"PITY IS SHADOWED BY CONTEMPT":
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNE FINGER
Activist, educator, and cultural worker Anne Finger has long been prominent in the U.S. disability movement. The author
of three volumes of fiction and two memoirs, she has served as President of the Society for Disability Studies, written for
Disability Studies Quarterly, and contributed to countless disability anthologies and conferences; at present, she is the board
president of AXIS Dance Company, an organization started by disabled people. In addition to disability-specific
work, her career of activism extends from the 1960s peace movement to the Occupy movement: she has marched on the
Pentagon and helped to shut down the Port of Oakland.
Finger's first book, the 1988 story collection Basic Skills, contains several disability-themed works,
two of them drawing on her childhood experiences of polio. Her 1990 memoir Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy,
and Birth, integrates accounts of her early life, her social activism, and her experiences at the hands of the medical profession,
both as a polio survivor and as the mother of a baby in intensive care. In the process it explores the impact of sexist and ableist
oppressions on her life and mind, and dramatizes her struggles with them. Her 1994 novel Bone Truth, incorporating
a number of autobiographical elements, tells a story of a woman considering motherhood and struggling to frame a narrative
explaining her own life and her difficult parents, particularly her abusive father. Among many other things, it is a historical
critique of masculinism on the Old and New Left. With 2006's Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural
History of Polio, Finger produced an anti-individualist memoir, one that integrates her own experiences and feelings
into a wealth of social and historical contexts. The stories collected in her 2009 Call Me Ahab, like Elegy,
aspire to reveal the breadth of disability culture. The volume is a postmodern tour de force that re-envisions the experiences of
legendary disabled characters from art, fiction, and history, through a disability-justice perspective.
Half of the following interview was conducted in New York City on 6 July 2012; the other half was done via Facebook
on 21 July, 4 August, and 10 August of that year.
JL: I want to begin by asking you about your start in fiction writing. You had a degree from a Harvard-affiliated
continuing education program?
AF: That's where I started studying creative writing, yes. I had a mother who wanted to be a writer — we're going way back
beyond the college days — my mother, as you know, died about seven weeks ago; and I just got all her journals. And I haven't
been able to look at all of them, but I took a look at this journal from 1944, when she was nineteen years old. And a lot of it is
about wanting to write, and ideas for writing. And she ended up having five children, and teaching English. And so I always had
that dream of being a writer. My mother always read out loud to us when we were kids, and often from things that were on too
high a level for us. We couldn't understand everything that was going on. I think that's a wonderful thing to have, that experience
when you can take pleasure in something and be confused by it; and that was a really wonderful lesson for me. The kind of way
of entering into texts that I got from my mother reading aloud to me was fundamental to my life's work.
And when I was six or seven years old, I would start narrating in my head what I was doing, in the third person. "She
walked along the path… " Suddenly it seemed so momentous and important that I was walking along the path! So when
I formally started studying creating writing was when I was at Harvard Extension. I had had a rather …checkered late teens and
early twenties — and then I started going there; and I got a degree from there, and then went to Stanford and got my master's degree
in creative writing.
JL: Let's talk about the stories collected in Basic Skills. "Like the Hully-Gully, but Not So
Slow" (1983) was your first attempt to do a disabled point-of-view character?
AF: I had made little stabs, in creative writing classes as an undergraduate, at writing about disability. And had been told
that that was sentimental. Being told that you're sentimental when you want to think of yourself as cutting-edge, and you're in
your early twenties, it was like having cold water thrown on me. And those stories never went anywhere: I didn't do anything
with them. So "Like the Hully-Gully" was really the first place where I wrote about disability in a sustained way. It's
set in the early 1960s, based on events that happened when we lived in Providence.
JL: Then comes
"Abortion" (1985), which contains the line, "'The flight from freedom,' my fingers snapped, 'the rise of the
right-wing, the … it's not exactly freedom we're fleeing from … it's a half-way revolution, a quarter turn.'" How it felt in the
late Seventies when we weren't getting the revolution we were hoping for.
AF: Right, right. And also that sense of having abortion rights but not having much that went along with it, and not having
achieved the revolution in gender relations that we'd hoped for, trying to put that whole stew of things
JL: And not having achieved the revolution in class relations which would give abortion rights a
context in which—
AF: Yes, and very specifically there, I'm thinking about a lot of the loneliness that
people experienced. The lack of connection, and the isolation that people feel, and the lack of a sense of community, and the
way that freedom can sometimes feel like more isolation, more being cut off, creating so many choices that you end up alone.
