Tag Archives: ableism

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Other Woman

This is the conclusion of the mental health series, and I’ll give both my final ratings for this episode, and my ratings for the topic as a whole.

A bit of background for this episode; at one point in the series, Tom Reilly becomes mayor of Odyssey. He has been a city councilman for a while, but wasn’t interested in seeking a higher office until some circumstances forced his hand. Bart Rathbone, recurring villain, ran against him and lost, which had something to do with the fact that he is a greedy, selfish pathological liar and, frankly, hilariously incompetent. And if I was writing this a couple years ago I’d make some comment about how it was implausible that Bart would even be taken seriously as a candidate, but obviously I can’t do that now… is it 2020 yet?

Anyway, this episode opens with Tom announcing that he is still considering whether or not to run for re-election, and he indicates that he is leaning towards not. This excites Bart, who thinks he might have a chance to be elected this time around, so long as he’s fighting some lesser opponent. He urges his family to think of ways to discourage Tom from running, which leads his wife and son to follow Tom around town.

They catch him going to Hillingdale Haven, which seems to be a kind of hotel or club, and get pictures of him wandering the grounds, romantically entwined with a woman. This raises the question of Tom’s wife. She hasn’t been around for years, but as far as anybody knows she isn’t dead and they aren’t divorced. Bart’s son insists he has seen her once, and this woman isn’t her; she is blonde, and Tom’s wife definitely wasn’t.

They take pictures and bring them to a tabloid. The editor is thrilled, especially when they tell him where the photos were taken. Hillingdale isn’t any kind of resort. It’s a mental hospital.

Naturally, when the story breaks, it comes out that Tom isn’t cheating at all. Tom’s wife, Agnes, has a passion for hair dye, and every couple of months she’s trying out a new color. Her mental illness is, of course, the reason why nobody has seen her, especially while Tom was on the campaign trail. It’s also the reason why Tom has finally decided not to run for a second term. He’s tired of the scrutiny of mayoral life, and the job has kept him away from her far too often. He’s done with it. This announcement does not give the Rathbones the joy they expected. Instead, Bart, for once, feels ashamed of himself.

This episode, as you surely notice, is the only one that explicitly mentions mental health. In all others, I rely on either cases where someone is showing the symptoms of a mental illness, which is not named as such, or someone is going through a short-term reaction to a stressful event; the kind of reaction that is not a mental illness in context, but in which handling the situation is still a mental health question, if that distinction makes sense.

You also probably notice that this episode has almost nothing to do with Agnes. She’s a plot device used to create a false scandal; any innocuous explanation could substitute. I’ve almost left her out of my summary entirely.

But this episode does discuss mental health, albeit in something of a footnote. After Tom’s announcement, Whit and Eugene talk a bit more about Agnes’ condition. What puzzles Eugene is that he has never heard about her. He understands why her mental illness wasn’t public knowledge, but he has never heard it brought up in church (Eugene is a Christian at this point in the series). Whit explains that, when praying didn’t improve her condition, people stopped being comfortable with the discussion.

“At first they prayed for her healing, but she just didn’t get any better. It was awkward. Eventually people stopped asking Tom about it, and Tom stopped mentioning it.”

This is something I’ve wanted to see from AIO for a while: an admission that prayer and faith don’t always work. Every Christian knows about somebody who wasn’t healed by prayer, who wasn’t spared suffering because of their faith. It’s typically not talked about, because it raises questions they are uncomfortable with. And Whit, surprisingly, admits it. When Eugene asks for his thoughts on the answer to those questions, this is the best Whit can do.

“I think there are a lot of Christians who have a hard time dealing with things like unanswered prayer. We want God to heal in our timetable, and problems like mental illness make it even messier for us. We like happy endings. We want these people to get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians… Christians who can’t cope are like poor advertising. They’re embarrassing to us. It raises questions we find hard to answer, like where is God when we become mentally ill?”

Here’s where we get a bit iffier. He’s admitting that stigma exists, but he isn’t really discouraging it. He isn’t exactly encouraging it either; clearly he’s sympathetic towards Agnes and doesn’t seem to think the problem is with her faith, yet he falls into stigmatizing language anyway. He doesn’t say “Christians who have a medical condition,” but rather “Christians who can’t cope.” The phrase “get better and get on with their lives, like good Christians,” casts a complimentary image of people who don’t get better because they’re not good Christians. Even if he’s not supporting this image in all cases, he is indirectly indicating that those who suffer mental health problems are at least sometimes at fault.

When Eugene asks, Whit tries to answer his own question.

“It leaves us where we’ve always been, stuck with the frailty of our humanness. Dependent on the power of God’s will, and obliged to keep praying hard for the Mrs. Reillys of the world, and the Tom Reillys who help them.”

I want to like that answer, because it is doing something rare in AIO canon. Whit isn’t conjuring up some theologically contorted answer. He’s just saying, a bit indirectly, that he doesn’t know. I feel like I’ve been waiting for that since starting this project. And, honestly, I really like to reward people who have the guts to admit that. It’s not easy for anybody, but I think that so many situations would improve if we were all just a little more honest about the limits of our own understanding.

