Saturday, October 29, 2011

Seneb (c2520 BCE)

When I came to Cairo for the first time, after the Pyramids and the Sphinx my priority was to visit the Archaeological Museum. The greatest attraction for me was neither the mummy collection nor even the gold headdress of Tutankhamun, but rather the prospect of seeing for myself the 4,500 year old statue of a dwarf, Seneb, one of the first in human history to be known by name.

Egypt, described as “the land where all children are reared” was one of the better place in the ancient world to have a disability, particularly in contrast to Greece and Rome, where disabled children were often exposed on hillsides to die. Amenemope (2000 BCE) promulgated early anti-discrimination legislation: "Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf nor block the cripple's path: don't tease a man made ill by a god, nor make outcry when he blunders".

Dwarfs in particular had high status. Cabinets in the Archaeological Museum are stuffed with hundreds of amulets of the god Bes, seemingly achondroplasic (restricted growth) in appearance and often wearing a lion-skin cape. Bes defended against snakes, was patron and protector of pregnant women and of children, and although not formally worshipped was often invoked in rituals and displayed around the home. I also saw the granite sarcophagus of Djehe, who danced at the Serapeum at the day of the burial of Apis, the sacred bull: he is depicted in profile, naked and with his head shaved, and with the unmistakeable physique of someone with achondroplasia.

Seneb, whose name means “healthy” likely came from an upper class family, and had a successful career as a civil servant. This is known from inscriptions in his tomb in Giza, which list his many official titles and roles – including “overseer of weaving” and “overseer of dwarfs” as well as “beloved of the king”. He also served in the funerary cults of the kings Khufu and Djedefre, the Pyramid builders. Seneb was married to Senites, who was a priestess and was of average size: they had a son and two daughters, none of whom seems to have had the condition. Seneb owned thousands of cattle, as well as two pet dogs. Images reveal that furniture was adapted to suit him, such as low stools and also show him on his boat on the Nile.

The painted limestone statue in the Archeological Museum was found in a stone box in the tomb. It pictures Seneb and his wife seated side by side. He is cross-legged in the pose of a scribe, wearing a loin cloth, with his arms held in front of his chest. His wife has her right arm around her husband’s shoulders, and her other hand holds his left arm. She wears a long straight dress and a wig, although you can see her natural hairline underneath. Seneb’s short legs allows a space for smaller images of two of the children to be fitted in front and underneath him. Although there are other statues in the museum of couples, and of mothers and children, this is the only family group on display. Senites has a faint smile on her face, which indicates, I’d like to think, that she was happy to be married to such a man. It is a simple but beautiful statue, and testament to one of the more positive stories in the history of disability, a story of acceptance and integration.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

"The public must learn that the blind man is neither genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realise, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work."

For a long time, I avoided learning more about Helen Keller, one of the most famous disabled people of all time, deterred by the over-sentimentalized depictions of her, and in particular the influence of her first teacher, Anne Sullivan, such as in the film The Miracle Worker. However, I was wrong, because Keller was a truly remarkable human being, and far more interesting than she at first appears.

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her father and other relatives had served in the Civil War (curiously, one of her Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of Deaf people in Zurich). As a toddler, she fell seriously ill, possibly with meningitis: although she survived, she was left blind and deaf. As a child, she was very difficult, with ferocious temper tantrums and a habit of eating with her hands. She did have about 60 basic signs so she could communicate some needs.

Her mother had read about deafblind education in Charles Dickens' American Notes, and sought out help. It was Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone and passionate about deaf education) who put the family in touch with the Perkins Institution in Massachusetts. They recommended a 20 year old former pupil, Anne Sullivan, who herself was nearly blind, an interesting aspect of the story which I had not known.

Sullivan arrived in March 1887, and began trying to teach Keller to use finger spelling, as well as to behave in a more acceptable way. As Helen later wrote:

"We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me."

