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Mary Wilson’s Major Paper

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Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Spider:  McGrath’s View of Disability as Difference

 Representations of disability in literature offer varying messages to readers, depending upon the author’s intent and use of the disabled character.  For instance, many authors advance or utilize cultural stereotypes about disability, such as the notion of the disabled as monstrous or inherently sinful, for thematic or plot-driven reasons; these depictions, such as Richard III or the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, are generally viewed by readers as problematic interpretations of disability.  In contrast, other authors characterize the disabled person as innocent, vulnerable and sorrowful.  These characters offer stark opposition to conceptions of disabled monsters and war-mongers, yet they, too, rely heavily upon cultural stereotypes regarding disability, such as the disabled as child or object of sympathy.  While one may argue that utilizing a character to evoke sympathy from readers is not as problematic as dehumanizing the disabled, both promote the concept that disabled individuals are somehow different or diametrically opposed to normal, or able-bodied individuals.  In order to oppose this ideology, authors must promote the concept of disability as human variation within a continuum of behavior and forms; this notion effectively combats generalizations regarding disability, as it requires readers to view the disabled as an individual who shares similar traits and experiences with others, rather than as a stereotype.  In his contemporary novel, Spider, Patrick McGrath utilizes a first person narration, ambivalent character responses to disability, and plot ambiguity in order to advance the view of disability as human variation, thus challenging readers to reexamine societal standards of normalcy and disability. 

 In contrast to many novels depicting the disabled experience, Spider is narrated from the point of view of a disabled main character, Dennis/Spider.   Although some may consider viewpoint as insignificant in analyzing the nature of disability in literature, McGrath’s choice to narrate from a disabled perspective allows readers to gain direct insight into the mind and experiences of a disabled individual, thus providing Spider with a strong, influential voice in the narrative.  The first person perspective places Spider’s experience at the center of the novel, thus placing him and his disability in a position of power that many disabled characters in other works are not given.  By allowing Dennis to narrate the novel, McGrath challenges readers to view reality from the viewpoint of somebody considered abnormal.  For instance, as Spider describes his account of the murder of his mother and the conditions surrounding the murder, readers are able to experience the incident from a disabled perspective; readers are able to connect his illness with the crime while avoiding the stereotype of the “crazy lunatic” murderer.  This adds complexity to the murder, and forces readers to address the issue of mental competency in assigning guilt for the crime.  The first person perspective also enhances the empathy readers feel with Spider, as it complicates preconceived notions of mental illness by adding multiple dimensions to Spider’s character.  Without Spider’s viewpoint, readers would not be able to understand the compartmentalization and complexity of his personalities.  Although Spider attempts to hide parts of himself from the other characters in the novel, readers are exposed to all aspects of his personality; due to this insight, Spider is seen as an individual rather than a generalization.  The complexity derived from the first person perspective allows McGrath to promote progressive notions of the disabled as complicated individuals deserving of in-depth analysis and understanding.

McGrath also manipulates character responses to Spider in order to advance progressive conceptions of disability.  Rather than creating a unanimous opinion of Spider, McGrath offers ambivalent reactions to Spider from the various characters in the novel.  This contributes to his characterization, but also offers a critique on previous works, which typically characterize disability in black and white terms.  For instance, interactions between Spider and his mother offer a viewpoint of disability as vulnerability and innocence, while other interactions, such as those involving Helga and the father, imply that Spider is more akin to a frightful and confusing monster.  The juxtaposition of these responses to Spider seem contradictory, yet their opposing standpoints create a confusion which is progressive in the sense that it requires readers to navigate through the ambivalence and develop their own perspective on Spider and his disability. 

Spider’s similarities to supposedly normal, or non-disabled, characters also serve to relate disability as human variation and difference.  For example, Spider shares many qualities with his father, Horace, who society generally deems as normal; while society clearly views Spider’s appearance and behaviors as abnormal, their acceptance of Horace seems absurd considering his striking similarities to his son.   For instance, while Spider is socially isolated by his peers and is generally a loner, Horace, while appearing in social settings and forming friendships with others, also displays symptoms of social isolation, such as his lack of responsiveness while sitting in the pub.  This calls into question the process by which society labels some as “normal” while others, such as Spider, are considered “abnormal.”  McGrath further questions societal labels when he characterizes Spider as simultaneously mentally unstable and emotionally more mature than his father, who is completely unresponsive to his family’s emotional needs.  This seems opposed to societal expectations of the disabled, in which they are considered infantile and emotionally less mature than able-bodied individuals.  Thus, the ability of Spider to both relate to and also to rise above his father’s emotional maturity level serves to classify disability as within the continuum of human variation rather than as a separate entity, and challenges readers to characterize disabled individuals on an individual level, rather than drawing off of generalizations.

 Lastly, the ambiguous nature of the plot in the novel challenges readers to develop their own conceptions of the events and how they relate to disability.  For example, readers are never given a straight forward answer regarding who committed the murder of Spider’s mother; while this proves frustrating for many, it also places readers in a similar situation Spider experiences, as both are skeptical and unsure of how to determine reality.  Ambiguity is of central importance to both the text’s plot and its message about disability; because of the lack of clarity, everything must be called into question and examined fully, from the events in Spider’s life to the nature of his disability and how it complicates his reality.  The plot ambiguity also allows for a wider range of reactions to Spider’s character, depending on how readers interpret the events.  The fact that some readers sympathize with Spider while others vehemently dislike him indicates that McGrath is promoting a progressive view of disability which is more honest and complicated than previous, stereotypical depictions which readers generally related to in absolute terms.

Thus, McGrath’s use of perspective, character reactions and plot ambiguity in Spider advances the viewpoint of disability as human variation and difference, in which disabled individuals, rather than being opposed to normalcy, share traits and experiences with all others on the continuum of human behavior.    Through ambivalence and lack of clarity throughout the novel, McGrath challenges readers to develop their own relationship to Spider and his disability on a personal level; this requires an in-depth analysis of Spider as a person, rather than a simplistic analysis which utilizes stereotypes regarding disability.  Due to variability in emotional response to Spider, the novel is seen as progressive for the disabled community in that it advances notions of disabled individuals as complicated and complex, rather than simplistic or stereotypical, and challenges readers to relate to such individuals on a personal level prior to forming opinions about their experience with disability.

Written by mwilson11

December 1st, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Sarah Roop’s Final Project on Benjy’s Narrative

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[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/37NHqGfzb6k" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]The Sound and the Fury

Initially in Benjy’s narrative from The Sound and the Fury, it can be difficult to understand and follow his story, as his thoughts and experiences flow from one to another often without apparent connections. However, upon closer analysis, the events maintain key elements that connect the sequence, whether it is people or things that are said or represented. Unable to fully communicate with his surrounding, Benjy is left to experience things taking them as they are, yet not fully comprehending the reason or meaning behind it all. His narrative is a combination of his memories mixed with his current daily occurrences. With my project, through the usage of photographs and audio clips combined visual text, I worked to break Benjy’s narrative down to the key components showing the flow of his mind and the connections between his thought processes.