JL: The end of "Abortion" goes through the metafictional analysis that will become one of the glories
of Call Me Ahab. It talks about the drama of the story, explains how real-life events were altered to turn it into a
work of fiction, and ends with "a slogan, an image, a moral: and with a plea to reimagine our language, to tell and tell
our stories again, until we have words to echo our lives." Needing new narratives and cutting through the received
narratives. I keep hearing that in connection with what Occupy and other radicals today are trying to do. Can it be done? Can
new narratives reach people?
AF: Oh absolutely. I just think we always have to be off-balance. We always have to realize that whatever story we tell, it's
never going to be the final story. Until the end of the human race, which I guess will be the final story, but only by happenstance. I
think of it in terms of disability studies, that whatever point we come to, we're never going to come to a final understanding, we're
never going to come to a final resting point, we're always going to be needing to see that, whatever we've created, it's silenced some
people, it's excluded some things. And to just constantly be aware of that exclusion. And I think the same thing in terms of finding
that language to speak. It's always going to be partial, there's always going to be a kind of yearning at the edges, a sense that we
haven't fully articulated things.
I've been involved in an online forum where somebody was discussing a book and used the term "mental illness,"
and somebody else fired back, "You know, this is a really offensive term, and people in the mad pride movement or the psych
survivor movement don't like this terminology" ;and there's been a very interesting conversation about terminology. The idea
that we're going to come up with the perfect term — I understand why people can have a very strong reaction to the term "mental
illness," and the dangers of it; and I understand that maybe at times it makes rhetorical sense to deploy that, and that we always
have to be aware and we always have to be negotiating those things.
JL: We need words for things, and the dream of a pure language isn't going to happen; and so we'll always have our
scare quotes and brackets and strikethroughs and footnotes and the like.
JL: There's a story in Basic Skills called "A Tragedy" — originally
published as "Our Tragedy" (1985) — which has the line, "We were no short-haired, thin-lipped Maoists
out to offer ourselves up as the vanguard to Providence's working class." But you talk a lot about the asceticism of the
radicals and their grandiose self-image.
AF: And I have mixed feelings about that. Because any revolutionary
change has to come about by being really unreasonable. It has to come about by people being driven. It has to come about by people
being grandiose. And at the same time that grandiosity and that unreasonableness has to be tempered. And the work of tempering
that has to happen within movements. And it's hard to live with.
JL: There's some lines about "internalized oppression" in "A Tragedy" — and that becomes,
under different names, a lovely theme in your later work. "Now I can say I fight this battle with someone else's weapons,
their words, and dream of the language we have not yet created." And there's a positive side to that: we've created a
AF: I so remember that period of my life where there was no way for me to talk about my disability. There
was just no common language, no sense of shared experience, and that utter isolation and void in my life, in terms of language. I really
did have a nascent disability consciousness. But I did not have any words and I didn't have any shared experience. And I had so
much shame about other disabled people. So much sense of "I am not like them." I had a very close friend who'd also
had polio, she was about ten years older than me. And we shared this experience where we used to cross the street if there was
another disabled person walking on the same side of the street as us. Because I didn't want people to think that we were on an
outing from an institution. And I would literally cross the street not to be identified with them.
JL: And now there's not only disability community, there's integration between disabled and nondisabled youngsters
such that many people aren't growing up with that kind of aversion. The title story, "Basic Skills," that appeared in
Thirteenth Moon in 1980 …
AF: I find that story a little bit embarrassing now. You know, the "retarded" language. When I was living in
Cambridge, I had a couple of housemates who worked at the Fernald School, outside of Boston. And they were basically aides.
I think they made a hundred dollars a week, doing an extraordinarily difficult job. I wrote that story 'cause when I was at Stanford
in the writing program, somebody else had written a story that had a, what was then called a mentally retarded character in it. And I
found it such a sappy but at the same time dehumanizing presentation that I wrote this story that was really about my housemate's
mother and Thanksgiving dinner. Because I wanted to make things more real and more explicit and more difficult. And I didn't
want to have this kind of like, "Oh, here's this retarded person, and they're kind of saintly and inspirational." I wanted
it to be tough and I wanted it to be hard. It's like, I have many people in my life who talk about death as passing, and death as
transition, and I want to shout, "No. It's dying. It's a really physical process. And this idea that our soul is kind of wafting off,
it's not what's happening."