After the breakthrough, Helen had an insatiable demand for the names of everything, and rapidly expanded her vocabulary and ability to communicate. Eventually, she could understand what other people said by feeling their lips with her fingers, as well as using Braille. However, she never achieved her ambition of speaking clearly.

Soon, Helen Keller became nationally famous, meeting the President of the United States at the White House, and in 1900, enrolling at Radcliffe College, where she became the first deafblind person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in June 1904. From then on, she and Anne Sullivan toured the country – and later the world – earning a living by giving lectures. Keller’s speech remained limited, so her words had to be relayed by Sullivan. When the market for lectures dwindled, the pair of them performed the water pump breakthrough moment in vaudeville shows, earning up to $2000 per week. She was an active fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind.

Whereas her first books, The Story of My Life (1903) and The World I Live In (1908) revolved around her disability, her third, Out of the Dark (1913), discussed politics. Since 1909 she had been a member of the Socialist Party, influenced by Sullivan’s husband John Macy. It is often forgotten that Helen Keller was an advocate of workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, peace, birth control and other radical causes. In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (The Wobblies). In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. Journalists who had once praised her courage and intelligence now criticised her for her political views. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development”.

Keller retorted:

“At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him.”

She demanded that the newspaper “fight fair”:

“Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper.”

Helen Keller’s friends included Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. After nearly fifty years as teacher, governess and companion Anne Sullivan died in 1936. Her successor as Helen’s interpreter and assistant was Polly Thomson. Together, Keller and Thomson toured the world, raising money for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind.

A film about Keller, The Unconquered, won the Academy Award as best full length documentary. In 1962, a feature film was made of The Miracle Worker, originally a Broadway show, winning Oscars for the actresses playing Keller and Sullivan. In 1964, President Johnson awarded Helen Keller the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Four years later, Keller died in her sleep: her funeral was held at the National Cathedral in Washington. One of the first global disabled figures, her name is universally associated with disability: she is the epitome of the ever-fascinating "triumph over tragedy" trope. Even films like Children of a Lesser God and Sanjay Bhansali's Black, which never mention Keller, echo her personality. A pioneering example of what disabled people can achieve, Helen Keller has become a legend.


Royal National Institute for Blind People page on Helen Keller

Newsreel of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Friday, October 7, 2011

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

"As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does."

I never thought I would like Virginia Woolf: I thought of her novels as modernist and difficult, and probably depressing, and kept as far away from them as I did from those of her near contemporary, DH Lawrence. It was cinema which made me realise my error: first the Jane Campion film of Orlando, and then Stephen Daldry’s film of Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours, for which her novel Mrs Dalloway provides the structure and in which Woolf herself is a key character.

While the first book is a fabulously entertaining conceit, the second takes you inside the characters’ thought processes, just as cinema sometimes does with an interior monologue: while a party is being planned by the title character, Septimus a shell-shocked war veteran has suicidal thoughts as he walks the streets of London. Later I read To The Lighthouse, in which even less actually happens, but there is a powerful sense of time passing, of the way that thoughts come and go, together with insights into family relationships, and an underlying theme exploring the nature of artistic creation.

The central characters in that novel were based on Woolf’s own parents, Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson, the former a scholar and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, the latter a noted beauty and niece of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Although there was obviously great joy in Virginia’s childhood – such as the family holidays in St Ives, Cornwall, on which To The Lighthouse is based - Woolf’s early life was marked by trauma and loss. She described the death of her mother, when she was thirteen, as "the greatest disaster that could happen". Virginia was then sexually abused by her step-brother George. While she was a teenager, her much loved step-sister Stella died of peritonitis; finally, her brother Thoby died in his late twenties.

