Monday, October 29, 2012

Crazy Carla & the Retards

A year or so ago the Full Spectrum family was having brunch with another couple and their children.  Other Couple had a son a little older than G who was neurotypical, “cool” and athletic but usually willing to accommodate G’s Pokemon obsession during family get-togethers.

Knowing we were to see this family, G had been planning for days which Pokemon cards he would bring to show Other Couple’s Son, a fellow he admired quite a bit.

When we showed up at their door, though, Son had a friend over. A similarly “cool” friend, of his own age. G—always wary of three -- immediately tore into an excited preventative monologue about Pokemon for Son. Son just as immediately announced, scornfully and for benefit of Friend, “I hate Pokemon.”

G’s little face crumpled.

There are kinds of valor that are not in history books, but that matter greatly all the same. Among these, we ought to include the bravery of a little boy who has just been dissed and dismissed and stands his ground there in the hallway.

“C’mon G, let’s go get some food,” I said, throwing an arm around him and pulling him toward the kitchen -- probably embarrassing him but making him to know he was very loved.

A little later Other Wife was showing me some renovations around the house while our husbands, Z and G hung out with the bagels.

“You know,” she confided, “This is really hard for Son.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“Dealing with G being here.”

“What do you mean?” I still had no idea what she meant.

“When I was a little girl I had a cousin who used to come over and she was…well, like we used to say, ‘retarded,’ and it was very hard for me to be around her.”

I stood there, speechless. Was she saying that G, who has autism and is academically gifted, is “retarded?” Or that being around “retarded” people is terribly hard for the “non-retarded?”

I had been warned by several friends about this woman. They called her “Crazy Carla.”* Having been a victim of smear campaigns myself (small town viciousness, epic yoga world pettiness), I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I was aware from my own interactions with her that Carla was high strung, but I hadn’t seen the full extent of her possible “craziness” until now.

I couldn’t help but feel, though, that what she was saying aloud might reflect the way a lot of other people feel without giving voice to those feelings.

She backtracked a little: “I’m not exactly saying that G is a ‘retard’ but Son doesn’t know how to deal with having someone…like him around! So that’s, you know, really hard on him. I feel bad for him.”

Where I am at on the Spectrum, I have a really hard time expressing myself when I am overwhelmed by sensory or emotional input. After this statement, I literally shut down. I have no memory of responding in any way.

Retorts I wish had popped into my mind in a timely fashion:
“Really? Is your child reading Hawking?”
“Oh…I guess retards should be treated with disdain!”
“It’s okay -- G has a hard time with A-holes and I think he’s doing pretty well with it today.”
“Probably you should have just pretended your cousin didn’t exist! It’s very inconvenient when people are different.”
“You just made me want to die…for so many reasons.”
Or even -- but I was not and still am not personally enlightened and big enough for this one -- “What do you mean?”

We went back down to the kitchen. Pardner said later that my face was grey. We left after awhile.

I never said anything. Much like when people ask, regarding Z, “Is she your REAL child?” I feel like, if you really just opened your mouth and said that, what is there to say? I do – obviously! – believe in working with people whenever possible around accepting differences, universal equality, and so on. Nevertheless, there are people who are receptive to expanding their empathy and understanding and people who are willfully ignorant. (Please see Ann Coulter and!)

There’s an argument to be made for reclaiming a word such as “retard,” too. Along with feminists (and others) reclaiming derogatory words about women, people of different ethnicities (and others) reclaiming disparaging words about their ethnic groups (insofar as such things exist in any clear way), Wiccans (and others) reclaiming the word “Witch,’ and so forth, certain individuals can and do lay claim to appropriating “retard” for their own positive purposes. That is a different issue.

In this day and age, there is no excuse for using the word “retard” about a child. None.

As for “Crazy,” well, most of my favorite people are a little nuts. Good nuts.

Full Spectrum Mama

* Crazy Carla’s name has been changed (the Carla part, not the Crazy).


  1. So on time. Language! Tolerance! This confessional era where we make excuses for our children's failings instead of helping them be better? Why don't we just try to raise sensitive, flexible, and kind kids!?
    Thank you for this post!!!