JL: There's the line, "Independence is one of her big ideals," about the mother in "Basic Skills,"
and the idea of independence and toughness and autonomy threads through all your books. And independence is a disability ideal,
inasmuch as it's independence from paternalism: Independent Living Centers. But it's also used to justify voluntarism and to deny
AF: As with anything, I think that's a concept that we need to be enormously critical of. But
certainly as a kid growing up, independence was such a value in my family, and for me as a disabled person — I got one of my
Mom's diaries for the years when I must have been five or six, and my mother is just writing dates and things that happened on
them, and there's some saying, "Anne swam with the flutterboard, all by herself! Anne swims!" with this great
excitement at my physical independence.
And there was no such thing as a wheelchair-accessible school, or a wheelchair-accessible this or that, and so there was also
a very concrete material reason for that push for independence.
JL: The story starts, "Normalization is a big thing here at Basic Skills." Talking about teaching the severely
intellectually disabled people simple functional things, but that's such a weighted sentence.
AF: And I don't
think I knew the weight of it when I wrote it. But the whole normalization movement was at the time an advance. It really was an
attempt to work with people who were severely institutionalized, as I think of it, and think: How can we move beyond a custodial
model, How can we work with people to maximize their community participation.
JL: In Past Due, you present the post-polio conference in Berkeley as an early consciousness-raising
AF: I was talking earlier about crossing the street so I wouldn't be on the same side of the street as a disabled person. It was a wonderful thing for me to go into a room full of disabled people, and just say to myself: What do you know, you didn't die. And not only did you not die, but these were interesting people to talk to! I'm part of a community. To discover that community was a really wonderful thing for me.
JL: I love the line, "The world tells me to divorce myself from my flesh." You're talking in the context of disability. It's an old feminist insight too, that the Cartesian mind/body divide is very harmful. But in some of the feminist and even the gay liberationist opposition to somatophobia, that "Let's embrace our bodies" does not recognize disability.
AF: No, it often becomes "Let's embrace what we can do, let's go hiking . . . let's not think about how we look, let's think about what we can do!" And . . . nothing wrong with going hiking, but it does set up this other dichotomy and this other impossible ideal. And also it doesn't acknowledge the very real pain that's happened to a lot of people around being desexualized, around not being looked at. When I read a lot of the formative texts of the feminist movement, they're very much from the point of view of young, middle-class, able-bodied people. They talk about wanting not to be sex objects. Well, you know, a lot of women don't experience being sex objects, whether it's because of disability, or because of
JL: In Part One of Past Due, there's the drama of your "Reproductive Rights
and Disability" talk, which originally appeared where?
AF: It was in Off Our Backs.
JL: After a fight with the editor over whether it would hurt the
AF: Yeah, because of some of the questioning: the belief that if you said anything
questioning any rationale for abortions, you would be feeding into the Right-to-Life movement.
JL: When you said there that the civil rights struggle for disabled people had been going on since the mid-19th century,
what were you referring to?
AF: I guess I'm thinking of the post-Civil War fight for pensions for disabled
veterans…there are a number of court cases that Jacobus tenBroek cites in his "The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled
Law of Torts," which was published in 1966. One was Sleeper v. Sandown, which went to the New Hampshire
Supreme Court in 1872. It concerned a blind man who lived and worked in New Hampshire and was used to crossing a bridge and using the railing, and the railing had broken and he fell into the river. And the court said yes, he had a right to travel and the municipality was at fault for not maintaining the bridge, and causing this accident. So when you start to look for the history of disability rights, you start to find it in all kinds of strange and unexpected places. And I think a lot of what Helen Keller did was early disability rights. Obviously there's a lot that's strange and conflicted there. But there's a lot she does that I think is very very progressive. And I don't think the article I wrote way back when is a great work of historiography, but I did want to say, There's a history here. Because so much of disability, especially then, seemed completely dehistoricized. That sense that "It has always been like this."
I'm very interested in these kind of little set moments that happen. One thing I often get told is, "You know, the Ancient
Greeks exposed disabled children." I must have heard that a hundred fucking times in my life. I don't know what people are
saying, when they say that. I think they're often saying, You're lucky: you should consider yourself fortunate. Because if your mother
had been Jocasta, you'd be left on that hill to die! But I also think it's saying, This has never changed and never will change: disability
oppression has been across the ages, and I really wanted to say, No. It's historical. It changes. It's mutable. It's not fixed. 'Cause if you
don't have that sense, then how can you have a politics, that things are going to change?
JL: Do you see some positive change, since you gave that talk and got so much resistance?
