“You didn’t see me.” That must be the most popular line of relationship distress we’ve all ever heard and the reason for much heartache. With those who are closest to us, we yearn to be seen meaning, we want to be seen for who we really are — all that vulnerable, squishy stuff inside of us that we want others to take in their arms and hold gently.
What does it mean to “be seen?” I mean, out here in Miami there is no lack of men and woman stripping nude, or nearly nude, wanting to be seen. Hair coiffed just so, a pair of trendy sun glasses and a spray-on tan, and off they go into the public to show off with their heads held just so — pretending as if they are not aware that others are staring. These people may want to be seen all right, but they want us to pay attention to what they want us to see. It is a far cry from being seen.
If you think this post is about relationships it certainly could be. This is the meaty stuff of what makes or breaks many of them and why life is so hard sometimes. In his book Double Take: A Memoir, Kevin Michael Connolly travels to more than seventeen countries and captured 33,000 photographs along the way about the way people see him. Born without legs, “being seen” takes on a whole new meaning.
The photos in his book titled The Rolling Exhibition (named after his rolling around on a skateboard: “This Is A Legless Guy’s Skateboard. Please Please, Don’t Steal” he writes upon it), have been featured at museums and galleries around the world. They are taken from his perspective, low to the ground, (he is lying on his back when he takes some of them) with people staring down at him, which of course has a pent-up meaning in itself when talking about disability and the way people stare. They are passer’s by, whisking past him and he has caught their fleeting yet loaded glances. How could one describe them? Curiousity? Fear? What does it mean to be a subject of a stare when you have not intentionally invited it, unlike those plastic Miami boobs?
(Interesting to go off on a tangent here to recognize that those fake boobies are in the same sense a prosthesis that we admire rather than fear. Of course, we have the same curiousity and sometimes repugnance at the fake boobie because we understand that some person has intentionally gone under the knife and altered herself to make her more attractive for sex and they don’t look quite real. So we stare to make up our minds, or stare because we are just so darn curious. Aimiee Mullins, who has designed for herself a series of gorgeous looking prosthetic legs that can make her various heights has also noted the lack of difference between her legs and the many prosthetics men and women now use by choice in order to alter their appearance).
Like the performance artist Petra Kuppers, who with her disability stages performances that also investigate the stare, in fact invite it, Connolly has invited it by his being born with bilateral amelia (meaning born without limbs). It’s an unintended invitation, like being born into royalty with paparazzi following your every move. You don’t ask for it; it’s just sort of a birthright and a burden, whichever way you look at it — they seem to go hand-in-hand.
What I love about the camera is that it’s like staring back. Being a photographer means you are like a voyeur, capturing other’s most private moments. One simple glance or expression, as they saying goes, captures a thousand words. Connolly has taken the stranger’s stare and turned it back on them. It’s rather empowering to turn the investigated into the investigator. If I were Petra Kuppers, I’d be performing. If I were Estee Klar, I’d be writing. It’s what people who need to express a point, do. The camera captures private moments the way people stare at many disabled people who cannot fend off the stare. Often, we are intrepid lenses unwelcome in private moments. Yet Connolly, like all people who put their expressions out into the world has a conscience as he reflects in Sarajevo:
“What’s wrong,” [Beth] asked softly, her hand on my back.
“I don’t think I can shoot this anymore.”
“I think I’m hurting people.”
“People think I’m a beggar of someone who was hurt here.”
“Well, yeah. Maybe some people. But that doesn’t make you any more of a beggar than you were a month ago. You and I know who you are, so don’t let it get to you.”
“Yeah, but I’m using them for the photos.”
“So? It’s not as if their entire day is ruined or anything. You’re getting too wrapped up in everything. If you stop shooting and just quit, you’re going to hate yourself forever.” (p. 198)
It’s a question of art to a certain extent — this idea of truth-telling and who and what moments we use as subjects. When we take our personal experiences and use others to reflect a truth, are we doing unto others as they do unto us? The discussion about staring at people who look different or disabled is a sensitive one, and the more others can see themselves, the more we all can understand the effects of what we do everyday — those things we think are harmless like taking about an autistic person like they are not present, or criticizing the family, the parent, or autistic individual who needs to fight for things that come automatically to other families like access to education, services, and just acceptance into our communities without having to talk about autism, acceptance and the like. From a personal point of view, although I have to end up talking about it, I don’t want to talk about it everyday. We want (and deserve) to live our lives with autism as does any other person who wants to live their lives in peace, without having to justify the reason why they deserve to be here — why they “have” autism, where it “comes” from, or why they should have access to that school or that aide.
As a writer who likes to write about certain instances in our day-to-day lives — from the person who stares at Adam’s wildly flapping hands, to the friend whose account I once used about, when I was new to autism writing and the idea of “normal,” her desire to change the appearance of her child’s ears (I used the story about our quest to make our children appear indistinguishable and in Adam’s case, it’s simply impossible) — it’s really difficult to write about these real-life events. Yet there is a need for many of us to write, or make photographs and art, about them. It seems that everyone is sensitive, but the context in which these accounts are written are important. The consciousness of not wanting to hurt other people, seems to me, is a must in the making of art, not that the hurt won’t be there. In the world of black-and-white autism politiking, there is a need for education through thoughtful literature, memoir, art projects like Connolly’s. These projects help us understand life from a different perspective, and because it has been “done to him,” Connolly has a need to state his sensitivity. The outcome of his work is worth it. Like art and writing, the poignant point is made when it is evident that the artist has weighed the cost and the benefit of telling true stories.
In his Epilogue, Connolly reflects how the looks, no matter how experienced or hardened we become, still effect him:
“As these pages show, my lack of legs has generated a lot of strange looks. Those stares still get to me sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if I should explain myself to the people who shoot a sad direction in my direction. Maybe, if it would relieve that moment of guilt or pity from their lives, it would be worth it. But most of the time, I let those stares slide off my back. A lot of times, I don’t want to talk about my lacking legs.
Maybe it’s because dialogue has a tough time blooming when it’s about negative space. There’s only so much you can discuss about something that isn’t there, and isn’t forthcoming. And rather than try to make a bad riff on a Beckett play, I’d prefer to end this page with what I do have…
So maybe the reason I’ve been so frustrated at times by the question What the hell happened to you? [what caused your son’s autism? — my interjection here] is because it’s simply the wrong one to pose. It focuses too much on a physical circumstance based on a singular point in time, rather than on all of the influences and characters that followed.
Perhaps Where the hell did you come from? is what we all should be asking.” (pp.226-27)
I would agree. It would be nice to be asked that question rather than “what happened” to us, even though autism is certainly a part of our lives. The question is, Do you see me? For Adam and I, and Kevin Michael Connolly, it seems, it means the whole package.
Kevin Michael Connolly, Double Take: A Memoir, New York: Harper Collins, 2009.