The photographs presented in the video reinforce the foremost people and events of his life. I chose to incorporate repetition of the images, as opposed to finding multiple images for related events. Through this repetition, it makes it easier to follow the storyline and see the connection of the events. The usage of the same photographs also conveys the mindset of Benjy. In that his experiences were simplistic and, while they jump from one to another, ultimately, they are all very similar in his mind. For example in the beginning of the video, the photo of the golfer saying “caddie”, leads him to think of his sister Caddy and while he thinks of her, he thinks of her connection with the smell of trees. Then later when he thinks of Caddy and trees he thinks of her in that same mindset, pulling from the same memory thus the same sensory elements. To aide in the flow of his narrative, I used textual and audio components to reinforce the visual aspects.

In the beginning I was undecided on whether to use solely audio clips versus text, as they both allow viewers to take different understanding of the video. Text allows for the viewer to read the narrative, as one would do reading his narrative in the novel, allowing for a similar experience. While audio clips reach the viewer in a different manner, permitting them to take in Benjy’s narrative and ultimately assess it from a different angle. I decided that incorporating both aspects allows for a wider spectrum of understanding, in addition to reaching a larger audience as some respond better to audio than to text or vice versa. For both the text and the audio, I took direct parts of his narrative, at the most simple level. This includes lines spoken by his family and thoughts that are recurrent, for example that Caddy smelled like trees. The included excerpts often occur throughout the section, such as people to telling Benjy to “hush up” or “quit that moaning”. With the text and audio, I hoped to add character to the photographs of Benjy’s narrative.

Though Benjy is unable to talk in order to communicate with the world, he still is affected by the events and people around him. Stream of conscious does not allow for clear distinctions of where one thought or event ends and the other begins. Nonetheless, the are connected by certain triggers. And it is through this that Benjy lives his life, replaying memories as they relate to the present.

Written by sroop

November 29th, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Finally, The Final Project of Sam, Kathleen, Allison, Sarah, and Katherine: “The Sound of Tomorrow”

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What started as a sequel to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, became a more informed, modernized tale inspired by the Compson family.  This project is an attempt to apply current disability theory to the stereotypically dysfunctional family. Within this piece, we ask  the question:  How does the Compson family complicate our ambiguous definition of disability?  Split into five narratives that all take place within a short period of time (no more than a couple weeks), we hope to provide a level of depth to these characters to at least provoke introspection about how we see disability and how it effects our everyday lives.

Finally, we hope you enjoy what has turned into a (very) short novella: “The Sound of Tomorrow”

Benjy Compson

Quentin Compson

Candace Compson

Jason Compson


Written by Katherine Sullivan

November 29th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Haley’s Final Project: A Thesis Through Movement

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[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/oAjcA2XeYQo" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I was inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper to choreograph a dance that highlighted tensions felt by the narrator in the story. Throughout the story there is an ever blurring line for the narrator between reality and the mind’s life. This separation, and disassociation, is one often found in the mentally ill.  The mind assumes a life of it’s own, creating new worlds; The Yellow Wallpaper exemplifies this division perfectly. As the story progresses the reader can trace the deterioration of the narrator’s mind as she becomes lost in the wallpaper’s web. In order to express this internal battle visually, I change tempo, speed, direction, and location in space frequently. My movements are intended to convey the intense struggle the narrator has as she attempts to resist, and eventually succumbs to, the wallpaper’s power.

I use the floor extensively in the start of the dance, as it is allows for great use of the limbs and core. I hinge back and forth, kneeling and moving my upper body, being pulled towards and attempting to push away from the wallpaper’s enrapturing picture. At first the paper completely sickens the narrator. She is disgusted by it’s hideous color, odor, and pattern, but intrigued at the same time. I move about on the floor in a visual representation of her mental affliction and conflicting thoughts about the wallpaper.

When I start the dance I am on the floor, positioned awkwardly as if thrown down and broken. The uncomfortable prostration is intended to relate the narrator’s confined circumstance, brought about in part because of her physician husband’s insistence that she is not truly ill, merely having “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman). I start to move, struggling to rise up and eventually falling back upon the floor.

In the writing, the narrator is constantly struggling to keep some thoughts from her mind. She writes in her journal, “I wish I could get well faster. But I must not think about that” (Gilman). I use tension and release to physically represent the dichotomy between her thoughts and desires to control them. By arching, angling, and contracting my back I move in many opposing directions throughout the piece, a visual expression of the narrator’s struggle.

As the story carries on, the narrator’s mental situation continues to deteriorate. I begin to move more quickly across the dance studio, jumping, spinning, and leaping. The narrator describes the uncomfortable state the paper creates for her, “Round and round and round — round and round and round — it makes me dizzy!” (Gilman). The pattern of the wallpaper is unknowable, and similarly my choreography pertains no discernible pattern. My movements convey the narrator’s desperate attempts to discover the wallpaper’s “secret”. She tries to find what it is hiding, eventually finding the woman. Although the narrator is ecstatic at the end of the story for unveiling the woman in the wall, it really is a sign that her mind has taken possession of her sanity. The end of the dance is choreographed to show the slowing and eventual extinction of the rational thoughts in the narrator’s mind. I am curled upon the floor at the end of the dance, a physical representation of the deep sadness and loss that occurs in the story.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. University of Virginia, 1997. Web. 28 Nov. 2010.

Written by Haley

November 29th, 2010 at 11:51 am

Robert’s Final Paper

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It’s All in Your Head? Psychology, Problems, and Progress

Disability theory, like any major theory, aims to rethink, revise, or even remove prevailing stereotypes, practices, and policies about people with disabilities. Many theorists have focused on physical disability, which is often more easily understood than cognitive disability – or at least more easily observed – by the nondisabled majority. For people with cognitive disabilities such as autism, however, the real lived existence and the theoretical conceptualization of cognitive disability is much more complicated. Facing social, cultural, and economic isolation; disabling representations; and rigid and biased diagnostic systems in psychology, people with cognitive disabilities can, however, find power and progress in self advocacy, institutional revisions, and progressive discussions.

Nowhere is the isolated and disempowered reality of cognitive disability more readily evident than in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The story’s nameless female narrator is married to John, a doctor. According to John, the narrator has “but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” and nothing more (Gilman). Within the story, Gilman critiques the medical model of disability through the nameless woman’s journal entries. One critique focuses on the often cold and un-empathetic mindset of clinicians. “John,” the narrator says, “does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason for me to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman). Here we can see one of cognitive disability’s primary problems: while physical disability or illness is readily assessed by sight or some sort of physical or visual diagnostic, cognitive disability is difficult to visualize, assess, or even validate. Gilman’s narrator feels increasingly isolated and disempowered because, as she writes in her journal, “Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able…to dress and entertain, and order things” (Gilman).

Another critique of the medical model is that it rarely listens to the voices and wishes of patients. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John tells his wife to take “phosphates or phosphites… and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise” and he also forbids her to do work until she is well (Gilman). Despite John’s prescriptions, the narrator does not improve. Rather, she finds John’s treatment to be ineffectual. She says, “Personally, I disagree with their [John and her brother’s] ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (Gilman). Ultimately, John ignores her requests. Ultimately, the narrator goes mad and John and the medical model fail. Here we can see – or, rather, hear – how cognitive disability can silence a person’s voice more severely than a physical vocal disability might.

Gilman’s story might not seem to be an effective means to power social, political, or theoretical change for people with cognitive disabilities. However, as Rosemarie Garland-Thompson proposes in her critical essay, “Disability and Representation,” narrative representations of disability – in our case, cognitive disability in “The Yellow Wallpaper” – are important because “the way we imagine disability through images and narratives determines the shape of our material world, the distribution of resources, our relationships with one another, and our sense of ourselves.” For Garland-Thompson, then, and for people with cognitive disabilities, disabled narratives and images drive progress in the real world.

One such example of progress is in the self advocacy of people like Ari Ne’eman and Amanda Baggs, who both have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Ne’eman, founder of ASAN, the Autism Self Advocacy Network, argues that autism and other cognitive disabilities are a natural form of human variation. This concept, neurodiversity, is a central part of ASAN’s mission to “advance the principles of the disability rights movement in the world of autism” (Autism). ASAN, in contrast to groups like Autism Speaks, supports education, self advocacy, and accommodation instead of only cures or medicalized treatments. Like many other advocacy groups, ASAN also seeks to overthrow prevailing stereotypes and inaccuracies surrounding autism. Ne’eman, in his essay, “Dueling Narratives,” argues that “the prevailing popular image of the autism spectrum” is “defined by family members of autistic children and medical professionals” (Ne’eman). These perspectives, according to Ne’eman, have “negatively impacted both parents and people on the spectrum” (Ne’eman). Returning to Garland-Thompson’s earlier argument, these “prevailing popular images” that Ne’eman criticizes have serious implications for people with disabilities and the nondisabled as well. Self advocacy and self representation, thankfully, are becoming increasingly common.

Amanda Baggs, the creator of several YouTube videos chronicling her ideas about disability and her life as an autistic person, is a prime example of self representation and self advocacy. Baggs argues in “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley – My Richness and Yours” that “autistic people are not a special kind of people set apart from all other people” because “oppression and injustice take depressingly similar shapes” (Baggs). Her point here is that people with autism, like people with cognitive disabilities or disabilities in general, face the same social and cultural hurdles as other disempowered groups. Using a colonial/post-colonial mindset, we might think of people with disabilities as living under the “rule” of nondisabled society. Disabled individuals have limited access to goods and services, diminished political power, and misrepresentation in media, as do subjects in a colonial environment.

What, then, created this unequal and arguably oppressive environment for people with disabilities, specifically people with cognitive disabilities? A lot of previous discussion has focused on a social or cultural root of disability stereotypes, disempowerment, and representation. There is, however, a much deeper origin. Much of the struggle and critical debate within disability theory can be traced to the basis of our conceptualization of ability/disability, which is psychological research. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV, provides the backbone for defining, diagnosing, and constructing cognitive and affective disabilities. The DSM itself is based on years of psychological research and statistical evaluations of cognitive functioning.

Reducing human beings to statistical figures, as research for the DSM does, is a complicated practice. Statistics can dehumanize people by reducing them to “normal distributions” with scores of their traits or behaviors falling within several “standard deviations” from the mean score. As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue in “Cultural Locations of Disability,” for many years “disabled people have served as the relics or obscene curiosity disguised beneath the neutral veil of empirical inquiry” (193).  Statistical significance in this case can be a blessing for a researcher and a bombshell for a patient. However, research and statistics can be beneficial in that they preserve anonymity for research participants, control for bias, and provide an effective standardized method for defining, studying, and perhaps treating cognitive disabilities. Without statistical research and diagnostic manuals, treatment would not exist and it would be difficult to secure disability services or accommodations without an officially documented diagnosis.

Psychology itself, not just its research, has also had a long and morally problematic history. At one time hysteria was defined as a female disorder; the origin of hysteria is the Greek term for uterus. Gendered disorders and politically complicated ones, such as the now nonexistent diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental disorder, have not done much to benefit the image of psychology in the eyes of critical theorists. There has been and there is still an absence of a disability perspective within psychology. This could be explained by Mitchell and Snyder’s argument in “Cultural Locations of Disability,” that professions like psychology “have always imagined their commitment to disabled people as their primary value, and hearing that disabled people – particularly those in disability studies – do not necessarily share this sentiment often comes as a shock” (191-192).  Clinicians and researchers often lose sight of the humans they treat and study behind Mitchell and Snyder’s “neutral veil of empirical inquiry” (193).

There is, however, hope. To begin with, psychology has constantly evolved in response to critical evaluations and new theories.  For instance, homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder and the current DSM is under revision to reevaluate its definitions of several major disorders. The new DSM-V, according to its website, seeks to “develop criteria for diagnoses that not only reflect new advances in the science and conceptualization of mental disorders, but also reflect the needs of our patients” (DSM-5).  The American Psychological Association, or APA, has also sought to reduce bias in psychological publications. In the latest Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, there are new sections for researchers and clinicians such as “Be Sensitive to Labels” that provide advice on how to avoid “condescending…patronizing and offensive” terminology and how to utilize “people-first language” (76).

With the APA currently revising its standards for research, writing, and treatment, people with cognitive disabilities can take heart. While there are still many glaring inequalities imposed by lingering unfair research and clinical standards, socio-cultural isolation, and misrepresentation, the work done by disability theorists, self advocacy groups like ASAN, and the aforementioned APA revisions is helping to create a major power shift. People with cognitive disabilities and disabilities in general, are finding voices of their own through typical and alternative media and advocating an adjustment of current and unequal practices and policies.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington: APA, 2010. Print.

Autism Self Advocacy Network. ASAN. n.d. Web. 23 November 2010. <http://www.autisticadvocacy.org/modules/smartsection/category.php?categoryid=8>.

Baggs, Amanda. “Cultural Commentary: Up In The Clouds And Down In The Valley: My Richness And Yours.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30 (2010): n. pag. Web. 24 November 2010.

“DSM-5: The Future of Psychiatric Diagnosis.” American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Development. APA. n.d. Web. 23 November 2010. <http://www.dsm5.org/Pages/Default.aspx>.

Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. “Disability and Representation.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 120(2). PMLA. 2005. 522-527.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center. UVA. n.d. Web. 23 November 2010.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. “Dueling Narratives: Neurotypical and Autistic Perspectives about the Autism Spectrum.” Dueling Narratives.

Ne’eman, Ari. “Dueling Narratives: Neurotypical and Autistic Perspectives About the Autism Spectrum.” The Society for Critical Exchange (2007): n. pag. Web. 23 November 2010.

Julianna, Lindsay, Jacklyn, and Susan’s Major Project Video

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Here’s the video part of our major project.  Enjoy!

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/y6IM8FRCTxY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Here’s the write up:

For our final project video, we took Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol and switched out Tiny Tim for Frankenstein’s creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  By doing this, we were hoping to complicate the idea of using Tiny Tim as a moral yardstick.  We felt that the switch would distort what Charles Dickens created in the character of Tiny Tim.  Since Tiny Tim and the creature are opposites within the realm of disability, in our video Scrooge’s moral compass is distorted by the interaction with the creature in place of Tiny Tim.

