I was loosening a knot for this essay about a certain fear I had in my childhood—and before I knew it, the whole undertaking began unraveling in a confusion of ideas . My inner critic in charge of tailoring got into the act right away. I’ve assigned that role to my grandfather, Meyer, my mom’s Pa who I didn’t really know but who was a professional tailor in Minsk, Belarus, and later, Amherst, Mass. He only has one line—“Mistake!”—but I refer to it constantly..
I had lots of fears as a kid. There were the night noises of the house “settling,” which kept me awake until I heard the milkman’s truck at last, coming up the street. There was the imperious full moon ruling the night, daring me to meet its alien gaze. Then there was the fear that had the strongest hold over me. It reminds me now of the kid’s spooky line in the movie “The Sixth Sense.” Not that I could claim to “see dead people.” But I could admit to something just as bad. The kid me was scared of people who had disabilities.
Two people immediately come to mind. The first was a blind man who panhandled on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Stamford, near the YMCA, the site of my Saturday morning swimming lessons (another dread). The blind man was a tall, grinning guy who did not hide his blindness behind dark glasses, but openly stared with raw scary eyes. I think I was aware that I was rejecting him for being conspicuously different. And if I’m not piling on, I think I also felt embarrassed by the little-kid weakness that my fear revealed. Mainly, though, I compare it to meeting the moon’s scary gaze.
The second person I think of was a girl I didn’t know. I was nine or ten; she might have been eleven or twelve. There was a nighttime school event going on, a concert of some kind. She walked ahead of me in the dimly-lit corridor—the familiar turned unfamiliar—and I could see that she walked with metal braces on her legs, and metal crutches. I knew that probably meant she had polio. I kept my distance while watching her halting progress. Overtaking her would have been a kind of self-announcement. I preferred anonymity. The truth of it was, I was scared of her. As if her bad luck might be contagious, and any acknowledgement from me would be much too complicated to take on.
I was scared of a wider swath of humanity than those two, but for whatever reason, they have come to stand for all the other people I shrank from, people with missing fingers, missing legs, people who spoke or moved with difficulty, people with Down Syndrome, people with tremors or “shaking palsy,” as it was called by Doctor Parkinson, people with a bent-over posture or faltering steps, and those who apparently had no talent for dressing and other grooming skills. I see myself in that passing parade, too, of course, both the adult me with Parkinson’s and the kid me who would probably have dreaded an encounter with that adult, even without knowing the Twilight Zoney episode (“You’re ME?”) he’s been written into.
What’s the Dif?
Still unraveling. I was warned, wasn’t I, about taking on this old vulnerability long past its retrieve-by date? (Mistake!) I hear you, Pa, but how could I pass up the irony of this kid (me) who is afraid of people with disabilities, growing up to be a disabled person himself? Opportunity? I should say! I’m learning a ton about fear, and anapirophobia in particular. (That’s the scientific name for fear of the disabled, though ableism is in wider use nowadays.) By whichever name, it is a common phobia, a fact I initially took some comfort in, on behalf of my kid self—and any seeds of unease that may have migrated into my older age. At least I wasn’t alone in my scary opinion.
Hold the phone. What refuge could there be in sharing the wider circulation of a misinformed, fearful point of view, even with the intention of changing it, or at least disavowing it? More beneficial, would it not be, to learn from the disabled themselves? No brain required. Ask Google “Why are some people afraid of the disabled?” and you will find a blunt and revealing set of answers from a writer named Mary Ruiz on the forum site Quora. Here’s a sample (They refers to the fearful ones and We/us to the disabled).
They think we might be contagious.
We remind them of their vulnerability.
The “Ick factor”—-our condition arouses disgust in some people.
They are curious about what we “have,” but are afraid to ask.
Anything that isn’t “normal” arouses panic in some people.
The “uncanny valley” effect: We seem human, but not quite.
They might be expected to accommodate or help us at times, and don’t want to.
I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that we the disabled (I claim a seat on that bus) are not afraid of our own disabilities, not in the same otherworldly way. We do feel lots of other things about them, like frustration, self-pity, or disgust. Whereas the fear others may feel toward us can’t help but be instructive in reverse: Isn’t a paralyzing fear of the disabled itself a form of disability? How are we different? (choose who you mean by we) and what difference does it make?
I want to go back to the girl in the corridor. She’s stuck in my memory, and I still don’t get why she has resided there so long. Why was I scared? Isn’t fear supposedly a response to danger? What was the danger from a young girl with leg braces and crutches? Something’s missing, a plausible explanation. A throwback to a shabbier time when a disabled person was seen as a potential hazard to the health and well-being of the whole village? Fear, I’m thinking, may be a case of mistaken identity.
It might help to review a few suspects for the mysterious horror that stalks the village. First slide:
1. Mortal Terror: a. k. a. Clear and Present Danger. Actual grizzly bear, great white shark, forest fire, wanted murderer, etc. NOTE: Unambiguously real. Do not attempt to test the solidity of the forest fire, assassin, or shark by trying to poke your hand through it. Next.
2. Chimeras and Phantoms. a. k. a. The Stuff that Dreams are Made of; bogeyman, bogeywoman, werewolf, monster, zombie, etc. Imagination-dependent; may be organized into superstitions. Next.
3. “Fear Itself”, a.k.a. “The Only Thing We Have to Fear” Appropriately it places the responsibility for the fear with the fearer, but discourages engagement with the cause of fear. In fact, uses fear as a weapon against itself. No possibility of rapport!. And finally…
4. Vulnerability: a.k.a. free-floating fear, looking for a need to attach itself to, such as proof of unreadiness, insufficiency, failure, exposure as an impostor, or making a “MIstake!”
