There’s a scene in a book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I haven’t read the book for awhile, so I don’t remember the specific details surrounding the scene. The main character is a girl who lives in poverty but manages to bluff her way into a middle-class school by pretending to live in a different neighborhood. Her best subject is writing, and her writing teacher strongly encourages her at first. Then she starts trying, while passing it off as fiction, to write about the actual kind of life her family leads. She tries to show good things about her family as well as talking about the assorted crappy stuff that happens. So she is shocked when her teacher describes her writing as “sordid” and demands that she never, ever write about these awful things again.
I also remember reading an interview with an author whose writing, that he considered to be amusing stories with often happy endings, was described as dark, depressing, and morbid. He went on to basically say, “You want dark, depressing, and morbid? Fine. I’ll write dark, depressing, and morbid.” And wrote a new book about a serial killer.
These reactions to writers are familiar to me. Someone read my (not currently accessible) blog and essentially told me she couldn’t find a hint of positivity in it. My internal response was, “How could you miss it?” I’d described all kinds of positive experiences and good things, and she was painting me as this extremely negative person who could not for the life of me see the positive in anything or anyone. Even my self-acceptance as an autistic person and appreciation of the beauty that comes with autism, she twisted around to be negative, a form of denial apparently, and “clinging to my disability” or some other weird construct that has little to do with my life. (There was a good deal more of the inaccurate psychoanalyzing that I will not rehash here.)
I came out of the conversation quite confused. How could someone miss the things she claimed to see no hint of, that are present throughout my writing?
I can’t really get into the minds of non-disabled people, but I’ve studied their reactions for a long time, and I’ve certainly grown up around the same influences as many of them have. I’m guessing that something happens where the imagined horror of certain aspects of life gets amplified. And amplified. And amplified. Until all the humor, love, and all that other important stuff doesn’t get seen. And then they blame you for not writing it.
Like, for instance, the time I was lying on the floor in a puddle of urine. And my friend told me a story. She was talking about some Taoist fable about someone asking where the Tao was. And she said, “…and the guy asked, ‘Is the Tao in the piss and dung?’ And the person answered, ‘Yes, the Tao is in the piss and dung.’ So, just think, you’re laying in the Tao!” Which we both immediately found hilarious.
My guess is that in reading that story, the average person determined to find me sordid would stop at “puddle of urine”. And sort of fixate on “puddle of urine” until “puddle of urine” overshadowed every other part of the story. Only they wouldn’t just be thinking about a puddle of urine, they’d be thinking of assorted misguided ideas of disgust, dependency, disability, infantilizing stereotypes about incontinence, fear of loss of control, and all kinds of other things like that. And all those things would sort of congeal in their head into “sordid”. End of story. Forget the friend, forget the laughter, forget the humor, forget the love. Then blame the author for all the feelings of discomfort.
And let’s not forget yesterday, of course. I suspect that being unable to keep food down and ending up with acid burns from not being in too much pain to move out of one’s own vomit (because that’s one aspect of what’s happened yesterday) would strike people as pretty awful. And I admit it’s not an experience I particularly enjoy, and I’d be very glad if I didn’t have a years-long seemingly-intractable migraine. But I also expect that the amusement value of my friend’s characterization of me as the human supersoaker (insert water, water squirts out) would be lost on people too disgusted by the first part.
More importantly, all the positive aspects of our lives, even if we write about them, are overshadowed in other people’s eyes by the negative aspects. When I say “our” I mean any person who lives a life that is different in a way that others view with unmitigated disgust or horror but we by necessity find normal, at least for us. That unmitigated disgust and horror will make them unable to see the good things we write about, and in their inability to see them, they are likely to believe that we didn’t write them, or if we did, that we are deluding ourselves. (This is, I think, one of the things that make people think disability has to be Deadly Serious all the time.)
And I also think we often take for granted that our lives are, to us, full of all the same variety of joy and sorrow and humor and complexity, that anyone else’s is. And that other people can’t always see past their own terror, disgust, or hatred of certain aspects of our lives, to realize that. It’s really hard at times to keep in mind how disgusted or scared other people are by what you consider everyday. It takes a conscious effort of imagination for me to remember what other people might think of my life, and took a conscious effort of imagination to come up with the above two examples of days in my life.
I mean… from certain ways of describing it people might really think my life is awful and I am perpetually miserable. I have two kinds of severe chronic pain, only one of which has been successfully treated. I use a wheelchair. I sometimes can’t move at all. Sometimes can’t understand my surroundings at all. Sometimes can’t remember anything at all. Assorted bodily fluids leave assorted parts of my body at assorted inconvenient times. I need assistance with some things that non-disabled people consider very private. And the list goes on and on like that. Not everything is pleasant, not everything is what I want, but at the moment that’s what I’ve got.
I talk about those things because they are a part of my everyday life and because I do not think they should be hidden, especially given how scared so many people are of these things. I do not think that hiding things makes them less scary, quite the opposite. I talk about these things because I think people should know about them, who don’t already. Some of them are wholly unpleasant things, some of them are just irritating, some of them are neutral or good when expected to be awful, but all of them are important in some way (not because I in particular am of any extreme importance but because the concepts and the experiences are so common and so under-recognized).
But I am also starting to grasp that one aspect of writing about things like this, is to have some people miss the underlying message which is that in the middle of all these things they view as unspeakably disgusting and horrible, the people living these things every day have a different experience of them than disgust and horror (or much more than just disgust or horror even when these are present), and a much more complex life than the unrelenting awfulness people imagine when they read about these things. Whether “these things” are disability, poverty, reservation life, or any of the other things that I keep finding people outside of them viewing in harsh blanket terms that render them incapable of noticing positive things within unless they’re practically screamed about and highlighted in bright red letters.
So I may take for granted that the fact that I am a reasonably happy person will be apparent in the fact that I write about the same sorts of things most reasonably happy people write about. But some others seem to take for granted that anyone living through the things I have lived through and continue to live through must be reacting in certain ways and finding their life utterly miserable. And that my only motive for describing these things must be as “sordid” as they assume my life to be.