Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tom + Tom = Bliss

About ten years ago I wrote a short story that was published on the website  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


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…

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Break Down

Collaboration breaks down the ego and the mechanics of making art; it supplies a new way to figure out how to invent the wheel.  It also allows for biography to be erased, so that eventually only the collaboration, and not the singular artists who created it, become the focus of interest and inspiration.
"2 + 2 = 5: Collaborations" opens the last Friday in April at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  If you make collaborative works, contact us about possible inclusion in this show.

Above:  collaborative work by Becky Iker and Bill Ross...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It Happens in Threes

Three simultaenous shows in Cincinnati about beasts and not on purpose:  (from top to bottom) Jeremy Johnson at Praire in Northside, "Beastiary" at Manifest in Walnut Hills, and Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s Bill Ross at the Bonbonerie in O'Bryonville.  Go see all three shows in one day and finish up at the Zoo.  Then eat some animals crackers.  Call it a day.  (All shows are up through the end of this month.) 

Saturday, November 13, 2010


The pleasure of watching Fox's Glee is witnessing a group of outcasts form their own unique society through an interest in performing and using that performance as a way to seek glamorous revenge on those who have consigned them to the status of "freak."  Every week the Gleeks get victimized:  the stridently talented girl-singer is egged in a parking lot, the gay kid is thrown into lockers, the pregnant teen is ostracized by her once tight network of cheerleader friends, the guy in the wheelchair is pushed down the stairs...  And all this humiliation is answered through heartfelt, intense performances of pop songs.  The catharsis comes through karaoke, only it's not mimicry the Glee cast is indulging in:  it's reinvention through pop, self-acceptance channelled through a song on the radio.  The pleasures Glee offers all of us losers are intensely satisfying because we have constant access to both sides of the equation in our daily lives:  we all get treated like crap, and we all crank up the radio in the car when Lady Gaga belts one out.    

It's the same beautiful vengeance you feel at the end of Carrie when our pig-blood-covered teenaged heroine finally lets loose the hounds of hell at prom; only with Glee it's a really splendid rendition of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" that does it for us.  Carrie is performing her pain in that famous horror movie scene, but remember:  she is the Queen of the Prom and the Queen of the Night combined in that image, and her power not only comes from what has been done to her, but also from her own glamorous transformation from dowdy girl in the gym showers having tampons tossed at her by mean girls to this figure of both horror and transcendence at the end of the movie:  the center of attention, a centrifugal force of teenaged pain and telekinesis not singing her way out of outsiderdom, but burning the whole stupid joint down just because she can.


The connection between the pain of daily humiliation and the release of a triumphant performance, between being bullied and glamorously confronting those bullies in show-tune showdowns, is palpable especially now because of the media coverage of gay teenaged boys killing themselves after being tortured by classmates.  The fury that comes from knowing this is happening is always quivering under the surface now.  And it's not just a pop-song we're talking about here, but still Glee provides a public service:  it allows us to know the truth (the gay kid getting thrown into lockers and worse) and the beautiful fiction it takes to transform and survive (that same gay kid singing a song from Victor/Victoria and all the other Gleeks clapping amazed and stunned by his talent).  Without fantasy, without music, without performance, the torture becomes an unbearable malignant force.

Watching Glee, I keep thinking of Todd Browning's 1932 controversial masterpiece FreaksFreaks is a revenge-fantasia concerning sideshow freaks taking revenge on the "normal" people who are trying to trespass into their own happy society.  The freaks in the movie (people with disabilities ranging from microcephalia to leglessness, a bearded lady, midgets, conjoined twins, etc.) survive through performance:  they use what is seen as "wrong" with them as a way to make a living, strutting their stuff inside tents and cages to suckers who pay to see them.  But the movie never catches that gaze:  it's interested in how freaks live and survive and flourish behind the scenes, and it is that society that both Glee and Freaks tap into, that cultural creative diaspora that allows groups of people often consigned to "outsiderness" to reinvent what it means to be "real," what it means to be alive.  

The penultimate, most gorgeously hilarious and strangely heart-warming scene in Freaks happens a little past midway in the movie, when the Freaks gather for an acceptance dinner.  The circus' beautiful trapeze artist has agreed to marry the leader of side-show performers, the midget named Hans.  The trapeze artists is not a freak, and she has secret plans of killing Hans after their wedding in order to get his inheritance.  At this dinner all of his sideshow friends (not knowing his betrothed's evil plans) pass around a goblet filled with wine, everyone taking a sip from the loving cup while chanting, "Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us."  Over and over the phrase turns into a beautiful song.  The camera lovingly pans from sideshow freak to sideshow freak, everyone happy and free and enjoying each other's company (kind of like the choir-room in Glee). 

"Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us!  Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us!"

But the trapeze artist is not amused.  She just can't take it anymore.  She turns on the chanting folks and screams, "Freaks!  Disgusting freaks!"

There is a moment in this scene of pure guttural rage flowing through the shot-down happiness of the party.  The bully here is outnumbered however.  The mob has switched from chasing the monster to being chased:  the monster now is the mob.  The freak controls the room.  This morality changes the atmosphere.  There is a close-up of the trapeze artist's face.  She is dumbfounded and horrified and amazed.  Freaks are people too, she seems to understand.  But it's way too late for sorry.

Glee captures this same shift in the moral code, only in slightly less horror-movie terms of course.  But the sentiment is there:  freaks shall inherit the earth.  Now let's all break into a song.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Art vs. Social-Work

At the Comet  (the bar a couple doors down from Thunder-Sky) Friday night, I escaped the fun during one of Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s best openings to have a few drinks, and I got into a discussion with one of the artists in the exhibit, Bruce Burris, plus a friend of his.  Bruce is a great guy.  I don't think this will make him upset, but I feel like we have a lot in common:  we're both a little highstrung, passionate, and very very sensitive, especially about art and outsiderness and "disability" and the whole nine yards. 

So Bruce asked me a question about Antonio Adams.  About whether what we are doing for Antonio through Thunder-Sky, Inc. is about art or about social-work.  There was a lot more to the conversation than that of course.  I've boiled it down to that essence because I've been perseverating on that art/social-work binary all weekend, and even now here in a Starbuck's in Columbus, Ohio. 

First off, what Bill and I do for Antonio is try to help him stay inspired, and also we listen to him.  I like to think that we are among some of Antonio's best listeners.  We also try to supply him with art supplies, and a space to come to make stuff when he gets tired of making art in his bedroom.  Bill and I have known Antonio for ten years now, and I think more than anything else we are friends with one major thing in common:  we understand that Antonio is a genius.  Antonio knows it, Bill and I know it.  We also share in the Cult of Ray.  It was Antonio, Bill and my idea to cofound Thunder-Sky, Inc.  It was Bill and Antonio who came up with the concept of the big beautiful Raymond mural on the side of the building in Northside where Visionaries & Voices (V&V) is housed.  And it was Bill, Antonio and I who really pulled together the whole concept around V&V back in the day.  Antonio, Bill and I have traveled to Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Nashville (TN), Columbus (OH), Indianapolis, Louisville (KY), Chicago and several other places to exhibit Antonio's brilliant art.  I've written countless news releases, blogs, articles, letters of support, grant proposals, etc., all with Antonio in mind.  And maybe most importantly (I hope) with Thunder-Sky, we have created a space for Antonio to be a part of that is not about "disability" or "outsiderness."  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a gallery and a studio that is about fostering connections among all kinds of different artists without talking about the same concepts and narratives and tropes.

This brings me back to that binary:  art vs. social-work.  Is what we're doing either one really?   

We don't have connections with Big City Galleries.  We can't offer Antonio acceptance into the Whitney Biennial or whatever.  But my hope is that by creating a space where he can flourish, and other people can too, without foregrounding "disabilities," then we might be able to build an audience who will eventually be interested in supporting him.  As we keep trying to reinvent what art and social-work are supposed to do, maybe they merge into a sort of bliss, an irregular heartbeat that is better than a regular one.  Maybe what we are trying to do with Thunder-Sky, Inc. is reinvent a heartbeat.

I don't know.  I really don't.

I think when we do the art/social-work split we lose track of what both concepts are.  And we start forming the same old narrative in our heads about "outsider artists."  I really want Antonio not to be a part of that cliche.  It's always been amazing to me when I go to outsider art shows or read outsider art criticism, I feel a sort of voyeuristic weirdness steaming off it all, not intentional, but still:  the art of "The Outsider" is special because the artist is in need of social-work services.  Social work in that context becomes a code for "other," I think:  an exotic world of poverty and doctor visits and being "helped."  Antonio is saner and smarter than anyone I've ever known.  He is so down-to-earth he wants to eliminate cellphones, God bless him.  (See the painting above.)

So at the end of the day:  I really want Antonio to be a superstar.  But I want him to be a superstar on his own new terms.  We're trying.  We really are.