Thursday evening two weeks ago, I had an upsetting experience with my writers’ group. No one said anything deliberately hurtful, and there was no horrible argument. The members are generous in spirit and with their constructive comments. Knowing I was the only one who felt uncomfortable, I didn’t make my feelings known. But it was a reminder that a single fact sometimes separates me from other people.
We’ve all had moments when we’ve felt isolated and incapable of fully belonging, but for most people it is rare and relatively easy to move on from. It could be a lifelong New Jersey resident visiting Mississippi, or a Mississippian visiting New Jersey. It could be a fifty-year-old finding herself in the middle of a party of twenty-year-olds. It could be a soldier returning from war to civilian life. It could be a politician surrounded by scientists, or vice-versa.
Often differences can make us proud, but sometimes they cause us to feel isolated and disoriented. It could be an Asian-American alone in a group of whites, or vice-versa, or a man alone in a group of women, or vice-versa. It could be a man in a wheelchair alone in a crowd of ambulatory people, or vice-versa.
For that Thursday’s writing group session, I’d submitted the opening 34 pages of a novel in which the first-person narrator is blind. Through this character, I present a disabled person moving through mainstream society. To make him credible, I have him notice things in ways people with vision don’t tend to think about: He “hears” a smile in someone’s voice and checks out restaurant silverware by touch. I wish I didn’t feel compelled to highlight such differences, but sighted readers invariably ask: How does he know? How can he tell?
Normally, after the other group members in the Zoom meeting have given me more than an hour’s thoughtful commentary, I’m exhilarated at the prospect of incorporating their suggestions and improving my submission. This time I was deflated.
Most of my critics that evening kept saying “you” when referring to my character, something they never did when commenting on other members’ fiction: “You say you are attracted to her voice, but you don’t say what about her voice attracted you. This personalization of the fictional character to me, his creator, was no mere confusion. One member said, and repeated in her subsequent written comments: “He sounds very like you, but you’re a much warmer person. I’m missing that warmth, that life.” I’m pleased that she thinks of me as warm, but sad to find myself her only point of reference for a blind character.
My posts to this blog that deal explicitly with disability rarely get a reaction. One subscriber says that they don’t interest him because they don’t relate to him. To a degree, I get it. A news item out of Fayetteville, Arkansas is less likely to win my attention than one out of New York City, where I live. A story about a black youth climbing out of poverty is sure to inspire many black readers, but perhaps fewer white readers. Why? Because the differentiating part of the experience isn’t about turning one’s life around; it’s about doing so while black. The more we connect to a piece of writing, the more we want to read it.
Still, why do we associate ourselves with this or that group? Why might an engineer seek the company of other engineers, or a college’s alumnus/alumna with alumni from the same school, or each of us to form friendships mostly with people our own age? The obvious answer is that we gravitate toward people with whom we have shared experiences.
But not always. Not all immigrants choose to associate with others from their home country, preferring instead to immerse themselves in the culture of their adopted country. Many disabled people make a similar choice: immersion in mainstream society instead of disability ghettoization.
I was the only blind student at my high school, as I was for most of my college years, and then the only blind employee for much of my office career. I made many friends during those years and felt good about leading a life in mainstream society.
Even so, when writing about my high school experience, a time when we spend hours examining our own and other people’s navels, I wrote the following paragraph on empathy:
Openness could be cathartic not only for the speaker, but also for listeners. Someone talking about how badly a date had gone might help listeners feel better about their own dates from hell. But sighted people were inhibited when it came to talking about blindness-related problems because the condition went beyond anything they could imagine. It couldn’t be shared, and so there was no catharsis; just pity and involuntary repulsion. It was too threatening. They had to push it away.
Black people have found ways to talk about their experiences and feelings in mainstream outlets, as other minority groups have done. Women may be a majority, but it is only in recent decades that their perspective has been put on an equal footing with that of men, a process that continues to evolve. Disabled people are a long way from a similar level of engagement.
You don’t win over an audience by demanding they give their attention, at least, not in a democracy. Those of us who write or otherwise communicate to society’s mainstream from a minority point of view, whatever the nature of that minority, must earn that audience by turning specifics into universals. I don’t mean to suppress unusual and different experiences. Far from it. But they need to be secondary: a starting point, a sideshow, a new angle on the human experience. As differences get threshed out, a bigger picture-perspective might yet emerge where the focus shifts to what we all have in common. In other words, I must continue to do what I do.