Saturday, 4 March 2017

Confession – by David Thorpe

They say "write about what you know" but sometimes it isn't easy.

Children are cruel. You learn that as a child, when you are the subject of bullying because you're not normal.

My abnormality is a mild form of cerebral palsy. I'm lucky in that, unlike many sufferers from this condition, I'm not confined to a wheelchair. Most of my muscles do what my brain tells them to do much of the time.

As an infant with a disability you don't know any different. You are your own 'normal'.

But when other children start picking on you you soon start to realise that they don't agree.

Soon you start to dream about a fairy appearing, to offer you three wishes like they do in fairy tales. At least one of the wishes you make is to be like other children.

As you get older the fairy in your fantasy becomes an alien. It still offers you a wish, and you still choose the same one.

You fantasise about having a secret identity. In this new identity, if you're not someone with superpowers, at least you're someone with a strong body and good looks like the heroes in stories.

You dream about having the ability to show your bullies that you are better than them. Stronger than them. You can beat them up.

You become ashamed of your body.

You learn to hide aspects of yourself, the aspects that other children pick on.

Ultimately you learn to hide these even from yourself.

You are so successful at this as you grow older that you even forget the words "cerebral palsy".

As an adult, if someone was ever disabled it certainly wasn't you. That child that you were was somebody else.

You refuse to admit there is anything wrong with you because that would be to make yourself vulnerable.

You become more and more defensive so that whenever anybody even hints that there is anything wrong with you you deny it in the strongest possible terms.

Your defensiveness turns into attack mode since you learnt that attack is the best form of defence.

You start to attack others before they have the chance to attack you.

This seems perfectly normal because normal is what other people did to you.

You begin to wonder why people are so mysterious.

You wonder why it is so hard to develop close relationships.

You become a writer because you always spent a lot of time fantasising, alone with your imagination, imagining a better world with better people in it.

But your writing is not as successful as you would like it to be.

And your defensiveness hurts your ability to form good relationships with people, which means they are less likely to work with you and commission your writing.

You think that it's because your writing is not commercial enough so you attempt to write for the market.

But this doesn't work either.

One day you think what the hell. I'll just write what I want to write.

This thought comes at a time when your condition just got worse. You started to walk funny.

People noticed. They asked you what the matter was. You were forced to tell them.

This wasn't easy because you thought they would make fun of you. You would be back where you started. You would be a social pariah.

Nobody would want to know you and everybody would think you were stupid and pathetic.

But this didn't happen.

Instead people started talking to you about their problems.

This had never happened before. Not like this.

You realised that because you were opening up to other people they felt able to open up to you.

It transformed your relationships. They became much closer.

You were amazed and delighted. It was as if a veil had been drawn back upon the world and things which had been mysterious became much more clear.

You became more confident. The inner pain started to go.

You remembered the words "cerebral palsy".

You began to remember the little boy that you once were. You began to remember the feelings of the young teenager that you were when he was bullied by the same people he wanted to trust and whose friendship he wanted.

You remembered that that was when other people became mysterious, for how could someone be your friend one day and your enemy the next?

You still despised your body. It betrayed you every day.

But slowly you began to realise that this attitude just encouraged you to feel like a victim.

And every time you feel like a victim you are making yourself into a victim.

Every time you feel that your reactions are your responsibility then you gain power over your life.

Slowly, every minute of the waking day, you force yourself to remind yourself of this fact. And slowly you gain confidence. And your relationships continue to improve whenever you admit your vulnerability.

And even more so if you can laugh at yourself. Because that helps the people around you to feel less uptight.

So the book I wrote that I wanted to write, I aimed it at precisely the age group at which I was the most unhappy: young teenagers.

And I put some of these feelings into the heads of the main characters.

These characters: I couldn't write about these feelings directly. I couldn't write about disability directly. It was too difficult.

So I wrote about it obliquely, as metaphor.

My characters were disabled by being struck down by a disease with no known cure, like me.

I called the disease Creep, because it crept up upon you, taking you unawares.

Creep creeps through your body, taking it over slowly, bit by bit from the inside out.

In my story, it makes the parts that it has taken over inorganic. Imagine having inorganic parts inside of you. You can't control them directly.

They are no longer yours yet they are part of you. How does that feel?

