Thursday, August 14, 2008

Use of the word retard in my short story, Mr.Twiddle

The repeated use of the word 'retard' in the recently released movie, Tropic Thunder, has created a figurative hornet's nest amongst the developmentally disabled community. Autistics in the neurodiversity groups and the parents in the pro-cure camp with whom they are usually at loggerheads with have found a common cause celebre'. Some have gone so far as saying that the word retard, should not be used in art in any context. Certain persons have called for having the scenes from the movie cut that use this foul slur. One person has even gone so far to say that Ben Stiller should donate money to the special Olympics as compensation.

Even the infamous John Best has entered the fray. Instead of referring to those he disagrees with as neuronitwits or neuroinsane, he has now started to call them retards. He seems to think he has found a more effective way of baiting those he has so much contempt for.

Because of all of this, I have a rather shocking confession to make to all of the readers of autism's gadfly. 14-1/2 years ago I wrote a short story entitled "Mr. Twiddle". This story uses the word 'retard' multiple times. Also the expression RETARDS 'R' US in red bold faced letters was also used in the story. The story is on my jonathans stories website: for the interested reader. The story deals with the problems of a high functioning autistic boy and whether or not he can be mainstreamed in regular school, I won't go into the rest of the story as some reader of autism's gadfly may actually give a shit and want to read it and I would not want to ruin it for them. The point is, my use of the word retard was done as an art form to show how nasty and cruel typical children can be to those with developmental disabilities. I realize the situation with Tropic Thunder is different and the word retard is not used with this type of literary device in mind, though I don't think Ben Stiller was trying to defame the developmentally disabled in any way. However, some of these people feel the word retard should not be used in any context. I beg to differ. I believe that sometimes literary devices like this are necessary to prove a point. If I had used the expression, 'geek' or even 'autistic geek' for example it would not have been as powerful a device in the story.

A number of persons have read it and though a few did not seem to care for the story. I did get some positive reactions from a number of people. No one has yet objected to my use of the R word in the story. One of those readers of Mr. Twiddle was from someone in the neurodiversity movement calling (I think herself) Ventura who has a fiction web page. She emailed me and wrote me that she liked my story very much and wanted to publish it on her page even though she realized I had a low opinion of the neurodiversity movement. I said that sure I would be happy to have her publish it if she wanted, I am willing to have a civil relationship with persons in the neurodiversity movement and others even though we may disagree on some things. So this is another shocking confession I have to make, I agreed to have someone from the neurodiversity movement publish a story on their web page. She did not seem to mind that I used the expression retard in the story. I would think if this were offensive, she of all people would have objected. A few others have emailed me telling me they enjoyed the story. These were people on the spectrum, some of whom I think at the very least had a neurodiversity leaning. So one has to wonder why if using retard in any context should be verbotten then why were they not offended.

I submitted the story to about 9 or 10 magazines and every single one of them rejected the story. However, I did get some positive reactions from a couple of the rejectors. I sent the story to one publication, Glimmer Train Stories, which is considered pretty top tier in the short fiction publication world. The editor wrote on the rejection slip, "quite a moving piece, enjoyed it thank you". The Michigan Quarterly Review was having a special issue devoted to disabilities. I suspect these people would not have wanted a story that defamed disabled people in any way or would not have made any positive comments. Though they also took a pass on the story, they said that the way that I presented the cultural attitudes towards the autistic were compelling but in my writing I should pay attention to characterization of my characters as well as how a story unfolds from beginning to end.

All of these things compel me to believe that there are at the very least exceptions to the rule where certain words can be used in a certain context as part of an art form. The use of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn and the fact that this book is used with great frequency in high school and college literature classes in spite of the N word is one example. The novel The Catcher in the Rye uses flit as a pejorative term for a homosexual, but apparently gay rights groups are not trying to remove this classic from the bookshelves at Borders' and Barnes and Noble.

Do I have apologies, regrets for using the R word in my writings. Definitely not, certainly not in the context that it was presented in. If anything I was trying to show how demeaning society can be to challenged children. I might even do it again sometime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that children and teenagers can often be exceptionally cruel to those they think of as different. I was stuck in the awkward situation of being too academically high functioning for special schools and yet too emotionally and socially immature and different to cope well in mainstream. In secondary school I spent every breaktime, every lunchtime sat at my desk, staring into space, unable to eat in the school hall (which led to detentions because I couldn't explain why I couldn't cope with eating in the hall, so would eat in the classroom which was forbidden). I was unable to answer or show I was upset, apart from literally twice, when for a large part of those five years I was called thick, stupid, a cretin, a moron, from people who presumed that me not answering something (I'm verbal but have a lot of difficulty initiating talking and often replying to people) meant I didn't understand. I was extremely isolated socially, not once did I phone up - or have someone phone me up for a chat, or went into town with someone. My mum would make me go to a church youth group which would also see me sat on my own most of the time. I had no concept about approaching others to try and talk to them, if someone approached me to talk, on a one to one basis, I would be sometimes ok, providing they were just being friendly. Any attempts by boys to suggest they fancied me were met with me literally scowling and pushing away and storming off. As for approaching the boys themselves to try flirting or asking out, that was impossible for me. If my now DH had not approached me first, if he had not talked in a friendly way with no obvious ulterior motive about the lectures and history to begin with, then I would not have felt comfortable with him. In a way I was helped by the fact I had no concept about acting differently to try and attract a boyfriend, which meant that DH got to see the real me right from the start.
I reacted to the very nasty verbal bullying I went through at school by withdrawing into myself. Telling people what was wrong was something I could not do, if I could not say I needed new shoes or a new PE kit how could I say what I was feeling about what others were saying? My parents were unaware of the full scope of my social isolation, though they obviously had some idea and my mum justified her deliberate decision to deny to the doctors that there was owt different about me by thinking I was settled in the school and if I was dianosed with something I might be removed from the school. In the fifth year (now year 11), in the last term, a couple of the teachers admitted what was happening, but by then it was a bit late.
So what I'm trying to say, in a long winded fashion, was that if - like your story - I was to substitute softer sounding words then it would devalue the very negative experiences I went through. The word "retard" can be used as a horrible term of abuse, but it does depend on the context in which it's used as to whether the author of it should be condemned.