AF: I think there's been a lot of positive change. Even the graying of the reproductive rights movement has been good. As people
have aged, they've started to experience some disability themselves, and people are, What do you know, I'm still a human being! And
even though often you don't totally get a disability politic from aging, there's still some insight there. And the real challenges that
have been brought to the mainstream movement by people who critique the notion of choice, people who prefer to talk about
reproductive rights or about reproductive justice, has made some real shifts. Not that there's not still a lot of work to be done.
JL: At the start of Part Two of Past Due, you talk about the anti-abortion terrorism that began in the Eighties
and you ask, Where was the women's movement? You mean, why wasn't there a mass movement taking to the streets? What was up
with the change in tactics? Economic insecurity? What causes these upsurges and declines in radical energy?
AF: I wish I knew. But I have such a fundamental belief in mass movements, and in the power of mass movements, and I get very
nervous whenever there's reliance on elected officials and reliance on the powers that be. I just think there needs to be grassroots
organizing. I feel like we were too happy about Obama's election. It took a long time for there to be Occupy Wall Street, because
people were saying, We're gonna be saved!
JL: After Past Due, I don't see the phrase "internalized oppression" so much in your work.
And I'm gratified: it seems like a very rough-around-the edges way to describe a problem?
AF: Yeah. It's also a very Seventies term.
JL: Nothing wrong with that. But the idea that we have an inside and an outside and that there's some kind of external
force . . .
AF: [Miming an object whizzing through the air and then penetrating her sternum] that are sort of
lodging inside of us, yeah. I know what I was talking about, but I think it's kind of a crude way of talking about it.
You end up being pretty critical here, and kind of in Bone Truth. The New Left ends up looking terribly condescending toward the
third world, they come out looking fixated on a kind of asceticism that hurts everybody. So what do we celebrate them for? What did
that era, the kind of radicals you lived with in the late Sixties and early Seventies, give us for our present-day radical
AF: I think the New Left brought a kind of weirdness to politics that was really refreshing — I think so much of the Left had
become very joyless, and very rigid, and very hierarchical. And this notion that politics could be strange, and could be quirky,
and could be funny, was really liberating. And also the idea of really getting a grasp on how oppression hurts everyone. How
oppression hurts people who are relatively privileged. I think we often didn't see the other side of that, that oppression also hurts
the people who are really oppressed. But that sense of what it meant to be alienated and that search for meaning was very important.
And that willingness to be critical of received ideas, and to be critical of existing socialist societies, was really earth-shaking. Were we
able to follow through on that with a real politic that could contend for power? No. But I think also that faith in mass movements
was crucial. Whereas I think a lot of the older Left was really suspicious of mass movements, thought they needed to be controlled.
JL: In trying to interpret her life with the radicals in London, Elizabeth says, "My involvement with a party that
labeled my desires as petit bourgeois, my pain as self-indulgent, was a drug … " What has changed that, to the extent that it
has changed? What gave movement radicals permission to talk about desires and all that? Seventies feminism?
AF: Yes, I think 70s feminism. I also think that sense that I had in the 1960s that idealized the heroic peasants of Viet Nam, bearing
up under the horrors of U.S. imperialism ultimately created a very schematized and black and white world. And in many ways it's
tempting to want to live in such a world, where everything seems so clear, and we can drown our own pain in the pain of others. Now,
I think about what it feels like as a disabled person to be idealized, and realize how it is ultimately dehumanizing, I think many of those
attitudes I had as a young radical (now I'm a verging-on-elderly radical) were dehumanizing. And having talked about the heroic
peasants of Viet Nam resisting U.S. imperialism, I have to say that the people of Viet Nam really were heroic—just that there was a
lot more going on there than just heroism. A more complicated political situation, for instance, than Elizabeth lets herself be aware
JL: That self-serving need to romanticize others' suffering. Is that the same as your frustration with the migrant workers
being happy that you mentioned in Elegy, do you think?
AF: I think it is allied to it. In Elegy I was relating an event that had happened to me when I was 7 or 8 years old.
I lived in upstate New York where migrant workers—all of whom were African-American—came through to harvest the crops. They
lived in terrible conditions—really, in shacks—and because of moving about their children received terrible educations. I remember
that they were not allowed to take text books home from school overnight as the rest of us were — we were told that it was because
a frost might come and then they would hit the road. My parents were liberals and talked often of the injustice the migrant workers
experienced — and when I saw a group of them one night, gathered around a campfire, singing and happy I was shocked. So yes I do
think that is close to the feelings I had about the "heroic peasants of Viet Nam," and that it is a way of looking at people
that sees them as one-dimensional. And certainly it's something that we as disabled people experience a lot — being told either how
wonderful and noble we are or that our lives are endless suffering.
