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When Healing Hurts

Or:

Why I Hate Have Extremely Mixed Feelings About Avatar

I’ve put off writing this post because I wasn’t sure I could put my thoughts (and my knee-jerk reactions) into words. But it’s been years now, and I still haven’t managed to sort it all out. So I’m going to go with what I have and see if I can’t find some clarity by the time we come out the other side. This post will contain spoilers for Avatar and The King’s Speech, so if you don’t know how those two movies end and the title of this post hasn’t already given the game away, then stop reading.

Characters need flaws in order to be interesting. They need challenges to face and overcome. This is a very basic concept of fiction and most authors who don’t get this usually don’t get past the submission process. Some have taken it to the next level and given their characters staggering physical challenges. But if that character is suddenly healed by the end of the story, somehow it feels like cheating. It feels like the author is saying, “You’ve got the strength and the skill to make it through, but if you want to stand on this pedestal and be called a hero, you have to look the part.”

I recognize this is not what they want to say or what most people see when they finish the book. I recognize some of my disgust comes from my own hang ups and insecurities. But that doesn’t change the fact that I finished watching Avatar and felt like James Cameron was telling me I couldn’t be a hero because I use a wheelchair. Jake chose the healthy, studly body over the broken one, and it made sense from a practical standpoint. But that put a twist on the ending. Jake ran away from harsh reality and was rewarded by getting to live a fantasy, and that left a sour taste in my mouth.

So my problem might have something to do with the way the healing is treated in the story. For example, there was no sour taste at the end of The King’s Speech. The whole movie was about King George fighting against and eventually managing his speech impediment. The resolution was triumphant instead of disappointing. I think it’s because he wasn’t “healed”. The problem or flaw didn’t go away entirely. He learned to work with it, speak around it. His reward was self-confidence and respect. Whereas in Avatar, Jake’s healing was more like a prize. “Yay, you saved the day! Here have this body. It’s bigger and better than the old one!”

Healing offered as a reward for a job well done seems like a slap in the face. As if all the growth and challenges the character went through don’t mean anything unless there’s a really spectacular prize at the end. Like legs that work. I guess that was the point I was looking for. Does the healing add breadth and depth to a character or is it more a convenience? You can tell which I prefer.

 

I wrote this to start a discussion because I feel like there could be a lot more sides to the issue. So what do you think about healing characters with disabilities?

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Blind But Unbroken

The Broken Kingdoms is the second in N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy. I found the first one, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, well-written and intriguing, so I went ahead and picked up the sequel, and lo and behold, I found another disabled character to talk about. I’ve got a whole list of books to read because someone somewhere has said they have something to do with disabilities, but I really love discovering them on my own. It’s like turning over rocks to find bugs, only a lot less squirmy and squishy.

Oree Shoth, the protagonist, has been blind since birth. She can “see” magic, but that doesn’t really help her on a day-to-day basis. To me, it didn’t feel like Jemisin had an agenda for writing a character who’s blind. The disability was just a part of the whole, something that added another dimension to who Oree was. I really admire an author who can take an impairment that affects all aspects of life and treat it as just another character trait. It makes disabilities feel a lot more normal – see, I’m really not all that different from everyone else – and it helps everyone else see disabilities in a different, more intimate way.

Now, I’m not blind, so I don’t have any experience to compare Oree with, but from my limited perspective, the details Jemisin provided seemed pretty consistent and thought-provoking. Oree always recognized people by scent or sound rather than physical characteristics she couldn’t see. She could tell plants and pigments apart just by touch or smell. And Jemisin did something really cool to highlight Oree’s different perspective. There were moments in the book where there was so much magic around her that Oree could actually see, and she marvels at the experience. Things that never would have crossed my mind became the defining details of her narrative. She wonders at things like depth perception, the way her eyes try to focus, and how her hands look. She did do the stereotypical face feeling, and I’ve heard several people who are blind scoff at this, saying, “No, I don’t want to feel your face. Do you want to feel mine?” Oree does it more to tell what emotions people are feeling, but I still wasn’t buying it.

