Rereading my Childhood for my Dissertation: Mine for Keeps

Image description: Book cover for Mine For Keeps by Jean Little. A girl sits among foliage wearing a white hat and a pink coat. She is cradling a little white dog and and underarm crutch can be partially seen next to her. (Source)

This post contains spoilers.

As part of my requirements for my PhD I’m doing a book audit of books from my childhood that were meaningful in some way. Some of those books were books assigned in classes in schools (yes, I will be rereading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school, I will also be reading Go Set A Watchmen). It is hard even in hindsight to determine exactly what some of these books meant to me but they are the ones whose titles I could never forget or that I reread over and over or found again at key moments in my life.

The book audit assignment is not going to allow me the space to really consider these books in detail. I will not be writing essays but rather explaining why the book is significant in the context of my dissertation (for more info click here). I have thus far only read one book, so I don’t know if I will dissect each of them here on the blog. I don’t yet know what emotions are going to come up or if I feel comfortable speaking at length about a particular book without further research.

Without further ado, the first installment in a potential series

Mine For Keeps (1962) by Jean Little

Summary

Sarah Jane (Sally) Copeland has cerebral palsy and has spent most of her school years in an institution for “handicapped” (it was the sixties y’all) children. A new rehabilitation centre is opening up close to her family and Sally is moving home permanently for the first time since she was a small child. She will be attending the same school as her siblings. Sally is scared but excited.

This was my third read through of this book. Both previous reads were done before I turned 18. All I can say at 32 upon rereading it is to say. Wow, I was really starved for representation if I treasured the memory of this book.

It is important to point out that Jean Little is both Canadian (yay CanLit) and is partially blind (vintage CripLit). She has written several children’s books on the topic of disability.

Mine for Keeps, offers an odd combination of realistic portrayal of disability and those smarmy morality tales that were popular in children’s fiction at the time. At times you have the impression that you have left suburban 60s Canada and fallen into a Dick and Jane school reader.

It is almost as though the author didn’t know how to balance realism with the morality that is inevitably expected in children’s books with disabled characters. Sally doesn’t just have to deal with going to a mainstream school that has ill considered her needs and balancing family life as a long-term resident and not just the summer and Christmas guest. Sally has to save the self esteem of an unpopular Dutch immigrant boy named Piet to make his sister happy.

Rereading this book as an adult, I cringe more that I identify with the book. Sometimes I cringe because I do identify with the book but not the book’s message.

To her credit Jean little does try to subvert the supercrip narrative that the book sets up. Piet is depressed because not long after arriving in Canada he contracted rheumatic fever and was sick for months. Though now out of bed Piet’s activities are still restricted by his health. His English isn’t as good as his sister Elsje’s and he is unpopular with the boys his age because his inability to participate makes him appear standoffish.

Before he was ill Piet trained animals and even has a very well trained dachshund named Willem. Despite being somewhat recovered Piet refuses to take back responsibility for Willem from his sister believing himself to crippled (though he said it in Dutch).

Elsje decides that if Sally can train her own puppy Susie, it will prove to Piet that he is still capable. Ultimately, Sally just ends up putting Piet on the spot in public forcing him to either display his dog training skill or be embarrassed.

The book is really longer than it needs to be and this seems to be to try to give Sally some semblance of agency in the story but in the end she is really just a pawn in her friend’s ill conceived bid to save her brother from being a moody teenage boy.

The book tries to justify this by giving Sally an odd anonymous obsession with Piet (they don’t even meet until well past halfway through the book) because her brother makes an offhand comment about no one liking Piet but that his sister was in Sally’s class.

Piet is otherwise an absent figure. He appears in two scenes in the entire book. Everything else is Sally being told private family business the teller should definitely be keeping to themselves or eavesdropping on other children complaining about Piet. From this alone Sally creates an ever-changing fantasy Piet that she is platonically obsessed with, for no conceivable reason.

While it is not written with that intent it very much reads like Sally is pursuing training Susie at least to the degree and zeal that she does in the book in order to keep a friend (who can be moody) happy.

There are no real stakes. Sally is able to convince Piet to go back to looking after Willem by pressuring him in front of an audience. The actual time spent training Susie up until this point is just a couple of weeks. Though of course as is the way with such books the children all intend to carry on training their pets. Sally with her friends and Piet with two new friends conveniently with dogs that just happen to be present for Piet’s moment of personal growth. This is a very important literary tool called “for plot convenience”.

