Here is something I haven’t mentioned before about myself, mainly because I don’t want to be defined by it, but it’s time: I was pretty much born without a right hand. More accurately, I was born with a right transverse upper partial hemimelia. This means that the right forearm and its extremities are severely underdeveloped, to the point where the “hand” is little more than a tiny boneless nub at the end of a rounded off limb, and that’s it. When my sister and I were kids, she astutely nicknamed it my Ziggy arm because of its resemblance to the popular cartoon character when looked at straight on, right down to the smile. Anyway, this was only one of a few health problems I had as a kid, but one thing at a time, right? And it is the biggie.
As a one-handed leftie, I was pretty much doomed from the start. Everything in the world is oriented towards the two-handed and righties. Everything. To make matters worse, I was a complete introvert. You’ve heard of those kids that are missing limbs–often more than one–who go on to do incredible physical feats? Yeah, that wasn’t me. Not even close. I absolutely hated sports and extreme physical activities of all kinds. Still do, in fact. Oddly, though, I did pick up some martial arts skills during the several years I was forced to go to karate class by my parents. At the time I didn’t like going, but I am grateful now that they made me do this. Not because I want to be a bad ass (I’m not anyway), but because it taught me early that attaining anything of value mostly requires sacrifice of some kind. Luck plays a part in it too, of course, but yeah.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite hangouts is Gawker Media’s science fiction site io9. Recently Lauren Davis at io9 published an article called 10 Story Decisions Sci-fi and Fantasy Writers Ended Up Regretting, and one of those decisions was comics writer Robert Kirkman’s decision to have Rick Grimes lose his hand in The Walking Dead comics series (on which the AMC television series of the same name is based). The reason he regretted it is because he didn’t like having to deal with Rick’s small everyday struggles in having to adapt to his disability. But I have a problem with this, and it boils down to a fact that many minorities deal with: seeing that the media accurately represents them. The thing is, it totally makes sense that in an apocalyptic world where zombies exist, people are going to lose limbs. Rick loses his in a confrontation with the Governor, but the example I gave at io9 was that a zombie bite to an arm might necessitate a speedy amputation to keep the zombie venom or mutagen or whatever from infecting the whole person. And I can just see Kirkman’s thoughts at the time: I’ll take his hand–that will be shocking! But then, once he dropped that bomb on his readers, he no longer wanted to commit to it, and therein lies the problem.
My suggestion for writers who want to write accurately about apocalyptic warfare: get used to the idea of dealing with characters who are permanently wounded. If you need motivation, consider all of the people who are even now coming back from the Middle East conflict blind, deaf, confined to a wheelchair or missing one or more limbs, and there are a lot of them. For soldiers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were over 13,000 soldiers who came home wounded–most of them permanently–from the period of March 2003 to June 2005 alone. That is a little over two years of the war, and that war was significantly shorter than the Afghanistan War, which has produced thousands more wounded. Permanent disabilities have always been a major component of warfare, and what is the current zombie craze if not a way for us to process the Middle Eastern conflict?
Hey, writers, go get to know one of these vets and see what it’s like to to learn to live with their disability. Oftentimes it is a slow adjustment, as there is both a physical component and a psychological component to the process. Just psychologically the matter is complex. There are esteem issues and identity issues that come into play. Physically there is the matter of relearning how to do things, as well as figuring out your limitations again. These are things which would be especially relevant to people for whom a great deal of physical prowess would be requisite for survival . . . like those living through a zombie apocalypse.
So, yeah, part of being a one-handed person when one has spent their entire life with two is the small everyday struggles like buttoning a shirt, using tools meant for two-handed use (like manual can openers or wall-mounted pencil sharpeners), carrying heavy objects and so on. These struggles are simply going to be part of the development of any character who has lost a hand and writers need to respect that. It doesn’t mean they always have to show it, but it should be intrinsic to the character that has been put into that situation, and they should be prepared to demonstrate it if they want to portray such an event realistically. Unfortunately, many writers fall woefully short here. In fact, there have been problems with literary portrayals of one-handedness and others disabilities for ages. I won’t go into all of them here, but this article does a good job of outlining the major issues with media representation of the disabled, and this study, entitled Disabling Imagery and the Media, goes into much more depth about these issues. Let’s look at a couple of them that are pertinent to one-handedness.