The inorganic bits are technology but it is broken technology. It only works sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't work at all. You can't upgrade it.

It pokes through your skin so you can't hide it. It looks weird and ugly and hideous because where it pokes through your skin becomes infected.

Creep is painful. All you can do is relieve the symptoms with creams but they don't really work.

And so you hate yourself. And society hates you. They send people to take people like you away.

I chose to make merging with technology the disability in my book because by this time in my life I was wedded to my technology because since 1997 I had used voice recognition to communicate with my computer because using a mouse and keyboard was too painful and had led to me having operations.

I had a special chair which cost £850 in the mid-1990s and used other unusual technology.

What do you know. When I entered this novel into a national competition to find a new children's writer it won.

The novel was published.

That was 10 years ago.

But I never told this story before.

I should have told it when the book came out. But I still didn't have the confidence that anybody would be interested.

They said the book was science fiction. So I let them get away with it. But to me it's not science fiction. It's metaphor.

They say "write what you know". But it's still not easy. I ought to be able to write about this directly without the need for metaphor.

I could write a novel in which I dramatise the reality of the child that I was. But somehow it's not yet possible and I don't even know whether I should.

And I even wonder whether this story that I'm admitting to properly for the first time in public should be known to those who read the book.

Because then they will read it in a different light and they will look at me in a different light.

I don't want to be known as the writer who has cerebral palsy. I am much more than that. That's partly why I have debated about whether to tell this story.

Anybody who makes their disability – or an unfortunate episode that happened to them once in their life – a thing in the media becomes identified with that thing ever after.

They are "the person to whom this thing happened".

Like I say, I'm much more than that.

The only reason why I am confessing this now is because I hope it might give some courage to other children, disabled or not, who are experiencing bullying.

Don't be ashamed. Don't be scared. It's not your fault. You are your own normal. You're ok.

And bullies? They are not ok.

David Thorpe is the author of Hybrids.


khizi said...
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catdownunder said...

From another with CP, I so understand this. What's "normal" anyway? Someone told me, "Cat, write your childhood autobiography." Yes, I did but you did yours in a much more useful way.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for writing this, David - very powerful and very moving.

David Thorpe said...

Hi Catdownunder – I would love to read your autobiography. Was it useful for you to write it?
Hi Sue – thank you very much.

Bridget Blair said... many important truths in this moving post. Thank you so much for sharing this. and at the end, I love the line 'you are your own normal '

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks ever so much for posting this David. It was clearly something you had to think before doing and all the better for that. Would you mind if I said it was either inspirationally brave, or bravely inspirational? I'll leave you to choose which.

Lynne Benton said...

Powerful post. Thank you, David.

Jane Stemp said...

Another writer with cerebral palsy here, getting frustrated because when I tell it like it is publishers seem not to want to know ;) Great to read this David

Val Tyler said...

This is important to say. Thank you.

Simon Hayward said...

Powerful and heartfelt, David. How has writing it made you feel?

David Thorpe said...

Thanks Bridget, yes what is normal anyway? Everyone is unique with their own unique skills and talents.
Thanks Steve. I think it's brave and I really hope it inspires others in some small way.
Thanks Lynne ad Val..
Jane, there must be a story in there somewhere, I really believe you should never give up. Telling it 'like it is' is hard because it 'is' so many things, and honesty is one thing and storytelling is another and I know from experience it's hard to do both at once and hit the right tone.
And Simon, I feel apprehensive, but warmed by these positive reactions.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for posting this, David. Can't have been easy to write (or any of it!) but very glad that you've shared these thoughts and facts here.

Janet Foxley said...

I always knew you had CP yet it never occurred to me that this was what lay behind Hybrids. I really hope you feel good about yourself now. It's always the bullies not the bullied who shoul dfeel bad.

Becca McCallum said...

Wow. What a powerful story. So glad that you were able to transform your feelings into something to help other people. Thank-you for sharing.

David Thorpe said...

Thank you Penny, Janet and Becca. Janet, I have mentioned this when I've been into schools sometimes, and it has gone down well. I'm glad to finally publish the connection. It was very important to me to write Hybrids: the rhino dream sequence was true! I did feel like a rhino... the Durer armourplated version!

Dawn Finch said...

Such a moving and honest post. Thank you so much for sharing.

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