Tuesday, October 24, 2017

October 24: Mongolian Idiot, Rights of the Intellectually Challenged, My Sister

Billy's daughter Barbara came in later that day.  She was all doped up, had the same glassy-eyed look that poor old Edgar Derby wore just before he was shot in Dresden.  Doctors had given her pills so she could continue to function, even though her father was broken and her mother was dead.

So it goes.

She was accompanied by a doctor and a nurse.  Her brother Robert was flying home from a battlefield in Vietnam.  "Daddy--" she said tentatively.  "Daddy--?"

But Billy was ten years away, back in 1958.  He was examining the eyes of a young male Mongolian idiot in order to prescribe corrective lenses.  The idiot's mother was there, acting as an interpreter.

"How many dots do you see?" Billy Pilgrim asked him.

This passage pisses me off.  I know that the term "Mongolian idiot" was once acceptable, even common.  "Down syndrome" didn't come into use until the early 1970s.  Slaughterhouse was first published in March of 1969.  Kurt Vonnegut was a product of his time.  That's why he calls the young Down syndrome boy an "idiot."  I notice that  Vonnegut even depersonalizes the character even more by using the term "male" instead of boy.  Suddenly, instead of a living, breathing human being, Billy is treating a specimen:  the Mongolian idiot male.

As many of my disciples already know, I have a sister with Down syndrome.  So, I have been exposed to all sorts of cruelties.  My mother fought hard for my sister all her life.  Fought to get her in school.  Fought to keep her in school.  Fought for classroom funding.  Took on principals, school superintendents, and instructors who saw my sister as hopelessly unteachable.  When my sister was born, the doctor told my parents to put her in an institution and forget about her.

This all happened right around the time that Vonnegut was writing Slaughterhouse, which explains a lot about the passage.  Doctors, educators, and brilliant writers all saw people with Down syndrome as idiots, oddities, sideshow attractions.  I don't blame Vonnegut for his ignorance.  I understand it, in the social context.  Vonnegut was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-nuke movement.  Most of his books are thinly veiled social commentary.  Yet, at the time of Slaughterhouse, he wasn't aware of the incredible insensitivity of calling someone a "Mongolian idiot."

We have come a long way since the publication of Slaughterhouse.  It's now legislated that public schools must provide educations for children with mental and physical impairments (for now--the current Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, is trying to change that).  However, just like the battle for Civil Rights continues, so does the battle for the rights of the intellectually challenged.

I'm ashamed to say that I don't think of this cause every day now, despite how personal it is for me.  My sister has been out of the education system for over 30 years.  Her current issues are health and memory.  Like most older people with Down syndrome, she is developing symptoms that could be the beginning of Alzheimer's or dementia.  That is her daily struggle now.

Vonnegut is not a bad person for calling his character a "Mongolian idiot."  He is the product of his culture, as we all are.  And, sometimes, culture needs to change.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for his sister, who is not an idiot.

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