Sally uses peer pressure rather than her disabled body to “save Piet”. It really feels like this book is missing basic things like character development and more information on Sally Copeland’s social reality. Perhaps it is just as an adult, that I see not just the gaping plot holes with ill-fitting morality messages stretched on top. The task of “saving Piet” much less meeting Piet is a MacGuffin. Oddly, in this book, a one-dimensional petulant Dutch immigrant who serves as the catalyst that inspires or forces (depending on how you interpret Elsje’s peer pressure) that inspires the disabled person not to mope around being depressed about their life.

The xenophobia over the immigrants in the story is painfully apparent, primarily because the book is trying to horn in the additional message that xenophobia is bad but none of the Dutch characters are likeable. Piet is taciturn and only gets over himself when publicly forced to. Elsje initially isolates Sally by monopolizing the attention of the one girl who seems to like her. When Elsje finally warms up to Sally, Sally quickly becomes the vehicle through which Elsje will “save” her brother. That dynamic between the two never really changes, yet is never questioned.

The characters are really just set pieces so that Sally can navigate learning “lessons” about independence and self-advocacy. Sally’s first lesson is that the person who was primarily responsible for her care at school is an asshole and so is Sally’s mother. I admit I remembered this part. I can’t remember if it struck me as odd upon my first reading but my alarm bells were ringing by the second reading.

On Sally’s first morning home from the institutional school, Sally’s mother left her alone to dress despite Sally always having needed help dressing before. She understandably panics at being expected to independently perform a task that she has always needed and always been given assistance with before.

Turns out all the clothes are made so Sally can dress independently and the school guardian recommended them! Prior to that moment Sally had been expected to dress herself in clothes without adaptations and there was always someone to assist her with the things she couldn’t do. She had no reason to expect accessible clothes. Her mother is also a jerk about Sally not noticing the clothes were accessible. Her mother tells her a story from when Sally was FOUR and scared of the beach until her dad ignored her fear and just plunked her unable to escape the situation ass in the surf. In this blatant false equivalence Sally is immediately enamored of the water but her mother reminds her that the family taunted a FOUR-YEAR-OLD with the nonsensical nickname Scarey Sarey (Yes, Scarey Sarey not Scardy Sarey). The message is supposed to be “how do you even know if you like something until you try it”. That, however, ignores the context where Sally has no reasonable expectation of accessible clothing. She’s never experienced it before and we learn that the person most responsible for her care has been withholding this kind of access in the institution. The book doesn’t really get into the complicated politics of normalization that are hinted at here. Sally is wrong and must learn a lesson, not her mother.

The book is full of these false independence messages. Apparently, in the world of Mine for Keeps nondisabled siblings are just tripping over themselves to do a disabled siblings chores (anecdotally, this seems suspect) instead of trying to adapt the chore to make it accessible.

This is the one place where a book full of otherwise toxic disability messages shines. Sally is constantly being consciously accommodated. She isn’t left out or left to figure it out on her own. People consider their impact on Sally. People apologize when they didn’t consider how their actions would impact Sally. This is restricted to areas of physical access though as much of the story seems to care less about how people treat Sally as a person (see: Elsje’s peer pressure). Socially, Sally is only friends with people who approach her. There is very much a vibe of “if they are smiling, they are safe”. Considering the direction Elsje’s character takes this is unfortunate.

The implication at the end of the book is that Sally has found community but, she only seemed to get it via that age-old literary device of “plot convenience”.

Despite trying to challenge the standard disability narrative, Jean Little reinforces it. I only noticed how she subverts the narrative with Piet on my third reading and that only because the book abruptly ends there. So, I guess Sally only existed to save Piet after all.

How to Support My Work

So now for the very in-depth appeal for support for mu PhD. Please read through this, there are so many ways to help, including just sharing this blog post on social media.

Kindle ebooks read on my iPad are the easiest way for me to read and take notes unfortunately Amazon does not allow people to buy ebooks for others through their wishlist system. I have an Amazon Wish list anyway as some of the books can only be purchased in print or from third party sellers because they are out of print. If you could buy me one of the books that can only be had in print, I would greatly appreciate it. If you want to help fund the ebooks I’ll need you can buy me a gift card and send it to the following email address

The email is kimberleyjanephd@gmail.com

I will not be answering queries about my research through this email. It is solely a way for people who want to support my work to be able to do so. (this is a safety boundary). If you want to talk to me, find me on Twitter.