That said, there’s a couple things that stop me from giving full credit. The first is that he doesn’t say “help people like Tom and Agnes” or “work to destigmatize their situation so they don’t have to hide like this.” He just says “pray.” To be fair, I know many religious people who would take it as a given that if you pray and then fail to also do what you can, you might as well not have prayed. But I also have known many religious people who, having prayed, feel they’ve done enough and can move on with clear conscience. And most importantly, it makes the real takeaway of this episode feel less like, “accept that some people have mental health problems that don’t go away on our time table” and more like “accept that, and for goodness sake don’t let it cause you to question the power of prayer!”

I’d have liked it if they had tried to deal with this problem, rather than just point it out and then pat themselves on the back for noticing it.

Final ratings (for the episode)

Best Part: While her appearance is incredibly brief, the interaction between Agnes and Tom is sweet. They tease each other in an obviously still in love way. Also, I do love that what you see of Agnes isn’t her being stereotypically “crazy,” but rather you get a conversation fairly typical of any old married couple, with a few key lines that reveal her conditions. 

Worst Part: I suppose I’m most frustrated by the description of Agnes’ actual diagnosis. They describe it as a “deep depression” but then she mostly shows symptoms of mild dementia? I mean, it’s possible to have both, but this feels less like an attempt to add nuance and complexity to her symptoms and more like they were lazy. 

Story Rating: There’s a lot wrong here. First of all, the tone is horribly inconsistent. All the Rathbones are decidedly buffoonish villains, so naturally an episode with all three will be joke heavy. The scenes of them bickering as they try to follow Tom are pretty funny, but when Agnes Reilly’s mental health problems are revealed, the tone shifts awkwardly.

Then there’s the lack of clear stakes. The main thing at stake seems to be whether or not Tom will run for mayor. It’s hard to root for this when he is so clearly ambivalent to start out. We also know he has main character plot armor. If the writers really wanted him to run again, he would shrug this controversy right off. I suppose we are expected to feel that, since Tom is second only to Whit in his perfectness, we should just want him to be the Eternal Mayor For Life and be devastated at any course that doesn’t keep him in charge forever. 

…. yeah, for failing to put together the events in any compelling or aesthetically satisfying way, this gets a D.

Moral Rating: As I said, I’m not sure if the message is supposed to be “love and support the mentally ill and their caregivers,” which is good, but poorly executed, and I’d give a C+, or “don’t let the mentally ill good Christians out there shake your faith,” which I’d give a D for screwed up priorities, or just “don’t make assumptions and try to smear people with gossip,” which is solid, well illustrated even though the story itself is bleh, and I’d normally give it an A. I’ll split the difference: B-

Ratings for the Mental Health Topic

Best Episode: Letting Go

Worst Episode: Nothing to Fear

Good Things They Said: Support people who are struggling, accept that bad things will happen but face them anyway. Sometimes people of faith still have mental health problems. These all should be common sense, but unfortunately even misconceptions this basic are endemic to both religious and secular communities.

Bad Things They Said: Religion fixes all the things, most mental health problems are spiritual, and people who lack religion can’t cope with death or traumatic life events. All of these are not only inaccurate, but for Christians with mental health issues they can actively make their problems worse.

Things They Failed to Address: Actual, accurate descriptions of mental illnesses and disabilities, the role of conventional medicine. I don’t think this show has to be a PSA on mental health, but I do think that, if you’re going to broach the issue, you should research it as best you can. Furthermore, while conventional medicine is still in trial and error mode when it comes to mental health, it has also healed or at least alleviated the condition of many, many people. I’m not even going to say that this show, created for and by Christians, shouldn’t have promoted religion as a potential source of healing. I’m saying that an episode that, for example, promotes therapists and psychiatrists as a tool God provides for us would have been great.

Overall Rating: The bad messages are emphasized far more than the good ones, and sometimes directly oppose them. The things they fail to address are key to the topic as a whole. Because of this, I think the bad really outweighs the good here. D- 