JL: Reminds me of how Autism Speaks get so angry when the people they're "trying to help" talk
AF: "How dare they!"
JL: In Elegy, there's a line: "pity is always shadowed by contempt" — I'm not sure I get that.
Condescension sure, but always contempt, how so?
AF: I do think pity is shadowed by contempt. Condescension is too nice a word for it. I think it becomes obvious when you
challenge people on their pity, on their "Gee, I think you are so wonderful," and see them experience a kind of panic: if
I don't have this, I will have to experience my raw and ugly feelings. But perhaps I shouldn't have said "always."
JL: Besides the items you cite in Call Me Ahab and Elegy for a Disease, what other fiction of
disability elicits strong feelings in you?
AF: You know, just about everything I ever read that's about disability gets my goat. I love Moby-Dick now, but I
wouldn't read it when I was in high school, because I kept being told it's about this vengeful disabled person. And I just did not want
to go there.
JL: There's a great assortment of nineteenth-century disability stereotypes in The
AF: Yeah, whatever.
JL: What are some reasons you love Moby-Dick?
AF: I think if many ways it has a disabled structure. It is so unwieldy and rough and wild: the way that philosophical musing
gets juxtaposed against a nautical yarn. And the way the book is constantly subverting itself—Ahab maddened by his compulsion
to go after the whale, which seems to be all about disability—but then he meets that other captain who is also disabled and they
shake bones. The incredible richness of the text — that it is open to so many readings. I mean we read it now, and we see so much
about race and queerness that it seems impossible people once read it and didn't see that.
JL: I want to bring up some recent writers and ask if their work elicits feelings or thoughts other than
just "Feh." Stanley Elkin? Toni Morrison? Philip Roth?
AF: I can't say that any of those writers give me a feeling of "Oh, yes, I have been waiting to here disability described
this way!" The writing of Elkin that I have read is really limited to the excerpt from "Her Sense of Timing" that
Kenny Fries used in Staring Back. And in that piece I found it wasn't reflective of what I think of as "the disability
experience" since it seemed so filtered through the experiences of a man who was disabled relatively late in life, who
experienced disability through the lens of a certain kind of masculine privilege and expectation. In Toni Morrison's work I
appreciate the fact that disability is often not foregrounded, that it's part of a complex identity without becoming the defining
characteristic. But the more I interact with people who are disabled but not part of the "disability community" the more
I see that some of "our" expectations about disability can be narrow and somewhat rigid. There are a lot of people out
there who do experience disability as loss, and as a tragic occurrence in their lives—something to be dealt with and coped with,
not a source of richness and community.
I can't tell you how disappointed I was in Roth's Nemesis. Whatever
you think of Roth, he's a skilled novelist, but when he gets his hands on disability he becomes so wooden. The stilted dialogue. The
plot developments that are everything but given neon signs. And just when the novel gets interesting—it ends so quickly. As so often
in the writing of people who see themselves as non-disabled and are writing about disability I think their wishes and their prejudices
are put into our mouths. The non-disabled world clearly wishes that we didn't desire them, that we would just gracefully exit from
life's stage—if not by killing ourselves then by taking a desk job and living as a recluse. And then they have the disabled character
act out their wishes.
JL: The Plot Against America is also full of disability and ripe for critique.
AF: Yes, and it's another book where I think disability gets treated in such a stereotyped way. That Alvin abandons his anti-Fascist
politics because he's become disabled and of course is bitter over it—it seems so glib and easy.
And ultimately uninteresting.
JL: Plus the Evil Social Climber Woman (imagine, seeing one of those in a Roth novel!) goes mad — more disability
AF: Those evil women! Of course they go mad! Lock them all up!
JL: Your 2004 piece "Goliath," collected in Call Me Ahab, is a wild and intense story — can
you tell me something about its, um, genesis? Were you thinking about Biblical disability?
AF: The spark for that story came from the "run up" to the invasion of Iraq. What an odd concept—that there
would be a "run up" to a war. And I was always fascinated by the image we have of the physically perfect underdog
and the malevolent giant. And how the physicality of the giant's body is so often ignored —so much in our culture is bound up
with the notion of "bigger is better" (penis size, for a start, but we can certainly go on from there), and wanting to take
in the reality of the giant's suffering body.