My research and supporting myself will get past the reading phase and there will be field work in my future. If you would like to help me fund my PhD in the long term you can

support me on patreon

Become a Patron!

buy me a ko-fi

send me money via paypal

send an e money transfer to the email above (if you have scruples about third party sites)

I also have a generic disability wish list of things that would just improve my quality of life

Thank you for your ongoing support. and just an FYI I’m changing my name socially to Kimberley Jane Erin. You can call me Kim or Jane but I prefer Jane. I am however, not the least uncomfortable with Kim so don’t worry about messing up.

It’s time I really leaned into my identity as a scholar. I hope you’ll support me

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I was “So Lucky” to Review Nicola Griffith’s New Book: A CripReads Review

so lucky cover

Image Description: The cover of Nicola Griffith’s book “So Lucky”. The title and author’s name appear in a large font made to look like scraps of burning paper. They appear on a black background

When I was asked to write a review of Nicola Griffith’s upcoming novel “So Lucky” (to be released May 15) I had no idea that the most frustrating part of the process was going to be figuring out how to summarize the book without spoilers. I have ultimately decided to give up on that entirely and just copy and paste the summary of the book provided by the publisher. I will only preface this summary with the opinion that I think this summary is both misleading and does not do the book justice.

So Lucky is the sharp, surprising new novel by Nicola Griffith—the profoundly personal and emphatically political story of a confident woman forced to confront an unnerving new reality when in the space of a single week her wife leaves her and she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Mara Tagarelli is, professionally, the head of a multimillion-dollar AIDS foundation; personally, she is a committed martial artist. But her life has turned inside out like a sock. She can’t rely on family, her body is letting her down, and friends and colleagues are turning away—they treat her like a victim. She needs to break that narrative: build her own community, learn new strengths, and fight. But what do you do when you find out that the story you’ve been told, the story you’ve told yourself, is not true? How can you fight if you can’t trust your body? Who can you rely on if those around you don’t have your best interests at heart, and the systems designed to help do more harm than good? Mara makes a decision and acts, but her actions unleash monsters aimed squarely at the heart of her new community.

I went into reading this book knowing very little about it beyond the fact that the main character was dealing with the transition of becoming disabled as an adult. The main character, Mara gets a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis early on in the book. I also knew that the author, Nicola Griffith has multiple sclerosis. Griffith also co-hosts the #criplit Twitter chats with Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project.

I genuinely think that the less you know about this book before reading it, the better. I also think that you should definitely read this book. It is a good story that is engagingly written. It also offers a great and realistic depiction of disability.

Any attempt to more clearly describe the book or even sections of it would inevitably lead to spoilers.

Now I fully admit that I don’t have MS. The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing MS is when a former coworker became convinced that my cerebral palsy was really MS and spent a week trying to convince me that I didn’t understand my own body. That said, there are a lot of moments in this book that deal with situations that are not diagnosis specific.

What I love most about this book is how real those moments of the disabled experience are. I loved reading about how Mara engages with her newfound disability and how she shifts how she interacts with the rest of the world. I love that she makes decisions that I disagree with. I love that she makes decisions that I wouldn’t because she considered an angle that I hadn’t. I love that she is a whole character with a real life.

Mara also offers a level of intersectionality that we rarely get to see in media representation of disability. She is a woman, she is queer, we get to see her navigate relationships, she isn’t desexualized, and she surrounds herself with a diverse group of friends and colleagues.

My only real criticism of the book is that the ending feels rushed. It’s a complete ending and all the loose ends are tied up but it just feels rushed. Basically, I finished it and wanted more.

The book is good and you should read it but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge why this book is important to me. There have been so few opportunities in my life where I have been able to see myself in media. While, Mara and I are very different people with different disabilities, we still share common experiences. The way that Nicola Griffith navigates the nuances of disability feel more real than anything I’ve read by a nondisabled person. It is real and raw. Griffith doesn’t pull any punches just to seem more approachable for a nondisabled reader and even among what little fiction writing about disability by disabled writers there is, this is still a rarity.

I really hope that this will be the start of a trend and that there will be more books with unapologetically disabled characters that are written by people who really understand what that means.

So Lucky will be released on May 15, 2018 for more information on where and how you can purchase a copy click here.

 

How to support my work

I am currently fundraising to attend the International Disability Law Summer School. You can donate to that on GoFundMe

Click Here to Donate

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider becoming a patron on patreon.

