Amanda’s newest book, Disfigured, is a compelling look at fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to Disney, showing us how they influence our expectations and behaviour and linking the quest for disability rights to new kinds of stories that celebrate difference.
Read an excerpt below!
Look at you, getting coffee, getting groceries, going on trips in an airplane. Pretending that you’re as able-bodied as the rest of us! It’s all just so inspiring.
At the beginning of Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is disabled in several ways. She has amnesia and can’t recall her life beyond the six years immediately preceding her present. As the film progresses, we come to understand that she is also intentionally being disabled by her captors, the Kree, who are dampening her powers by keeping them artificially restrained.
But Carol, as most superheroes are wont to do, wrestles her way through to a happy ending. She does this both physically – through wreaking joyous, unrestrained havoc on her enemies – and emotionally, by distancing herself from the wild, perseverant machinations of Yon-Rogg and asserting her right to occupy her body and power in whatever way she sees fit.
I don’t have anything to prove to you. I don’t have anything to prove to you. I don’t have anything to prove to you.
I whisper the same thing to myself at night. The ‘you’ wears many faces.
Once, while I was sitting at my desk during lunch period in fifth grade, a student sitting beside me asked if I could reach under my seat to grab her pencil, which had rolled under my chair.
‘She can’t,’ my red-haired nemesis said behind me. ‘She’ll have to bend over and take the pickle out of her ass first.’
The rage that came over me was immediate and hot, overwhelming. I slammed my chair back into her desk so hard that it tipped her own desk over, pushing her so the chair she sat on teetered back on its hind legs. Wobbly and ready to collapse, exactly the way I felt. Her laughter was immediate, tinged with surprise and a sliver of terror. I heard the rest of the class laugh, too. Twenty-seven years later, I can close my eyes and hear that laughter exactly as it sounded on that day so many years ago.
I have never wanted to be a superhero, or a demon, something other than I was, as much as I did in that moment. To push the chair away from my desk and turn around and send that girl sweeping up through the air and back against the wall so hard that her skull cracked; to see her face split open upon impact and watch the blood and the brain matter trickle out down her cheeks. I wanted to stand over her as she screamed and grind her face into the floor. I wanted to turn an arm back toward the rest of the class who had laughed with her – who had always laughed with her – and do it to them, too. I wanted to see them cower, to see them lose themselves in awe. I wanted them to cry and scream and beg for mercy.
But I also wanted to be right to withhold that mercy – I wanted my anger to be justified, to make sense, to be understandable. To mete out punishment that was as clear and unbiased as that from a goddess. I wanted them to love me, to be terrified of me, to want to be me. I wanted all of this even though I knew, already, that in a few years I would go to a different high school and meet other people and move on from this part of my life. I wanted all of this even as I gasped in my rage and pulled my chair back up to its regular position and heard the girl behind me right her own desk and chair, her laugh shaky and hard. I wanted all of this through the rest of that afternoon as I stared at my desk red-faced and hot.
I wanted all of this through the next day, and the next, and the day after that one and the week after that. Limping through the hallways, limping through my life.
I have not stopped wanting all this.
Eventually I moved on to high school. I met other friends; life was indeed different. I travelled and lived in different cities and had lovers and felt beautiful and many of the things I had wanted came true.
I still have not stopped wanting all this. These triumphs, these vindications.
I go back, and back, to that day. I still want them to love me, even though I know it isn’t worth it – even though I know, more importantly, that my anger and rage at the unfairness of it all is directly tied to the fairy-tale/superhero lens through which I was already, unconsciously, viewing the world. If my world was unfair, surely that meant that things would swing back around eventually. Surely events would put themselves to rights, surely I would get my happy ending, too, even if it took a little while – because isn’t that what happened in all of the stories I was told? Life could be unfair but the world itself was a fair place. Be good, do good work, and you would either be rewarded or find the strength within yourself to put your world to rights. That’s just how it went.
I didn’t fantasize, back then, about what the world might look like if it actually was fair, if there was no need for superheroes at all. I didn’t imagine what life might have been like in a world without bullying. I took it for granted that the bullying would come, because I walked differently and occupied a different space and the world I lived in told me that was what happened to bodies that were different. It seemed easier to imagine a world where I had magical powers than a world where different bodies just existed together side by side.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In an article for nbc’s Think on the famous quote from Martin Luther King – a quote that was itself inspired by a sermon by the nineteenth-century clergyman Theodore Parker – writer Chris Hayes notes, ‘The claim expresses a specific kind of informed optimism, an eyes-wide-open faith in humanity. Obviously, there is evil and trial and tragedy and hatred all around us and yet good, ultimately, does prevail. In the same way you can’t tell the earth is round as you walk on it, the trajectory of history is imperceptible as we struggle through it; but rest assured its contours are there.’