Yep, sounds like Vulnerability fits the bill. It removes a layer of mystery from why I was scared of that girl in the corridor. Because my little kid self was pincushion-vulnerable to mistakes and flaws? Because I was afraid not of myself, but for myself? This is when I lean on the largesse of “free-floating fear.” It’s a safe generalization that kIds are uniquely vulnerable—when they’re not feel\ing fearless and flawless.
There’s an old family story featuring my mom’s Pa, whom I employed, way back in paragraph one, as my designated find-faulter (“Mistake!”) for any sloppy tailoring in this essay—he being a master tailor and all. It’s really just a short anecdote, but so often referred to, that it has gained a modest immortality. I got it from my Mom, the primary source. She was in her teens in the recollection, and serious about classical piano, taking lessons and practicing diligently. She described this scene where she was going over a piano piece and her Pa was in the next room, listening. And she recounted how, whenever she missed a note, there would come from the other room her dad’s gruff correction. “Mistake.” And again: “Mistake.”And inevitably another “Mistake.” And so on. I thought I heard a hint, in her telling, of an old resentment, mostly subsumed by the ironic context of childhood. But I also recognized that the story was a little present for us, all wrapped up in family legacy. Intentionally or not she was giving us something to use, and I’m tempted to use it now, beyond just this citation—to make a case for a hand-me-down culture of mistakism, a negative giving tree: unknown judgmental Russian Jewish forebears to fault-finding grandfather to (f-f) mother to (f-f) me….
But I’m still vague on what this perfectionist tradition has to do with my fear of the girl in the corridor. I mean, I’m happy to speculate that the disabled others reminded me of what I was afraid of in myself—falling short, not measuring up, getting the wrong answer. It’s definitely my free-floating vulnerability, then and now. But that’s not apt to be a well-selling linkage, connecting wrong answers with wrong posture, broken mobility, absent vision, impaired walking, the listing and listless alike.
I should recruit another family member to present on my behalf. My dad was the director of Public Relations for the New York Heart Association. If he would be willing to bare his chest, you’d see a wicked-looking scar crossing left to right and extending to his back, where the surgeon opened him up for his first heart operation in the 1950s. It was successful, but not permanently. You can compare his before-and-after facial expressions—haggard then weary-but-relieved—to a battle frieze. Perhaps there’s a more convincing link between my shock at that incision scar and my fear of other handicaps. Or maybe the tremors of remorse lie along a different path.
Take the M Path
RU ready for some encouraging conclusions? (Isn’t forced participation fun?) I’m happy to say that I conquered most of my childhood. (Too good a typo not to keep) Childhood fears, that is! I’m no longer bothered by night noises. Possibly they went away after the milkman stopped making deliveries. Or else they were displaced by a gang of Parkinson’s hallucinations. Auditory ones: the sound of footsteps making an impression on the stairs. The interesting thing about these PD noises is that they have a shallow fear imprint. Which means they’re strangely tolerable, or tolerably strange. Equivalent to a bird in the attic that eventually finds its way out.
The full-moon fear ends well, too. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe in my twenties, but one night, with the aid of binoculars, I discerned a pair of characters in the dark patches on the bright disc. One was a figure I called the Ragman. He stood in profile, bending low with a bundle or a bindle on his back. He was facing a little dog of the poodle variety that I dubbed the Pooch. They had been up there all along. It was easy to imagine them in some affable conversation, describing their lunar adventures. This was a distinct improvement over the eerie so-and-so who used to outstare me. That character was gone.
Cancelling a fear gets more complicated when one has a writerly attachment (or is it bondage?) to one’s past. However, with the aid of my fault-finding grandfather (represented by the bassoon), I found a key alibi (mistakism, a genetic trait) which led to a unified theory about fear and me: I call it Mistaken Identity and Identifying with Mistakes. So far, the science journals have been unanimous.
Seriously, fear as mistaken identity is the goods. Take this so-called fear of the disabled, for example. Isn’t it possible that I wasn’t keeping away from the disabled girl because I was afraid of her? Instead, I was afraid of her because I was keeping away. We create barriers from our own self-doubts, and then justify the barriers at the expense of the conspicuously vulnerable. Is that fair?
Neither is it fair asserting metaphoric equivalences between the disabled and our private anxieties, like human errors, They’re not us. We’re us.
I wanted to end this great unraveling somewhere else suggested by the title of this section,Take the M Path—not some Mystery Route, nor an alternative to taking the A Train, but an invitation to bring my inner empath along. Assuming I have one to bring. They’re shy, the inner ones. Like inner tubes, only different
This calls for a Postlude, in the form of an empathic Q and A.
How well do you read yourself?
Not bad, with my reading glasses.
How do you feel about this essay?
Probably too long, and undisciplined as an overdue haircut, but it seemed to carve out a necessity for itself.Or maybe just for its elf, Elfy, whom I was determined to get in!
Anything else you wanted to get in? Now’s your chance.
Well,more about empathy. Specifically,self-empathy. We need to get better at reading ourselves—that’s why I asked.So we’re not confusing our own limitations with fears we think we feel. And maybe do feel but for other reasons
Not including Mortal Terrors, like bears, sharks, and forest fires.
Right. I was going to say “Obviously,” but it seemed borderline insulting.
Appreciate the empathy. One last thing I want to get in. The opportunity, the necessity, to empathize with my Parkinson’s self. Couple of examples. The small stuff. The mistakes! A plethora of them. Knowing, to choose one example, that I’m always going to miss the wastebasket when I toss a wad of paper at it. Always. I just am. (Do I rage or go gently into that mean basket? Always.)
And also the big picture, self-acceptance, which is the larger context of the small stuff, accommodating your peccadilloes, getting reacquainted with your lore, and recognizing when the unraveling has stopped. So you can publish this cookie and read a book at long last!