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If you can’t commit to a monthly contribution consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Contributions help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

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#HotPersonInAWheelchair and the Longevity of Bigotry

Four Years ago former Jeopardy Champion Ken Jennings tweeted an offensive joke

So, why am I writing about a four-year-old tweet? Isn’t it old news and basically irrelevant now?

Unfortunately, no. This tweet caused controversy at the time and because it is still online, people are still using it to harass disabled people. I had four people use it against me yesterday.

The problem with things like this is that they don’t just fade into obscurity. Periodically, someone comes across it and starts engaging with it again. The reason I was harassed (and yes I would classify it as harassment) about that tweet yesterday is because I commented about how people were still engaging with my response to the tweet. Which means people are still engaging with the tweet is still impacting people.

I tweeted my displeasure that Jennings hadn’t deleted it. He actually responded to me with this justification.

This seems like a good responsible take, except that it falls apart the second you remember that people are still being harmed by that tweet.

Twitter does not have a mechanism to encapsulate old problematic tweets with an explanation about how you now understand that it was harmful, that you regret doing it and you want to leave it up as a reminder of the harm it did. Even if Jennings wrote something to that effect among the replies, there are 1600 of them. People can hardly be blamed if they don’t know he’s sorry about it now. It also doesn’t stop the tweet from being used by others who do just think insulting wheelchair users is just hilarious.

A far better response would have been to take a screenshot and write and publish an apology and then delete the tweet. Jennings is famous enough that he could have found somewhere to publish that apology. Then he wouldn’t be whitewashing his past and he would have stopped the tweet that he supposedly now regrets from being used to harm others.

Someone accused me of just going looking for something to be angry about. They justified this argument based solely on the fact that the tweet is four years old and I talked about it yesterday.

But, it’s not going to find something that periodically shows up in my notifications. That’s just acknowledging that people are still interacting with four-year-old bigotry and that’s worth talking about. Bigotry doesn’t necessarily get stale and less bigoted with age.

You can’t absolve yourself from past bigotry if it is still harming people. Particularly if there is a way to stop that harm (in this case it’s as easy as deleting a tweet).

Jennings wants to be patted on the back for what amounts to fake contrition. I can’t believe any claim of taking responsibility if taking responsibility means justifying the continuation of harm.

One silver lining of this tweet’s latest resurgence is that it has inspired the #HotPersonInAWheelchair which is a brilliant celebration of disabled beauty and confidence. I do so love the confidence and snark of the disabled community.

Annie Segarra (you can support her on patreon. She also has a YouTube Channel) started it off with this

The whole hashtag is well worth a look, but be advised that some of the images may be NSFW. I certainly hope this protest will be stronger than the bigotry that inspired it.

Jennings should still delete that tweet though and finally really take responsibility for it by apologizing somewhere other than Twitter.

 

 

How to support my work

I am currently fundraising to attend the International Disability Law Summer School. You can donate to that on GoFundMe

Click Here to Donate

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider becoming a patron on patreon.

Become a Patron!

If you can’t commit to a monthly contribution consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Contributions help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

If you want to support my work but are unable to do so financially, please share this post on your various social media accounts.

The Shape of Water is a Toxic Romantic Fantasy: The Issues With this Disability Romance Narrative

 

ShapeWater-tank

Image Description: A still from The Shape of Water. Sally Hawkin as Elisa, a dark haired woman shown in profile has her hands on the glass of a large tank. On the other side a humanoid but scaly creature with webbed hands gazes back at her.

 

This post contains spoilers

 

I know I’m late in presenting an opinion on Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water but considering that the Oscar nominations were just released and Del Toro’s film has garnered a number of nominations including Best Actress for Sally Hawkins, I may be late but I’m certainly not too late.

The Shape of Water is basically a dark and flipped to take on a combination of Disney’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid. Instead of a sea creature wanting to walk among humans, a human wants to be with a sea creature. Elisa, played by Hawkins is a woman who has no voice. She didn’t sell it to a sea witch but rather experienced an undefined violent injury to her vocal cords as an infant.

Unlike her Disney counterpart Ariel, Elisa doesn’t want to be separated from humanity around her but is instead ostracized because of her disability. In fact, at the end of the film, she seems prepared to give up her monstrous lover in order to stay with people. It is only because she is mortally wounded and no longer given a choice that she ends up in the water with her beloved creature.

