I’m Not Supernatural, I’m Disabled

(This post does not contain plot specific spoilers, beyond a very broad overview of the concept behind the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the characterization of Sookie Stackhouse.)

I’ve loved the Sookie Stackhouse novels ever since a friend put one of them into my hot little hands because, well, it was hot and I was far from home and I was fussing and I was totally overstimulated and I just wanted to go hide, and my friend kindly said “here, take my book and go hang out in the park for a few hours, we will grab you when you are ready.” And I wasn’t ready until I finished that book, and then I went and found some more, because I just loved them that much.

The Sookie Stackhouse novels, for those not familiar, feature a telepathic waitress living in Louisiana, in an alternate United States where vampires have “come out of the coffin” because they can survive on synthetic blood. As the series unfolds, we learn about all sorts of interesting supernatural folks or “Supes” as they’re called, and we follow the title character on a series of wild adventures. The books appealed so much to Alan Ball, creative genius behind Six Feet Under, that they inspired the hit HBO series True Blood.

They’re fluff. Let’s get that on the table right now. They are fluffy and silly and they are not meant to be deep and introspective. They’re mass market paperbacks, and that is what they are. They’ve got a healthy heaping of steamy sex scenes and racy double entendres, and sometimes the descriptions of Sookie’s wardrobe get a little boring, but, you know, they’re the kind of books which I read as brain candy, when I can’t focus on things, when I just want to escape for a while.

I value escapist literature, because I think it’s a necessary and great thing. The ability to be consumed by an alternate world helps me settle my brain, whether I’m having a tough day, or I’ve just been reading a lot of dense, heavy material and I feel like I’m filling with cobwebs.

And what I really like about the Sookie novels is the characterization of the main character. As discussed above, Sookie is telepathic, but in the books, she specifically identifies as disabled, repeatedly and clearly, and insists that she is not supernatural. Her self labeling is a really important part of the books for me, because it makes me identify with her, as a character. I like seeing someone like me as a heroine. (Uhm, I’m not telepathic, just in case you were wondering.)

Sookie is also, in many ways, a very feminist heroine; she’s strong, opinionated, she knows her own will, and she exerts it. She doesn’t appreciate being told what to do, she’s not afraid to tell people to mind their own business, and she very much exercises her bodily autonomy. I think that the books trip up sometimes; she’s not a perfect heroine, but she’s a better example than the leads in a lot of other books of this kind.

Telepathy actually has a bit of a history of being treated as a disability in fiction, because, well, there are a lot of things about it which are disabling. In books featuring worlds in which traits like telepathy are recognized and valued, it’s sometimes treated as a disabling trait because it’s hard to be inside people’s heads all the time. It can be stressful and grinding and it can expose you to ugly, scary things. And, of course, other characters may want to use characters with telepathy to accomplish their own goals, which has some parallels with our world, in which people with disabilities are used for learning experiences, as plucky little mascots, or as targets of abuse and torment. Characters with telepathy are also sometimes cast within the framework of neuroatypicality. Even when their power is valued, they are also feared, and they have trouble relating to other people because their brains work so very differently.

Sound familiar? It does to me.

In novels where magic and supernatural powers are not recognized by the world the characters inhabit, telepathy is often treated as mental illness, because other characters refuse to recognize what is going on. Telepathic characters may be hated and feared by others, and they’re institutionalized, medicated, and isolated because other characters view them as mentally ill. In the Sookie Stackhouse novels, we see that Sookie feels isolated from other people because of her telepathy; it’s a barrier to social interactions, it makes her feel like she can’t seek intimacy, even in cases where she can tell people about it and be believed (especially so, sometimes). These are both things which come up in a mental illness context, and in the context of neuroatypicality.

That’s why I love and connect with Sookie. She does not view herself as supernatural, even as other supernatural folks try to label her that way. She views herself as disabled, and she explicitly and clearly identifies that way. She struggles with many of the same things that I do, and I like that Charlaine Harris has managed to create a complex, fully realized, rich character with disabilities.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

12 thoughts on “I’m Not Supernatural, I’m Disabled

  1. I feel like this is a good companion piece to the one about the movie Orphan in terms of the importance of how ability is framed.

    I haven’t read the books, but I do watch True Blood, and I feel like this characterization of Sookie is consistent, and it’s interesting because she definitely uses a lot of things that come with her ability to solve mysteries, but it has negative effects on her personal life too.

