Everything I write stems from personal experience, even if it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where people have mutant powers and the trees can eat you. When Sherwood and I first created the world of the Change, we wanted it to feel real and be true to our own lives and experiences. Fiction often shuts out people like us—old women, Jews, people with disabilities—but our actual lives have contained plenty of excitement, adventure, and romance. We wanted to write about heroes who were more like us and the people we knew.
In the Change series, we created some rules of thumb about disabilities to express what we believed to be true. One was that there are no miracle cures. There is a doctor with a mutant power that he uses to heal, but what it actually does is speed up time, to heal a wound quickly. If it’s not the kind of wound that could be healed with nothing more than time, his power won’t help. When young prospector Ross Juarez badly injures his wrist in the first chapter of Stranger, Dr. Lee saves his life but can’t fully restore the function of his hand. Ross spends the rest of the book doing physical therapy and learning to adapt; at the end he acquires a prosthetic gauntlet. And then he spends the entire second book learning to adapt to the prosthesis. Sherwood and I have both done physical rehab for various reasons, and we wanted to depict how long and difficult that can be.
Another world-shaping rule we had is that disability and accommodation to it is common and normal. We don’t normally think of nearsightedness as a disability, but it would be without glasses. (We both are so nearsighted that without glasses, we can’t recognize people from across the room.) So we have characters with glasses. We have characters who use wheelchairs. We have homes built to accommodate family members who can only see ultraviolet. We have characters who are disabled via injury, birth, life experience, or mutation, and show how they adapt and how society accommodates them—or chooses not to.
We also wanted to avoid certain types of narratives. Sherwood has a particular loathing for the cheap sentiment of the inspirational story, where the disabled hero does something heroic and is then exalted as extra-special. It tends to make the disabled person into a symbol rather than a character. We also didn’t believe that one heroic act is enough to get all prejudiced people to drop their biases. In real life, they’re more likely to keep their prejudices but decide that one person is an exception to the rule.
I especially dislike the disability tragedy stories, in which people with physical or psychological issues are ruined forever, typically dying at the end while everyone wrings their handkerchiefs and says it’s for the best because they were suffering so much. Apart from just being the flip side of the glurgy sentiment of the inspirational story, it sends a terrible message to people who do have those disabilities. Do we really want to tell readers that if they have Disability X, their life is ruined and they might as well kill themselves?
I can attest to the pernicious effect of the disability tragedy narrative. In my life, I’ve had severe depression and PTSD. Unlike some disabilities, those have a lot of inherent pain and suffering attached. In my own experience, those are not conditions of life, like being dyslexic or nearsighted, but illnesses that require treatment. So that’s hard to begin with. But you know what makes it ten times harder? When almost everything you’ve ever read with a character with depression or PTSD concludes with either a fake miracle cure, or with them dying and all the rest of the characters saying they were better off because no one who has been through the trauma they’ve endured can ever recover, let alone find happiness.
I did eventually find some exceptions to that narrative, and I treasured them. They gave me hope that it’s possible to go through terrible things, but to survive and find happiness, even if you do have scars. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo can’t find peace on Middle Earth and must sail into the West for his healing. But Faramir and Eowyn, who were also deeply scarred by trauma, find healing where they are. Several of Robin McKinley’s books, such as The Hero and the Crown and Deerskin, also offered the possibility of hope that I could believe in.
In my own personal experience and also in my work as a PTSD therapist, I have found that healing is very possible and very real. It’s not easy, but what worthwhile thing is? So I wanted to show that process in fiction, rather than the fake and cheap choices of miracle cure vs. death and despair. The other thing I wanted to show, in regard to trauma, is that it affects different people differently. Not everyone who goes through a traumatic experience gets PTSD! And for those who do, everyone’s PTSD is different and everyone’s path back from it is different.
In Stranger, our five POV characters all fight in the same battle. But they don’t all emerge with a cookie-cutter set of flashbacks, nightmares, and depression. One focuses on the life she saved, and remembers that with joy and pride. One gains insight into himself and his place in the world. One uses it to reaffirm what she already believed was true. One finds insight and still yet more trauma in a life that was already full of it. And one spends the entire next book quietly falling apart inside.
But in the end, for all of them, that battle and its effect on them was just one piece of their entire lives. PTSD has a huge effect on Ross, but it’s not all he is; trauma will always affect him, but it doesn’t ruin his life. Much like the linguistic shift from “disabled people” to “people with disabilities,” in our books, we tried to put the people first.
In the mid-eighties, a conversation with Jane Yolen crystallized my thoughts about a great deal of writing about disabled people. She wished writers would stop submitting variations on “The Special Little Animal With The Broken Tail”: well-intentioned but sentimental tales about an animal that has some kind of disability but whoa, it develops a special power or does something extra heroic, that makes everybody cheer about how special they are!