In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim is a vehicle for Scrooge’s moral redemption.  This is discussed by Paul K. Longmore in his article “Cultural Framing of Disability:  Telethons as a Case Study.”  He argues that Tiny Tim is represented as a “perpetual child, sweet, cheerful, and brave” and that “the disabled person [is an] object of charity, grateful, but hopeless and doomed unless those who are healthy and normal ‘give’” (Longmore 506).  Longmore proves that Tiny Tim exists to be an object of sympathy and acts as a moral yardstick for those around him.  It also helps that Tiny Tim is tiny, pathetic and not very threatening as a disabled character.  In Dickens’ tale, Scrooge transforms into a moral member of society because the ghost shows him what Tiny Tim’s future would be without Scrooge’s help.  This prompts Scrooge to act differently and help the Cratchit family, specifically Tiny Tim.

In contrast, the creature is a visually displeasing and deformed disabled character.  In Shelley’s novel, he disgusts those around him.  The creature is a disabled figure to be feared since he kills several people and threatens Victor to get what he wants.  Since the creature gets away with everything in the end of Frankenstein, he is seen as an empowered disabled figure.  He fits Tobin Siebers’s model of the cyborg figure from his article, “Disability in Theory:  From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body.”  Siebers states that disability does not exist and is therefore something that is created by those around the disabled.  Consequently, in Frankenstein, the negative manner in which the outside world treats the creature, labels him as a disabled character that is a threat.  He is treated negatively mostly because of his appearance but also because of the fact that the creature was created, not born.  This is opposite of the way Tiny Tim is viewed in A Christmas Carol, which is as a harmless cripple, but nevertheless a human.  For clarity’s sake, the creature we represent in our video is Victor’s creature after he realizes he is not accepted by society.

By swapping the creature for Tiny Tim, the moral compass in the video becomes distorted.  In the video, Scrooge does not change because of a want to assist the disabled character, like in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Instead, he changes to help the Cratchits escape the curse of disability they have been given in the form of the creature.  Because Scrooge and the Cratchits want to destroy the creature, rather than help him a distortion takes place.  Tiny Tim exists as an object of charity and when Scrooge gives to him, he betters his moral standings.  On the other hand, in our video, the creature is a vehicle for Scrooge to destroy and therefore creates a different kind of moral compass, not based on charity.

Written by Susan

November 22nd, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Meg’s Major Paper

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During and after the modernist period, female writing often produced what is called a “gendered space” (also known as “matria” and “wombspace” and will be used interchangeably in this paper). This space literally and figuratively existed as a communal place for women to inspire and assert themselves against the oppressive features of the male society and the submissive roles that it wanted to place them in. In Toni Morrison’s Sula, only Nel and Sula form a wombspace through their mental bond, their “me-ness.” Without that gendered space, the women easily become disempowered, choosing to fight each other for men rather than band together.  However, although there are women who can benefit from the idea of a gendered space; disabled characters such as Shadrack would also benefit from the idea of a community space for empowerment—one where the characters can bond through any “otherness,” rather than just gender. Through an analysis of the empowered and disempowered characters in Sula, one may establish the efficacy of the womb-space for both feminist and disability studies. Through its insistence on agency and dependence on community and support, the space then becomes an empowering device that enables the individual to assert his/her identity.

Gendered space is any space where a woman may retreat from a system designed to exploit and undermine the feminine. Here, an individual may seek her identity, looking to define it against society (without society’s pressures) and safely enabling her to be “other” without being judged for it. It is regenerative and restorative, a completely nurturing place. Further, this space may be mental or physical. The “wombspace,” or “matria,” as the “gendered space” is also often called, is centered on community, as opposed to the paternal structure of society, which, based on dominance and submission, is hierarchal. Thus, the feminine space is based more on support.

The support and identity assertion of the space is also a concept that should work within Disability Studies. Like the domestic female, the disabled individual has been continually cast into the same roles. In one role, they are infantilized; they are made to be the Tiny Tims of the world. Their only purpose, in effect, is to produce sympathy. But with that, they are also cast as fairly useless; they need a savior, some kind of redeeming, rich Uncle Scrooge figure to help them onto their crutches and out of the grave. Alternatively, there is the other side of disempowerment, which enforces that the individual’s need be overly normal.

Thus, this idea of a space where the individual can exist and assert one’s identity against the ableist society is a positive one. There needs to be a space where the disabled person can display exactly what he/she wants displayed about disability without the filter of the ableist lens cast by editing or popular belief. This will not only illuminate and educate; there is something cathartic about having your voice heard against the myriad of others, particularly when it has blended in for so long. At the same time, the metaphorical presence of this space enables one to realize one’s own identity in relation to disability within the sphere, which may have been previously subdued or erased by the push of an ableist community insistent on normalcy.

In Sula, none of the women save for Sula and Nel function within the wombspace, which is manifested through the mental bond that they share. Both women connect through their sense of otherness, be it the limitations of their sex or “the slant of life that made it possible to stretch it to its limits” (120) (i.e. the otherness in the way that they view things). After Nel’s incident with the train conductor, she has a new-found self-awareness, one that is like “a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear” (28). This sense of “me-ness” and power is instantly juxtaposed with Nel’s meeting of Sula. This suggests that this self-awareness is ominous; with the coming of Sula, so too comes Nel’s power.  The gendered space also empowers both women’s personalities throughout the text. The two women are like opposite sides of coin; where Nel is supposedly consistent and lacking aggression, Sula is fluid. However, the shared space of their friendship (which no one permeates at first, not even their mothers) seems to promote and empower what their personalities lack. For example, Sula, who is supposedly inconsistent and fluid in her actions, mutilates her finger in order to defend Nel from a gang of boys (54). This act refocuses the girls from emphasis on the deformities of the body to an emphasis on their mental capabilities. Its act makes Nel immediately banish her clothespin, an implication that Nel’s imperfections must be reformed (through painful means). Instead, Nel begins to prefer Sula’s freer, more independent ways. Because Sula values the bond that she and Nel share, Sula also ignores the deformity that cutting off her finger may cause. In order to protect their closeness, she enables herself to completely disregard her body and commit an act that may mark her as an other. Sula’s return at the middle of the novel also shows potency. Sula’s physical presence (and assumed reassertion of the bond and space) has a regenerative, restoring effect on Nel. Even Nel’s “body [is] not immune to the magic. . .It was like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed” (95). Again, the two women are relying and drawing power from one source. It allows Nel to draw back and reflect on her girlhood, empowering her to view her body as young and useful. She begins to have sex again with her husband.

It is also useful to look at the disempowerment of women within the text; that is, when looking comparatively at the women who do utilize such a space, one can visualize the effects of the gendered space. For instance, although Eva is often seen as the “powerful mother” figure, masterful in her manipulation and empowered through her matriarchy, there is nevertheless something lacking about her impressive figure. Eva lacks any kind of close relationships (as all women seem to do in Sula). Although the citizens of the Bottom supposedly glorify her leg, “unless Eva herself introduced the subject, no one ever spoke of the disability” (30). Immediately there is something about Eva’s disability that takes away from her. Despite being perpetually in view, it is not a subject talked about. This is something Eva bitterly recounts when Boyboy revisits her. He is like “everyone else” (36), avoiding reference to her disability. This suggests that there is no intimacy for Eva. The citizens of the Bottom create her leg as a show, something freakish to marvel at, but not something to commiserate with. Eva is not someone to get close to or love. Because of this, Eva’s arrogant, larger-than-life persona seems to be more of a physical performance as well, suggesting some sort of inadequacy about her person because of her disability (rather than the empowering effect that her machinations and overbearing nature should create). There are no strengthening inner relationships for her to rely on.