Her character—like all of the characters in the film—is one-dimensional. She is a mishmash of disability stereotypes. She is a social outsider who is largely perceived to be “other”. She clearly longs for more inclusion but is unable to get it. She experiences only simplistic emotions that seem more appropriate to a toddler than they do to a grown woman who has not one but two gratuitous masturbation scenes (so you can throw in a creepy sexualization of innocence as well).

The lack of emotional range for the character is really down to the performance given by Sally Hawkins. I have seen many people applaud the silence of her performance but silence isn’t a performance, it is a narrative choice. A performance would be everything that the character does outside of that silence. Which in this case is predominantly very simplistic facial expressions and a very little amount of sign language. What that amounts to is that Elisa’s character has less to do with her character or the performance given by Hawkins than it does with the storytelling around it.

Everything about the narrative shows how alone Elisa is. She lives alone in a poorly furnished apartment. Her neighbour and only nonwork-related friend largely ignores her if it doesn’t suit him. She is an orphan who experienced violence. She is so ignored at work that she can take her lunch breaks with her employer’s top-secret project and have it remain largely unnoticed even by her closest coworker.

Her only driving motivation is to be wanted. To be Included. She ultimately gets one and not the other which is what makes this film a nightmare.

Del Toro masterfully sets up a narrative where Elisa’s ostracization and treatment are clearly the fault of people around her. The film directly acknowledges that her oppression is socially constructed and then it lets the world get away with it.

Even at the end Elisa never intends to run away with her lover. She saves him from vivisection and lets him camp out in her bathroom but the relationship has an expiration date. The day he can be safely released back into the water.

Even as they stand on the edge of the canal and the creature asks her to go with him, she refuses. She still wants the human world. She still thinks her place is there. She again loses her right to choose though, after her boss, the film’s villain shoots her. She is either dying or dead when she is lifted and carried into the water by her lover. The lover, she intended to let go. He either heals or resurrects her in the final moments of the film enabling her to breathe underwater so that they can spend their lives together. Away from the world that rejected them both. This is supposed to be romantic.

Even if you ignore the rejection of Elisa’s agency when she said that she intended to stay on land. The film acknowledges that the barriers she experienced were socially constructed and then concluded with “It’s better to just leave”. Leave and live what is implied to be a solitary existence where she has only her lover for company.

It is interesting how closely this conclusion mirrors my own youthful fantasies about romantic relationships (except that I kept my imaginary lovers human). I often felt like any relationship I might find would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and that we would inevitably end up living a secluded life together because of the discrimination that I faced. Except in the real world, that kind of relationship is a recipe for abuse and I’m glad I grew out of it.

The Shape of Water could so easily be a different kind of horror film about the dangers of social denial of the sexuality of disabled people and how that makes them easy targets for abusers. Instead, it does exactly that story but ignores the inherent dangers of becoming infatuated with the first man who pays you any attention because the world has spent decades telling you that you are undesirable. It takes what should be a cautionary tale and turns it into a bittersweet romance. In so doing it absolves the bigoted world that rejected Elisa and ends on the message that if the world doesn’t work for you, even if it’s clearly the result of discrimination that the best option is to leave.

At least in both versions of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid was clearly trying to move from one society to another. Elisa gives that up for a completely uncertain future. As Elsa Sjunneson-Henry points out in the title of her own review of the film “I want to be where the people are”.

Disabled people don’t need more pseudo-romantic movies that romanticize our otherness, that connect us so clearly to monsters. That say if society doesn’t accept you that you might as well embrace the monster that they see in you and join literal monsters in a life away from humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider becoming a patron on patreon.

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Dear Judith Newman, I’m Writing this For You because You Didn’t Write For Me

 

boycott to siri

Image Description: Text “BoycottToSiri” in white on a black background

 

Dear Judith Newman,

I have not read your book To Siri With Love and I frankly don’t intend to. I know this will frustrate some people, maybe even you but I don’t actually think it is relevant to the thing that I want to criticize. I have seen my fellow actually autistic people in pain from your book. I have read their critiques and there are things about your book that quite frankly are unlikely to be saved by added context. The transphobia that exists in the introduction to your book, that you wrote that you wanted the power to sterilize your son, the sexist and disrespectful way you referred to Amythest Schaber.