Also, wanting to tell the story from "the other side's" point of view. I had always known about Joshua "fitting
the Battle of Jericho" (in the Unitarian Church we so loved what were then called Negro spirituals) but I had conveniently
forgotten the part of the story (or perhaps never known it) where after the "walls came a'tumbling down" every man,
woman and child within the city was slaughtered.
JL: There's a line in there about the Philistines: "It seems the events of their lives, which heretofore have been a
collection of haphazard incidents, now form themselves into a coherent narrative." Is that, do you think, a warning against
being too confident in that kind of narrative, or against teleology? 'Cause it's not destined to turn out too well for
them . . .
AF: I think in times of crisis there's a tendency to shoehorn the confusion and noise of life, of history, into a neat story. It happens
in times of war, and it happens also, I think, for social movements. We seize hold of a coherent narrative—the social model of disability,
for instance—that is liberating in many ways, and allows us to come together in ways we hadn't ever before, but at the same time
always excludes experience that doesn't fit in too neatly.
JL: Can you say something about what informs the passion for history that runs through your books?
AF: I've always loved history, and think if I hadn't followed the path I did I would have become a historian. I don't know how
much it had to do with watching old movies on TV post-surgery, and imagining myself in another place and time. That sense,
which is both so radically destabilizing and so fascinating, of who would I have been had I been born in another place and time?
The impossibility of really imagining that, since of course the "I" is so much a product of the place and time you are
born in. I'm also fascinated by the way history gets told and doesn't get told. I just went this morning to an exhibit at the Oakland
Museum, called "1968." And what's fascinating to me, having lived through that time—and heard MLK preach at
Brown University, I believe just a few months before he was killed—was how he seemed to me at that moment—as a man whose
time had passed, who was being eclipsed by far more radical and militant voices. And I think that has now been lost from the
broader historical view of King, indeed, that many people don't know there were people far to the left of King, people who had
given up (or never bought into) nonviolence. And King himself has become so sanitized: we don't hear (or don't often hear) his
speeches against the Viet Nam War, or talking about how high casualty rates were for black men in Viet Nam, or the poor people's
campaign he was planning at the end of his life.
What I'm talking about is how messy history is as it's lived, and how neat the narrative can become—and how I'm drawn to the
JL: One of the brilliant attributes of Call Me Ahab is how meticulously it depicts poverty, in the Eighties
and in the present and in the 18th century too. What milieux and observations helped you in that task?
AF: Living in Detroit. Riding the bus. Living for a summer in Mexico. I've rarely lived in fancy neighborhoods, often in pretty
edgy ones. The day before yesterday, I went to the grocery store about two blocks from my house—not the place I usually go, but
I just needed a few things—and the place was packed. I realized, oh, it's the second of the month, people have just gotten their food
stamps and SSI checks—and they've been hungry. Poverty is the reality for so many disabled people: I remember Mark O'Brien
talking about that in Breathing Lessons, how people were often surprised by his living conditions. We do so much in
our world to wall ourselves off from each other. Every time I hear a politician—or anybody—talk about how people are poor because
they don't work/don't have a work ethic, I wish they would come to my neighborhood and see the people who collect bottles and
cans for the deposit, who are incredibly hard working, very resourceful, and very, very poor.
JL: One thing that impressed me a lot when I'd finished reading Call Me Ahab was the creative mobilization
of anger. How does someone who grew up female in the 1950s and '60s (especially in circumstances where anger was very very
threatening) learn to/give herself permission to use that? I mean, even today, there's intense social pressures against women's
public articulation of anger.
AF: I think I was born angry. Seriously, I have always had a strong streak of anger in my character. I do think that being
disabled made my gender identity very much "other." I was a girl growing up in the 1950s and 60s, who was
having FDR held up as her role model. I remember my high school social studies teacher telling me that I would grow up to
be a senator — he was pretty progressive, but I don't think he would have said that to a nondisabled girl. So maybe it was
more acceptable for me to be angry and female. And also, I think often disabled people are expected to be angry—although
their anger is almost always portrayed as ineffectual, tragic. I mean is anyone ever really scared of a physically disabled
person? (Of someone with an emotional disability, the answer is a resounding yes.) My anger is one of the most fraught
issues of my life. I am constantly asking my Buddhist teachers about how I deal with anger in Buddhist practice (I don't
consider myself to be a Buddhist, but someone who is interested in Buddhist thought and practice). My anger has caused
myself and others enormous pain, but it has also, quite literally, saved my life.