I’ve Always Felt More Like You: On Disability and the Second Person
September 30, 2020 § 5 Comments
By James Tate Hill
A few months after I turned sixteen, I lost my sight. Not all of it, but enough that I no longer recognized myself, in the mirror or otherwise. If I dedicated much of my energy to avoiding situations where I couldn’t pass for the ordinary teen I had been, my blurry peripheral vision often convinced people, sometimes even myself, that I was still him.
Actually, let’s try that again.
A few months after you turned sixteen, you lost your sight. Not all of it, but enough that you no longer recognized yourself, in the mirror or otherwise. If you dedicated much of your energy to avoiding situations where you couldn’t pass for the ordinary teen you had been, your blurry peripheral vision often convinced people, sometimes even yourself, that you were still him.
Deleting all those I’s is how it felt to disappear.
Your awareness of second-person point of view came in graduate school for creative writing. You read Bright Lights Big City during college, but having seen the movie, you simply imagined Michael J. Fox every time the novel said you. Now you were the fiction editor for your school’s literary journal, interrogating the choices writers made. When your co editor showed you a submission she liked, the story’s use of second person was the first thing you noticed. It called attention to itself, like neon shorts or a septum piercing.
Despite the gaudy point of view, you voted to accept the story. It was a moving, well-crafted narrative about a primatologist who accidentally eats a chimpanzee she had been studying. Or something like that. Seventeen years later, you don’t recall the plot, nor your co-editor’s argument that the point of view underscored the narrator’s confusion. You trusted her taste. You also didn’t listen closely, not thinking you’d ever abandon first or third person. Since losing your sight, you tried to call as little attention to yourself as possible.
Your next brush with second person came a dozen years later. You were reading House of Prayer No. 2, the memoir by short story and screenwriter Mark Richard. Recently you had published your first novel, a mystery featuring a blind protagonist. It was the first time your writing broached the topic of disability. How you went from hiding your blindness so diligently for fifteen years to writing about it, however thin the veil of fiction, is a question for another essay—a memoir, it turned out.
But you were talking about Mark Richard and House of Prayer No. 2. Growing up in the 1960s with deformed hips, Richard was labeled a “special child” and sent to a series of charity hospitals. In the memoir’s early pages, he refers to himself in third person as the special child. Returning home to the low expectations of parents and teachers, he shifts to second person for the book’s duration.
It made sense, now that you were writing about your blindness, why Richard didn’t refer to himself as I. The guise of fiction let you acknowledge parts of yourself you rarely had with friends or lovers. Experimenting with second person, shifting point of view felt at first like another costume. It proved to be a skimpy pronoun, however, nothing but a pair of glasses. It revealed far more than it hid.
The perceptions of others hover constantly above the disabled, casting long shadows. You are blind; you are deaf; you are the special child. You cannot do this; you cannot be this; you are, to the many who choose not to know you, invisible.
But in your writing, you are only you: author, narrator, protagonist. In second person, you are who you say you are, the only voice in your ears your own. Your failure to reconcile your disability with who you used to be, your mistrust of labels, the fear of judgment that led you to pass for sighted those many years, come into focus each time you type you.
When you met Mark Richard in graduate school, a visiting author to your writing program, he had recently undergone another in a lifetime of hip surgeries. He walked with canes, but when you recall your brief time in his presence you rarely think of his disability. Instead, you conjure the stories he told over burgers at Old Town Draught House. Once, on a globe-hopping quest to interview Tom Waits, the author found himself face to face not with the singer-songwriter, who kept eluding him, but a well-known adult film actress of yesteryear, missing her front teeth.
In his memoir, Richard’s picaresque search for Tom Waits is more intricate and less straightforward. In second person, there’s another layer to the story. He’s telling it to himself as well as the reader. For two months, he rides trains across Europe, often lost, the journey its own destination.
When you think of Mark Richard, you remember, too, how quickly the visiting author dissected your short story during the afternoon workshop. “Is this a story or a sketch?” he asked your classmates.
“Sketch,” someone said.
Plucking a single line from the story you had turned in, Mark Richard crafted new dialogue for your characters on the spot. Instantly they came alive. You were startled by how much better his sentences were than yours, how much of the story you had not seen.
James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, coming summer 2021 from W.W. Norton. His debut novel, Academy Gothic, won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. He is the fiction editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle and a contributing editor for Lit Hub, where he writes a monthly audiobooks column.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.