Those stories have been around for a long time. I read some when I was a kid, half a century ago and more. The “feel good” didn’t feel good past the ending of the story, even to me, as a not-very-savvy kid reader. Once you turned away from the story, the kid in the class who had some kind of problem still had the problem. And what does it say if the only way anyone will like a disabled person is if they get special powers or leap into a burning building and save a family? Even worse, the stories seemed to be saying that one’s ability issue was one’s identity.
Years later, my twenties, I knew people with various disabilities. In those days, society began to experiment with various terms, including differently-abled. A lot of people scorned that as pablum, but the verb that seemed the most appropriate to me was “adapt.” People with various types of issues (including us lefties in a world that is largely oriented right-handed) figured out workarounds. Some small, some awesome, like the paralyzed painter who used her toes. When you saw the end result, you weren’t thinking Blind! Wheelchair! Missing Fingers! Club Foot! You saw the result of the person’s skill or art or inspiration or wit.
One of my regular crowd during those days was a guy with albinism who was also legally blind, who I’ll call Pat. His eyes were also super-sensitive. His thick glasses had plastic extensions that fitted around his face so that no air could get to his eyes. Pat had been a chess champion in high school, and he was a math whiz, carrying everything in his head. If Pat heard it, he remembered it, and he navigated by memory, knowing pretty much the entire bus route of L.A. He fell into our group when brought by another science fiction enthusiast, and he loved the same sick puns and jokes and was also a dedicated Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan listener.
We were all barely out of college and still struggling to find jobs that paid minimum wage, so we all either got rides or drove junkers that were constantly breaking down. One day one of the group, I’ll call him Bob, came storming in to say he needed a ride. He turned to Pat and said, “Hey, if you can drop me at X, then swing by and pick up Y …” Then his mouth dropped open—he was appalled at his own insensitivity. The room went silent until we all saw Pat shaking with laughter.
That moment was proof to Pat that people saw him as Science Fiction Loving, Pun-Cracking, Dylan Quoting Pat, and not Blind Guy With Weird Glasses Pat. He was one of the crowd who happened not to drive because of his eyes, just like Bob was a rotten speller, and Tina was diabetic, and I was dyslexic. (We didn’t know the word “dyslexia” in those days, but everyone knew I could never dial a number correctly, ever, nor could I repeat numbers correctly or do math. So I had to repeat numbers several times, and even then everyone knew to double-check.) Nobody in our group was identified solely by their physical or medical or neuro-wiring issues.
I took that to heart when I became a teacher. Nobody wanted to be the “special kid” … unless they were playing us, which is a coping mechanism like any other. So I never gave talks about “specialness” or let anyone define anyone by whatever their issue was. And I refused to write variations on the Little Animal With The Broken Tail.
When Rachel and I began developing Las Anclas and its denizens, we let the characters define their identities. This was easier because we’d designed a world in which all kinds of variations on human life were seen everywhere—variety was everyday.
Early on in the first book Ross, who has some severe emotional issues, also gets wounded in one hand, which becomes a permanent disability. The other characters don’t see Ross The One Handed Guy, they see a guy who struggles to use a hand that used to be deft. One of the ways he and Mia Lee cement their friendship is her delight in finding ways to engineer workarounds for him.
Jennie’s mother is deaf, and reads lips. Everyone is used to making certain that Mrs. Riley sees them face on when they talk to her, but she is not defined by her deafness. She’s kind, and skilled with horses, and Changed, and African-American, and loves her family, and is deaf. No one attribute makes up all of a person’s identity.
As for Jennie, she’s always been a leader, but being a leader causes her some devastating emotional fallout. Afterward Jennie herself begins defining herself by her emotional issues, until she can slowly get a handle on herself.
Out of all categories of identity, the one that people in our books are most likely to use to define themselves is the Change, which is human mutation. It’s one of the few identities that’s still the focus of prejudice, so people often react to that by either hiding their Change out of shame or fear, or embracing it in defiance or pride. It’s also the identity most likely to have other people perceive as the only important thing about that person. They’re not seen as a complete person, they’re seen as That Changed Girl. Probably Las Anclas has stories about “The Special Little Animal With The Change.”
But we’re not going to write them.
Sherwood Smith (left) writes fantasy, science fiction, and historical romance for young as well as old readers. Her latest story is “Commando Bats,” about old women getting superpowers.
Rachel Manija Brown (right) is the author of all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres. She has written television, plays, video games, poetry, and comic books. She writes urban fantasy for adults under the name of Lia Silver, and lesbian romance for adults as Rebecca Tregaron. In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist.