Category Archives: relationships
This piece contains lots of spoilers.
I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.
I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.
But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.
At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.
So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.
But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?
So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.
This weekend, s.e. and abby both read The Summoning, by Kelley Armstrong. Rather than fighting over which one got to review it, they decided to have a chat instead! Here’s the synopsis from the publisher, and be advised that mild spoilers lie beyond!
My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again.
All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me.
Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House . . . before its skeletons come back to haunt me.
I read a post at Crazy Mermaid’s Blog recently that neatly summarized some things that I have been struggling with lately.
Friends and loved ones of those with a mental illness have a hard time understanding noncompliance with medication. Why, they reason, if the drug helps control the symptoms of the mental illness, doesn’t the mentally ill person take the medication?
One of the biggest reasons for noncompliance is the side effects of the drugs. Especially for those with more severe cases, the side effects of strong doses of medication can cause horrific side effects. So horrific, in fact, that the patient makes the conscious decision to stop taking the medication to avoid those side effects. Living with the mental illness becomes more appealing than living without it.
I linked it in my most recent RR, but it hit home so well that I really had to bring it back around here for some tossing around. I have been rolling some things around in my brain on my own like a toy surprise… the kind that can eat you up… and while the particular sitch that Crazy Mermaid describes doesn’t apply specifically to me, it is relevant.
We all have, I think, things in our lives that we face that create little fissures that attempt to pull us apart from any amount of happiness we might grasp onto in our lives. Those of us in the disabled community know that this kind of stress can be especially taxing on our resources as the two sides rub together, causing the tiny quakes and aftershocks of the impending snaps of what we can handle. Sometimes the aftermath of having to live on the fault line long enough results is losses we, as people, can’t quite handle with smiles on our faces, if at all.
These things might not all be catastrophic life situations, but sometimes they are. Perhaps it is, on one side of the fault, the choice to not medicate and along with it the constant shame and scrutiny from doctors, family, friends, and basically everyone you might know (or the lack of understanding of your continued symptoms from those “anti Big Pharma” friends who think you really can have it both ways). On the other, living daily with side effects that leave you with little to no quality of life. Crazy Mermaid listed a few fairly severe ones. I know some of my medications for other-than-mental illness conditions come with their own host of side effects that I had to consider, including vomiting, vertigo, extreme fatigue, and that is just to name some pleasant ones. They can sap your will to get out of bed. You have to weigh these options carefully as the ground trembles beneath you. Often, you don’t have anything or anyone to cling to as you weigh your bleak options. What choice is it, really, sometimes?
Perhaps your choice is whether to accept a job across the country (or the world, in another country you have never even seen before) because it will provide for your immediate family. The other side of that precipice is the close-knit extended family you leave behind: grandparents and aunts and uncles who all had a hand in raising you, some of whom now could use your help as they get older. Their lives continue and you miss the daily events that used to be part of your daily life. The little things that mattered are missing from your life now as your support system is thousands of miles behind you. Their cycles of life don’t stand still because you have moved away. How do you make that choice, and what if you are a partner of someone who takes that job? Do you choose your partner or your family (and how do you choose)? Some of these answers might seems snap-crackle easy… but if you really break it down, they are many faces of the rock to look at. Do you choose financial or emotional security?
How do you make those choices? How do you survive the tremors of straddling the fissure while you weigh your options? When do the rock and hard place stop grinding against you to let you breathe for a moment so you can rest?
People with disabilities, especially women, have all the same pressures currently non-disabled people do to look “good enough”, with added bonus of being either non-sexualised or hyper-sexualised, as well as having people infantize them to an incredible degree.
Talking about disability and self-esteem and body image is very difficult for me. People look at me and see a woman without a disability (or a woman with a non-evident one), and I pass. I don’t get the odd looks that a woman of my age (or younger, or older) using a cane or crutches would. I don’t get the pats on the head that women who use wheelchairs report, and I don’t have people leaping out of the way when I’m using a motorized scooter.
But at the same time, women like me are often used as stand-ins for “horrible”. Whether that’s the simple of “she took off her glasses and suddenly she was beautiful!”, or the more complicated of “oh my gosh! the woman I had sex with is actually a crazy person! Quick, let us make many movies about crazy = bunny-boiler = grotesque!”, I’m well aware that women like me are bad, ugly inside, and unacceptable.
