Why are they so angry at her?

Last week, Oprah did a segment on her show following up with Charla Nash, the woman who was viciously attacked by her friend’s pet chimpanzee in February 2009. The attack left Nash with significant and pervasive injuries to her hands and head, especially her face. After significant treatment and reconstruction, both her eyes were removed, she has only one thumb and no other fingers on either hand, and eats by taking liquids through a straw.

I did not watch the show – my feelings about all this are the press coverage is only to get a shot of her reconstructed face and show pictures of the “freak,” and I didn’t want to be a part of it – but I heard lots of reactions to the show in the media, on blogs, on twitter.

The primary reaction seemed to be anger. So many people said “if I lost my sight and my hands and my face looked like that, I would rather be dead.” And Nash is very clear that she would not rather be dead. She spends lots of time with her 17 year old daughter. From the Oprah site: “When Briana visits her mother, Charla says they just enjoy being together. ‘We lay next to each other and we hold each other and we talk about things—what she does at school or with her friends.'” She continues to push herself to recover, walking every day whether or not she feels good.

The reactions I heard would touch on her time with her daughter, her efforts to continue to heal, and dismiss them entirely. “You know, I love my kids and I’d want to see them grow up, but even still, I’d just rather be dead.” Despite being presented with the woman herself saying she was happy to be alive and happy to have survived, they ignored her, imposing their own ableist assumptions about living as a person with a disability and how awful they thought that would be.

They were angry at her for wanting to live, because it contradicted their thoughts about whether a person with a disability could live a fulfilling and happy life. They were angry at her even in the same breath as bemoaning how awful the attack was, how unfortunate for her that the injuries were so extensive. They were angry at her for thinking she was the same person, thinking she had a right to continue existing, for not giving up and going away to die.

I’m sorry that Charla Nash has to be the subject of this “freak” show. I’m sorry that she has to be the recipient of this anger. But I also want to put her face, put her story, on billboards nationwide, to say “fuck you” to everyone who wants her to go away and disappear.

By 19 November, 2009.    blaming, bodies, media and pop culture, television   



22 Comments

  1. Is it possible that they might be expressing, ineptly, the sentiment that she is a better person than them– in that they would not be strong enough to want to go on living, should they be in her shoes, yet she is able to deal with it in an admirable way?

  2. Damn. Yes. Hell yes.

    You know, the “I’d rather be dead” thing is something I would not at all mind seeing taken apart here in a formal post all on its own.

  3. Off-Topic: Is it IE that makes all the text bold & italic in the template? I swear it didn’t look like this last time I visited the site from home, but at work everything is italicized and it’s a pain in the ass.

    On-Topic: I don’t know much (anything) about this situation, but based on the description here alone, it sounds like people are probably much more upset specifically about the idea of being “ugly” than being disabled. There’s definitely some ableism there, too — a lot of people express similar sentiments in response to previously-abled people becoming blind, deaf, or wheelchair users — but ultimately I think (especially) women understand the social death that happens when a woman is no longer viewed as attractive. Again, based solely on the description here, it sounds like Charla’s face (and body) will always show evidence of the attack, even with whatever “reconstruction” doctors did. With an “imperfect” face, society at large declares Charla ugly; we believe that an ugly woman can never be loved or even particularly liked, therefore Charla has been given a sentence to spend the rest of her life in solitary. As social animals, most people *would* rather be dead than alone (permanently, without hope of change).

    The anger directed at Charla may be similar to the anger we see directed at other “ugly” women — those with certain types of disabilities, fat women, etc — that refuse to sentence *themselves* to a lonely existence. If even the “ugliest” women can find love, then WTH are the rest of us doing spending gazillions of dollars on dieting, makeup, skin products, cosmetic surgery, etc, etc, etc? Without the idea that “ugly” women are unloveable, the entire beauty myth falls apart.

  4. julian–fonts do indeed look bold in IE because of issues with font weighting (we’re trying to weight the fonts to make them easier to read for folks with visual impairments, and they are currently…too light in Firefox and too heavy in IE). I don’t know what’s going on with the italics, though; I just checked in the latest version of IE and am not seeing italics? If you could email me (meloukhia at disabledfeminists dot com) with more info (like the version of IE or even a screenshot) perhaps I can sort it out. I’m sorry things are looking weird for you.

    (Ok, sorry for the derail.)

  5. It’s issues like this that make me very leery of the “right to die” argument – if people can’t recognise a disabled person’s right to live (especially as she’s *gasp* enjoying her life) we’re a long way from being able to talk about anything more dangerous.

