I wrote two pieces for Los Angeles Review of Books this year, one on sexual ableism and the Anna Stubblefield case, the other on Michel Bérubé's recent book on narrative deployments of developmental disability in literature.
The latter was sheer joy to write. Bérubé's was engaging to read, providing me (a non-literature specialist) with a welcome pathway into diverse works, academic debates, and all delivered with his typical panache. I was able to write in a combination of journalist and academic voice that I rarely reach, and I confess myself satisfied with the results.
Professor Bérubé appears as a kind of character in The Secret Life of Stories, revealing that the index provides meta-textual commentary enlivening a text with which students otherwise find difficult to connect. Pale Fire, he explains, “deploys intellectual disability as an invitation to the kind of hyperattentiveness […] to every personal and textual encounter.” If you don’t pay attention, the narrative professor warns his students, you might miss something. In the same section, naturally, Bérubé breaks to give us a little anecdote about the seminar in which he met his wife, then adds a footnote, revealing he’s lied to us in the main-text, warping the truth to make a better story. Like so many of the self-aware characters he discusses, Michael Bérubé is an untrustworthy narrator.It also gets serious about our lives as academics and fathers of sons with Down syndrome.
In the state of Texas, Bérubé reminds us, a disabled individual can be sentenced to death if their “mental capacity […] exceeds Lennie’s.” Suddenly, how we interpret literary representations of intellectual disability becomes a literal matter of life and death. Bérubé writes, “the interpretive stakes are always high when the subject is intellectual disability, because the stakes are ultimately about who is and who is not determined to be ‘fully human,’ and what is to be done with those who (purportedly) fail to meet the prevailing performance criteria.” I can’t prove that Bérubé was thinking about his son when he wrote that sentence; I can only tell you that as I read, I was thinking about mine.I like the ending a lot, too, for pure emotional writing. It makes me a little teary to read, but you'll have to click over to see it (did I do the clickbait right?).
Sexual Ableism, in contrast, was one of the most difficult things I've ever written. I sat with the story for four months, talking to experts, listening to debates, reading the many long pieces that came out trying to parse truth from fictions. The case of Anna Stubblefield raised an intense cascade of issues around disability, communication, competence, sex, race, gender, class, and more. It involves an older, white, female, disability studies professor accused, and then convicted, of raping a non-verbal, younger, black man with cerebral palsy. Stubblefield maintained the relationship was consensual. The family of the victim (DJ) maintained that he could not communicate at all, so could not consent.
A lot of the writing on the case tried, perhaps reasonably, to ascertain what happened. My early drafts tried to talk about the "what happened" too, then I gave up and instead wrote about stories and possibilities. There are multiple possible stories that could be true, but I was struck by the way that the trial only presented one. The judge refused to allow the possibility that DJ might be a competent, sexual, man. I don't know the truth, but I know that the shutting down of the multiple possibilities has broad consequences. I wrote:
Understanding the Stubblefield case requires simultaneously holding two possible mutually exclusive stories in our minds: both terrible. In the first, Stubblefield used FC to help D.J. communicate with the world for the first time in his life. He and she became close. She helped him enter school and collaborated on an academic publication. Then they became lovers. When they told his family, though, they accused her of sexual assault and took away D.J.’s communication device. In the second, D.J. was never able to communicate, and Stubblefield unknowingly manipulated his communications, deluded herself into believing they were in love, and raped him. In the first, she is going to jail and he is trapped without the power to communicate. In the second, she abused a defenseless individual.
For the judge, only the second story was possible...The refusal to consider even the possibility that D.J. might be a person, able to move, to communicate, to desire, to consent, solidified the single story of the worst-case scenario. The jury accepted this narrative, grafting their own ideas about the undesirability of disability onto D.J.’s body. Reporter Bill Wichert interviewed a juror who “couldn’t understand” the relationship between Stubblefield and D.J. once she saw D.J. in court. “I was like … ‘You’re going to leave your husband and your kids for someone like this?’”No answers, but if we don't at least consider the possibility of possibilities, people with disabilities becomes more dehumanized, not better protected.