The "better dead
than disabled" attitude is riding high in the movie world this year,
with "The Sea Inside" and "Million Dollar Baby"
winning nominations and awards. While the former is part of the Ramon
Sampedro’s publicity campaign for his own "right to die", the
latter looks like another example of Clint Eastwood's contempt for people
with disabilities. Eastwood spent $600,000 to fight a lawsuit that noted
that he should have spent about $7,000 to make his hotel accessible.
He had half a decade after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA) to do this, but says he should have had more warning. He
continues to campaign for a "notification" amendment to the ADA,
that would require 90 days notice that one is going to sue under the
law. This would virtually eliminate the meager power of the ADA,
which has no other enforcement mechanism except that a disabled person sue
the offending business. Eastwood made a movie that looks to me (and to the
National Spinal Cord Injury Association) like "Clint Eastwood's
Eastwood, famed for his
care for detail, drops all pretense of authenticity during the last half
hour, the surprise plot twist that critics and moviegoers are supposed to
keep secret. This is where I
am supposed to trumpet “Warning! Spoilers ahead!” I don’t care if I
spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film. Maggie, the plucky boxer played by Hillary Swank, sustains a
cervical fracture. She, after
much rehab, many months, and the amputation of one leg, asks Frankie
(Clint Eastwood, her mentor-trainer) to help her die.
Specifically, she asks him to do what her dad had done “for”
the disabled dog of her childhood. This
dog did not, from her tale, seem to have been in pain, and I wonder if her
dying dad killed the dog because he knew she and her brother, who laughed
at the dog’s disability, would not care for it after he was gone. The
movie indicated that Maggie had the finest care, a way to take college
classes, the best assistive technology and assistant services that money
could buy. But Maggie, this
strong woman, who worked so hard and long to become a star boxer, wanted
to die. She had had her days in the spotlight and did not want to
Now, an otherwise
healthy, living person who wants to die is treated for depression. Only
terminally ill folks and severely disabled folks are encouraged to
exercise their “choice” of suicide. Maggie is not dying. But most movie critics I have read seem
to either approve or at least do not protest Maggie’s decision.
The usual words of “courage”, “love” and “choice” are
used, words we have all heard in the “right to die” debates, words
used in the legal defenses of parents who do “for” their disabled
children what Frankie does for Maggie. They are common even in cases in
which there was no request by the individual to be killed, including cases
where the child was killed brutally (beaten or stabbed to death by the
Although the film is
based on a short story from the middle of the last century, it was updated
to be contemporary. Eastwood's
abandonment of accuracy during the final crisis of his tale indicates that
he is unable to tell the story he wants without resort to glaring
anachronisms. These inaccuracies,
of which Eastwood certainly is aware, serve only to allow him to present a
story where Frankie’s aid to Maggie is the romantic consummation of his
love, rather than the murder of convenience that such acts often are.
Maggie, as a person on a
ventilator, does not need Frankie’s help to die.
He did not have to sneak into an oddly unsecured rehab center (no
locks? no security staff?) turn off the vent and inject her with, of all
things, adrenaline. Since the
early 1990’s, a competent adult can make the request herself, the staff
must honor the request and provide sedatives to ease the death. Instead,
we can assume that the character Maggie had a horrific death, suffocating
while her heart raced wildly. This is a “mercy killing”?
Some folks get
situationally depressed after a spinal cord injury, and soon after the
injury, some express suicidal desires. But there is a pervasive, and
wrong, idea that "better dead than THAT" is a reasonable,
widespread opinion among folks with SCI (spinal cord injury). It is not.
One largely ignored consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is
newly disabled soldiers and others. Imagine
one of them seeing this widely praised film, seeing a physically healthy
quadriplegic with good care insist that her life is not worth living;
seeing the person who loves her best, after perfunctory soul-searching,
acquiesce to her wish and kill her.
I have met a lot of
“million dollar babies”, children who spent their first weeks or
months in neonatal intensive care units.
The technology and knowledge to keep them alive, and later the
means to deal with ongoing physical conditions, is impressive and
progressing. It is common to
hear the parents of these children using that term, “million dollar
baby,” reflecting the tendency in our culture to assign monetary value.
Why should parents be aware of the dollar cost of catastrophic
medical care, or of the educational and other services used by their
children? In a culture that
values human lives, should such assessments even be made?
Disabled people are
acutely aware that they are resented for using “more than their share”
of “limited resources.” Many
of them internalize these assumptions. A great fear expressed in relation
to disability is: “I don’t want to be a burden.”
The implications of that statement are profound. Imagine a culture
where a person unable to bathe without assistance is no more considered
“a burden” or “without dignity” than is a person who cannot fix
his own car.
In some cases where
someone not terminally ill requested the "right to die" (such as
Larry McAfee), the despair was more related to lack of services than to
disability. When one is not offered assistive technology and personal
assistive services, when one is told that one is "a burden",
when we abandon our responsibility to one another as a society, when we
forget that a third of us will become disabled at some time in our lives,
denying that disability is a normal consequence of being breakable
biological beings, then it becomes easier to "help" one another
die. Such circumstances are not the individual tragedies of people with
medical problems, but the societal tragedy of institutional bigotry.
Why do we not praise the
"bravery" of other depressed folks who kill themselves? Why is
it a tragedy for a bullied teen to kill himself, but a reasonable choice
for someone "wheelchair-bound" to commit suicide, and an act of
love/despair/bravery for the parent of a disabled teen to kill their
child? (Christine Busalacchi's death, among many others.)
Of course, it is more
satisfying, more like movies and books, if we have a conclusion, and the
death of an individual is a conclusion. In life, messy and contingent,
unpredictable and long, there are lots of little stories overlapping.
If we dare allow some disability into our popular movies, the preferred
formula is that it be all "inspiring" or all "tragic",
because the day-to-day lives of folks with disabilities are as mundane and
as bad TV as anyone else's.
As a parent of a disabled
adult, I have a "million dollar baby", too. Yes, he has
"cost" all of us who pay taxes and insurance premiums and has
contributed little financially as yet.
Most of his classmates have also contributed little; teenagers have
only had a short time to work. So, in the words of the old eugenicists, he
has been a "useless eater" for nearly two decades.
How much easier and
cleaner and more like a movie if I could have spent these last two decades
with the halo of tragic motherhood which would have been mine to wear if
he had just died during one of those many times he came close. Maybe I
could have written a screenplay about my wonderful dead son, instead of
using my writing time actually living with him. And, how much more money,
after all, is this kind, intelligent, creative person going to cost us
Ragged Edge On-Line www.raggededgemagazine.com
Mouth Magazine www.mouthmag.com
Not Dead Yet www.notdeadyet.org
Beyond Ramps: Disability
at the End of the Social Contract, Marta Russell, Common Courage Press
Make Them Go Away: Clint
Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the Case Against Disability Rights, Mary
Johnson, Advocado Press (2003 )
Whose Feminism Is It
Anyway?, Collection by Emi Koyama, 2000 - 2004 Confluere
Interchange, Vol 3,
Aug 2003, Emi Koyama
Movie Stars and Sensuous
Scars: Essays in the Journey from Disability Shame to Disability Pride,
Steven E. Brown, Ph.D., ISBN# 0-595-28893-6, iUniverse, Inc. (2003)
Art of a Shaman, Frank Moore, Inter-Relations (1990) www.eroplay.com
(Also see Frank's paintings, performances, poetry and prose).