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The Problem With “Think Positive”

Dialectical Materialism and Disability

a praxis for radical healing

Emma Rosenthal

Current popular ideology asserts that positive thinking alone can improve the individual condition.  Unlike Marxist material dialectics, which recognizes social, natural and physical forces on the individual, group, society, and history;  this mandate blames the subject for conditions in her life, going so far as to accuse those who speak honestly about their doubts, frustrations, marginalization, humiliation and discrimination, of “playing the victim.”

But within the tyranny of “positive thinking”  is the  insistence, not that the subject stop being a victim;   (because victimization is always external to the subject!) simply that she become the kind of victim society is more comfortable with: one that doesn’t complain, doesn’t demand and doesn’t speak out!

Like many solutions and analyses not rooted in theories of radical social transformation, this one too, fails to look at illness and disability in the larger social context.   Certainly;  while focusing on positive aspects of life can make even the most unbearable situations better,  the spiritual tyranny (what i call spiritual fascism) of constantly being told to “be positive” is extremely oppressive.

In her last weeks, activist, Barbara Franklin, as she died of incurable cancer, told me she thought she hadn’t been positive enough to fight the disease. This missive “be positive” only added to her stress and self-loathing, as her body was consumed by rogue cells.   This discussion was one of many we had in her final days, around a language of infirmity, which we found we could share with few other people.  

Healing is the process of transformation regardless of the outcome, while cure is the eradication of the condition. The former is always possible, while the latter, may not be. The truth is, we will all die.  There is no positive thinking protocol that can override that fact.  

Illness is its own epic voyage that involves despair as well as revelation.  To limit the process to the narrow realm of “positive thinking”  serves only the status quo and does little to really illuminate the larger and more significant journey.  Nor does it inform the subject in navigating the new landscape that the condition and social obstacles impose.  

Part of the healing process involves an empowering understanding of illness, disease and marginalization. The missive to be positive, makes the illness experience easier on the people around the subject, but may only provide the most superficial of solutions to the actual challenges of healing. And, in as much as the insistence to present an affect that is dishonest, isolating and counter-intuitive, may in fact do great harm. For social transformation to occur, one must speak truth to power. How does one do that if ignoring those forces   (and symptoms?) acting against oneself? And with illness and disability, in our society, the forces outside of the individual (access to health care, attitudes of loved ones, the health care gulag, discrimination, etc.) may be greater than the disease or condition itself. Thinking positive sadly, often results in self-blame and self-loathing. Whereas critical thinking, which doesn’t preclude gratitude, but includes assessment, activism and empowerment is a much greater healer.

Even better, if the subject can connect her inner process of infirmity or disability within the context of larger social constructs and movements for social change; that is, develop an understanding of illness, disability and infirmity within the larger body politic.

More powerful if she can find allies along the way and communities of inclusion that also don’t see illness and disability as personal, individual problems that don’t have a place in the public discourse beyond the scrutiny applied by those not subject to the conditions.

For the subject, the challenge is to seek out and find community and support that doesn’t dismiss the experience behind popular platitudes that lay blame by maintaining the individual nature of the situation;  but rather, can bear witness to the journey and explore and address the social injustices and indignities and provide empowered and informed advocacy.

For activists who have  never addressed these issues within a social context, the challenge is to listen and to advocate, as well as  to understand the radical value of bearing witness; not dismissing the experience, but rather, using it to name, address and define the experience in a language of self-definition, self-determination and empowerment.

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Suddenly Last Summer- Part 4 Barbara’s Death Bed and Camile

Meanwhile:   Barbara’s Death Bed  and “Camile”

 

The Old Paradigm
  1. She must hate the ex.
  2. If she doesn’t hate the ex, she must hate the new partner.
  3. If she doesn’t hate the ex or the new partner, then maybe she wants to get back with the ex.

 

Over the course of the summer we had also visited the spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, returning home for a few weeks before flying out to Colorado to visit family.  While we jettisoned around the country and the world,  our close friend, and Andy’s former partner, Barbara Franklin lay on her death bed.  Andy was Barbara’s power of attorney  for health related matters.  We visited her between trips and stayed in touch with her while we were away.  During this time Barbara was placed in a very difficult position by  “Camile”, who  having completed her marginalization of me,  began a campaign against Andy to try to limit his participation in the planning of an upcoming conference.  She was not having the same results in this pursuit as she had had against me.  Her protestations that “Andy was trying to take away” her “power”, was getting a tepid response and unlike her rumors that I wasn’t really disabled, was diminishing her prestige and credibility.  We had heard snippets of this campaign from other UTLA members, but Barbara’s reports provided us with real insight to the lengths and depravity of her efforts.  Barbara, as I stated in my eulogy to her, was both a Christian and a feminist.  She felt very conflicted by “Camille’s” intervention.