Oree really values her freedom and independence. She uses tools and has a routine that allows her to live and work independently. She fights for her freedom and chafes when it’s taken away. However, she recognizes that it’s okay to need help occasionally. I loved watching as Oree struggled to teach this balance to another character. Maybe because I was almost as stubborn as he was about accepting this simple life lesson. No one can do everything, except maybe Superman, and who wants to be him? Have you ever tried changing in a phone booth? Though I’ll admit the flying thing is certainly tempting. Whatever, my point is that I can ask for help without sacrificing anything of myself or my pride.

And Oree had a really subtle strength. There were plenty of moments where she seemed weak, where she accepts all she can do is run away, but when it finally came down to the line there was no one else to pick up the slack, she stepped up and saved the day. There’s something about that kind of hero that appeals to everyone, I think. Not all of us are capable of being the big, blond guy with the stainless armor and sword, and the smile that goes ting. Some of us are more like Oree, bruised and bowed, but unbroken, with a subtle heroism if you’re willing to look beneath the surface.

Yeine and Oree’s stories might be done, but the trilogy concludes with The Kingdom of Gods.

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Wheelchair Waltzing

Phantom Waltz by Catherine Anderson

After losing the ability to walk in a barrel racing accident, Bethany Coulter considers herself lucky just to be able to function as independently as she does. She has reconciled herself to never being able to ride or dance or date ever again. But when she meets Ryan Kendrick Bethany begins to hope that she can find love and happiness despite her disability.

 

I’ll start by saying that I’ve found I’m more critical of books that feature disabilities similar to mine. I want them to be good. I’m invested in their success. So I expect more of them, like a teacher with their star pupil. Or like Scrooge standing over Bob Cratchit’s desk with unreasonable expectations. I haven’t decided which yet. That’s why I was so excited to start this book. A heroine in a wheelchair? So up my alley that it’s parked in my driveway and knocking on my door. Except… it wasn’t. I think somehow it got the house next door.

Bethany Coulter has an incomplete spinal cord injury at L2. For those who Spinal Columnaren’t anatomy nerds, that means her spinal cord was damaged at the second lumbar vertebrae, the lowest portion of the spine. If the reference means anything, mine was at T9 (T for thoracic, the middle portion of the spine). One thing Anderson did right was provide a lot of specific details. What bothered me was that most of them seemed wrong for Bethany’s injury level and the functionality she should have had. In my experience, L2 is a very low injury. In fact, they don’t get much lower than that, which means she should have normal upper body strength and pretty good core balance. So why is she in a power chair? What was her occupational therapist thinking? Power chairs are great for those without the strength and balance to push a manual wheelchair, but they’re huge and heavy and have to be recharged every night. It didn’t make sense that Bethany used a power chair when a manual one would have served just fine. Unfortunately, this incongruity was present all through the book. Bethany was very clear about how she needed a dressing sling in order to get dressed, and what I can only describe as scaffolding, in order to go to the bathroom.

Now, I know that every injury is different, especially incomplete ones, and my experience is not the be all end all of SCIs. But from the information given, Bethany and I should have been very similar. I know I’ve never used a dressing sling (never even heard of one), and I don’t even need to use the bars in the handicapped stalls to go to the bathroom. At most, I sometimes used a sliding board for particularly tricky transfers, but I eventually gave it away because I stopped needing it. I’d love to read about heroines with such low functionality, but if Anderson really wanted her protagonist to actually need all the equipment she uses, she should have made Bethany a quadriplegic, or at least have a much higher level injury. It would not have changed the story any, and the details would have been correct.

Aside from all that, I had a hard time liking Bethany as a character. She was always telling people about how she wanted to be independent, but she acted so helpless when she was in trouble that I had a hard time believing it. And she was always explaining how hard things were, or how she couldn’t do something specific instead of trying to work around her limitations. She did manage some heroics (yay for crawling to save your man while a bear’s on the loose!) but in the end it just didn’t make up for her overall wimpiness. Maybe it was just that her philosophy was so different from mine. All I know is that I kept wanting to yell at her, “Go for it! You deserve better! Why can’t you be with him? He built you a ramp for pity’s sake. What better expression of love and commitment does a girl need besides a ramp?” But as usual, my cries went unheeded.