    I feel like there are a lot of disabilities where the difference is always felt as stark but not necessarily negative.
    .-= Gnatalby´s last blog ..The Dumbing Down of Disability on Glee =-.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes, as someone who is neurodiverse (Asperger’s) and has suffered considerably at the hands of society for it. I have not read the novels, but the social isolation that you describe Sookie Stackhouse as going through has a lot in common with mine (although in my case, I am also trans, so there’s an additional intersection working against me.

    Putting the novels on my reading list.

  3. I do feel obliged to note that the books have a lot of sex stuff in them; they aren’t quite romance level, but I know some people aren’t into that sort of thing and like to be warned before reading!

  4. Also, Gnatalby, I feel like Sookie’s disability status is kind of downplayed in True Blood (I’ve only seen the first season because HBO apparently likes to wait FOREVER to release DVDs of its shows, so maybe this changes with the second season). I feel like they stress the supernatural angle more than the disability one, and a lot of the True Blood fandom kind of denies her disability status; putting “disabled” in quotes, etc.

  5. Ooh, ooh! Read “The Chrysalids” by John Wyndham. Telepaths and “regular” disabled folks (including someone with an extra toe and other really trivial things) branded as “deviations”. Clever, interesting, almost enough to make you forgive his protrayal of blindness in “Triffids”

  6. This is a very interesting piece. I have not read the Sookie Stackhouse novels yet, I have only watched True Blood. In the show you can see how overwhelming her power can be sometimes but they never actually call it a disability. I wonder why this element was cut out of the show? I am even more encouraged to read them now. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Renee´s last blog ..My Skin Is…. =-.

  7. Renee, I’m actually working on a piece for Bitch right now about the characterization of Sookie on True Blood, and how it differs from how she’s handled in the books! I am really intrigued by the dichotomy too.

  8. meloukhia, I look forward to reading your article in Bitch. Maybe you’ll help me figure out why I like the TV show a lot more than the books (only read the first two). Perhaps because the Sam is less of a creeper on the show and Tara and Lafayette get to be real people (see comments on this post on Feminist SF – The Blog: http://blogs.feministsf.net/?p=1287).

  9. Hrm, I probably won’t be getting into those aspects of it too much, just because there’s not enough room and I really want to focus on the disability aspects in the TV show, but I can talk about it here, I suppose!

    I do like that Tara and Lafayette are much more fleshed out, real people in the TV show with complexities, personalities, agency, and their own storylines. They aren’t subsumed in service to Sookie and used as devices for plot advancement. And I agree, Sam is much less of a Creepy McCreeperson on the show. Not having seen the second season, I don’t know how things develop, but it seems like Ball is also veering away from the creepier/more upsetting characterizations for the vamps, as well. Sookie is also given more autonomy in the show; I don’t see her taking the kind of shit that she does in the books.

    I think that Alan Ball is a genius with characterization, and he took some characters who were a little troped and flat and played with them and expanded them in a way which I really love. I’m not totally happy with the way Sookie’s disability carried over, as I discussed a bit above, but other than that I think he did a really great job with making something much more complex and intense out of those books.

  10. You know, I’d never thought of telepathy as a disability before, but it makes total sense and makes me wonder about other fantasy/supernatural disabilities. It seems like most people think “disabilities = LACK of ability, supernatural stuff = EXTRA ability, = omgsocool!” when that’s… pretty wrong. (Sometimes the supernatural abilities actually go towards things people actually have in real life – anyone ever seen the TV show Sentinel? It operated off the premise that there were these people called Sentinels who had amazingly awesome senses! and could do all these things regular people couldn’t – somewhat simplified. And, uh, a lot of the peole on the autistic spectrum *have* some degree of hypersensitivity in various senses, myself included, and somehow it seems to mainly cause a lot of confusion and pain and being told off by people for acting irrationally afraid of loud noises. I, at least, somehow missed out on the Totally Awesome And Useful Abilities part of the package.)

    It also occurs to me that this is one of the things that’s always bothered me about the “person has unusual ability which is Feared and Hated!!!” trope in sf/f, because the way it’s treated often rings so untrue to me. The way society deals with people who are Different isn’t to Fear and Hate them in ways that make clear they think this Difference is totally awesome and powerful and worthy of respect, it’s to… yeah, maybe fear and hate them but mainly feel *contempt* for them, and maybe pity. Different people are constructed as *lesser*, not greater. I can’t help but think that a lot of the time the unusual ability should be treated as a disability by their society.

    …[/digression]

  11. Ah, well, sometimes it can be totally awesome and useful, like that time I learned there was chocolate in the house because my partner was breaking off a piece and I could smell it from all the way across the house. But yeah, usually it just makes me, for example, totally overloaded and want to gag and run away in public transport because too many people smell way too strong in all kinds of different, interesting (disgusting) ways.

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