While many people in the union had made it quite clear that they wanted Andy to be with Barbara and not with me, Barbara had always been extremely supportive and respectful of our relationship.  She and I had forged a deep bond, amplified by our common experience with illness as well as our common connection to Andy.  It was a difficult decision for her, to tell us what “Camile” was saying to her, not wanting to gossip, but feeling truly loyal to both of us, and not wanting to be implicated in anything that would be hurtful to us.  She first approached me,  and told me that she was concerned for Andy because of what people were saying;  and then she proceeded to repeat to me, without mentioning names,  the gossip that we had heard “Camile” had been spreading around the Union Hall.  “Oh that’s just “Camile””  I told her, which she quickly confirmed.

The next report we got was that “Camile”, unable to bond with Barbara in the campaign against Barbara’s  former partner,  had repeated to Barbara the lies about me that she had been spreading for years.  I assume she mistakenly decided that if Barbara didn’t hate her ex, in rivalry, she would hate her ex’s partner.

Now not only doesn’t a woman on her death bed need to be burdened with these matters, but what good could come from forging divisions between Barbara and the partner of the person responsible for her medical advocacy?  Fortunately instead of reacting to these reports, Barbara again chose to report them to us.  Had she or I fallen for these petty and ancient paradigms of female rivalry it would have put her medical care in grave danger.

Not able to forge splits between Barbara and Andy, or Barbara and me, “Camile” attempted a third approach:  try to get Barbara and Andy together.  “Camile” returned from Berlin, jubilant in her coup against me and reporting it to Barbara boasted that when Andy returned to the conference without me, everyone cheered for him, adding that Andy had broken with me in Berlin.  “Oh nonsense” Barbara reported saying, “They’re in Colorado together right now.” 

Every year UTLA has a retreat at a resort in the Palm Springs area.  UTLA Vice President, Julie Washington, who, after Berlin,  I suspect,  may have been involved in this campaign with more than silent complicity,  and feigned concern for Andy’s position within the union, invited Barbara to attend as her guest. Barbara reported to us that on one night after midnight, a drunken “Camile” came to Barbara’s hotel room to “check on her” and to ask questions about Andy and myself.

Barbara died only two months later, physically the shell of the six foot tall woman she had been.  We had shared our frustrations with the patronizing support given to her in her illness by the same people who had been so ruthless with me.  Regardless of whatever agenda or issue “Camile” had with me, what excuse is there for the pressures and intrusions placed on Barbara in her final days, hiding under the guise of friendship, to manipulate someone so frail for one’s own depravity?

Barbara had offered to confront “Camile” but we suggested that she refrain, concerned that perhaps the same vindictiveness directed at me, might be brought down upon Barbara.

Prior to this event, Barbara had been “honored” as woman of the year, by the Women’s Committee of UTLA.  Speaker after speaker referred to Barbara as sweet.  President Duffy stated “Barbara sweet Barbara.  What can I say about Barbara.”  And then proceeded to talk about himself and his leadership, referring briefly to his wife as president of their home.  It was like a time warp to the 1950’s!  When we left the event, I told Andy I hoped she hadn’t noticed the patronizing treatment, as each speaker struggled to find something to say to a dying woman, not able to really recognize her for her strengths and accomplishments.

Of course Barbara noticed the narrow, shallow honors bestowed upon her; their pity prize, for a woman who was indeed deserving of the prize in her own right.  “I’m not sweet.  What do they mean I’m sweet? ”  She said to me later.  Sweet or not, what man would ever be awarded the sweetness prize!?? 

But this is no doubt, the two edged sword of disability discrimination within the union; the syrupy, patronizing “love” and “adoration”  showered on Barbara, or the brutal attacks inflicted on me.  Each of us, set in our good gimp, bad gimp; real gimp, false gimp, paradigm:  limited, disempowered and regardless of the occupancy of the space around us; terribly alone. 

There is no justice in pity.  There is only justice in voice, in empowerment, in real solidarity based on a true understanding of our common humanity.