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

  • Genre
    • Young Adult, Semi-Autobiographical
  • Plot Summary
    • Arnold Spirit Jr, the mildly disabled, perpetually bullied egghead of the Spokane Indian Reservation, gets fed up with the hopelessly outdated schools and transfers outside the Rez. He becomes an outsider both at his new school, where he’s the only Native American, and at home, where he’s seen as a traitor for leaving. The entire world seems out to get him, but it has made one serious miscalculation; he’s got a twisted sense of humor and absolutely nothing left to lose. 
  • Character Empathy
    • In some ways, this book is deeply empathetic. The first person narration immerses you deep within Jr’s point of view, and also invests time in unveiling the hidden reasons why those around him do what they do. In other ways, it’s faithful to the periodic other-person-blindness that infects all teenagers. Jr has enough to deal with; he doesn’t need to deeply empathize with every jerk who picks on him.
    • What makes this mixture work, though, is that the it’s not as simple as Jr empathizing with everyone who is nice to him and hating everyone who is mean to him. Sometimes that’s the case, but other times he understands why somebody is being mean to him. Sometimes he takes for granted somebody who is kind to him. As his relationships evolve, so does his level of empathy with the people around him. 
    • Nobody is simple. Even as cultural differences between reservation Native Americans and small town white people are discussed, no individual’s actions can be boiled down to “they’re an X so they do Y.” Some characters start out enemies and become friends, or start out friends and become enemies, and sometimes they go back again. Everybody is made of conflicting pieces. Everyone is a human being.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Jr. isn’t depressed so much as he has rocketed straight past depressed into “all out of fucks, bring this shit on.” That gives this book a tone not quite like anything else I’ve read. It’s raw and real, but at the same time, it constantly laughs at itself, and from that laughter comes strength, and from that strength comes Jr’s ability to take on the next challenge. He never really expects to win, and most of the time he’s right, but he is never willing to back down. It starts as cringe comedy but eventually becomes genuinely impressive. 
    • Also, there’s this recurring theme of deep profound thoughts interrupted by bad, bad teenage boy jokes, and I am a hundred percent there for it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • There’s a scene with a white schoolteacher on the Rez that, in so many other books, would turn out white saviory. But this book was written by an actual Native American, that wasn’t going to happen. The teacher has to earn his right to give good advice by first confessing all the racist shit he’s seen and been complicit in. In addition to being a truthful window into oppression and cultural genocide, it makes for a more compelling character in the teacher and a far more powerful scene overall. 
    • All the main characters are great, but I’ve got to mention this coach who I thought was going to be a macho asshole but instead he’s really empowering and sweet. He gives a speech about how crying just proves you care and caring gives you strength, so if you feel like crying, do it and don’t be ashamed. He says the same thing later about being nervous. I loved him so much.
    • There’s another scene where Jr and his friend talk about books and reading and the inspiring awesomeness of learning, but it also has boner jokes, which in my opinion elevates the scene from good to fucking required reading. If you think boner jokes are funny. 
    • The message here is real as shit. It’s not about working hard until your chance comes and then seizing that chance and then suddenly fame and fortune and the American Dream! Jr. doesn’t have a shot at an amazing prep school that will guarantee his admission to Harvard. He has a shot at a dinky rural high school where the books were printed sometime this decade. The point of this book is that, when you’ve got nothing left to lose, do something stupid and reckless and risky that makes you feel like you’ve got hope again. Doesn’t matter if it pays off or not. You die without hope, and it’s the shittiest kind of death; the kind where you go on living like a zombie for ages before you actually die. So hope, even if it might not work out. At least you’ll stay alive until you die for real.
    • The paper form comes with pictures of Jr’s cartoons and they’re hilarious. The audiobook is read by Sherman Alexie, who has a slightly nasal, awkward voice that works for Jr so well, I kept forgetting Jr wasn’t a real person. Both are perfect.
  • Content Warnings
    • Tons of bullying, alcoholism and a few deaths. 
    • Racist and ableist language, including some that is internalized by Jr. It’s an accurate look at how toxic attitudes around can seep into a person’s head, even if they know rationally that they are wrong. The book finds ways to show you Jr is an awesome kid, even when he’s calling himself names.
  • Quotes
    • “I grabbed my book and opened it up. I wanted to smell it. Heck, I wanted to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. That’s right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that’s kind of perverted or maybe it’s just romantic and highly intelligent.”
    • “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
    • “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”

Review: What Waits in the Woods, by Kieran Scott

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

what-waits-in-the-woods

What it’s about: Callie Velasquez goes on a camping trip with her boyfriend and two best friends. Things go terribly wrong.

Praise: This book is fairly predictable, but for about the first two-thirds, that was part of its charm. It was like a campfire story. There’s a weird comfort to the mundane familiarity of its chill. It knew what kind of a story it was, and it embraced it.

Criticism: Yeah, we got here fast. There was almost a lot more in the praise section. I nearly said it had great characters, a good build of suspense, and above all that it valued the friendships of the three female characters over teen boyfriend drama. This was just going to be a bit about how the prose isn’t anything special and it’s highly formulaic, but if you like that kind of thing it’s still worthwhile.

Then the last few chapters ruined everything.

With one reveal, it ruined the best character, punctured the suspense and loudly announced, “nevermind, boyfriends are the most important things EV-AR!” Plus it served up a steaming pile of ableism; the sort that goes, “mental health problems, evil, basically the same thing amirite?” It’s not subtle about that either. Several pages in a row just hammer home that this character would be fine and nice but they went off their meds so insta-evil. Then there’s this awkward sentence where the main character informs us that she’s had friends who have anxiety and depression, but clearly this isn’t that sort of mental illness. It’s the other mental illness. The one where you randomly turn evil.

Also, the shocking reveal wasn’t that shocking. See, there was only one character I wasn’t given reason to suspect. Never do that, guys. Seriously, never do that. You want three suspicion-free characters, minimum. If you just have one, every genre savvy reader is going to go, “huh, I wonder when that totally innocent character will crack and reveal they were behind it all.”

Honestly, I was hoping this story would let the mysterious stranger be the scary one. It should always be the one you don’t suspect, and the last person I would have suspected was the guy who was suspicious all along.

Recommended? Sigh. Not really.

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

LGBT or Gender Dysphoria; the DSM Controversy

I have noticed a pattern in my own blogging; I don’t tend to jump on issues that are currently major controversies. Striking while the iron is hot is hard for me to do when everyone else is trying to hammer away at the same lump. I don’t like the chaos of a lot of other voices, and I’m wary of the way my own prejudices towards or against the people arguing might obscure my ability to make up my own mind. One of my greatest fears is falling into the trap of believing what I believe because it conforms to the beliefs of people I like. I would rather wait until the iron has cooled, after the other smiths have wandered away, and examine what remains. If I think there’s some work left to be done, then I’ll reheat the iron myself and see if I can hammer out something in peace. It might not be the right thing, but at least I feel like I have space to think while I’m working.

