Between the Lines
Today I realized something: How my disabilities shape the words I do, and more often don’t, say.
For instance: Whenever anyone uses the word “crippled”, I spot it from a mile away. Context doesn’t matter – it could be in anything – a novel, a newspaper article, a headline. “Recession cripples the American economy”, or “The onslaught cripples the meager defenses” or simply “crippling blow”.
I never use the word crippled when writing unless specifically talking about my experience. I think in synonyms: crushed, crunched, consumed. If pressed, I stretch further: decimated, destroyed, dissolved, eradicated, erased, extinguished, sapped, sullied, stymied.
On and on, anything but crippled. And this is not an intentional thing: I don’t say, ‘Crippled sounds like a good verb here, but I hate that word.’ I don’t write it and then erase it. I merely stumble across it in someone else’s writing and think: ‘Wouldn’t crushed have worked just as well?’
Same with the word limped. That I openly admit I don’t like, because it’s so often used as a highlight, like, Oh, look what happened to our poor hero, or, Here is this mysterious person with a mysterious injury, you must find out why they do this. I’m not a puzzle piece, some tragic hero, who saved the world but paid for it with my legs. I understand the word isn’t always as loaded as this, and I understand why writers may choose employ it.
But as someone who has experienced this kind of prying “opener” in real life, I just can’t use it. I can’t divorce myself from the character, divorce myself from the painful memories of having such a physical marker, of carrying it around with me. Perhaps one day I’ll get over this and be able to bandy the word “limping” about like other authors do – he limped to the store, he limped out of bed, he limped all the which way – but I’m not sure.
Another example of words I don’t say: I don’t describe people physically. If acquaintance A hasn’t met acquaintance B, I don’t say, “Oh, you know B, she’s tall and blond and good-looking and…”
I’d much rather say how I met a person, or what we have in common. I only fall back on physical description when nothing else is working, like casting a line out into far water, and even then I stay so generic it’s almost meaningless: “Oh, B, I met her in the book store last Tuesday. I told you that we both picked up that new memoir?… No?… Well, um. [long pause] She’s… average height, I guess…”
I think the first time I realized this was about a year ago, when a then-friend stopped by my apartment to chat and catch up. She was telling me about one of her roommates, saying something like, “She’s got kind of crazy red hair, and wears glasses, and she’s a paraplegic or something… I think one leg is shorter than the other, so she has this kind of crazy walk,” A laugh, as she mimes staggering with her hands, one sinking and the other wobbling, “You really can’t miss her on campus.”
I can’t recall exactly what I did – I probably laughed nervously, which is my general reaction when I’m in shock and have no idea how to respond. ‘Is this what she thinks of me?’, I remember wondering. ‘Is that how she describes me – as the girl who walks with a limp?’
It always upsets me when I hear people described in this way – the words people use. It just seems vaguely unfair. I understand that people don’t always mean harm – it’s just the easiest and quickest way to identify someone. A trait. But for them, it’s not loaded, it just is. Whereas for me it’s like running around telling everyone I cheated on a spelling test in the third grade.
I have my own words I use to describe myself. Writer, I like to say, not to be pretentious, but because it’s an extension of me. Who am I? I’m the writer, the reader, the bibliophile who has loved literature since she was born, the one who has post-it notes all over her computer with ideas she’s too shy to write out, the person who wrote her first story on orange construction paper. Not skinny-small-mousey-girl, and definitely not girl-with-a-limp.
Some words I say.
Some words I don’t.