To tell a story, you need characters, a setting, and plot. But what happens when the way you portray a character, (in this case, a type of character), contradicts your personal, (and publicly acknowledged), philosophy on how people should be treated on the whole? I encountered this while reading Clive Barker’s most recent offering The Scarlet Gospels which came out earlier this month. To put it bluntly, I was stunned and disappointed. This post is not meant to be an actual review of the novel; that will come sometime next week or the week after. Instead, I want to highlight my biggest gripe with The Scarlet Gospels under its own merits. I want my opinion of a conscientious choice to be removed from my thoughts and views about the book as a work of fiction. Some spoilers will be present. I will do my best to avoid major ones though wherever possible. nor is this an indictment of Clive Barker as a person. He has simply made the mistake of misrepresentation as many people do.
For years, Clive Barker has been lauded for being an advocate of equal rights in the LGBT communities. GLAD recognized him in 2004 with their Davidson/Valentini Award. He treats characters that fall into those minority groups as normal, capable human beings. So I was surprised to find out the opposite is true when he is portraying characters with disabilities. Case in point, Norma Paine (the blind medium) in The Scarlet Gospels is our primary subject.
For the moment, we are going to set aside the obvious stereotype of being blind means you get special powers as compensation; Norma being able to see ghosts as part of her psychic abilities. In the world Barker has created, psychic powers can be given to anyone at random so in this instance, Norma can be considered “normal’ in this regard. He gets a slight pass here. But when someone digs beneath the surface, the presentation of Norma Paine as a capable, (read: “Normal”), member of society is far less shiny and not as commendable.
Without going into great detail, there are several times while reading the novel I found myself shaking my head when Norma appeared in a scene. Sure, she had a sharp tongue and was far from stupid; however, when it came to being truly resourceful and independent, things fell flat like pieces of a stony sky raining down upon the inhabitants below. For those with such proclivities, you could make a drinking game with the number of times Norma asked for her surroundings to be described. Normal blind people don’t do this nearly as often as she did. And this is someone that has been blind all her life; over sixty years as stated in the novel. She came across as a woman filled with a huge lack of confidence; it didn’t help matters that she was being guided around (and at one point, carried like a child). How is this empowering?
To make matters worse, Barker even uses blindness as a form of punishment to one of the other characters later on in the novel. (Which character is being kept vague because it is a major spoiler.) If the person in question would have been haunted by the horrific images he or she was forced to witness before the permanent loss of sight, I’d at least call such a twist Lovecraftian in its execution. I’d even appreciate it from a horror fan’s perspective. A person driven to madness because of the disturbing images endlessly on repeat in their head. That isn’t what happens here even if that is what Barker implied. We aren’t given enough evidence to support such a result.
Unfortunately, the situation is used to further present blind people as dependent, helpless individuals. The person asks for things to be described, can’t get around on his or her own, and isn’t confident in his or her abilities. Instead of teachable examples, we are given moments meant to evoke pity from us as readers. In the context of the story, blindness is something to fear and tragic rather than just another characteristic. It isn’t normal say as being gay is to be considered normal. Several steps forward for one minority group; several steps backward for another. Disconcerting and disappointing to say the least.
To borrow from Dr. Kenneth Jernigan’s speech, “Blindness: Is Literature Against Us?” (given in Chicago of 1974), blindness in The Scarlet Gospels can be lumped into these classifications: “Blindness
as compensatory or miraculous power, blindness as total tragedy; blindness as foolishness and helplessness; blindness as punishment for sin; and blindness as symbol
or parable.” All of these categories are present within the novel as discussed earlier. This isn’t a good thing. This is just a continuation of harmful stereotypes and tropes found throughout literature.
My questions to you as a reader and/or an author of fiction are: Shouldn’t we expect more from those we consider standard-bearers of equal rights? When an author chooses to portray a minority group in such a negative manner while on the other hand treating a minority group he or she identifies with as normal, (how we should view said group by the given examples), shouldn’t that be pointed out as well for the sake of fairness so the author can learn something from his or her mistakes?
Blind people aren’t looking for special treatment. Blind people want to be portrayed as the normal individuals they are in society. After all, blindness doesn’t single out a particular subset of the population; it affects all ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. Blindness treats everyone equally. There’s a lesson we all can (and should) take from that.
How have you portrayed blind characters in your fiction? Have you fallen into the trap as Clive Barker has done with his latest book? Or are your blind characters independent individuals; blessed with their own flaws and growing pains as all well-written characters should possess? Share your thoughts in the comments.