Now that I have entirely exhausted that metaphor, let me resurrect a controversy from a year ago; the DSM’s continuing classification of transsexuality as a medical disorder in the DSM-5, albeit with the new name Gender Dysphoria and a new description of the diagnosis. This article by the Huffington Post covers it well, but in brief, the new diagnosis is almost universally regarded as an improvement, but the mere presence of transsexuality in a medical text is resented. At this time nobody is fighting too hard to entirely remove it, because without it trans people could not get insurance coverage, leaving transition out of the reach of the majority of trans people. Still, it is tolerated with a good deal of grumbling.

The association of being trans and being disordered goes back to the days when homosexuality was also considered a mental illness. Being transgender was considered an extension of homosexuality; the misconception that there is no difference between an extremely effeminate gay man or extremely butch lesbian still exists. It naturally follows, then that once the L, G, and B were no longer considered medical issues, the T should also cease to be a diagnosable condition.

Or does it? For one thing, as I just argued, the whole association between being gay and being trans was flawed to begin with. I identify as a man, but I am also attracted to men. My place in that acronym as a G is independent of my place as a T. Therefore, just because homosexuality is no longer a medical condition, that does not necessarily mean gender dysphoria needs to be removed from the DSM. Furthermore, there is a reason that homosexuality has been removed from the DSM while transsexuality hasn’t. Gay and bisexual people don’t need any therapy to live a productive, fulfilling life. They just need social acceptance. If society fully accepted trans people, if I no longer felt that I needed medical assistance to pass as male to protect myself in bathrooms and on the streets, would I still want hormones and surgery? Yes. Even concealed by binders, my chest bothers me. Surgery will heal me of that. Having taken testosterone makes me feel good when I look in a mirror. I used to feel dissociated from the person I saw. Now I actually see myself. Quite apart from any social issues, having a body that misaligned with my feelings about my identity caused me daily stress. Having a body that feels more like mine gives me daily relief. Medicine objectively helped me.

Now, I can think of three different problems with considering trans people disabled. First, many trans people love their bodies, love their place in the queer community, and don’t want to be pathologized. Second, having a disability is highly stigmatized, and trans people have enough irrational prejudices to deal with without adding ableism to the mix. Third, there’s a fear that consenting to be labelled with a diagnosis will ultimately take power away from trans people to determine their own medication. Not every surgery or hormone is the best choice for every trans person, and worse, there’s the fear that someday, someone might invent a drug to stop trans people from being trans, a pill that would make every trans person’s mental gender align with the gender they were assigned based on their biology. These are all legitimate issues, but I have come to believe they are not sufficient to justify a crusade to remove transsexuality from the DSM.

The first is a case of personal identification. Many trans people don’t feel remotely disabled. Some don’t even desire any medical alteration, either because they identify outside of the gender binary entirely, or because, for whatever reason, they feel male or female enough without the intervention of hormones or surgeries. That is completely fine. If I have learned anything from the social justice community, it’s that there is no battle more doomed to failure than the fight to make people identify as something that that doesn’t feel right to them, just because the identity they currently have is inconvenient for your particular social mission. It’s also a cruel battle. I want a world where everybody respects everybody’s identity, provided that identity is not motivating them to violate somebody else’s safety or consent (I only bring this up in anticipation of an asshole who says, “what if somebody identifies as a serial killer or a rapist?” Go fuck yourself, hypothetical troll).

My argument against the first issue is not that trans people as individuals can’t have legitimate reasons for feeling they don’t belong into the category “disabled.” My argument is that in the world of disability activism, there is precedent for that. Much of my experience with disability comes from studying ASL for four years to work as an interpreter. This education focused on the culture as well as the language, and I had many d/Deaf friends, and even dated a deaf guy for a little while. The whole reason for that funny lowercase/uppercase split I did is that some people consider themselves disabled (like the guy I dated, who was lowercase deaf), and some people consider themselves part of a linguistic minority (and capitalize Deaf to show their pride in their identification). For those who live in predominately signing communities, the objective reality is that their experience is more like that of a linguistic minority than that of a disabled person. I don’t see why the trans community can’t accommodate the same sort of variable identification. For some individuals, “has gender dysphoria” describes how they feel about their bodies and their place in society; they are men or women who had to overcome a physical problem to live the lives they needed to. For others, an identification as queer works best, and many combine both.

The second one has a pragmatic logic, but on a moral level it bothers me. The argument is ultimately is at best accommodating ableism, and at worst actively ableist. Look at this quote I found on Yahoo answers, by someone who was delivering a Trans 101 that was otherwise very balanced and well informed;

“However, many (most?) folks who qualify for this diagnosis [Gender Identity Disorder] dislike the term. That is because being born transsexual or being transgender is NOT a disorder, they are natural variants. However, because of the stigma applied in the past it was labelled as such. Modern research over the last 25 years has more or less proven that people are in fact born this way.”