At the last, Bethany did learn that it’s better to live your life to the full, accepting the risk that you might get hurt, than to live safe but unhappy in a box of your own making. As far as themes go, this is one I can definitely get behind. I want disabled characters to figure out how to continue doing the things they love instead of sitting around whining because that’s what I want for myself. I wasn’t an athletic person before my injury so I’m not missing a lot, but I can guarantee that one of these days I’ll figure out adaptive sailing because I really want to sail again. Though it might have to wait until we live near some water. It’s hard to sail in a desert.

Although I agree with this theme, I want to point out that I think finding a balance is equally important. I can fight to find ways to do the things I love while accepting there are other things that I will never do again. I’m perfectly capable of taking short hikes around the Rockies (so long as I’m okay with being in some pain afterward), but I will probably never climb a fourteener. I’m sure there are other people with disabilities out there who have, but to me, it’s not so important. So I’m going to accept it and move on to the things that are.

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Never the Same

Eugenides is the protagonist of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, and one of my favorite characters to boot. He is our hero, and also a thief. It’s hard to talk about Gen and his disability without spoiling some of the twists in the series, but I’m going to try.

I re-read The Thief at least once a year. It’s an amazing book, but what’s incredible is that the sequel, The Queen of Attolia, is even more amazing. And the next one, The King of Attolia, is even better than that. I think one thing that makes the subsequent books so good is the introduction of a major stumbling block to this character who was so incredibly resourceful and infallible in the first.

At the beginning of the second book, Gen is caught and suffers the traditional punishment for thievery. He loses his right hand. Cue the gasps of horror (I’ll admit horror was my first reaction, too), but Gen’s suffering brings a depth and realism to the series that gives it a place next to Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg and Nightlife by Rob Thurman. Turner doesn’t spare our delicate feelings.

Throughout The Queen of Attolia, Gen struggles against feeling useless. “What can you steal with one hand?” Attolia asks him. “Nothing,” he says. And he believes that, returning home to wallow in loss and misery. He learns to live with one hand, but the process is slow and he ignores everything else that used to matter to him. Gen tries to cover his pain and bitterness with a joke and a smile but still flinches every time someone mentions his missing hand.

It isn’t until war comes that Gen remembers his greatest tool is his mind, not his hands, and he must be just as clever and cunning as ever in order to steal peace for his country.

This descent into self-pity until some trigger restores a character’s self-respect isn’t a new concept. Most of us with disabilities would recognize the feelings that threaten to swamp Gen. But what I love about Megan Whalen Turner is her subtlety. We’ve already read the first book. We know Gen is awesome and amazing. We had a first person view as he threw everyone for a loop in The Thief (including us) and saved the day. How could the second book have the same kind of zing and pop when we know all that? In The Queen of Attolia, Turner draws us back. She takes us out of Gen’s head and lets us watch as he flounders, showing us he’s not perfect. We still know that he’s amazing, but there is that niggling doubt. How can he pull this off? How can he be better when he seems like he’s less? We get to watch as he figures out he’s still amazing and proves it to us again.

And she does it again in the third book, pulling us even further back, putting us in the head of a character that doesn’t know Gen at all. We read along, biting our nails and falling off the edges of our seats as Gen proves to Costis who he is and what he’s capable of. Gen has learned to use his disability as an advantage. Yes, he uses that razor edge of his hook as another weapon, but it’s more than that. He manipulates the people around him, he plays up his disability, making everyone believe he’s weak and nonthreatening. They underestimate him. Every time Costis sighed in exasperation, I grinned and squealed (I try not to squeal too often, but a good book does that to me), because I knew there was something else going on. I never knew exactly what, but I trusted Gen. He was awesome and he was going to prove it in a completely new and unexpected way. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Other characters recognize Gen’s superiority despite how hard he tries to hide it. All through the fourth book, A Conspiracy of Kings, Sophos is inspired by Gen. His memories of the thief help him to push on and become a better man. Even Attolia, the woman responsible for cutting off Gen’s hand, is changed by him. She is haunted by what she’s done and by the end of the second book she is a very real, well-rounded character who has learned from her mistakes. I won’t spoil it here, but her journey is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking pieces of this series.

