Sordid, anyone?


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.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

7 responses »

  1. you articulate what I know but can’t, or don’t know i know.
    you articulate what i don’t know (a lot).
    both ways, you unwrap reality from its packaging of unreality. (Thank you.)

    it’s the same package viewed through different needs. or different ‘locations’ of safety and danger.

  2. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » I’m the monster you met on the Internet.

  3. Such reactions are also familiar to those of us who enjoy creating works of visual art.

    I attended a school for children with speech, language and communication difficulties; for several years after I left the school I kept in touch and had regular contact with the crafts teacher. When I was one of her pupils she seemed such a lovely woman; sunny personality, always looked for the positive in the negative and was like everyone’s favourite auntie. During the seven years that I kept in touch with this lady after leaving our school though, it became more and more apparent that she was actually a “pseudo-ally” of both the “do-gooder” and “missionary” types. She was so domineering and bossy (always giving me lengthy lectures about how I should think, feel, relate, and live my life) that I ended up feeling totally suffocated; she was also extremely patronizing and condescending – eg, on one occasion when she took me home after she “treated” me to a trip to the theatre or something, as I was getting out of her car she said, (very theatrically as it happens): “Goodbye, you intelligent, capable person!”. I remember that it took a great strength of will not to wallop her; I gave her a psychotic smile and slammed her car door very hard, instead! Elsewhere on your blog you’ve said that flattery “tastes like saccharine-coated poison” to you, this perfectly describes how I felt about this lady’s comment (and many other similar ones she made with depressing regularity); I knew that it was a symptom of what I call “Some Of My Best Friends Are Black” Syndrome in that she did not actually view me as being all that “intelligent” or “capable”…

    The thing I struggled the most to cope with in my relationship with my old crafts teacher though, was her complete rejection of my feelings about having been abused as a child by various members of my family. We lived in different towns so in between meetings we would communicate by letter. If I touched on the subject of child abuse in letters to her (in ANY context; even if I said that I’d just finished reading an autobiography by an incest survivor who had turned her life around and was now devoting it to rescuing child prostitutes and aiding other sexual abuse survivors on their healing journeys, for example) she would make no response to it whatsoever. Another example of simply talking about anything to do with our problems being seen as “whingeing about” them, and so dismissed as “self indulgence”, “morbid fixation”, “narcissism” or that old chestnut, “attention seeking”.

    One of the final nails in the coffin of our relationship came when I showed her a piece of artwork I was still in the middle of completing. It was a surreal, very Dali-esque pencil drawing of objects on a kitchen worktop including a mug with a disembodied hand coming out of it, grasping a thorny rose, with bare, live cables dangling just above the hand. My old teacher made a show of studying it very intently and then she said “Hmmm… I wonder what this represents? There’s a lot of PAIN in it, isn’t there?” She went on to lay into me verbally by sneering: “Woe is you, oh how you’ve suffered! Alas, you poor unfortunate, you ARE hard-done-by, aren’t you?!”, nudging me in the ribs with her elbow as she spoke.

    I did not complete this particular piece of artwork and I felt so demoralised that I did not do any more art for seven years. Everyone who has seen my work recognises my talent, and I have lots of ideas for artistic projects I want to work on and hopefully make some money from. Lack of motivation to get started on this holds me back much of the time, I know this largely stems from fear that people will use the subject matter of my art as a stick to beat me with (It is not very encouraging when people insist on trying to psychoanalyse me through my artwork, especially when they use their knowledge of my issues in the process) but I’m determined to overcome this hurdle. Nowadays I just try to laugh at people who seem to think they are the reincarnation of Sigmund Freud; some people will read sexual symbolism into the most mundane, innocent things, and I think it says far more about what’s in THEIR minds than what’s in that of a particular artist/writer whose soul they are attempting to dissect.

  4. Amanda, once again you articulate something that has baffled me for years. In fact, I’m in therapy for (among other things) having a problem communicating in positive way. When I talk, I think I’m relating something normal, but others hear nonstop negativity. I’m told that I need to reassure people, thank them for working, tell them I like them.

    Your entry especially reminds me of working in a nursing home. I wasn’t really encouraged to discuss it. Either my work was “too depressing” or I was ridiculing my clients. You see, there isn’t real humor in nursing homes and people who live there aren’t considered to be real.

    I find that the unreality of healthcare, disease, chronic illness and ultimately, death is often perpetuated by people shoving it aside as “too depressing”, morbid. I can’t think of anything less morbid than to pretend death, disease and pain don’t really exist.

  5. Kim J:

    Like with the name Voldemort (aka “He who must not be named”) in the Harry Potter books — not naming something only increases the fear of it (or, in this case, also the discomfit, disgust, misunderstanding etc)

  6. I was looking back through old posts and I particularly enjoyed this one.

    I used to get that reaction sometimes about work with suicidal people, and research on suicide– “How depressing. How morbid.” The implication is sometimes that I must also be a negative, “morbid” person for having such interests.

    What people don’t realize is that there’s almost always another side to it. For everyone that completes suicide, there are fifty people who find a reason to continue to live. For every moment of helpless alienation that someone feels, there is (at least most of the time) a moment of connectedness (that’s kind of the whole point of a suicide hotline). For every day that someone is totally overwhelmed by their problems, there may be a day in the future where they feel capable of making a plan to surmount those problems. And all that, in my opinion, makes the whole Crisis Center a place of greater beauty, optimism, and (is there an opposite to morbidness?) than most other places in my life.

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