She is saying that trans people are unlike disabled people because they are natural and born that way. Well, many if not most disabled people are born that way, and in what objective sense are they unnatural? Disabilities often arise from genetic inheritance or mutations, which are entirely natural processes. And, once again, we are not different in the sense that we don’t sometimes need medical intervention to live our lives. She isn’t using natural in any objective sense, but in the same sense that a cultivated rose is “natural” but a two-headed snake is “unnatural.” She’s really just saying that being transgender is good and nice and fine but being disabled is bad and yucky. I’m not okay with that.

The third issue is actually one where disabled and transgendered people are actually natural allies. Whether it’s cochlear implants for d/Deafness or Ritalin for ADHD or SSRIs or prosthetics vs wheelchairs, disabled people are constantly faced with the issue of people believing that a particular cure is either something every person with condition X must have, or that it’s something unnatural and if you take it you are betraying the great movement of condition X positivity. The reality, for practically every cure that does not actually prevent premature death, is that there are pros and cons, side effects and new opportunities, and what is a good choice for one person may be a poor choice for another with the same condition. In nearly every disability 101 I have encountered, a key issue has been the right to self-determine treatment based on your individual needs. The sentiment that certain cures would take something away from who you are as a person is not uncommon. Deaf people, people with autism, some artists with manageable mood disorders are just a few examples, and again for every example there is someone else who would give anything to have been born without their disability. Similarly, some trans people would jump at the chance to be cis, while others, like myself, feel like being trans is part of who they are, and that losing it wouldn’t be an improvement, just changing who they are to make other people comfortable.

This is a massive article because I am trying to condense so many complex issues into one piece. As it is I feel I will need follow-ups and clarifications, and on that note if you have some objection to what I have said please leave a comment, so I can clarify or educate myself as needed. Ultimately, my point is this; the aim of trans activism is to convince people to accept our rights to self-determine our identities and our bodies, without scorn or alienation from people who find us distasteful for bigoted reasons that have nothing to do with our own well-being. This is a primary goal of many disabled activists as well; for non-life threatening conditions that have treatment options, this is often the primary goal. So rather than alienate ourselves from them, why not ally ourselves with them?

Hi, I’m Lane William Brown. I have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I  am really okay with that.

Why None of the New Spider-Man Villains are Working

I’ve written twice so far about the problematic villains of the new Spider-Man franchise. I wrote about the disturbing side of Dr. Connors’ motivations and viewpoint, and my own alternate interpretation of Max Dillon’s whole character. So I suppose this is the conclusion to an impromptu trilogy on why these villains aren’t working.

There’s a pattern to the way the villains of this new series have been written. First, the character is given a medical condition. Dr. Connors was missing an arm, Max had some sort of mental problem, and Harry has retroviral hyperplasia. The disability provides the one and only motivation the character will have for the entire movie. Dr. Connors sought physical perfection, Max is lonely and obsessed with Spider-Man and Harry was looking for a cure. None of them come across as bad people when you first meet them, but the disabilities have laid the groundwork for their villainy. Then they get hit with Applied Phlebotinum and are transformed into monsters, both mentally and physically. Their initial, disability inspired motivation will still inform what they do, but they will never again be anything but scenery chewing villains.

I want to talk more about the writerly issues with this than the political issues, but please understand that’s not because I’m not bothered by the implications. One disabled villain might or might not have bothered me, depending on how well that character was written and whether there were any other disabled characters. Three in a row is a problem, especially when all of them are, one way or another, motivated towards evil by their disability. The reason I’m not talking about that is because many others have talked about the need to be cautious when portraying minorities, particularly when that minority is stigmatized and the character can potentially reinforce the stigma. I think it’s a worthwhile issue to talk about, and the only reason I’m not saying anything about that right now is because I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. But don’t mistake that for my thinking that the biggest problem here is that they weren’t artistically satisfying. It’s only that this is the problem that I have something at least somewhat new to say about.

From a writer’s perspective, giving a villain a disability is not in and of itself bad writing. Erik from Phantom of the Opera is a villain with a medical condition. He’s disfigured. Because he lives in the era of superstition and circus sideshows, and not the era of plastic surgery, he has been caged, beaten, put on display like an object, and finally hidden away from all society by the one person who took a moment to see the world from his point of view.  Everybody who likes the play loves Erik. He’s the one who brings the audience to their feet at curtain call, because he’s interesting. He terrifies the audience, but also evokes their sympathy. He’s a tragic, poetic figure. And frankly, I don’t think many people come away from Phantom of the Opera thinking, “damn, better stay away from those disabled people, because they are creepy.” They come away thinking about how horribly and unfairly Erik the person has been treated.