I’ve seen reviews of The Queen of Attolia that have talked about how well-written it is, how amazing the storyline is, but the reviewers still disliked the book because it was just too painful. For Gen, for Attolia, for Eddis. And especially for the one reading it.

I can understand that. When I first read this book, it bothered me. I appreciated it, but it made me uncomfortable. I had a hard time getting past the fact that Gen lost his hand. He was ruined. He would never be the same again.

I was young. I hadn’t had the experiences that make me who I am today. The thought of maiming was repulsive. Hurting or injuring someone permanently was unspeakable. It’s still an uncomfortable thing, but I have a new perspective on it. We’re all changed by our experiences. Sometimes permanently. It’s naïve to think we might skip along through life and come out of the woods in exactly the same shape we left the house in. If you’re like me, those changes aren’t just to thought process or personality.

Now, when I read this book, I don’t think of Gen as ruined. He’s different, he’s changed, and in some ways he’s better. Now, I’m caught up in how he handles and overcomes his own personal hell. I see his strength and the way he adapts. I see that he is disabled but not less.

The change I had to go through to get to this point in understanding was huge. Hopefully the rest of the world can come to see this distinction without sharing all the growing pains. And maybe Gen will help them get there.

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Manic Mayhem with Miles

Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan is the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, a science fiction series that starts with The Warrior’s Apprentice and goes through Cryoburn, which just came out in 2010. There are also two prequels, Shards of Honour and Barrayar, that are about Miles’ parents that you might want to check out if you’re a completionist like me.

Miles is the son of a renowned general on a militaristic planet that admires physical prowess and abhors genetic imperfection. So when I say Miles is disabled, you can immediately see some of the struggles he will face. Before he was born, he was exposed to toxic gas which caused brittle bones and stunted growth. As an adult he stands at a mere 4′ 9” tall. Miles has to deal with prejudice just for his physical appearance alone, constantly explaining that his differences are due to teratogenic changes, not genetic abnormalities.

But what’s even more dangerous than the prejudice he faces is the weakness in his bones. A simple fall will break his arm, yes, but also too much pressure on his chest will break his ribs. Bones are there to give a body structural integrity, and if his break too easily, then Miles can’t trust his own body. I have very weak quads, the muscles that keep your knees straight when you walk. So like Miles, every time I stand up in the morning or take a step I have to wonder if my legs are really going to hold me this time. They almost always do, but I’ve been dumped on my butt enough to have developed that moment of hesitation. Toward the beginning of the series, Miles wears leg braces to help make up for his disability. Another medical torture device I can relate to. Are they very helpful? Yes, of course. Are they also the most annoying and uncomfortable things on the planet – or in Miles’ case, planets? You bet your sweet KFOs they are (that stands for knee-to-foot orthotics). So it’s no surprise Miles eventually trades out his leg braces for synthetic leg bones that won’t break as easily.

What makes Miles such an awesome character and so much fun to read about is his personality, his indomitable nature. He suffers from an excess of both genius and energy and there is no off switch. In The Warrior’s Apprentice he couldn’t get into the military academy so he started his own mercenary company. Yes, it was sort of by accident, but that’s the charm of Miles’ character. He plows forward at full speed, only dealing with consequences when they come back to bite him in the butt. He’s always telling himself the key is forward momentum.

One of my favorite moments in the series comes in the epilogue of Barrayar. Miles is five and has escaped from his parents to try horseback riding. When they finally find him, he’s fallen and is holding his arm. His bodyguard asks him if it’s broken. Miles doesn’t cry. He just replies “Yeah” and waits while the bone is set and put in an emergency cast. Then he’s back up and convincing his grandfather to teach him how to ride properly.

Miles never falls into self-pity – he probably doesn’t have time for it, and most of the time the reader doesn’t even notice his limitations. And yet, Miles is clearly shaped by his disability. He knows what he looks like, he knows what his weaknesses are and so he pushes himself to be bigger, better, faster. He exudes confidence, radiates loyalty, and in the end those around him are so staggered by the strength of his personality that they can’t help but hitch their stars to him and ride to glory in his wake.

That’s not to say that Miles is perfect. He fails almost as often as he succeeds, but he does both spectacularly. Instead of playing it safe, he tried to prove himself on the academy obstacle course and ended up breaking both legs, thereby barring his way to the military academy. And while he may not have time for self-pity, he feels guilt just fine. If he’s not manic, he’s depressive. There is no middle ground.

Somehow it all works for Miles. There is a balance between those times when I want to cuddle him and when I want to smack him over the head. He is one of my favorite characters ever written. I’d read the whole series just for Miles. But he’s not alone. He’s supported by hundreds of characters just as wonderfully portrayed as he is. I dare not get started on Miles’ clone-brother Mark or we’ll be here forever. Or his cousin Ivan. Or his mother Cordelia. Okay, I’m stopping now.

All that to say, when I’m teaching myself how to write gripping fiction, I reach for Lois McMaster Bujold. She brings to life characters who take hold of you, who change you. If Miles passed me on a street in Denver, I’d recognize him. Not just because his stature is pretty recognizable, but because I know him. He’s a very dear friend who has shaped the way I see myself.

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Sidonie and Madame Guillotine

Sidonie de Villeduval is Yann Margoza’s love interest in the historical fantasy The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. When she was very young, Sido was in a carriage accident which killed her mother and left her with a badly broken leg. Ever since she has walked with a limp. She is treated terribly by her father, mostly because she is a girl and is crippled, but also for mysterious reasons the reader learns toward the end of the book.

At first it seems like Gardner commits the cardinal sin of having a character who does nothing through the whole book: Sido lets the story happen to her as if she were no more than an observer. This can almost be overlooked since Sido is not the main protagonist, but a significant reason to read fiction is to read about characters that see, do, and think things that we never will. Even if a character is quiet or shy, they should still bring something unique, surprising, or larger than life to the story. If those qualities are only found in their thoughts, that still says something interesting about the character.

It’s so easy to let a disabled character just sit on the sidelines, lending nothing but their presence to the story, and I was worried that this was Sido’s destiny. She takes very little action throughout the novel. Mostly she sits in her room like she’s told, she says what she is expected to say, and because of the distant point of view, we don’t really see what she is thinking.

I relate to characters that are vibrant and swashbuckling, the ones that wear a sword on their hip and wield magic. They call to me, probably because I’ll never wield anything more deadly than a butter knife. However, this meek and mild girl grew on me, and toward the end, I realized that her quiet strength and resilience were the crowning points of her character. She lives through some of the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, as all other nobles are hunted and killed. Her survival is a coincidence, but to me, Sido is heroic simply for facing her imprisonment, trial, and truncated execution with dignity and courage. When the streets of Paris run with blood and madness, Sido walks out with her head still on her shoulders.

Perhaps it is her disability that gives her the strength to press on through the howling mob. She’s certainly had to live with the pain and humiliation of her father’s censure for her whole life. Now, I’ve never had someone hate me for the way I walk, but in my own past experiences I can see the seed of these reactions. And like Sido, these experiences have strengthened me.

There are other things about Sido’s disability that struck a cord with me. Things like how she tries to hide her limp, walking as slowly and smoothly as she can. Or how she loses that highly prized grace when she’s nervous. I can relate to that. I once put my crutch down on a rolling chair while in a lab practical and ended up on my butt on the floor. I sustained nothing more than a couple bruises, but my pride took a huge blow that day.

Something that I thought was missing from the book was Yann’s reaction to Sido’s disability. He never mentions it. Ever. It seems like he doesn’t even notice it, which may be the point, but I wanted to see some honest conversation about how Yann felt about it. I feel the least disabled around my husband. He makes me feel like I can do anything and it seems like he hardly even notices my disability anymore. However, I know that it affects him and it’s not healthy to ignore it. I got the impression that Yann was supposed to be looking past Sido’s disability, and that’s sweet. But the fact that he didn’t mention it at all seems unrealistic.

I have plenty more to say about this book so check out the full review.

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