Sula, too, is alternatingly seen as both an empowered and disempowered figure. Although she is not physically disabled, her birthmark functions as “formal particularity, disability’s other manifestation (Garland-Thomson 119). It is constantly seen as both a good and bad image by the various citizens of the Bottom. It is a snake, a rose, or “Hannah’s ashes marking her” (Morrison 74)—as open to interpretation as Sula herself is, and like Eva’s leg, a show to the town. The Bottom reads Sula through her birthmark, it being her most striking feature ( Nel’s children immediately hone in on the “scary black thing over her eye” (97-98), as does Jude); the citizens then immediately read and interpret her through her actions, judging her peculiarity as a boundary for themselves, whether in looks or in actions. Sula then reinterprets this through the physical as well. Rather than fostering community, she reaches out with her non-normative body, letting actions do more of her speaking.

Nel furthers the image of the body as something to be judged later in novel, believing it too is a peculiarity which the younger, more beautiful girls and men judge her for. She, too, is stuck in the physical realm—in the places that society has judged that women should be in. When Jude leaves her, Nel can not find her role in society other than what society deems is the normal way to live. She contemplates the idea of bringing intimacy into her life again (after the removal of Sula and Jude), but can not focus on anything other than her body. Because they have rejected it, she too rejects her body, believing it to be “empty” and “old” (111); it is not wanted by her husband, so it is not wanted by any man and is therefore not useful. Nel’s body can not perform what she believes is the normal course for it. Therefore, if she can not pass in society through the role of the desired wife, she will take the role of the mother, whose aged malformations can at least be forgiven in lieu of its hard work.

The empowering and disempowering effects are not just for women; they can also be traced within males as well. Because of this, the space again should not be merely for women to connect on a gender sphere. Rather, the individuals should unite over any sense of otherness—gender, body, or mental—and form a community (which to them, in a sense, makes them the normative since they are their community).  Like the disempowered women in the beginning, with Shadrack, there is an immediate focus on his physical and social otherness. When he is in the hospital after his injury, what comforts him is the “neat balance” (8) of his food. Shadrack also perpetually focuses on his hands, believing them to be monstrous; the narrative mentions them several times. By drawing Shadrack’s attention to the physical realm, the reader’s attention is drawn to the physical as well. Instead of Shadrack’s food and hands, however, we dwell on his matted hair and grotesque appearance, as well as the lewd way he acts in society. Furthermore, these are a result of his mental illness. This connection makes us as wary of Shadrack as the rest of the Bottom is, effectively isolating him from the rest of the community. Because the community fears and isolates him, they also seek to define him. Once they are able to understand “the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him….into the scheme of things” (15). However, it is only the nature of his disease and the bounds to which they can ignore it that the people pay attention.

Shadrack’s need for a community is also manifested in Sula. She is his only visitor, and therefore remains fixated in his mind. Thus, he retains the belt that Sula leaves behind. Shadrack remarks that “it was pleasant living with that sign of a visitor, his only one” (157). Sula’s belt becomes his only source of community; it is the representation of the ideals and understanding that he needs to share. This sense of community is furthered in the doubling that goes on within the novel. Sula and Shadrack mirror one another. He sees her as a friend because she has the “mark of the fish he loved” (156), interpreting her birthmark not as freakish but a mark of his peers. When he answers, “Always” (62), Shadrack seeks to do the same things that the gender sphere would do; he works to comfort Sula, to share his experiences and reach out to her. Unlike communication between other characters in the novel, which is often unreliable, this speech is effective. Sula realizes that “he answered a question she had not asked” (63). There is an almost silent exchange of communication between them, one that only the two of them, both of whom are afraid of death and its changes, can do. The isolation that both of them experience because of this also necessitates Shadrack’s need to reach out to Sula. In this short span, they form their own disability space, supporting and reasserting their own power (through stability) and constancy in the world. This space is not altogether different from the female wombspace; however, rather than connecting on their otherness through being subjugated and female, Shadrack and Sula relate on terms of otherness in the bodily sense, reassuring each other that they are not singular in their otherness.

Throughout Sula, the men and women both experience a sense of disempowerment, whether they are made to feel as other with their bodies, or they are pigeonholed into a pre-determined role so that society can ignore them. However, with textual representation such as the matria, a strong sense of empowerment and identity can still be experienced by both reader and author.

Written by Meg

November 22nd, 2010 at 11:27 am

Amanda Gorman’s Major Paper

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Disability and Representation in Keith Banner’s “The Wedding of Tom to Tom”

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 http://dislit.umwblogs.org/2010/11/03/helens-formal-blog-post-on-banners-the-wedding-of-tom-to-tom/

Written by gormanda

November 22nd, 2010 at 3:16 am

Andrew, Helen, Matt, and Mairin’s Major Project

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Andrew Allingham, Helen Alston, Matt Blakley, & Mairin Martin
ENGL 375A2
Major Project Paper

Voices of Disability

“The Wedding of Tom to Tom” by Keith Banner presumes the limited capacity of the characters identified as “disabled” within the story. The main character, Anita, leads readers to view the residents of the home, and the disabled community in general, as incapable and dependent upon their caretakers. This story’s existence hinges upon the presence of an able-bodied narrator to tell the tale of these disabled individuals. By writing four different monologues utilizing four other voices from “The Wedding of Tom to Tom,” the understanding of disability is broadened, providing a more progressive view of disability.
Kate’s monologue reframes the story of the Toms into a narrative that is actually theirs, as opposed to Anita’s story that uses them as devices for her own epiphany. Through Anita, Kate is portrayed as a villain, but Kate’s monologue asserts that she does care about these two men. She is, however, a slave to the institution: she falls into the trap of assuming them to be without agency and acts in the interest of their physical safety. Kate’s monologue brings to light the problematic nature of the relationship between the caretaker and the disabled individual in disability narratives. The context of the group home forces her into the role of a parent.
These monologues predominantly take place within the context of the group home, but the character of Roland takes the role of disability outside the home to see it in the able-bodied community. Although Banner’s narrator mentions that Roland is on disability leave from work because of a back injury, Anita does not identify her father as being “disabled,” but rather “on disability” (pg 61). When Roland becomes the narrator in his own monologue, he is able to go into further detail about the pain he is in and how he is ostracized from his workplace as well as from his marriage. Roland’s psychic powers are also read as disabling within the monologue because his ex-wife states that she is leaving him because his abilities make him seem crazy. In the reality of the monologue, his wife’s real reason for leaving is because of his physical disability and her own pride. By vocalizing these problems, Roland becomes less of a tool for Anita within the scheme of the story.
Larry gives readers a perspective upon what being disabled means to a mentally disabled character. Within the actual story of “The Wedding of Tom to Tom,” Anita seems to have preconceived ideas about the normative behaviors of disabled people. These are not necessarily her ideas: Kate’s files and instructional videos have told her what to expect. Larry’s monologue shows both his internal process and his perception of normalcy, as well as how he understands the rest of the characters within the group home to function. Although Larry is a disabled character, he still grew up with the same socially constructed ideas of what it is to be normal. Because of this, he views the people he lives with through a similar lense to Anita. Larry utilizes Tom A.’s departure as a mode of explaining his own agoraphobia, as Anita uses the Toms to examine her relationship with her boyfriend.

