Disability-Institution Metaphor in a Dream


I’m not normally a big fan of overfascination with dreams, whether in the traditional psychoanalytic sense or otherwise. This is probably because I was once so fascinated with dreaming (which I could control) that it was more interesting and real to me than being awake was. Which is a dangerous way to live. Since realizing that, the only control I’ve generally attempted to exercise is being able to wake myself up or change the course of things in the worst parts of nightmares. Aside from that I let my brain rest and do its thing instead of overtaxing it while I’m asleep, and I also usually consciously decide to forget my dreams in the morning rather than think about them all day (I can do either depending on whether I want to remember them or not).

But occasionally my brain turns out something with a downright interesting plot. Last night I had a fairly bad dream (I’m sure it’s what other people would call a nightmare, but I have long had a fairly unusual sense of what is and isn’t a nightmare), the plot of which was a surprisingly good metaphor for disability-related institutionalization (and I’m sure things of this nature actually happen to people in real life, too, although probably not the specific details). This is not a typical dream for me in several respects, but it seems to be a variation on my institution nightmares (which are infrequent lately).

Keep in mind, I don’t know much legal terminology about crime, I know very little about how court works (I’ve only been in a courtroom once or twice, for much more trivial matters, and always for other people, not myself), and the dream no doubt reflects my total lack of knowledge in that area.

I was watching someone being tried in a criminal court of some kind, for something along the lines of, doing something to help along a bunch of murders, but not actually committing them. That person was there, and the one surviving would-be victim was there. As they presented evidence, I realized that I was apparently the mass murderer in this case.

This was, of course, news to me. I haven’t killed one person, let alone several. My initial impulse was to believe they were lying about me, and that I had never done anything like this. But it did not seem like they were lying. (I don’t remember any words in the dream, the information was just being transmitted in some more direct way.) And the way that that surviving would-be murder victim feared me did not seem feigned in the least bit.

Which was weird, because I didn’t remember doing anything. But even while I didn’t remember doing anything, they showed a bunch of videotapes I’d supposedly made (along with the guy who hadn’t actually killed anyone but who had helped me kill people, or something) that clearly showed me pretty sadistically murdering a bunch of people. (I’ll spare the details, but they involved torture.) And it was clearly me, and what I was doing to them was clearly some pretty heinous killing.

I kept thinking that I hadn’t done that, but that I hadn’t done that was totally at odds with the evidence everyone was presenting against me, including stuff that even I thought showed that I really had somehow done this. I started to question what I remembered about myself, and wonder in what circumstances I could do something that memorable and not remember it. It seemed that they were probably right about me, and that there was something very wrong with me, on a moral level, because only a monster would do things like that. Most of this, I wasn’t thinking this with extremes of feeling, it was more of a sickened, sober reflection. But the weird fact remained that I did not remember doing it, and it’s the sort of thing you should remember doing.

I began to wonder whether I was in the wrong body or something. I also began to wonder how on earth they would believe me if I claimed to know nothing about all this, given that probably even someone who had done all those things would be trying to deny it if they could. I kept looking at the person I had apparently almost killed (that was on videotape too, but he got away) and wondering what on earth it must be like to be in the room with me then, and how he could stand it. I wondered, if I had really done these things, how anything I could do from then on could ever render me an even halfway decent person. I thought about what the people I had killed, and their families, must have felt about me, and couldn’t find a way to disagree, if I really had killed them.

Some sort of conclusion was being reached about the guy who was being tried that day — I can’t remember if he was innocent or guilty. They were then saying that I’d have to stay in jail until my own trial, which would decide whether I’d be in prison for the rest of my life or not. I sat there, still wondering whether I’d done it or not, and how on earth they could conduct any sort of proper trial if I didn’t know.

Then I woke up. I was not afraid, but I was certainly relieved to find that my memory had been correct, and that I had never done anything like that.

Being in, or being sent to, a disability-related institution is a lot like that. Only there’s no trial, at least not in my case, and usually no actual crime. (When there are hearings, from what I’ve heard from people who’ve been through them, they often do go roughly like I was describing: Even if the person believes something, everyone else’s beliefs about them take precedence. I personally was often held without a hearing and without being advised of my right to one.) But the weird mental twisting and warpage of reality, as well as being confronted with the “evidence” that you are or have done, something you are not or never did, until you begin to believe it, is very reminiscent of what happens in there.


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.

13 responses »

  1. This brings to mind earlier presumptions that people have expressed — and that you have dismissed — that you’re being manipulated by someone else rather than generating your own politicos. With no intention of getting too pop-psychoanalytic (that’d be terribly boring), I’d say the fact that it was another person who was on trial for something you’d done suggests that those accusations of you being either involved with some cult outfit, or the notion that it’s not really “you” expressing your politics at all, are “getting” to you. In fact, I thought you were going to touch on that. In any case, your brain did a really clever conglomeration of many topics you’ve immersed yourself in lately — torture, video-making, manipulation, murder, and, of course, institutionalization. A blogmare?

  2. Actually, the person who was doing that, was someone who had been aiding me, as in kidnapping people or something, but not killing them. They had not led me into it (if anything it was considered to be the other way around) and they were the one getting a lesser charge than I would.