    1. EXCELLENT point and, oddly, I hadn't considered the issue from that angle. Wouldn't that moment in the hallway have been a great one for learning and opening a can of do-right for all parties?! Thank you for your comment and for carrying the teach-our-children torch! Love

  2. Just found your blog and only read this one post. It is unbelievable to me how insensitive some people can be. That boy has it hard, having a mother like that. We see where he has learned his thoughtlessness. I have taught my kids since they were tiny that the most important thing is the world is kindness. I think we talk about this at least once a week still, and they are 9, 13 and 16. So far, it's working pretty well.

    1. Thank you, Theresa, for your comment and for sharing such a beautiful parenting tip. It's true, isn't it, about kindness (and not fake niceness or condescending tolerance or just-in-front-of-adults "good" behavior) being at the heart of what matters. Why are parents falling so short in this area???

  3. Love this. A thought: My brain tends to shut down in serious WTF moments too. I wonder, if it's worth it, if it would serve you or her, to write CC a letter. A kind, but "here's how I see it" note, and then follow up with a call. Just a thought filed in the It's Never Too Late category of my brain. xo

    1. Awwwwwwww, MA! Do I HAVE TO??? ;)
      [sheepishly] You are probably right.

  4. Here is a comment from an anonymous reader:
    "I agree with your commenter about making excuses for our children rather than expecting more from them. This is the one nugget I took from Amy Chua's Tiger Mother book (having high expectations for our kids is a compliment to them. Making excuses for them is an insult--and they're smart enough to know the difference).

    Anyway, the "retard" comment is inexcusable. I am still chewing on the Ann Coulter thing. As I said to [partner] after reading about it, "If you have the Down's syndrome community against you then it's time to seriously rethink your life.""

  5. Well written and true. Why don't you send CC the blog link and she can read it and the comments before sitting down and writing and apology letter to you and yours. She must be a member of the Tea Party to be so ignorant and selfish!@

  6. Love this....perhaps you can view this experience through a clear lens mama, one not fogged with righteousness and judgement. And with honesty? Was the word "retard" really used in the way you're leading your readers to believe....?

    I'm wondering if CC in her own ignorant way, fumbling on her words, was trying to say that perhaps validated only the needs of children labeled "on the spectrum", is in fact short- minded and insensitive. Social experiences are hard for all kinds of kids.....indicting a child in the way you have is unacceptable.

    Instead of waiting a year or two to bash CC (who I'm guessing is a person too), perhaps confronting her with honesty, respect, sensitivity and an open mind, might have been a kinder approach. And we shouldn't pretend that our kids will never say something insensitive for the sake of being honest. As kids grow and develop so too will their filters.

    Full Spectrum Mama, I like your posts. Sadly, I will stop reading cuz this one is simply......mean.

  7. Dear Anonymous,
    I don't feel righteous or judgmental at all...I am not sure where you stopped reading. The possible responses I didn't have the wherewithal to say at the time reflect truly how I Felt: shocked, paralyzed, sad, hurt, protective and defensive of my child (as any parent would have!). I do maintain a personal right to have feelings, and I know that these feelings are shared by many parents in many situations. My final response, "What do you mean?" was clearly remarked upon by me as the "best" one, but one I was unable to make at the time. Nor did I subsequently follow up for a number of reasons, including those mentioned above, and the facts that our lives are very full and CC was not a close or easygoing enough friend to make that conversation you thoughtfully suggest a likely possibility.
    I will never think it was okay for CC to use the word "retard" in that context (yes, that is EXACTLY and verbatim what was said) nor will I ever think it was okay for her son to be a jerk to mine. Of course all kids, including "special needs" kids, say insensitive things sometimes! (I was NOT "indicting a child" - I mentioned in passing what he said - which, frankly, I see as pretty "normal" dumbas$ kid behavior...) However, if my kids say something insensitive, I will call them on it -- and parents not doing so may well create larger problems, as several readers have noted.
    But I don't say any of this from some high holy place of condemnation; instead I was writing from my own place on the spectrum of having been profoundly confused and hurt on my son's behalf and unable (not unwilling, or righteously refusing) to act. One of the reasons I write this blog is to hear shared and different perspectives, the former for support AND the latter for wisdom I might not come up with on my own. So, thanks.

  8. I love your blog. I read this post with great interest. I realized a couple of paragraphs into it that I was holding my breath -- an all too familiar scenario. The thing that troubles me most about those types of exchanges is that the "Carlas" often think they are being gracious by being honest, when really it's just being hurtful. I often tell my husband that what the world needs most is empathy. Where is our mindfulness of the feelings of others? So many people just don't get it...and don't seem to care to. Sad, really.