Tom A.’s monologue gives a voice to a completely nonverbal person. Even though Tom A. is a significant character, he is not depicted within the story beyond his physical description and actions. By giving Tom A. an internal narrative, it legitimizes his relationship with Tom B. and disallows the argument that their relationship is only a symptom of their respective disabilities. As a nonverbal character, it is assumed in the story that Tom A. has no agency, except within the context of sexual situations. Even so, that agency is qualified by the fact that Kate and others believe him to be incapable of making his own decisions. The sensory details that he conjures up express that he has a higher level of intelligence than is attributed to him by his caretakers. When we see him functioning at more elevated cognitive level, readers begin to understand the complexities of interaction that are available to him through the intensity of his sensory experiences.

These four monologues in conjunction alter the limited perception of disability in the original version of “The Wedding of Tom to Tom.” If they were read in concert with one another, the reader would have a more rich understanding of the nuances of the disabled experience. The monologues take stock disabled characters, which are often the only representation of disability in literature, and humanize them.

#1: Kate

by Helen Alston
[Lights up. Kate Anderson-Malloy, Group Home Manager, rifles through a filing cabinet, stage right. She finds the file folders that she was looking for and walks toward a desk, center stage. The desk is full of office clutter: a telephone, a stapler, a coffee mug, manila envelopes. KATE sits down in the desk chair. Looking out at the audience, she smiles, nods, opens the top folder.]

KATE: Yes. All of the paperwork should be going through tomorrow. We’re pretty excited about the prospect of Juanita moving in over here. Makes the home feel a little bit more diverse. Having another girl will be nice! We should have realized sooner that two Toms was a bad idea. Too much of a good thing, maybe.

[KATE laughs, but does not seem convincingly amused. She looks down at her paperwork and rifles through the stack.]

KATE: It isn’t just a matter of trading them up, Tom A. for Juanita. We’ve got to have records. Franklin Street wanted me to switch their folders when we switched their rooms and just change the name of the home in the margin, but I want this to be a professional transaction. This is a business, and we have to have some kind of record of this move. We’ve got some real medical reasons for having Tom A. placed over there. His brother, Mr. Allen, is very concerned by the recent… events, we’ll say, that have been witnessed over here. And that’s understandable. We are a business that Mr. Allen chose to invest something very personal in—his own brother!—and we are not able to provide the kind of facilities that Tom A. requires.

[She finds what she was looking for in the folder and holds her finger up to a spot on the page. She opens a desk drawer and pulls out her reading glasses.]

KATE: Yes—maybe that was part of the reason why the Orient home shut down. Other than the name, you know. [She laughs.] They were more… extreme, perhaps, in their preventative methods than we are over here. It says here that they started off by separating Tom A. and Tom B. during the day and seating them away from each other at mealtimes, but that wasn’t enough. The head caregiver over there wrote that they were “obsessed with each other’s presences,” which sounds like them, doesn’t it?

[KATE pauses, shakes her head, and shuts TOM A.’s folder.]

KATE: Toward the end of their stay at Orient, it seems like there may have been some, ah, shock therapy. Of course, you must understand that that was how things of that nature were dealt with back then. Behavior of a, ah, homosexual nature…

[She pulls out another file folder from the stack.]

KATE: …it just wasn’t acceptable back then. [She pauses.] I think we’ve been pretty tolerant. Certainly no ECT here, no sir. Much more homeopathic. We just give Tom A. and Tom B. their medicine and call it a day. We’ve got all sorts here.

[KATE pulls out a manila envelope and starts packaging the file folders.]

KATE: But yeah, maybe we’ve been a little too tolerant. Really, I should have seen it coming. After the way they were treated in the Orient home, we didn’t want to scare the poor dears. Tom A. is totally nonverbal, except for his screaming. We were worried that the shocks totally unhinged him. So for a while, we let some things happen. At first we would just catch them kissing in the living room on that love seat while everyone else was watching T.V. Larry would start pointing and gabbing on and on about Tom and Tom. My line was that they could kiss, but only on the cheek. People do that in public all the time in Europe. I figured that if we gave a little bit of ground, that little bit of affection might be enough for them.

[She licks the adhesive part of the envelope shut and closes the metal catch. With a thick marker, she begins to address the envelope.]

KATE: They couldn’t just leave it there, though. Like I said, totally obsessed with each other. First there was Tom B. putting his hand in Tom A.’s lap at dinner. They were always touching each other, but it wasn’t always totally inappropriate—do you know what I mean? That’s when we started doing the structured alone time. They were allowed to sit across from each other at the table, and they could do crafts together, but they couldn’t be on the love seat at the same time. The Toms seemed sad about it, of course. Those two sweethearts really are fond of each other.

[KATE pauses and takes a sip from a mug sitting on the desk.]

KATE: I think it was Raquel who was on duty when they locked themselves in the bathroom together. She beeped me, just like I tell all my staff members to do in an emergency, but we didn’t have the right tool to get the hinges off the door fast enough. They went through a whole bottle of lotion… [She shakes her head.] We’ve tried everything, you see. Just recently it’s come to my attention that Tom A. has been sneaking into Tom B.’s room after lights-out and performing dangerous sexual acts upon Tom B. I’m talking anal penetration. We just can’t have that kind of behavior here.

[She opens a desk drawer and pulls out a roll of stamps. She peels one off and sticks it to the envelope as she speaks.]

KATE: That was when I called their guardians. I never can seem to get in touch with Tom B.’s, but I left a message on the woman’s home phone saying there was a medical matter concerning her uncle, Tom Bennett, and hopefully she’ll call back. Mr. Allen, Tom A.’s brother, is very involved in his care. He seemed concerned that his brother’s, ah, actions, shall we say, might incur some legal ramifications for him if Tom B. were to be injured in any way. And you know, I think he’s right to worry. If these guys aren’t able to live on their own in society, how can they be making these choices for themselves? I understand getting attached, and I’m certainly not against two people loving, even if they are two men. I think it’s sweet that they want to be around each other so much, I truly do.

[KATE stands up, envelope in hand.]

KATE: But I am not okay with these sweet little men hurting each other like this. This is beyond love: they’re obsessed, and I think it’s time to wean them off of each other. It was cute when it was just holding hands and kissing cheeks, but this is not a healthy way for our residents to be relieving tension. They’re setting a bad example. What if Damon and Larry start going at it? What will we do?

[KATE moves as if to walk off stage, but stops and turns back toward the audience.]

KATE: I mean, the Toms can still see each other. We can have, like, play dates with the Franklin Street home, structured ones, so they can say hi every once in a while. I would really like that: we need to have more of a sense of community between the homes in the area, I think. It’ll be sad to see Tom A. go, but this is what’s best, Mr. Allen and I agreed. [She pauses.] And I really hope Tom A. will be okay. He’s a nice little guy.

[ANITA appears, stage left, and holds out her hand for the envelope. KATE hands it to her and they walk off stage together. The lights go out.]