Yes, yes I know, you’ve since said that you no longer plan or intend to sterilize your son. The thing is it’s too late. You published that awful bigotted sentiment in a best selling book, you can’t take it back now. The damage of that awful statement is already done. Even if you remove it from subsequent editions, it’s still out there and that message will be stronger and longer lasting than any weak backpedalling you do now.

You claim that you apologized to Amythest but as far as I’ve seen you’ve at best made a fauxpology and at worst you’ve simply made excuses. You also still clearly don’t understand why what you did was wrong, so I will again try to explain it to you. There are two major issues.

You described Amythest as a manic pixie dream girl. This term describes a narrative device where a female character (usually quirky) exists entirely for the benefit and consumption of a straight male protagonist and the presumed straight male audience.

You did somewhat address this critique but I have yet to see an actual apology. You have so far only been sorry that your intent was not effectively conveyed. You say that you thought the term was just a more modern version of gamine (a word so obscure I admit I had to look it up). You were just trying to be down with the kids. This response shows that you didn’t understand the other part of why calling Amythest a manic pixie dream girl was inappropriate.

You shouldn’t have been describing Amythest at all. What does what Amythest looks like have to do with the YouTube videos you were citing? Nothing. Reducing Amythest to a physical descriptor regardless of the underlying meaning of the intended compliment was itself inappropriate. People did not need to know that you think Amythest is gamine (a girl with mischievous or boyish charm) to know those videos are full of great information.

The thing I really want to talk to you about though is your response to the backlash from actually autistic people. You brushed off those criticisms by saying that you did not write your book for us.

This is a big problem especially for someone who claims to be autism friendly. With this statement, you prove that autistic people are just props for you. You did not care about the impact of this book on us. You also hide behind stereotypes to deflect from criticisms.

Apparently, we can’t understand your book because you put jokes in it. I can’t speak for all of us but I assure you there are many autistic people who understand jokes. We also know when they are not funny or at our expense.

There is something so utterly isolating about being told that a book where autism is central to the narrative was never intended for autistic people. Are we not part of the population? Do we not read? Shouldn’t you have considered that we might read it? That we are hungry for good representation?

If you are as autism friendly as you claim, shouldn’t you care more about what we have to say? Did you consider getting a sensitivity reader before you published?

You did not write for us and because of that regardless of the content of your book, you promoted our continued marginalization.

You wrote about us without our input to be consumed by people who already think of us as other. By erasing us from your inteded audience you turned us into zoo exhibits.

You did not write for us and the only real reason for forgetting that any part of the population might be part of your audience is because you forgot or don’t acknowledge that we are.

I write this for you because you did not write for me and I want you never to forget that autistic people read your book anyway. autistic people had opinions on your book anyway and you did not listen. Worse than that you have tried to actively silence us.

You did not write for us. Well too fucking bad, we remember that we human even if you and Harper Collins forgot. We’ll read whatever we want and protest when it hurts us. Rave reviews from Jon Stewart be damned.

I write this to you to remind you that regardless of your intent you have caused harm and your response to that has been erasure.

I write this also for anyone who thinks they can write about a marginalized group to which they do not belong and deflect backlash with “well I didn’t write it for you” as though that erases the harm instead of increasing it tenfold.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but silencincing autistic voices hurts far more than me.

Sincerely,

Kim Sauder (Actually Autistic)

 

How to support my work and give money to an actually autistic person who does not have a book deal with Harper Collins

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider becoming a patron on patreon.

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If you can’t commit to a monthly contribution consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Contributions help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

If you want to support my work but are unable to do so financially, please share this post on your various social media accounts

The Good Doctor Continues to Infantalize its Autistic Character

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show, The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

After watching the second episode of the new ABC series The Good Doctor (you can read my thoughts on the pilot here), I am left wondering if Dr Shaun Murphy could possibly have gone to medical school. He has a vast understanding of certain aspects of medicine and biology but no real comprehension of practical application. It leaves me wondering how he could possibly have completed a medical degree without apparently ever having been in the same room as an actual human patient.

This episode really makes Shaun seem like an alien who has never encountered humans before. This is I expect partially an attempt to highlight Shaun’s social isolation. Social isolation is a common and real aspect of the autistic experience. The show, however, takes it to an unbelievable extreme. It’s not just that Shaun has difficulty connecting with other people and experiences marginalization as a result. It’s as if he never even been around people or consumed any sort of popular media.

