Saturday, August 06, 2011

"Sorry, I forgot you lost your leg..."

Last week I read a post in an online forum for writers by a woman named Ruth Madison (left) who was interested in fiction writers who feature characters with physical disabilities in their writing. Ms. Madison has a web site, www.RuthMadison.com, and she writes fiction and also about works of fiction. I responded to her post to say that my Baptiste in The Old Mermaid's Tale has a physical disability – he lost a leg in a shipwreck – but I never really thought of him as disabled.

Her post drew many responses though the vast majority of them were from writers who had written about characters with Asperger's Syndrome, PTSD, and various psychological disorders but not a lot of them had physical disabilities. I don't imagine there is any particular reason for this except that the authors found writing about their characters to be interesting.

When I conceived the idea of Baptiste I never hesitated to create him with only one leg and, in all honesty, I've been a little surprised by the number of readers who have expressed some discomfort with that. Most readers don't seem to be bothered by it but a few do – oddly enough it is mostly men and a few older women. In a way I think this is a compliment to most women who are able to overlook physical imperfections in an otherwise fascinating man.

Some years back I met a very attractive man who was just the sort of man I'm always drawn to. he was a big, burly guy with thick dark hair and a beard, muscular and also very soft-spoken and a little shy. How delicious is that? I met him in a pub and I noticed that he limped when he walked but it wasn't until I had known him for a few weeks that he told me he had lost part of his leg in Vietnam. He was casual about it but, as we got to know each other, I realized it was a very difficult subject for him. His handicap was far more emotional than physical.

Eventually we became lovers and he was a lovely, sweet, and very desirable man. After the first shock of seeing his leg which, like Baptiste's, ended just above the knee, I never thought of it again and it certainly never slowed him down in any way that mattered. Unfortunately his emotional side was badly scarred and, though it had been over 10 years since Vietnam, he couldn't see himself as lovable or desirable. Our relationship ended and the last thing he ever said to me was that he so appreciated my ability to “overlook” his “flaw”. I told him there was no flaw and nothing to overlook but he couldn't believe that. It was sad and I was sad for a very long time after we stopped seeing one another.

So, when I was creating Baptiste, it was important to me that I build into his character a hesitance, an uncertainty that he was adequate. Of course Clair's love for him was so great that he eventually let go of his doubts – probably as I wished my lover had been able to do but couldn't. In one of the last scenes in The Old Mermaid's Tale Clair and Baptiste are in a tavern (they spend a lot of time in taverns) and she asks him to dance. He hesitates and says he's afraid he will fall. She responds, “I'll catch you.” Not exactly an original line but an important one – wouldn't we all love to have someone to catch us?

I sent a copy of my book to Ruth and I'll be interested to see what she thinks of Baptiste and how he is portrayed in the story. I, of course, still love him after all these years and I get enough emails from readers who also love him to convince me he is one hot, sexy, lovely man with or without a leg.

I don't know what to say about disabled characters in novels any more than I ever know what to say about the race or ethnic identity of characters in novels. I never set out to write about a character with a specific characteristic that differentiates them – they just unfold the way they unfold. In the book I am working on now, Depraved Heart, Syd, my lead character, is bi-racial – actually multi-racial – and though he talks about it as does his daughter, it just is who he is. Characters are a lot like your friends – you hang out with them and then when they one day say something like “well, you know I'm black, or gay, or missing a leg, or whatever” you just look at them and say, “oh, yeah – I forgot.” I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, if it is insensitive or not. But a friend is a friend and so they understand.

Thanks for reading.  

6 comments:

carlarey said...

Kathleen, you are not going to believe this...when I was in college I had great friend, Eric, who was mixed and had lost a leg in an accident. I had another friend who was looking for someone to share an apartment, and I just knew they'd make great roomies, so I arranged for them to meet.
Later my friend called me up and said, "He's a great guy, and he's moving in next week. But I think somewhere in your description you could have mentioned that he was black and missing a leg." And all I could say was, "Oh, I forgot about that part."

Kathleen Valentine said...

That's so amazing, Carla. But I so understand. When you love someone -- human or character -- you just see them: Baptiste, Eric, Stuart (my lover), and nothing else.

Mo said...

Kathleen, I completely forgot that Baptiste had lost his leg. I've read that book 3 times and I remembered that he was French, sexy, mysterious, a little haunted, but not about the leg. I guess I fell in love with him, too.

Kathleen Valentine said...

You read it 3 times??? Oh, Mo, that is such a great compliment! Yes, he doesn't really need 2 legs, does he?

Ruth Madison said...

I think it's wonderful that you never thought about that part of him much! It's great to have a character who just happens to have a disability, but he's so much more than that.

I've started the book, but I'm a slow reader, so it might be a bit before I can finish and review it. I'm looking forward to doing an interview with you on my website!

I can see the great inspiration that you've had and I'm so glad you shared this story. It's very sweet and touching.

I'm sorry that your lover was not able to see himself as attractive even when presented with so much evidence that he was!

That is one of the main purposes of my writing, to make disability in fiction normal and thereby to make it normal in society for those with disabilities to see themselves as attractive. A grand hope, but it has to start somewhere! :)

Thank you again for sharing this.

Kathleen Valentine said...

Thank you, Ruth. I hope you like my Baptiste.

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