What happens, though, when your eyes have never been wide open in the first place? If you are a disabled person whose life has been one sidelined narrative after another – the disfigured witch or the monster or the dwarf, the ill child as beatific sacrifice so that her parents might see God and better themselves – where is the moral arc of your own story?
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but sometimes that arc takes a preposterously long time. And in the world we’ve built, it’s easier for us to imagine that only superheroes – or perhaps fairy godmothers — can bend the arc for us. Everything else just takes too long.
What might it have meant to me – at eight years old, at ten – to know, deep in my bones, that I didn’t have anything to prove to the classmates who told me that I walked funny, who sneered at the way I ambled through class? To understand that I wasn’t waiting to become a princess or a superhero or even waiting for an unconventional rescuer, but instead was not in need of rescuing at all because there was nothing wrong with my body?
What does it mean for me now, at thirty-seven, to understand that the world still sees my body in this different way? As a disabled woman, I am at once hyper-present and completely invisible. My limp can at times be mild, and so I can sink into the background – an undercover agent in the able-bodied world, which is a kind of superpower and disguise that doesn’t feel quite right, although it feels better than those long-ago days at school. My disabled body, bereft of both fairy godmothers and superhero change, is either an object of pity or an object of tender fascination, but rarely something other than that. We are sad Tiny Tims or we are everyday superheroes, inspiring those who can walk and run just fine with our inhuman strength in completing the impossible ordinary. Shopping in our wheelchairs, walking with our canes. Navigating the world with our guide dogs and scooters and other supports – augmentations that aren’t sexy like the claws that come racing out of Wolverine’s hands or the arc reactor in Ironman Tony Stark’s chest or the impossible body that gets to be Steve Rogers’s, but are nonetheless that we use to make ourselves be more.
Building a world that either accommodates these tools or makes it so the tools aren’t necessary in the first place (why the need for a body that can fight wars if you build a world where there are no wars?) is a particular kind of magic, it would seem. One that still eludes us all.
A little over two years ago, I walked to work at the hospital one day and felt, as I battled the wind, the familiar words that pound through my head on a regular basis, in rhythm to my lopsided, hurried gait.
You don’t walk like everybody else.
YOU DON’T WALK LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.
It’s not unusual, this refrain. I think it every time I hear my footsteps on the ground. I hear it every time I catch my body passing by a window. And yet, for some reason, that day something changed.
It’s not that you don’t walk like everybody else, the little voice continued. It was my voice speaking something I had known all along.
It’s that no one else in the world walks like you.
Why did it take me thirty-five years to realize this? Something to do with the way we tell stories – something to do with how we understand the body in both its regular variety and in what we perceive as its superhuman form.
‘We are capable,’ writes Tobin Siebers, ‘of believing at once that the body does not matter and that it should be perfected.’ And so we fantasize about eradicating disability in the same way that we fantasize about superheroes and magic – taking it for granted that the different body is aberrant in the same way superheroes are aberrant, gifts though these differences may be; longing for an act through which we will individually restore the world because systemic overhaul is too grand an undertaking. We’re all for subverting stories until the subversion requires a change in the real world that involves work, at which point we fall back to our regular narratives and look to the one who’ll come to rescue us. We take it for granted that the world is flawed and in need of a Captain Marvel to save it; we take it for granted that the disabled body is a bug in the system and do not, instead, celebrate its difference as a feature.
But my walk, my legs, my body – I am, all of me, a feature. (We are, all of us, a feature.) I have no fairy godmother because I have no need of one. I am not waiting for an unconventional white knight to come crashing up a causeway to my castle because I have seen the castle and its darkest heart and nothing in it scares me anymore. I have no need of rescue. I want more than the stories that posit the strong as those who survive and protect the rest of us. I want stories where people are not applauded for embracing difference but instead reshape the world so that difference is the norm.
I have nothing to prove to the world because the world has everything to prove to me. It is the world’s responsibility to make space for my body, my words, my lopsided gait – our bodies, our words, our ways of moving through the world – to hold my childhood dreams of being a princess and a superhero close and help me understand that there is no need to want to be either. To start telling different stories about a body that might just look like mine, and reshaping the world to fit them.
I am already enough. There is no need to be more.
Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of the novels The Miracles of Ordinary Men and the forthcoming The Centaur’s Wife. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.