#2: ROLAND SIMMONS, L.S.P. (Licensed Spiritualist Practitioner)

Matt Blakley

[Lights on. ROLAND is dressed casually, looking under the hood of Anita’s car. He seems perplexed as he pokes around the engine, hoping to find something loose or broken. After his last attempt, he steps backwards, lets out a big sigh, and faces the audience.]

ROLAND: I knew my wife was going to die. On Sundays she and Anita would sit on our couch, my wife leaning into its arm cushion, Anita anchored by her legs folded Indian style, and they would cross-stitch. The two would laugh about the boys in Anita’s middle school, or what Cathy, my wife’s divorced sister, said about her most recently failed date. I’d skim the shiny pages of Popular Mechanics and pretend to watch television, instead staring at my wife’s hand pierce the taut cloth with a steady, thin needle. She’d usually follow the pattern of some cheesy American slogan like, “Live, Laugh, Love,” or a bible verse, even. But one Sunday she sewed a bouquet of flowers. It had a pink ribbon tied around the base of the evenly cut stems, and each flower’s head rested together to create the perfect ode to the landscape they were plucked from. It was that day—that pattern—that swallowed me into the stomach of the future. Its flavor still clamps my tongue in the middle of the night while I dream. It was a place where I saw her death.

[ROLAND walks over to the car, takes one last glance at its intestines, and forcefully shuts the hood]

ROLAND: I told her while she was taking a shower the next morning before work. I have no clue what prompted me to do it then. Something about the sound and steam of the hot water hitting her pale skin, or the echo of her empty “Good Morning” while she washed her face. When I told her, she went ballistic. As if she knew it, too. She forcefully drew back the opaque shower curtain and stood there naked with the water pooling the dip of her right clavicle that would then slither down her body to find the drain. Her hair was still lathered with shampoo. After staring at one another for a couple seconds, she wiped her eyes and yelled at me like my mother. It was like every horrible thought in her mind regarding my life and the way I lived it came bursting out like the stream of the morning piss I took when I broke the news. When she was finished, she closed the curtain and cried for a good ten minutes. After I got home from dropping Anita off from school, she had left a note on the dining room table that said, “Get some help.” We divorced soon after, and she took Anita.

I used to just think I had an overactive imagination, or some sort of sensory overload or whatever. But I know I am psychic. For months I even attributed my visions to all of the different pain medicines I take for my back. It’s not my fault though. It is my damn doctor’s. It seems like every month I go in for a check-up he wants to syringe some of my spinal fluid out for more testing, or wants to shove another damn pill down my throat. My M/T/W/TH/F pill container refuses to fit anymore pills. Just like my bloodstream. A couple of weeks ago I was changing Anita’s oil and as I drained the old, diluted black liquid, my body began to shake like I was on one of those wooden roller coasters while my eyesight evaporated into the canals of my veins. The streams were translucent, revealing the morphine compounds trying to dissolve into my blood, whose sharp edges would part the protein tube of each vein like a dorsal fin.

I awoke still under Anita’s Toyota Corolla with used oil oozing down my face. While I hoisted myself atop our old dining room table that I now use as a workbench, I wiped my face with a rag and felt a rusty resistance penetrate every vein in my body. I figured it had to be the pills. The chemicals. How it fucks with my nervous system. How it fucked my life up—my job, my marriage. She claims she was unhappy, but I know my wife left me because she was too proud. She couldn’t bear to be with a man on disability. Especially a man on disability that claims he can see the future.

[ROLAND opens the driver door and sits down in the seat, still facing the audience. He smiles and angrily sounds the car horn for 10 seconds. Once finished, he remains sitting down, facing the audience.]

ROLAND: At least I have Anita, though. She moved in with me after her mother died in a taxicab accident. The driver fell asleep at the wheel. It was a blessing and a curse, Anita’s homecoming. I had no clue how to talk to her for the first few weeks because her mother had brainwashed her into thinking that I had gone mental—that and the fact that Anita was a teenager. What the hell do I know about teenagers? When I was a teenager I worked 2 jobs and went to school. “Never saw the daylight,” I would tell her when she would whine about something petty. About some dumbass she was dating, or about how she had no idea what to do after she graduated.

I won’t tell her this, but last week, while I was unloading the dishwasher, I saw her receiving an award. She was handed one of those golden awards that requires a speech. She was wearing a dress sculpted out of pink silk and her hair was all done up like a cheerleaders and she just looked happy. I was there in the audience, I think. I was watching her, until the respectful claps from the crowd faded into the cracks and clings of the plates and cups I broke when I fell limp into the spiky fingers of the dishwasher’s bottom drawer. I think the broken glass did more harm to me than I did to them, honestly. I had to get stitches. And subsequently more fucking pain medicine. But regardless of my small injuries, the point is, Anita will be famous one day. I saw it. When she graduates, I’ll tell her, too. At least then if she leaves me hopefully it will be for Hollywood. At least then I’ll know she will be happy.

[ROLAND stands up and shuts the door. Immediately after, Anita opens the garage door and ROLAND joins her in the house. Lights out.]


#3: Larry

by Andrew Allingham

[Interior: assisted living home. LARRY’S room – day.]

Larry rocks back and forth in his rocking chair, pictures of big breasted women surround him on the wall, held fast with strips of black electrical tape.

LARRY: I am not going out anywhere today. The sun is too bright and the air is too smoky. It’s just too unpredictable outside today. The thing is that I have asthma and if I go anywhere today, I could have an attack and would not have a chance. Really, it’s in my best interest to just stay right here just in case. Here I have pictures to look at and a rocking chair and I know everybody and there is no reason to leave. Anita said that she wouldn’t smoke around me. If there is smoke inside then it is no better than the outside. Anita is very nice, much nicer than Racquel. She smokes inside and I have to keep my distance from her. The air is too thick when she is around and I could choke at any moment.

There was a time when I didn’t live here. I was a part of society and I had a job. Back when I used to have hair, I didn’t need anyone to look after me and I left the house when I felt like it. I didn’t have to ask about whether or not I had to go anywhere to prepare myself ahead of time. I went for walks in the park. I ate at restaurants. I saved room for dessert. I didn’t get anxious at the thought of being left vulnerable, open to the vultures flying circles overhead. I shopped for groceries. I was normal enough to fit in, to pass off as everyone else. It didn’t change all at once. It gradually seeped in. I stopped going out for drinks with friends. I called in sick to work. My asthma started acting up. I stopped getting the morning paper. I couldn’t breathe. I drew the curtains closed. I cut the cord to my phone and alarm clock. Locked up tight in a box and closed off is how they found me. They ran test after test and tried to find the right pill. I stopped belonging in the world, but at least I don’t have to keep pretending that I do.

Even here I don’t quite fit in, but not because I am the freak. I go to group meetings with the others, but I used to be normal and they didn’t. I just have asthma and it gets hard to breathe sometimes. Normal is using a rocking chair to rock back and forth. I used to go out to the movies and I’d buy a coca-cola and popcorn with extra butter and salt. Here I can sit in my rocking chair and nothing is expected of me, just like the others. I am able to pass as normal here. I am treated like everyone else. Normal is different here than it is outside. Normal isn’t an act and you don’t have to wear a mask. I can say more than “Mona Lisa” and I try to make a good first impression. I brush my teeth after I drink soda and not the other way around. Normal is being able to carry on a conversation on any topic at the drop of a hat. Normal is never letting the conversation lull. We built these walls to get away from the outside, so I don’t see why we’d want to leave them.