This is worsened by the complete lack of other autistic people in not only the show but the fictional universe in which it inhabits. Other autistic people are purely hypothetical. The concept of an autistic community is entirely absent. This allows the show to constantly juxtapose Shaun with a definition of autism that they choose rather than show that Shaun’s humanity is not contingent upon overcoming a very limited and clinical understanding of autism is. So while the show acknowledges the existence of other autistic people, they are never seen. This only highlights Shaun’s isolation because simply by virtue of being seen he is different from other autistic people.

How is it that an adult who presumably went to medical school, an endeavour that requires contact with other people like fellow students, university administrators, professors and yes even patients is not only clueless about bedside manner but who is entirely unaware of sarcasm or its purpose in communication.

I am loathed to say it but even The Big Bang Theory does it better with Sheldon Cooper because at least he is aware of sarcasm even if he can’t always recognize it.

It is entirely possible and in fact likely that an autistic person be both aware of sarcasm, have a theoretical understanding of its usage and purpose, and still have difficulty recognizing it in conversation. It is rather unbelievable that a man in his twenties whose life experience clearly brought him into contact with other people would need to ask a colleague the purpose of sarcasm. It would almost certainly have already been used to belittle him before.

Shaun Murphy clearly cares about people. Making his empathy clear is one of the few positives of the show. Yet, somehow the show wants us to believe that this caring has always occurred at a distance.

In some ways this utter cluelessness about people, makes the concerns of the show’s villains (those doctors who don’t want Shaun practising) seem valid. This seems to be a decision that replaces the more common narrative device of having the autistic character be the butt of jokes (though that happens in this episode too) with just utterly cringe-inducing interactions.

Somehow, Shaun got all the way through medical school and not have been coached in any way on bedside manner. He makes most of his patients uncomfortable or outright distressed.

In a subplot pulled directly from show creator David Shore’s previous medical drama House, a patient brings in a baggie of their own vomit (though in House it was their own poop and no, no one had requested a stool sample). The nurse supervising Shaun (because of course, they are infantilizing him) is horrified but Shaun just wants to run unnecessary tests.

Apparently, no one ever explained to Shaun that it is not only unnecessary but also inadvisable to run every possible test. No one ever explained statistics (something I presume he would be very good at) or how they can be used to determine the likelihood if a given test outcome and indicate the level of risk to not performing the test.

Shaun seems to think that it is reasonable to perform tests if there is even the smallest chance that something might be found.

This suggests that Shaun has also despite being self-described as poor never had medical insurance explained to him. Does no one in this universe have to pay the bills for the things he does? I mean maybe? It’s already clear that the ADA doesn’t exist in this universe so why would the rest of the infrastructure of the American healthcare system (which I’m sure gets discussed at some point during medical school) exist either?

There is really no reason for Shaun to be this clueless. He should have met checks and balances in med school and in interactions with fellow students, teachers and patients. I really need to see flashbacks to his medical school days. How were none of these concerns identified and addressed then?

It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been but that would require the character to be more complex. They would have to show the effort that autistic people expend to analyze and navigate personal interactions. Shaun is, however, not a complex character he is meant to be innocent and guileless.

Sarah Luterman, who has been doing episode breakdowns has twice described this infantilizing characterization to a T. First, by saying

“So far, The Good Doctor is basically House, if House was an adorable talking kitten instead of a pill-popping curmudgeon”

And in the second episode breakdown by saying,

“There is no adult human with a medical degree as naive as Dr. Sean Murphy. It’s ridiculously bad writing. Sean Murphy is not written like an autistic man, he’s written two autistic children standing on each other’s shoulders.”

The show has been confirmed for at least a complete first season and I do expect that there will be some personal growth for Dr Shaun Murphy in it. I however don’t expect them to ever answer the question of why none of that growth was possible prior to the events of the show?

 

 

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The Good Doctor Lives Up to Expectations as Stereotypical Inspiration Porn

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show, The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Yesterday the new ABC drama The Good Doctor premiered. I have had my concerns about the show ever since I first saw the trailer in May. All of my concerns have now been validated.

The show’s portrayal of autism is deeply stereotypical and like so many portrayals of autism centres around an essentially magical autistic white man. It is particularly apt that today Disability Scoop published an article (which does not mention The Good Doctor) about a study which found that Hollywood routinely creates overly stereotyped and unrealistic autistic characters.