Whereas Thoby had attended Cambridge University, Woolf and her sister Veronica, who was later to achieve distinction as a painter, were educated at home, as was customary for girls. As well as the agonies of learning feminine skills such as music, Virginia read avidly, drew, collected butterflies, wrote stories and produced a regular family newspaper. Although she attended courses in the Ladies Department of King’s College London, Woolf’s sense of injustice over being excluded from a proper university education was to fuel her feminism, and result in hugely influential non-fiction books such as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

The friends whom Thoby brought home from Cambridge – such as Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf – would form the nucleus of the famous Bloomsbury group. This unconventional social network of upper middle class intellectuals was influenced by the philosopher G.E.Moore, who stated "one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge"'. While people like Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf were active in public life, most of the group were more interested in culture than politics. They reacted against stuffy Victorian values, promoting the pursuit of enjoyment and becoming entangled in complicated romantic relationships. While Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1906, Leonard eventually persuaded Virginia to marry him in 1912, on his return from colonial service in Hambantota, Ceylon (a district where my grandfather was to live a few decades later).

Woolf had begun her career as a professional writer by reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement in 1900 ; she published The Voyage Out, her first novel, in 1905. Although her innovative writing style was very well received, she was extremely sensitive to criticism, and found the process of completing and publishing each of her books work emotionally draining.

Mental illness had affected several members of the Stephens family in earlier generations, and was to haunt Virginia Woolf throughout her life: it seems most likely that she had a form of manic depression. She had her first nervous breakdown when she was 13, after her mother died, and another after the death of her father in 1904. Her symptoms included insomnia, eating disorders, mania and despair, yet she lacked insight into her condition and resisted treatment. At various periods she required constant care and spent time in nursing homes, In 1913 she attempted suicide by overdose, and was only saved by Geoffrey Keynes, then a medical student living on the top floor of their Bloomsbury home, who pumped her stomach.

Although some critics have seen him as the cause of her difficulties, Woolf received very loyal and patient support from her husband Leonard, who thought that the only solution to her vulnerability was to seclude her from the excitement of London society. He also believed that it would be ill-advised for her to have children. Although he may have been right, this was a great source of sadness to her. Together, and partly as a form of occupational therapy, they founded Hogarth Press, with both of them setting type and printing themselves, before later handing most of the work over to assistants and later professional printers.

So far, so interesting. With her passionate friendships with women – including an affair with Vita Sackville-West – and her beautiful novels, and her mental frailty, Virginia Woolf appears a sympathetic person. Her nephew Quentin records how she was particularly popular with children. Yet Woolf’s novels have been criticised for being snobbish and limited in their focus. She also had some nasty attitudes, which in her defence were perhaps typical of her class and time. For example, she described her then fiancĂ© as a "penniless Jew" and wrote anti-semitic things about his family. In her novels too, the epithet "Jew" is used perjoratively. However, when Hitler came to prominence, Woolf was actively anti-fascist, and fear of the outcome of the war was a factor in her final depression.

People with disabilities are also referred to negatively in her fiction. In her diary for 1915, Virginia Woolf described a walk on which she met "a long line of imbeciles". She wrote that "everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin & and an imbecile grin, or a wild, suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed." The critic Donald Child argues that A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas and Mrs Dalloway are all suffused by eugenics, which he speculates Woolf might have imbibed from the prominant London doctors she consulted, several of whom were undoubted eugenicists. However, I think this is an exaggeration.

Representations such as The Hours portray Woolf as a tragic and romantic figure. It is impossible not to be moved by the suicide note which she left for Leonard, before walking into the River Ouse with a heavy stone in the pocket of her coat on the morning of March 28 1941, "a bright, clear, cold day".

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

Anyone who thinks that manic depression or other mental illnesses are a myth, or who blame the medical profession and modern pharmaceuticals for creating all the difficulties of people with psychosis, should read Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt. While clear-eyed about Virginia’s faults, such as her arrogance and her habit of emotional manipulation, Bell’s portrait is very positive. When I was at Kings, I remember meeting Dadie Rylands, one of the last surviving members of the Bloomsbury Group, who was another fan. In a letter to her he wrote “The style makes me hold my breath – everything conjured up in a crystal: shining, clear and a little remote”. From this distance, I find it impossible not to remain ambivalent about Woolf as a person, although I have come to love her novels for their poetic vision and sparkling prose.

Further reading

Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf : a biography, Pimlico 1996.