    Torture, manipulation, murder, and institutionalization are topics I think of frequently, so I don’t think there’s that much connection to anything recent. I have all kinds of weird dreams that incorporate all kinds of stuff, they’re just not usually this interesting, so I usually deliberately forget them. The main thing that makes this one different is it had a more interesting and comprehensible plot than usual.

  3. i’m not much for analyzing dreams -most of mine I figure are because I had too much piazza !! BUT the one thing that I thought of in going back and skimming over it was that you were actually a mass murderer – a killer of their lies ( how dare you reveal the secrets of life in an institution) destroyer of their ideas ( only perfectly healthy people should participate in society) disrupting the foundations that they built their safety on ( I dont want people like you to be in positions of authority and power especially over me)
    Basically it was a trial that society sets up every day for any “disabled” person who dares to speak the truth about power. And of course they had to label you and term you a monster for trying to destroy the very foundation that they had built so much on. After all they (judges,lawyers etc at the trial) will lose all their power if “mass murderers” like you run around and scream “the emporer has no clothes”. So they have to do the oh poor me look at how you made me suffer. I will lose my job and my family and my prestige and everything else. and its all your fault. ” and of course they depend on society to feel sorry for them rather than facing the truth that their entire life is a pack of lies and manipulation and deceit.
    Like I say I am in no way shape or form anything close to an professional analysts but thats what I thought of. I am realzing more and more just how threatened people are at the idea that someone they had termed “retarded” may actually have more intelligence than they have. Or at least use their intelligence in a way that shows a whole lot more maturity than these so called professionals who have more degrees than a thermometer!

  4. Oh, man, we gotta talk about Kafka one day. I actually nominated him to Muskie for the ALF library, partly becos a bit of Kafka is available in the gutenberg project.

    There is another one about a guy who keeps trying to get in a door. Some of the institution and other discrimination experiences you describe are more like that one.
    And there is one called “Der Prozess” – The Trial.

    The one about the cockroach is about that he was feeling used by his family becos when he had to support them, he turned into a Useful Thing for them, not a person. At least that’s how it was described in the class I took. I don’t get it either, not right now. I need to read or re-read a lot of Kafka becos I forgot too much about the plots and the details.

  5. Ann: I don’t think my brain is quite that complex with symbolism when it comes to coming up with dream material. My own suspicion is that it has to do more with specific incidents that match it more closely: One is being constantly told that I was something I was not, and did things I had not done, and being expected not to resist this interpretation. The other is a time when I did something I didn’t fully remember and almost faced charges for it, while repeatedly being told I did in fact remember it. My horrified reaction to hearing a description of it (that I was, I guess, not “supposed” to be able to hear) was taken as evidence that I knew exactly what had happened all along and was horrified by that. (No, I did not kill anyone, but the assumption was that I was trying to, which is kind of strange considering what I was apparently doing.) It was eventually decided I was way too incompetent to have planned something like that and that charges wouldn’t work because of that.

  6. Hi, first time posting on your blog. Can I just say I think it (the whole blog/site) is absolutely awesome – probably one of the most powerful and intelligent things i’ve read anywhere. Sorry, not feeling terribly good with language right now…

    I have a blog myself, but it isn’t really being used at the moment, tho i’ve been vaguely planning for a while to revive it as a blog, partly inspired by yours, commenting on disability in general and autism in particular (I’m diagnosed Asperger but don’t really believe in a sharp distinction between the “various” conditions n the “spectrum”). Any tips on getting into the “disability blog world” would be welcome…

    Anyway, the reason i’ve weighed in on this one is the mention of Kafka – I have, but haven’t yet read, “The Trial”, but have read “Metamorphosis” (the story about the man who turns into a cockroach), and i actually think, although probably inadvertently (as i don’t think Kafka was disabled, or knew anyone who was, unless someone has evidence to the contrary), it’s one of the best (if also darkest) fictional depictions of acqured disability out there – in fact, i recommend it to people who want to understand what society’s treatment of disabled people is like… dunno if anyone else interprets that story similarly?

    Your “trial” dream also reminds me a lot of both “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” – two books that i think are still hugely relevant to the disability/institutionalisation issue today…

  7. Something different struck me about the dream – though it’s yours so clearly you’re the one who knows the truth. Who were the victims of the murders in your dreams? In my own dreams of murders sometimes the victims are parts of myself I tried to kill off. I tried to shut those parts of myself down because I felt I couldn’t survive if I was so emotionally weak: I felt I had to kill the weak part.

    I wonder whether there are parts of you you’ve had to suppress to survive what you’ve been through? Maybe now you are strong you can make room to be kinder to yourself: you have the resources to choose other ways to survive. Other people who have power over you can’t force you now to kill the parts of yourself which they found unacceptable. Instead you are there with all your allies to defend yourself, including the vulnerable parts.

    I wonder if you have read Victor Frankl’s work? He had such a rich wisdom from his experiences of surviving a Nazi Death Camp.

  8. In the description, it made me think about how some people have blamed autistic self-advocates for the lack of services that they claim somehow made murder inevitable. I have had a number of trial dreams myself, usually having to do with my junior high, where I got blamed for being beaten up because I was autistic and had to expect that sort of thing if I kept rocking and having seizures and wearing non-designer jeans. ;)

  9. the victims in your dream could be metaphors…of lies being debunked.

    Ann: more degrees than a thermometer…..ha ha ha! Love that phrase.


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