "fixed" are actually massed together so we can forget about them.   In Lest We Forget, we pointed out the alliances among the "inmates" of the institutions and the "professionals" in charge of "fixing" them.  All of these alliances are complicated by the fact that they take place within the confines created by the dominant class, in the shadow of the Combine.  In Lest We Forget, people who lived through abuse narrate what happened to them, while professionals apologize and seem mystified as to how it could have occurred.  These alliances between the colonized and the colonizer both nurture the need to be free from confinement while also maintaining that confinement, eliminating the possibility of making a difference though activism.  "Freedom" is not possible within the Combine.  The voices, both fictional and not, in Cuckoo's Nest and Lest We Forget, attest to the need for alliances outside of the colony, while also showing us how ineffective these alliances are unless they help to dismantle the Combine, allowing actual freedom to occur. 

Jack Nicholson as McMurphy in the film version of One Flew over the Cucko's Nest.
Last week we talked about Million Dollar Baby, and how its narrative about euthanasia is a direct result of how "Us and Them"can become a death sentence.  This quote from Ragged Edge, a disability rights magazine, is from the essay we read in Representing Disability in an Ableist World:  Essays on Mass Media, by Beth A. Haller:

"Life with a disability is so devalued, society is so bigoted against the idea that life with a severe disability can have quality, that in such a climate the 'right to die' becomes a 'duty to die.' Activists fear that people who become disabled will choose suicide over living with disability. They fear that people whose disabilities make them burdens on family members will be pressured -- subtly or not so subtly -- to end their lives."

Million Dollar Baby is about that "duty to die," a narrative constructed around "dependence" and "independence," in which once you find yourself dependent on help all hope is lost.  Hillary Swank's character is a boxer who has spent most of her life on a quest to be great, but at the end of the film when she is injured and has to reassess who she is and what she wants to do there are no choices except being snuffed out.   When you consider how over-praised the film was upon its release (winning lots  of Academy Awards, including Best Picture), you get the idea: in America at least being dependent on support = being a pariah. 

Eastwood and Swank in Million Dollar Baby.
We then looked at Mitt Romney's statement from the previous day.  Romney was secretly videotaped by someone with a camera-phone at a fundraising event.  Romney was talking about people who are "dependent" and "victims," relying on the government for their "food and healthcare and housing."  While Romney was not explicitly talking about people with disabilities, the dichotomy he was using to tap into the collective unconscious (and the deep pockets) of his audience is pretty clear:  "Us," the independent and healthy masses versus "Them," the dependent and not-so healthy Other. 

So where's the hope?

Since this class is about understanding how to form sane and productive alliances with people with disabilities in order to affect some kind of overarching change in the way we both support and relegate them, we found some hope, I think, when we looked at another recent incident that was captured by a cell-phone camera.  Bede Vanderhorst, a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome, was kicked out of First Class on an American Airlines flight by the pilot because, as the pilot states, Bede seemed "agitated" while sitting in the waiting area before boarding the plane.  Robert and Joan, Bede's parents, tried to stand up for their kid, but the American Airlines staff seemed very adamant.  The cell-phone footage showed Bede sitting in the waiting area doing really nothing, and they also videotaped airplane staff being discriminatory.  "Us" versus "Them" in this instance got redefined through the use of a common language:  mass media.  Bede's mom and dad went to CNN and other outlets and told their story, backed up by the footage they had shot.  The alliance they have made with their son, in the capacity of standing up for him, is one way in which the power structure gets redefined.  In the news-story we watched, they showed pictures of Bede playing in a rock band, going to school, being a part of the world -- in effect pulling him away from the colony we often assign him to.  He was no longer in the Colony of Down Syndrome:  he was now a teenaged boy being discriminated against.        

We also watched a movie called Lars and the Real GirlLars and the Real Girl was released in 2007 to not a lot of acclaim. The premise sounds like a bad joke, which is probably why the movie did not get as much notice as it should have. Lars is a functional recluse who lives in the garage behind the house where he grew up. His brother and sister-in-law live in the house-proper. The sister-in-law, Karen, is trying desperately to include Lars in their domesticity, even at one time tackling him out in the snow to ensure he makes it to dinner. As played by Emily Mortimer, Karen is the beating, beautiful heart of the movie: someone so guileless and sweet that she feels the need to enforce kindness, not just give it. An example of an alliance transforming into advocacy and activism.

And that's also the way many of the townspeople in Lars and the Real Girl come across throughout the rest of the film. When Lars orders a fake girl through the Internet (and it's a salacious website he gets it from, advertising poor lost lonely orphan-girls to be adopted by poor lost lonely old men), and the girl arrives, you expect the movie to lurch into simpleminded, mean-spirited comedy.  But the triumph of the film is that it takes that low-grade concept (lonely loser purchases a fake doll to make love to) and elevates it by paying attention to what the fake girl means.  In order to move Bianca (the fake girl) around Lars imagines a disability for her, so he has to get a wheelchair for her. Bianca, his first love, is a woman with a disability, and yet the townspeople, when asked to help Lars through his delusion by believing in it along with him by the local family doctor, take Bianca into their midst as one of their own. They provide her with a job at the mall as a model, and eventually she is even voted onto the schoolboard. In her vacantness and in her pliability, Bianca becomes a perfect symbol for human kindness.

Ryan Gosling and Bianca in church:  "Us versus Them" gets turned inside out.
Lars is as well a person with a disability: loneliness manifesting itself into a delusion, some kind of mental illness, I'm sure, but what the movie does is dramatize not the internal aspects of "being diagnosed and fixed," but the external ones many movies about people with disabilities miss. When Lars goes to a party with Bianca, there are stares and comments, but there's also this feeling that somehow Lars is using Bianca to let people know how human he is too, and how much he needs. He could never tell them that upfront, so Bianca becomes his visual cue, and we see him and what is "wrong with him" through innocent eyes. His attention to Bianca, his devotion to her, becomes as natural and real as any romance in movies can be.

"Disability" gets deconstructed because the secrecy and shame usually connected to a story like Lars' are not there. He is openly courting a fake girl he ordered over the Internet, and guess what? Everyone in town is in on it. The "disabilities" inherent in both Bianca and Lars' bodies and persona are somehow "owned" by everyone, and in the end a sort of catharsis happens. Us becomes Them; Them becomes Us.