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.