Traditionally, one-handed characters have been villains. Think of Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Han from Enter the Dragon, Dr. No from the James Bond film of the same name (just one of several disabled or differently-abled villains in the Bond universe, actually) or the one-armed man from The Fugitive.
And with sci-fi specifically, we are often given characters who lose a hand but are given an instant replacement that is equal or superior to the original. This is cool, but these stories invariably never tell us anything about living with this disability. In this category we have Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars franchise, Ash Williams from the Evil Dead series, who had his hand replaced with a chainsaw–very useful for fighting zombies, Tetsuo Shima from the manga series Akira and Alex Murphy from Robocop (who had his entire body replaced rather than just a single limb but loses much of his identity in the process). These can be cool and add context to the story, or they can become deus ex machinas. As much as I love Luke Skywalker, I feel like his cybernetic replacement hand is a bit of a cop-out because he never had to do much to adjust to it. But it was fairly forgivable there because the Star Wars universe has always had a ton of gee whiz gadgetry to fill in the gaps, so at least it’s consistent with the SW universe in general. I mean, what is Darth Vader if not a walking mechanized prosthetic? But then, he is evil, isn’t he?
Well then, have any writers gotten it right when it came to the portrayal of a one-handed character? Not counting books or movies based on true stories, I can’t think of a single perfect example. I should point out that that hardly means they don’t exist. Although I do occasionally dip into literary fiction, my reading does tend to be limited mostly to my favorite genres, where there are some examples I like better than others. There is Jaime Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones series (I haven’t read the books yet), for example, and although the show doesn’t offer us much in terms of Jaime’s everyday physical struggles, I think it does a decent enough job of showing how the legendary swordsman’s identity is impacted by the loss of his sword hand and how he must mentally adapt to it or die. Consequently, he learns to sword fight left-handed. That is no small feat. And let’s be honest: Jaime is hardly a paragon of morality. But by far the best portrayal of a differently-abled person is Tyrion Lannister (played by the fantastic Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is realistically flawed but not really villainous. He does murder King Joffrey and his own father, Tywin Lannister, but both of them were terrible people who probably deserved it. Really though, in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion is overall one of the better and humbler people.
I also like the character of Amy Sullivan from the film John Dies at the End (again, I have not read the book), even though she is an example of the Magic Cripple, the disabled equivalent of Spike Lee’s Magic Negro, albeit a one-trick pony on that front. Nevertheless, I consider this forgivable mainly because the story presents a clever twist on the concept of the phantom limb, and because through the majority of the story Amy’s missing hand is simply taken for granted and not dwelt upon. Another interesting dimension here is that one rarely sees one-handed females in genre fiction, even though there are tons of males who are missing arms or hands, and it was fantastic to see a handsome male lead in a film dating a disabled girl, even if her disability is clearly in the story for a reason.
In my own semi-autobiographical novel in progress The Sinister Hand, the protagonist’s disability and how he deals with it is pretty much front-and-center. The book is structured something like the recently reviewed Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson, where there is a framework story (which comprises the actual biography of the character in this case) and several short stories, which are Noel’s dreams and fantasies, all of them sci-fi, fantasy or horror stories in which the protagonist is either missing a hand or has a deformed or augmented right hand that is symbolic within the context of the story. In this way, I deconstruct several of the myths and stereotypes about disabilities, especially congenital deformities. Right now this book is slated to be my second finished novel, after AL+ER.
Just remember, authors: it’s great that you want to use disabled characters in your fiction. I praise that decision; there needs to be more of it, not less. But if you do, commit to it. Don’t just throw it in there to shock or amuse and then stick it in the background. Do the research and find out what disabled people struggle with and what they overcome, and present them honestly, as real people, not just tropes. Hey, I’m easy to please and hard to offend, but I think you guys need to do better than you’re doing with these issues. Thanks for listening.