Compare Erik to any of the Spider-Man villains. The story takes to the time to let us get to know Erik. We see where he lives, we see flashbacks to his childhood, and we hear how people talk about him. We also know things about him that have nothing to do with his disability, like the fact that he loves theater and has excellent taste, and is highly intelligent, all of which play into his role in the story. He shows us anger, jealousy, sorrow, depression, hope, love, lust and even tenderness. I don’t know much about Dr. Connors as a person. I just know he is missing an arm and feels rather bummed about that. I’ve imagined a lot about who Max Dillon might be, but really as he’s portrayed in the movie he’s just a nutcase with a Spidey fetish and some skill with electronics. Harry Osborn gets more characterization, but ultimately it doesn’t come to much. His early bantering with Peter tells us a bit about his life, but nothing established there is really used later on. His vengeful attitude towards Spider-Man is not foreshadowed; he is not shown to be a vengeful character until he is suddenly required by the plot to be so. Furthermore, he becomes determined to discover a cure immediately for a disease that apparently took decades to kill his father, and I don’t recall seeing any indication that it’s likely to kill him any faster. It’s illogical and broke my suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to a rather strange problem. Not only do we not learn much about any of these characters besides that they are disabled, but we don’t even know much about that. We see specific examples of how Erik’s disfigurement affects his life, and the mask he wears is a nice, iconic detail that fits in with the rest of his character. He’s inventive and artistic, so he found a way to make a mask that covers exactly what he wanted to hide. It always bothered me that someone as troubled by his lack of an arm as Dr. Connors, and with as much access to state of the art technology, he never bothered to get a prosthetic. Add it to the fact that we never see him use any other sort of assistive device, we never see him harassed for his condition, we never see the handy technique he developed for opening doors when he’s got an armful of paperwork, it looks like the writers didn’t think it was important to research or develop the one trait that defined their character.

This pattern continues for the other two villains. My personal headcanon aside, I have no idea what Max Dillon has. I don’t think you could make schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis fit him without at least as much imagination and reinterpretation as my autism diagnosis did. It seems they just gave him stereotypical “crazy person” traits and called it a day. Instead of being put into his head, so we can understand what he is doing and why, we are pushed out it with a hand wave of “yeah, sure, whatever. He’s insane. What more could you possibly want to know?” With Harry, we finally get a name for his condition, and it’s real. I looked it up. His lethal condition only occurs in walleye pike. Also it’s not lethal. I suspect they strung together a bunch of medical sounding syllables and then nobody bothered to do a Google search.

The point is, these villains have barely even been written. Villains are not bit parts. The second most important character, after the protagonist, is not the love interest or best friend or wise old mentor, it’s the villain. Without the villain, there would be no obstacle and thus no story. A villain can even get away with being more engaging than the protagonist, and not infrequently they are. When the villains are poorly constructed, they drag the whole story along with them. The hero’s struggle won’t be as engaging if it’s against somebody the audience cares little about. The conflict becomes at worst unconvincing and at best unoriginal and boring.

The writers of the new Spider-Man series are not bad writers. Peter and Gwen are both excellent characters. Many of the scenes, subplots and side characters in both films were great. So why, why why why, did these writers say, “our villain has a disability; our work here is done”? Why did they not research what they were getting into, think about life from a disabled person’s point of view, or give some thought as to who these characters were as people, aside from any medical condition?

Why did they not write characters?

Why Max Dillon Worked… For Me

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had the textbook example of a mixed response. The music was unpopular, as was the way they blended the dark, realistic tone of Nolan’s Batman with the more cartoonish style of the Avengers franchise. There were numerous subplots that some people felt were too convoluted, and just like in the first movie, a lot of people disliked the villain. I personally liked the movie, though. The music didn’t bother me, I liked all the subplots and I felt the tone was just right; bittersweet with some funny moments. I even liked the villain, but then I’m partial to autistic characters.

Granted, they never said he was autistic, but he fits both of the diagnostic criteria, according to the current DSM, for autism. First, he exhibits the classic narrow focus of interests, with a passion for systemizing. His walls are covered with Spidey paraphernalia, while his knowledge of electronic systems is so deep that when his apartment has a blackout he can immediately identify which circuit has the problem. Second, his social skills are seriously impaired, in a way that is consistent with autism. Despite clearly desiring companionship, he shows a mind-blindness that stops him from interacting with people in a natural way. This is what really says autism to me. Autism is essentially a dyslexia for social skills. Autistic people need to work much harder than the rest of us to pick up on the rules of social behavior, not because they are shy or mean or narcissistic or careless, but simply because they’re wired a little differently.

There’s a scene early on that demonstrates this mind-blindness. He’s in an elevator at Oscorp and holds the door open for Gwen. They start chatting, and while he is nothing but friendly, as the scene goes on his oddness comes out. He starts out talking appropriately about his birthday, but ends up giving her an uncomfortable amount of information about his make-believe party, and ends up explaining that he would invite her, but the guest list is closed. He might be making up the excuse because he’s afraid she’ll discover he’s lying, but I like to think he’s also a little concerned that Gwen will feel left out. He’s cognizant of those issues, but missing the big, obvious fact that as someone who met him three seconds ago in an elevator won’t expect to be invited to his party, and would actually feel quite awkward if he did invite her. That sort of reasoning is autism in a nutshell. It was so familiar to me, so reminiscent of my kids, it made me smile.

I think many viewers misread him as being in some way psychotic. He’s certainly overestimating the extent of his relationship with Spidey, in a way that seems delusional. Before he becomes Electro, he calls in to a radio station and says, “he saved my life once and we sorta became best friends.” While he’s in his apartment on his birthday, he rambles on about how Spider-Man is totally coming to his birthday party and baked a cake for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people assumed he was hallucinating in that scene.

I interpret those scenes very differently. Max is at least in his mid forties, meaning he grew up in the seventies, when the identification of autism was far less common, particularly for verbal children. Odds are he was never diagnosed. To teachers and peers, coworkers and maybe even family, he has been seen as a creepy, weird guy, not a well-meaning guy with a disability that made it hard for him to pick up social skills. If someone had intervened and tried to teach him the skills he was missing, he might have friends today, but instead he has grown up completely isolated because he doesn’t know how to turn off that creepy vibe. As a result, Max doesn’t know how to correctly categorize different kinds of niceness. We see this in the elevator with Gwen; he doesn’t know the difference between “I like you enough to chat” and “I like you enough that my feelings will be hurt if you don’t invite me to my parties.” His social skills are low enough that he doesn’t know the difference between “friend” and “acquaintance.” So when a guy in red spandex saves his life, he assumes they are good friends, partly because he doesn’t have the experience to read a relationship accurately, and partly because he is so desperate for it to be true.

As for the one-sided dialog he has in his apartment, he’s not actually delusional there. He knows Spider-Man isn’t here and didn’t make a cake. He’s doing this thing that every lonely person does. It’s called “fantasizing.” To support this, I’d like to point out that there is no other scene where he talks or otherwise reacts to things that aren’t there. He misinterprets situations, yes, but again those misinterpretations tend to come down to misunderstanding another person’s intentions or state of mind, consistent with autism.

Once he gains his powers, he is frightening and legitimately dangerous, but up until the end, there’s a noteworthy lack of bad intentions to his actions. His first fight scene is caused by a massive misunderstanding. He never says a word about world domination or wealth and power or any of the other classic supervillain motivations. He’s just lonely and confused. When he is talking to Dr. Kafka at Ravencroft, he says he wants to turn out all the lights in the city, so people will know what it’s like to be him. Then, when Harry comes to him, the thing that convinces Max to help Harry is that Harry says “I need him.” I love the look on his face when he hears those words. He is so bright, so hopeful, still a little afraid and hesitant to trust but so beguiled by the idea that somebody values him that he can’t resist. Max feels discarded and unloved because he has been discarded and unloved, and he is hurting. Like everybody else, he has a breaking point, and when he hits it he lashes out.

Now, I’m being a little deliberately obtuse here. I’m pretending to argue that he’s a great, complex, understandable character, but what I really mean is that if you make the same assumptions I do, he’s at the very least interesting. I don’t believe for a moment that the writers intended for me to watch him and think “autism.” Even if they did, I’m not understanding his autism based on how he was portrayed, but based on the experiences and training I’ve had for my job. Oh, and then there’s this whole other can of worms, which is the point that for the second time their villain has been disabled, and if you count Harry’s medical condition we have three disabled villains and zero non-villainous disabled characters in two movies, which is troubling. Just because I watched the movie with a subjective interpretation that worked for me doesn’t mean they actually wrote this well. I’m actually writing this because I think in order to understand how massively they fumbled this character, you need to see Max the way I see him.

On other words, fair readers, this is the calm before the ranty, ranty storm. Stay tuned…

Why Dr. Connors Failed as a Character

Disclaimer; I do not have a physical disability. What I wrote below was based on experience working with various disabled communities (ASL interpretation and special education), relationships with people who have disabilities (such as my father and ex-boyfriend) and reading the writings of people about their experiences with disability. Take with appropriate quantities of salt.

After my second viewing of The Amazing Spider-man, I decided its main problem was the weakness of its villain. This is not an uncommon opinion. Even those who liked it thought he needed work. However, there is no consensus on what is wrong with him. Theories range from superficial special effects problems to deep rooted character problems. He’s struck a wrong note with almost everyone who watched, but most people can’t explain exactly what that wrong note was. For my part, what stood out was the moment where Dr. Connors went from a disabled scientist who just wanted a cure to a lizard monster intent on turning everyone else into lizard monsters. It was, shall we say, less than coherent. It felt less like a tragic fall of a good man, and more like two characters from different stories superglued together, possibly by a four year old.

The most simple explanation is that the serum he took altered his mind and turned him evil. I believe some events in the sequel support this, although I’d have to watch it again to be sure. In any case, this disturbs me, because from a storytelling perspective it strips the character of all autonomy and reduces him to a diabolus ex machina, while from an activist’s perspective it seems to be equating mental illness with evil. The serum makes you crazy, therefore the serum makes you evil. I think the story also leaves room for a secondary interpretation; the serum doesn’t make you crazy or evil. It makes you impulsive, obsessive and potentially aggressive, but how that manifests depends on who you are as a person. I think it is more than fair to judge the story on that assumption; it’s plausible, it  paints the story in a better light than either of the other options I’ve considered, and frankly if there’s a third conclusion I’m missing I think the writers should exposited it more clearly.

My assumption takes us back to the original problem. First Dr. Connors is nice and humanitarian, and then he is suddenly bent on inflicting every human in New York City with a terrifying transformation, just because he has arbitrarily decided we are better off with the body he likes. What on earth was there in his character to foreshadow this shift?