These things add a whole other layer to the conversations that many women, feminist and non, have about self esteem and body image. We are all inundated with the constant barrage of White, Long-Haired, Slender (But Not Too Slender), Tall (But Not Too Tall), Unblemished, Healthy-looking, Young women in most advertising and fashion spreads, television shows, movies, and even on our book covers.1
At the same time, though, poster children and the pity parade are a fairly common image of disabled children – whether with visible or non-evident disabilities – that present people with disabilities as weak, as undesirable, as needing of pity – and always, always, always, as children. Very rarely are images of self-possessed, happy, disabled adults shown, unless they are in one of the “he’s so brave” “look at what she’s overcome” news stories.
I don’t know how this affects other people, or how they deal with it. I know that when Don first got his cane, and then his wheelchair, his self-esteem and image of himself took a hit, and it took a while for me to convince him that yes, I still found him attractive (and I can’t tell you how much I love that wheelchair, since my sexy sexy husband now has energy!). I know for me it would be nice to see images of Actual Crazy Women who aren’t mockeries of women like me, but treated like actual people. It would be nice to see casual fashion spreads with people with evident disabilities in them, rather than only seeing “diversity matters!” posters that include maybe one (male) wheelchair user, usually white.
As I said, I find these things very hard to talk about, because in many ways I don’t even know where to start. While to some extent discussing pop culture and representations there is important, how do we, as individuals, deal with our own self-esteem issues? How do we, as a group, tackle the constant attacks on people with visible disabilities to hide parts of themselves? Make yourself more approachable by putting sparkles on your cane! Soup up your wheelchair and maybe someone will ask you a question! Hide your obvious aid-devices so that they don’t offend people! Cake on make-up so no one can see your scars!
I think there’s so much here to talk about. Please, tell me your thoughts.
- The last one is so ubiquitous that until just now I didn’t realise that of all the non-fiction books on my desk about disability, only one has an actual image of visibly disabled people on it. Most of them have very plain covers, or abstract-type art on them. ↩
Oh, Ask Amy. You’re still on my shit list for your rape apologism, and yet, I keep reading your column. I admit it, I mainly do it so that I can find particularly awful pieces of advice to feature here.
Dear Amy: I’m a high school student and feel like I am being verbally abused by my brother, who constantly tells me that I don’t do things right.
For example, he criticizes me for not putting dishes away after I am done with them.
Whenever he criticizes me, he says things like, “You’re lazy.” Or he’ll say, “If you continue to make these choices then you probably won’t have the greatest path you can have in life.”
Whenever we get into an argument, he says he’s smarter than I am because I have a GPA of 3.85 and his is 4.3 (he’s taken AP classes).
His words hurt me and my self-esteem suffers, even if I know he doesn’t really mean it. I do believe he loves me for who I am, but this bothers me.
I don’t know how to handle this problem.
— Hurt Sister
Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s:
Dear Hurt: A big brother riding you about not cleaning up the kitchen, or saying he’s smarter than you, is not verbal abuse.
People have different qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Your brother might have a better GPA, but you might be a compassionate friend (he sounds lacking in the compassion department). He might be good at chemistry but you might be good at languages, art or geometry. Your GPA would put you at the tippy top in my household (and most households).
Words do hurt. But they hurt less if you make a healthy choice to let the stuff roll off you that you know isn’t true. Your parents should nip this in the bud, but you shouldn’t leave your brother in charge of your self-esteem.
Evidently you never learned the comeback to petty sibling badmouthing. The next time he calls you lazy or dumb, you say, “I know you are, but what am I?”
All together now: Wrong! You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.
Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.
Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.
Contrast this letter with this week’s Dear Prudence, where a reader writes in about being increasingly afraid of her husband because of verbal abuse and acts of violence. Here’s what Prudie said:
There is no excuse for the kind of assault he is inflicting on you…He sounds potentially dangerous, and just an arm adjustment away from punching your jaw instead of the wall. Stop apologizing and start packing. You may even need someone to accompany you when you get your things and tell him you will no longer live in fear in your own home…Nice line he spewed about not faulting him for your faults. Now he can contemplate how it’s his fault that your marriage is about to come apart.
Verbal abuse is abuse. It’s abusive and it’s hurtful and, as Prudence points out, it can escalate to physical violence. I’m not saying that Hurt Sister is in physical danger from her brother, but I am saying that her feeling, that this is abuse, is valid, because she is experiencing it, and Amy should have recognised that and provided her with some assistance on addressing it, instead of telling her, basically, to toughen up.
There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’
I’d hazard that a fair number of FWD readers have probably experienced verbal abuse at some point in their lives, and may even be experiencing it now. How many people are told ‘just toughen up’ or ‘just ignore it’?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Suggestions for Dear Imprudence features are always welcome in my inbox! (meloukhia at gmail dot com)