The Good Doctor’s Dr Shaun Murphy fits that description to a T. He is basically a walking, talking embodiment of the DSM diagnostic criteria. He like so many of the autistic characters before him has the characteristic Hollywood autism accent. He is sensitive to noise and is socially awkward which is played off as an endearing innocence but serves mainly to reinforce the idea that autistic adults are effectively children.

He is also a savant, because of course he is. Autistic characters cannot take centre stage in mainstream media unless they fit into either an over pitiful role or as in this case an essentially impossible level of exceptionalism.

And let’s be clear, the character is impossible. He isn’t just a savant (and how many times must I repeat that savantism is rare) his skills are inhuman. It’s not just his ability to visualize the entire human vascular system and apply it to the medical realities of different people (though I admit that’s a new one that I haven’t heard before), his awareness is absolute. He misses nothing. He identifies problems that are not only easy to miss but also that will likely be missed. He does this while not even appearing to be paying attention.

Clearly, Hollywood hasn’t gotten the memo that savants are humans and are fallible.

Despite this, Shaun is also perceptive. This is played out as great wisdom. He clocks and calls out his supervisor’s arrogance.

Show creator David Shore makes no secret of the fact that Shaun is explicitly intended as inspiration porn.

“He’s a catalyst for change among the other doctors. His different way of looking at the world will, I think, inspire them.”

Shaun, like so many disabled characters before him, does not exist for himself but rather for other people.

I remarked in my earlier piece on the show’s advertizing that “[t]he most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination”. What was true of the trailer was more or less true of the show. Much of the conflict was contrived and unbelievable.

Early in the episode, Shaun witnesses a child injured by falling glass in an airport and uses his magical powers, *cough* no I’m sorry I meant “savant” skills. to correctly identify major issues to save the child’s life.

Of course, it arises that Shaun must perform an emergency procedure and requires a knife. But he’s past security in an airport and no one seems to have one. Oddly despite it definitely being several minutes since the falling glass incident (which was spectacular and unlikely to go unnoticed) and a crowd has gathered to watch Shaun work, all airport staff seem completely unaware that it has happened and that there is a medical emergency.

Shaun is somehow able to figure out how to not only MacGyver medical equipment and plot out meticulously where he’s going to get everything but when it comes to asking a TSA agent for a knife, he can’t clearly articulate why he needs it. The TSA agent refuses (again how is literally no one affiliated with the airport aware that a child is dying?), Shaun decides to steal the knife and run. Of course, he’s chased and tackled, luckily within eyesight of the huge crowd–that again no one from the airport staff seems to have noticed–and the child’s distraught parents. Shaun is allowed up–having apparently suffered no particular anxiety from having been tackled–and saves the child.

Well, at least until they get to the hospital and he determines that the child needs an echocardiogram but can’t express why the child needs it so is ignored. He tries to make a run for the operating area and is kicked out of the hospital. He then futilely tries to regain entrance instead of calling the head of the hospital, who he knows and is the person championing the idea of giving him a job.

While it is true that autistic people can struggle with knowing what to do in situations of high stress, it is something we can learn. It is also something that a doctor needs to be able to do to be effective.

Quite frankly between Shaun’s inconsistent ability to basically be either BBC’s Sherlock–capable of complex multistep planning–or to try and run past security staff at the first roadblock (there is no in between) and people constantly ignoring him, I’m utterly shocked the kid didn’t die (I could I suppose have included a spoiler warning but does the outcome really surprise anyone?). That’s the magic of television folks. In real life that kid is dead six times over.

The only part of the character that I did identify with was his tendency to go silent for socially unacceptable amounts of time in response to questions he didn’t immediately know the answers to.

Frankly, that’s not enough of a consolation.

Dr Shaun Murphy is fundamentally the quintessential supercrip. He does not resemble any actual autistic people even if as a result of him being a walking DSM entry, people find tics in common. He entirely reinforces the idea that to be both disabled and acceptable you must also be exceptional.

I fully expect the show to continue in this vein, with Shaun’s coworkers and patients gaining life-changing insights from their very own magical white autistic man.

I’m still waiting for stories with disabled characters who are both more realistic and whose lives exist for themselves and not for the Hallmark card insights that they offer others.

But since this is what people actually seem to think passes as positive portrayal* I fully expect to be waiting a long time.

Here’s hoping for early cancellation and that this doesn’t get eight season’s like David Shore’s previous foray into supercrip doctor drama, House MD.

*I refuse to consider anything that does not actually involve the group being portrayed representation

 

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