Well, quite a lot actually. The first words he speaks are “I am not a cripple, I’m a scientist.” To many people, that probably sounded like a powerful, confident statement, but if you look under the surface, it’s actually self-devaluing and fairly creepy, because it’s inaccurate. He is both. He is missing one arm, and he’s also a brilliant, successful scientist; clearly the two are not incompatible. I’ve never heard a famous, successful person with a disability talk about themselves that way. Can you imagine Marlee Matlin saying, “I’m not deaf, I’m an actress,” or Peter Dinklage or David Beckham talking like that about their conditions? You could argue that Dr. Connors doesn’t mean he’s not disabled, he’s only rejecting a label that stigmatizes his medical condition. I don’t buy it. Everything else he says suggests he has a mentality where a disability is not a medical condition that makes one or more aspects of life difficult, but a stain on a person’s value as a person. One of his catchphrases is “everyone is equal,” but he never says it in a way that implies he thinks that is already the case. It’s always in conjunction with dreaming about a world where every ailment is cured, “a world without weakness,” and the outcome of that better world is that “everyone is equal.” As if they aren’t already. As if Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman’s relative value to the world can be judged based on which of them uses a wheelchair. He never actually says disability, which is a frank but clinical and neutral word, and instead favors actively stigmatizing language like “crippled,” “weakness,” and “deformity.” By rejecting his disability so adamantly he is actually suggesting that his real feelings are the reverse. He feels that his disability takes something away from who he is as a scientist, and that he has to push away the one in order to get full credit for the other.

This is not an abstract problem, but a real life, dangerous perception that people with disabilities have to deal with all the time. They are constantly judged, not for what they can do but for what they can’t, not as a gestalt of their goals and fears and strengths and flaws and actions and thoughts and personality, but simply for the sum of their parts. People in wheelchairs are talked to like they are children, even if they are mentally average or above average. Family members try to avoid diagnosing or even discussing a condition because they let fear of the stigma of disability outweigh the need to cope with and overcome it. It is called ableism, and it compounds the difficulties of the lives of people with disabilities every day.

So Dr. Connors, as he is portrayed, comes across as a self-hating ableist. This stretches plausibility a bit, but it’s a potentially interesting characterization, and it lends some coherence to his actions. All along, he was someone who judges human beings and their worth based on their physical ability. Naturally, when exposed to a serum that made him feel physically superior to humanity, he decides the whole human race must partake of it, with no acknowledgement of the rights they have to make decisions about their own bodies. A dehumanizing view of people with disabilities lead to a dehumanizing view of all non-lizard people. However, I don’t think that’s the point we are supposed to get. I think this for two reasons. One is that this movie is not subtle about good guy/bad guy lighting or cuing the villains with scary chords. Dr. Connors is always given good guy music and good guy lighting, until he becomes the Lizard. The second is that nobody ever dissects or challenges his view of disability. They just nod sagely and compassionately.  We aren’t supposed to think there’s something wrong with his attitude towards disability.

So we are back to the same old problem. He’s portrayed as a nice guy who suddenly turns evil for no reason, and there’s an added problem of his holding deeply prejudiced views that are never challenged in-story. This leads into another strange thing I noticed about his portrayal. Pre-transformation, two things are missing; scenes where he doesn’t talk about his disability, and scenes where his disability is shown to impact his life in any negative way. The first is a problem because we never learn about anything beyond “disabled scientist”, the second is a problem because we never learn anything about what his disability is like for him. We can safely assume that it impacts his life, but we never understand how his life with his disability is uniquely his. I assure you, we can’t pretend to begin to know what his life is like just from knowing what his condition is. My Dad’s experience with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was not like that of the teacher I worked with or my classmate in ASL class. My ex-boyfriend’s deafness was not like my favorite teacher’s Deafness. Tommie’s autism is fairly classic autism, and it’s still not like the autism of any other kid I have worked with. So how am I supposed to understand why Dr. Connors is so preoccupied with his disability if I never see who accepts him and who rejects him, how he copes and in which areas of his life he fails to cope?

In short, Dr. Connors can’t escape being judged as clumsily written, no matter how close you look for inner depth and motivations, and close examination not only fails to turn him into a coherent character, but reveals some indications that his writers probably are more than a little ableist themselves. If they can write him with such a dehumanizing mentality without ever suggesting he’s wrong, maybe it’s because they actually think he’s right. If they make him behave as if the disability is the only important aspect of his life, and then tell us nothing else about that life, it suggests that they tend to assume the only important thing about a disabled person’s life is that they are disabled. What’s interesting to me is that this characterization didn’t just strike a wrong note with me, the person who has received a pretty good education of what disability is and what ableism looks like. In the many reviews I’ve read, nobody liked him. Some hated him, some just thought he was bland, but to everyone he felt off. Ableist mentalities bred a terrible character, and anybody could recognize it.

There are many people trying to pressure Hollywood to do a better job representing women and minorities, to counter stereotypes and increase public understanding and empathy and all that. The main tool used to convince them is the stick. The activists say, “if you write in an ableist, sexist, racist, classist or otherwise prejudiced way, we won’t like you very much. We will think angry thoughts and write stern letters and maybe not even go see your movie.” The whole issue is treated as a tug of war between the pressure to remain politically correct and the desire to write without that pressure. What I think a lot of people on both sides of the tug of war don’t realize is that there’s a carrot here, as well as a stick. Well written characters are entertaining. They do a great job selling a movie. Who is better written, Dr. Connors or Professor X.? Who brings people to the theaters? Who do you think activists like more? There’s a reason the answer to all three is Professor X, and that is that he is a human being, with hopes and flaws and strengths and struggles and a personality. Social justice, at its best, is ultimately about seeing people as people; not as members of homogenous groups or stereotypes or as if one trait can define their whole life, but as people. Good writing is no different.