They are making Tom A. leave, but not me. So much could happen out there and you would have no way to protect yourself. You could get attacked by bees or robbed and you would have to run away without having the chance to stretch first or limber up. It could rain when you’ve forgotten to bring an umbrella. Why they would make anyone leave is a mystery to me. It is just so big outside that it is hard to breathe. There is so much pressure to live when there is very little living going on. Just thinking about it makes me feel a wheeze coming on. I can hear my lungs blow a quiet whistle tune. Sometimes I wake from a dream of the outside world in the middle of the night, and it’s like a choked rendition of some jazz song I can’t quite remember being played by an out of tune brass section. I have to cough to keep it from taking away my breath. Then I see the four walls and the roof over my head and I can be calm again. Everything is safe, and everything is in its place. There is just too much space that imprisons you out there. Here you know what happens and you can control it and be free to do as you please. You don’t have to worry anymore. If everything is familiar then there is no reason to panic and if there is no reason to panic, then everyone is calm.

Tom A. is a little slow, so maybe he does not know the dangers. Maybe not knowing the danger makes it easier to move around. I do not know how Tom B. will be able to live without his friend Tom A. Especially since Tom A. will be out there where anything could happen. They are always together, separable only by the nagging of the nurses. I try to tell Tom A. and Tom B. that they shouldn’t go anywhere alone, so that they don’t get caught with their guards down, but they don’t listen and they just sneak off without thinking about what might happen. Maybe Tom A. being around Tom B. is what keeps them from worrying. Tom B. speaks slow and with a slur and Tom A. doesn’t talk at all, but they are still friends and are able to talk to one another. Making Tom A. leave changes the surroundings. It will still be familiar, but not the same as before. If anyone has to leave, I suppose it’s better him than me. I am not going out anywhere today.

[ANITA enters and takes LARRY out of the room for breakfast.]


#4: Tom A.

by Mairin Martin

[TOM A is sitting in the living room on a dingy sofa somewhere between grey and light blue, almost covered in unidentifiable stains. The room is bare with the exception of a set of poorly made ply-wood bookshelves teetering under the weight of several plastic storage bins label things such as “floor cleaner”, “wash cloths”, “diapers”, and “crayons”. A small television set with bunny ears sits on a lop-sided microwave cart, a piece of folded cardboard stuck under the front-left leg in an attempt to steady it. The television plays a black and white Western. A woman sits on the floor attempting a jig-saw puzzle. When TOM A’s monologue comes over the speakers as a voice-over and the actor moves and follows the stage direction as if he were speaking. When his voice is heard and when he moves, no one listens or acknowledges him at all.]


I am sitting on the sofa and watching t.v. with Tom and everything is good. Do you know what I mean by good? Like really good. Like I can feel his hand and where every line on it leaves a tiny space for the air to get to my skin. But the air is hot so it’s not really like air, not like a breeze is flowing in onto my skin, but I just know, I can tell that his hand is a tiny bit away from me there. I wish his hand could cover all of me. It is so warm. I love his hand and I wish it were so big and that is didn’t have any little lines so that he could cover me and no air could touch me in between the cracks and every bit of me could be covered by his warm, warm hand. I can remember the first time Tom held my hand. We was sitting on the old sofa at our old home, just like we are now, and he just reached right over and grabbed it. Normally that would have scared me. But his hand was just so warm I couldn’t help it.

I let him hold my hand.

And then I loved him.

I didn’t used to like people to touch me before Tom.

[He lets go of TOM B’s hand and holds himself in a tight embrace, rocking slightly back and forth looking down towards the floor.]

When I was little my mom used to hold me but her hands were never clean and warm like Tom’s. Her hands were rough and her long finger nails frightened me. They would get caught on my knobby clothes and I was scared that maybe one day they would get caught on me- tear a little snag on my skin just like they did on my Batman pajamas.

[He shifts his arms in and out of the sleeves of his Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, pulling his elbows towards his waist then slipping his arms back into the sleeves.]

Once, when I was at my old home, before Tom came, one of the ladies tried to wash my face. She was trying to scrape my skin off. The washcloth looked fluffy but I knew better. It was made of steel wool. It bit me and scratched me and tried to get rid of white skin and make me walk around pink like a raw baby bird. So I screamed and ran away to the safety of my cot. The blanket on my bed is so soft. It is water. It is warm cotton air coming through the Magnolia and Mamosa trees to wrap my prickling, burning skin in comfort. Breeze. It is breeze and it is water and it is perfect. Tom’s skin is like this too. His skin against mine is water. It is the perfect amount of hot. It is the air coming from a fire of oak and cedar on a night in mid May when the mosquitos aren’t out yet. The air carries nothing but the oak and cedar. Thick air. Wood air. Spice air. Soft, worked leather air. It rolls through the night, unfurling from the sticky flames to wrap my bubbling, bursting skin in comfort.

[TOM A slowly moves back to an upright position and takes TOM B’s hand once more, stares at him for a moment then goes into a whisper delivering his next lines]

There was a time when I once didn’t love Tom. When I couldn’t. They sent me into a room…

[TOM A shudders and lets go of TOM B’s hand, bolting up onto his feet and standing at attention.]

When I left the room my skin was running away from me. There were bright pink and yellow pipe cleaners shooting through my veins. They were boring out of my armpits and kneecaps and tunneling from my temples. They crawled from under my finger nails and spelled out messages on my arms in the lose parts that left, the collapsed tunnels under my skins: NO NO NO NO NO NO TOUCH TOUCH TOUCH NO NO NO TOM TOM TOM NO NO TOUCH NO NO TOM

[He presses down with his pointer finger on his forearm with a brutality, tracing the images of the words he repeats, slowly and poignantly.]

I couldn’t touch Tom anymore for a long time. A really long time. When he tried to hold my hand I screamed. I could feel the pipe cleaners resurfacing and the malicious furry ends sticking to my blood and sucking it from my cells so that they started to deflate. I could feel them dying and I could feel the emptiness. And the emptiness was pain. The deep wood air had disappeared from Tom. I thought that if it could come back, then it could fill re-inflate my cells and fix them. Tom could make me full again; I knew it. But I didn’t know how it could happen because those pipe cleaners terrified me. I couldn’t move when they were in me. All I could do was scream. The places that they especially loved to poke and seep from were the charred circles from cigars twisted and ground into my back. They were another reason that I ran from my mother’s touch…

That smoggy, rotting scent of cigar smoke…They looked like slugs and they smelled like mud and bowling allies. When that scent snuck under the door of my room and seeped into my pores I could smell the pain, the death, my skin would cry for me to run away. It knew what was coming. But I couldn’t run. So I would scream. And then I would be punished. The glowing, seething slug-like roll crept towards me through the darkness and emptiness of the room. It latched onto my back and spit fire into my muscles. My skin cried out so I cried out but this only made the slug burrow deeper. My screams peopled the darkness and I was left alone with them and with my throbbing scars and with the residue of the embers from the cigar as it slithered away.

[TOM A stares ahead blankly as he sinks back onto the sofa and reaches for TOM B’s hand, resting his head on TOM B’s shoulder.]


Written by Helen

November 21st, 2010 at 11:44 pm