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Disability: A Portrait of Intimate Violence

In a photograph taken in the early 1960s, I’m sitting on the side porch of our rambling Victorian off Hope Street in Providence, with my parents and three sisters and brother. We’d just come home from Sunday school at the First Unitarian Church. We girls are wearing skirts and crisp white blouses, stockings held in place by garters. (Pantyhose, which will shortly arrive on the scene, will seem liberating.) My father and brother have crew cuts and narrow ties; they wear drip-dry polyester shirts — perhaps in genuine Dacron polyester, more likely, some off-brand: with five kids in the family, we pinched pennies. We are smiling, clean, white, well fed, well dressed, cheerful, bright.

I suppose we could have been described with the adjective “typical.” Although at the time, when I was in junior high school, I was aware of our differences. My mother worked when few mothers did. Unlike nearly everyone else on Providence’s East Side, we weren’t Catholic or Jewish, but Unitarian. And then, of course, there were my braces and crutches: I’d contracted polio shortly before the introduction of the Salk vaccine.

In the photograph, my right leg, the leg always described as “bad,” was tucked behind the one called “good.” Someone — maybe one of my parents, maybe the neighbor who took the picture — would have, without speaking of it, probably without even thinking much about it, moved my crutches out of the frame. Years later, during the brief period when I walked with nothing more than a cane but had let go of my shame about my disability, I’d grab my cane and plant it in front of me when my photograph got snapped — a declaration: This is part of me.

Looking at this picture, I remember. And the memory convulses me, disturbs my body, as well as my mind. I am lying on my back on the couch in the living room of our house on Larch Street, my father on top of me, his hands around my neck, pressing harder and harder. Another time, it happened in my bed in the loft at our cottage near Moonstone Beach in Rhode Island’s South County. In my bedroom of our house in Providence. It: strangulation. It’s hard for me to write the word. I want to say something that sounds less extreme — “choking,” “throttling.”

According to an institute for violence prevention, “Strangulation is an ultimate form of power and control, where the batterer can demonstrate control over the victim’s next breath.”

It happened because I had been arguing with one of my sisters about what to watch on television. It happened because I had been making my lunch and my father thought I had the burner on the stove turned too high. It happened for reasons I can’t remember.

It surely happened, at least in part, because of alcohol. My father drank every night: the after-work, pre-dinner martinis were followed by a post-dinner highball, whiskey and water, freshened and refreshened and refreshened. Years later an old friend of the family will fix his gaze on me and say, “Anne, I used to come over to your house in the evening, and your father would be stumbling and slurring his words.” Then my friend said words that surprised me — I suppose because he was male and strong, and because my own fear of my father had always seemed so private, so solitary: “I was terrified of your father when he was drunk.”

And of course, it happened because of my disability.

My oldest sister began her eulogy at my father’s memorial service by saying, “It wasn’t easy being my father’s daughter.” But none of my nondisabled siblings faced the physical rage I did.

There’s a statistic about violence against disabled children, from the World Health Organization, drawing on two systematic reviews published in the medical journal The Lancet: Disabled children are nearly four times as likely to experience violence as their nondisabled peers.

In some way I find comfort in those figures from the world’s leading health agency, from a prestigious medical journal. I’m not alone. It didn’t happen to me, as my family has often implied, because I was a difficult child — although I’m sure I was a difficult child. There was some alchemical reaction among my disability, my father’s alcoholism and the world around us that saw disability as something shameful.

I don’t know the roots of my father’s violence. I’ve often wondered what he witnessed as a child: He had a fraught relationship with his own father and was fiercely protective of his mother. My grandfather slept in the master bedroom in a bed that cannot have been as impossibly vast as it seemed to me as a child, and my grandmother in a narrow bed in a narrow room under the eaves. Was his anger at his own father, his devotion to his mother, a result of violence he’d witnessed? He’d served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, and a few times, in a strangely detached manner — it seemed simultaneously joking and bombastic — he’d talked about Japanese soldiers being shot as they tried to surrender. (Years later, someone would recount being gang-raped to me in a similar fashion.) Childhood, wartime trauma? I will never know.

My father was also fun, and generous. When I was 6 years old, recovering from surgery with a my leg encased in a plastic cast during a sweltering summer, crying with pain as I tried to sleep, my father stood in the doorway, with a broom in his back pocket, dancing until I laughed and finally fell asleep. We rode in his Model A — he’d bought it for $10 from one of his students — down rutted country roads, all seven of us in the car, belting out: “For it’s hi-hi-hee in the field artillery. Shout out your numbers loud and strong!” At our beach house, after a dinner of lobsters and steamed clams, he’d join us on the deck as we spit watermelon seeds at one another. An hour or two later, we’d all troop off to the Vanilla Bean for ice cream. After the American invasion of Cambodia in May of 1970, my father made a gigantic kite with a peace symbol on it to fly at his college’s graduation (although it turned out to be too large to fit into his car).

The thing about intimate violence is it’s so damn intimate. Not just the closeness of the press of my father’s hands around my neck, but the complications of my life and his life, entwined.

Alcoholism, trauma. Still, in the end, I come back to disability:

Did my body somehow read, in all those complicated twists and turns of the inner life of a family, as outer evidence of all that was wrong behind the doors of our home? Did it seem like I was to blame for my disability? After all, my family had been fed the lie that polio could be overcome with enough grit and perseverance. Despite weekly treks to physical therapy, exercises every night after dinner, repeated surgeries, I remained disabled.

In that postwar era it seemed that everything was just going to get better and better and better: Cars would have bigger fins, women’s skirts would grow fuller and fuller; soon there would be jet packs and robots doing housework. And there was my body, stubborn, inescapable — in the eyes of the world, bad: something to be rid of.

Anne Finger is a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Her most recent book is a novel, “A Woman, in Bed.”

Disability is a series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here.

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