  6. They’re angry because she’s a reminder of the T part of TAB. (Not that she’s disabled. Is she? I ignore the TV news and only watched Oprah once, when she had Abhishek and Aish on.)

  7. Naamah, your wish may be granted. I’m unhappy with that myself and oh hey I write here!

  8. Great post.

    As to the discussion of whether the anger directed at Charla Nash is driven by her perceived “ugliness” or perceived disability, I think it’s a lot of both. Disability is often equated with unsightliness in a lot of currently able-bodied people’s minds anyway.

    People declaring they’d rather die, in addition to being ableist and awful, is really lazy. Too much trouble to actually think about what injuries and recovery like Charla Nash’s would mean. Quite easy to unilaterally declare her better off dead. No discomfort required.

  9. “I’d rather die” is exactly why TAB cannot use experiences of temporary illness to imagine what being disabled is like. It’s frightening and disorienting to put on a blindfold and try to navigate a room, and it’s upsetting to list all the things you do in a week that require use of your legs and imagine not being able to do them. However, that’s not the same thing as waking up and going, “So, I can’t do X now. Now what?” every day of the rest of your life. Until you’ve lived that what-if with no escape, it’s hard to imagine that there would really still be parts of your life that are fulfilling, exhiliarating, and just plain awesome.

  10. Ugh, yes, the whole “disabled people can’t truly be happy” and that we should just end our suffering because there’s nothing else there trope. I remember having an actual philosophy professor spend two days trying to lecture the class on why disabled people could never truly be happy. In college, in an academic setting, from a professor.

    The class didn’t buy it.

  11. This terrible and emphatic and hateful level of ableism seems to be inside so many people when you scratch the surface that it is truly terrifying. All that has to happen is a news story about one of us wanting to be alive, or reproducing, or something else… and it all comes flooding out. Makes ne very nervous about people.

  12. [ABBY JEAN]

    lilacsigil:
    If you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy Not Dead Yet. They do anti-death penalty activism based on that very idea.

  13. Thanks for this excellent post. @Kaitlyn — Charla Nash lost her eyes so she is blind.

  14. P.S. Telling her that she’s not a candidate for a hand transplant because she can’t see is incredibly ableist!

  15. Knitting:

    I agree with you. I’m assuming she has aides who would be able to tell if the organ was being rejected by chances in skin ton e or color or things like that.

  16. There is, amoung other things, a serious lack of logic behind ablesit thoughts like the ones discussed here. These people seem to believe that, when they can not see, hear, feel, touch or otherwise experience something, this means it is not there. So because they have never experienced live as a person with a disability, there can not be a life lived as a person with a disability. Therefore, those people would obviously be better of dead.

    It is frustrating that so many people fail to get from to and instead go on believing that know everything there is to know about the situation, because they are unaware of how limited their experiences and the perception they built on them really are.

  17. People say that they would rather be dead because they don’t value the life/lives of the differently abled. This means they can continue to support structures that make access impossible. You are not less than because your body is different.

  18. P.S. Telling her that she’s not a candidate for a hand transplant because she can’t see is incredibly ableist!

    It’s not merely ableist; surely a blind woman needs her hands more, making her a more urgent candidate.

  19. @uzza – i suppose that is possible, but i don’t think that reading is any less horrible than the reading i discussed in the original post. what you describe views people with disabilities as So Strong and Brave for enduring the HORROR that is disability, the view of PWD as a saintly martyr that provides inspiration for the TAB. i find that characterization and assumption just as dismissive and patronizing as the one i discussed – it assumes that being a PWD is inherently worse or more difficult or awful than being a TAB, which is ableist and … pretty rude.

    so i guess they could be saying this horrible thing instead of that horrible thing, but that doesn’t change my assessment that what they are saying is horrible.

  20. When someone says “I’d rather be dead than be like you,” I interpret that as their telling that person “I wish you were dead.” That’s probably not what they consciously mean, but it definitely has that effect.

  21. I had a huge argument with an ex-boyfriend over this. He was saying that he understood if someone wanted to commit suicide after losing body functionality. It really upset me and I got really heated and passionate about it, and then he got all withdrawn and angry at me for getting upset and shutting down his argument. I was making the point that death is the last resort, and that life can continue on with reduced mobility.

    I guess, some part of me was frightened because I am not fully mobile. That anger you speak of in regards to this woman is the same thread as what I saw in this man that I dated. “I’d rather be dead” makes my heart run cold.

    Cause life is so precious, and if we’re happy to live it, then why belittle our existence?

  22. @napalmnacey – i’m sorry that happened. 🙁