    1. I just keep getting schooled by readers. First I thought Kindness was the key but now, D., I am thinking empathy - because it includes kindness but adds in a deep sensitivity to particular situations and individuals. It's something we all can aspire to - and teach our children as best we can...
      And I very much agree with the notion of destructive and hurtful "honesty." Some people seem to believe in honesty at any cost, or as some sort of service. I think it is possible to be truthful without being a chump, to respond and explain in sensitive ways that avoid potentially incendiary or painful "truths," and that sometimes we should stay quiet when we don't know what to say...I think there's a saying about that ;)
      Thanks and love, FSM

  9. Yesterday I was sitting with an elderly man down the dirt road from us and discussing politics and the state of our culture. Conversation lead to education, and its evolution to include learners of all types, people from multiple cultures and classes, etc when suddenly, he inserted the word Nigger. No matter his intent (to shock me he professed), the word is simply crushing. It took me several hours to realize that any instant response would have been inadequate. I needed time to process the word's power; its life, its ugliness. I agree with FSM that although we can reclaim certain derogatory words, labels of all types are a tricky business-- as is honesty without thoughtful compassion. Acknowledgement of the prior life of those words is the absolute minimum requirement in a conversation where harmful labels are tossed around. Labeling someone as righteous and judgmental who is living daily in the shadow of harmful labels: in school, in social situations, in doctors offices. . . underscores the cycle of separation and does little to evolve together. I agree with D- more empathy for all hurts and all responses will go a long way. Consider this story: A man was walking in the woods. He came upon a dog. He called to it warmly and held out his hand. The dog spat and growled. Instantly, the man shouted out 'bad dog'. As he approached the dog with a stick with which to hit, he saw the dog's leg was caught in a trap. Now the man could see the dog was in terrible pain and needed kindness and help, not more anger. We all need to look at activity with that lens, anonymous. I think that too will go a long way.

    1. Thanks for the comment and homilies, sis! You empathized with a point I think I did not make clearly in the original post which is the enormity of that "shadow" of such characterizations/caricatures under which families and individuals can live, whatever their differences. My problem with CC was only incidentally personal; to me, the bigger point was: is this what people THINK (and we are not talking about an ignorant or childless person in this particular instance)? And a deeper fear: if so, does that kind of labeling allow people to treat my child as somehow less-than -- less-than worthy of the basic consideration or respect you'd give to someone who was not [fill-in-the-blank, i.e., here, "what we used to call a retard," etc.]??? The complex "lives" of words as you put it can sear into a mother's brain; can impact a child's self-image, path and dreams; in short, can and do significantly affect human LIVES.
      We all can grow, and I know I am more empathetic and careful after this experience: after thinking about what you said about words I realized I'd written that G "has autism BUT is academically gifted" (new emphasis mine) -- and I changed that "but" to an "and!" Love, FSM

    2. Dear sis,
      As I was doing the dishes this weekend it suddenly hit me just how apt your example was:
      Suppose my son (instead of or in addition to being on the autism spectrum) was a person of color (as my daughter in fact is), lets's say of African-American descent. Imagine, then, that this interaction culminated in CC explaining to me that her child doesn't want to publicly acknowledge his friendship with my son because my son is "sort of like what we used to call a nigger."*
      Now I should say that I do NOT believe CC's intention was at all malicious (just "honest") but in this light the implications become very stark.
      * I do not use this word lightly, only to reveal what I see as genuine civil rights implications for ALL sorts of people.

    3. exactly. after all, a rose is a rose is a . . .

  10. This blew me away. Instead of teaching our children to take the time to find every persons "special" (what we call it here), so many parents try to maintain their kids comfort zone leaving no room for growth. Crazy Carla is raising a child that will one day treat her with the same disdain. Yuk.

  11. Dear Anonymous, Thank you for your comment. My intention was never to demonize CC - it's the very ORDINARINESS of the whole scene that really got me...So I am not sure if her child will eventually treat her with disdain or just the ordinary disregard with which we treat our elders in this culture! Here's to all of us doing our best to treat EVERYONE as "special"!!! Love, FSM


Dear Readers, Full Spectrum Mama seeks to honor and represent a Full Spectrum of opinions. All reasonably coherent comments will be published. If you are having trouble posting a comment (for reasons I cannot figure out, most people do??!!) , please email FSM @: