Yesterday I had lunch with the inspirational and brilliant James Cone, also known as the “father” of black theology, and a professor at Union Theological Seminary. For those of you who aren’t familiar with James and his work, he is the man who wrote the powerful book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Sometimes in life you meet people, people who are special, for whatever reason, they reach us in ways that most people do not. James is one of those people in my life.
Over lunch, as we got on the topic of various movements: the civil rights movement, the disabilities movement, the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement, he said, “You cannot let your circumstances define you, who you are, your race, your gender or what others say about you.” And I thought about Emma and how autism is perceived by many as a tragedy. I thought about how I don’t ever want her to define herself by the way some may see her. I thought about how that perception does damage to so many, how the way we perceive people is how we justify our treatment of them, how we treat them differently without even realizing it. I thought about how I want to protect Emma from that.
I thought about the neurodiversity movement and how so many Autists are speaking out, asking for acceptance, asking for respect, asking to just be heard. I thought about all those Autists who cannot speak, who are non-verbal and cannot communicate their thoughts, ideas and opinions at all. I thought of those who are called “severely Autistic” and I thought of those who are, at this moment, in institutions or group homes run by people who may not understand them. People who will use their ideas and perceptions of who they think they are to treat them in ways that will hurt them. Who fights for them? Who ensures their rights are respected and considered? As I thought about all of this, I felt myself falling into despair. And then James reached over and took my hand. He said, “You have to see the horror, but not be defeated by it.”
I thought about all the stories I’ve read of Autistics who have been abused, often by their own family members, caregivers, or in homes where they were placed. The people who cannot fight back because they do not have words. The people who cannot fight back because even by communicating through other devices they are viewed as less than and so their words are disregarded. I thought of those who have risen up and despite their challenges are blogging about their experiences. I thought of the unimaginable horrors they have endured. “You have to see the horror, but not be defeated by it.”
Those people have lived the horror, the rest of us are only witnesses to and only if we choose to be. And that is a critical and striking difference. We have a choice. We can turn away if we choose. We do not have to read their stories. We do not have their memories etched into our brains, their experiences scarring our bodies. We will not get triggered by those who behave in similar ways to the perpetrators of their abuse. “You have to see the horror, but not be defeated by it.”
One blog I read not long ago, described in graphic, terrifying detail the abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her stepfather, mother, siblings and cousins. As I read her post, I thought, this isn’t abuse, this is torture. I felt nauseous reading her blog. When I wanted to click the little red button on the top left corner of the page to delete it forever, I had to remind myself that this is her life, the least I could do was read what she’d written. How do you take what you’ve read and continue living your life as you had been, before you knew what you now know?
“You have to see the horror, but not be defeated by it.”
And I know. I know I have to keep writing about all of this. I have to keep reading the stories, they aren’t going to disappear just because I’ve made the choice not to read them.
“Strive toward an ideal,” James said at one point. He paused and then he said, “Write where the hurt is most.”
And so I will. I will try. It’s the least I can do.
Emma in one of her “pretty summer dresses.”
Read My Fear Toolkit published in the Huffington Post