When Simply Stating Your Truth Isn't Enough
For better or for worse, we have developed a culture in which personal truths are valued as highly as objective facts -- sometimes even mistaken for objective facts. In some arenas, the value of a personal narrative is particularly high; it's how we learn about diversity, for example. Large sections of the web rely on the cultural importance of personal narrative, personal experience, and personal truths (why else are you here, reading this blog? smile). Personal narratives are sometimes the facts that scholars study, the foundations of new disciplines, and/or the entree points into new worlds. We cannot do without them.
But what do you do when your truth, the truth that has made you whole and set you free, depends on some pretty problematic assumptions? You know what I mean? The kind of assumptions that ordinarily you would avoid, words and ideas you would declare not to be in your vocabulary -- the things that whiff ever so slightly of racism, ableism, patronage. These things that aren't you, surely? These are the things you would never think possible about the conscious you. And yet your story -- your truth -- can deceive you.
Writer Lisa Jones and her book, Broken, are featured in the New York Times as part of the "happy days" series: "Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead." I'm not sure that the essay printed hereunder exactly meets those terms, but I do know that I have encountered a piece of writing that is deeply problematic.
Here's what you're supposed to get. White journalist Lisa Jones goes for a story: "I wasn’t trying to write an authoritative book about Native Americans or native life. I was there to write a book about Stanford’s evolution from what he had been, a bad-boy outlaw, into the renowned medicine man he had become" (excerpt from Preface). She meets Stanford Addison -- quadriplegic, Native American, male, horse gentler, healer. Ms. Jones leaves with "nothing particularly resolved, but happier than I’d been in years" (NYT). She undergoes a horrifying trauma and draws on Stanford Addison to help her heal. We are supposed to follow her on her journey to healing and celebrate the growing friendship between Mr. Addison and Ms. Jones. The book is a celebration of healing and a return to life. Happy Days, indeed.
But what happens is perhaps less important than how it is narrated. Because it seems to me that this -- the framing of it all -- is the ultimate responsibility of writers, performers and artists. Your truth is your truth. But you -- we -- have the responsibility to place it, frame it and narrate it in such a way that there is no collateral damage.
Unfortunately, Ms. Jones does not succeed. Take, for example, her descriptions of Mr. Addison: "his long black braid, his half-toned, half-atrophied arms, and slack legs" and "this paralyzed, six-toothed, one-lunged Plains Indian" (from Preface). Her NYT piece calls him a "person who persevered — thrived, even — without his needs being even close to met. He had very little money. His body was paralyzed and diabetic, and he was always more or less in pain. Still, he managed to care for all these kids, work his horses, and host a steady stream of visitors from the reservation and beyond." Of Native life, she writes, "Although terrible things happened on the reservation — crime and addiction and violence were never far away — happiness was all over the place on this ragtag ranch" (NYT).
Why is this bad? After all, some of those facts are unquestionably true. Mr. Addison does have a spinal cord injury, etc., etc., etc. But honestly, that portrayal is one that objectifies the external signs of disability. It is not the full story of the person. When will we move beyond the MDA approach to seeing a disabled body? Mr. Addison is Native American -- though the NYT piece repeatedly calls him Indian. "Indian" is not a bad word in itself necessarily, but the context matters. Context is where Ms. Jones fails. The happy native is such a disgusting cliche; they live in squalor with all kinds of things that we white folk couldn't tolerate and yet they are happy. These ideas are those of the first explorers. Would anyone care to consciously ally themselves with such patronage and racism?
What matters, then, is what you do with what you call facts, experiences, truths and ideas. It's how you handle your perspectives on gender, race, ethnicity, class, and disability. It's the way that you align the facts (or not) with societal preconceptions about those who are somehow "different."
It doesn't matter whether or not you, personally, don't share the stigmatizing impulses that lead to discrimination and hatred; members of your audience most certainly do. As an artist/performer/writer/..., you have a responsibility to treat those facts in such a way that you don't perpetuate the beliefs that enable harm. You might even take on the responsibility to change the way that people think and act. Or, then again, perhaps not.
"It is not, repeat not, another romanticized white person's spiritual quest on Native lands. Instead it is a lovingly wrought, painfully honest, crowded, poignant, and funny look at all of it," writes reviewer Alison Luterman (on Jones's site). And yet, you have to wonder. How do people read Jones's work? In her blog, Jones notes that people just "melted" around Stanford. Of course, they did: Jones's story, as true as it is, depends on stereotypical language and cheap idealizing. The "melting" is basically programmed into those images of his crippled body, his pain, and his spiritualism. Societally, we know what to do with images of the crippled native healer. We know how to read those stories.
So, even though Ms. Jones comes to narrate her healing (with a modicum of self-awareness), the story she ultimately tells both depends on unquestioned societal interpretive reflexes and reenacts them.
A white woman retreats to Native American life to find a story and is healed by a disabled native man, a man whose very manhood had been redefined by the accident that paralyzes him: "Before his accident, he was as heartless and handsome as a young rebel could be. He was a small-time outlaw who busted broncs, broke hearts, robbed cafes and dealt drugs. After the accident, his 20-year-old body lay unmoving, visited by doctors, nurses, and spirits who began to endow him with unwanted healing powers" (NYT). This story could be one of thousands of what I bitterly refer to "noble savage" stories -- with the exception that this man is disabled. The fact of Mr. Addison's disability kicks the narrative over to the sick/wounded medicine man motif -- the healer who cannot heal himself. From the Preface:
And then there was Stanford. His accident smashed his spine and left him on a slab in the morgue. He revived only to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Along with his physical paralysis came some powerful healing gifts. At first, both his disability and these gifts seemed a terrible burden, but he haltingly came to understand that he had emerged from a small life into a big one. He had broken, broken through, broken out. His body was changed forever, but so was his heart.
Disability figures here in archetypal societally negative ways. We can't live actual physical lives, we live lives of the spirit and of the heart; our bodies are useless and broken. Disability is both a burden (sigh) and a passage to being a better human. No longer the rebel youth, Mr. Addison is now a societally useful person: a healer. And regardless of whether it is true that he lay on a slab in a morgue, does the story have to be one of rebirth -- rebirth into a crippled life that ultimately is his healing?
These are cliches. Broken. Useless. Spiritually barren cliches. How bad it is it? Well, what do people think? The NYT comments on this story are what you would expect -- of the "oh, this is so beautiful, so inspiring type." People know how to read this stuff. Ms. Jones even becomes an "angel" (Commenter #46). This is the danger of writing this story in the way that Ms. Jones does. It's an exoticized "chicken soup for the soul" memoir (my phrase). As a writer, Ms. Jones has a responsibility to do better.
And then, there's the New York Times itself. Readers of the NYT -- a paper with a particularly sucky record on disability, race and ethnicity reporting -- are, for the most part going to identify with Ms. Jones. That's the audience she writes for. A few take points for view similar to my own here; at least as regards Ms. Jones' use of Native American history and culture. No comments that I have seen understand the disability political and cultural perspective-- currently at 53. (Commenter #19 writes as a disabled person, but her race, class background are not visible. She writes to identify with Mr. Addison)
Not a single commenter has been able to approach the world of a disabled person of colour. And I am not surprised. It is not just that people in general don't have much experience in managing intersectionality and these kinds of complicated issues; it is also that Ms. Jones' writing invites -- nay, facilitates -- this sloppy, trite, prejudicial over-emotional stereotypical response. As a writer and journalist, it is her job to know and do better.