"As I finally climbed onto the bed, I said, 'Is this trip really necessary?' " Irving Kenneth Zola writes in "Tell Me, Tell Me," one of the 20 selections that make up this anthology. "I don't know what I intended by that remark but we both laughed. And as we did and came closer, we kissed, first gently and then with increasing force, until we said almost simultaneously, 'We'd better get undressed.' "
A common enough prelude to a sexual episode, described matter-of-factly, even though the girl in the bed is a quadriplegic, incapable of feeling anything below her shoulders, and the writer, himself unable to navigate without a steel leg brace, has had to manipulate the girl out of a wheelchair and onto the transfer board that will get her into bed before they can begin to make love. The heavy work did not dismay him; what did, was hearing her whisper, "Tell me . . . tell me." "Tell you what?" he asks, afraid she will demand a declaration of love. "Tell me what you're doing, so I can visualize it." With this, the author relaxes, and so does the reader, for the bizarre aspects of the scene have now dissolved into a familiar pattern.
"Ordinary Lives" focuses on the concerns disabled persons have in common with the rest of the world, and not on the unique problems posed by their disabilities. Zola, a sociologist on the faculty of Brandeis University, has selected excerpts from the writings of a dozen different authors to make the reader aware that disabled people also have to cope with sibling tensions, with adolescent awkwardness, with peer pressures, with snobbery and prejudice and resentment of authority.
Fifteen-year-old Ved Mehta, arriving in the United States to enroll in a school for the blind, suffers a series of cultural shocks. He has refused food on the long plane ride from India to New York. "How would I eat breakfast? All my life I'd eaten with my hands. A spoon was the only implement I had ever used, and that very rarely."
Taken from the airport to the home of a blind musician, he is astounded to hear Mr. DeFranco exchange a loud kiss with his wife. "I wondered if my mother would have permitted me to spend my first days in America with the DeFrancos had she known that my hosts kissed in public." At dinner, when it turns out that Ved is not familiar with the way blind people are helped to locate the food on their plates--"peas at 12 o'clock, meat balls at six"--Mr. DeFranco offers the opinion that Ved's lack of knowledge is due to India's "primitive conditions," where work for the blind is probably "very backward." Ved bristles: "There is nothing in India primitive or backward," he snaps. His defensive reaction is little different from what Americans feel when their ways are criticized by foreigners.
Hopelessly spastic from birth, unable to speak or hold up his head, Christy Brown describes himself as "a little bundle of crooked muscles and twisted nerves . . . imprisoned in a world of my own, unable to communicate with others." When he discovers, at age 5, that his toes can grasp what his hands cannot, and that a writing implement held between his toes affords him a channel of communication, we share his jubilation. But life consists of more than communication. In "Down All the Days" he tells of his first awareness of sexuality when he happens to see his sister undressing, "his whole body suddenly flaming and a loud roaring in his temples . . . It was beauty and perfection and terror."
Christy's sister was kind. Hearing his involuntary moan, she thinks he is having a bad dream and kneels to smooth his forehead. In "Cotton in My Ears," Frances Warfield's older sister, resentful of the attention lavished on the deaf 6-year-old, is malicious, taunting the child and leading her to lie about her inability to hear. Frances fears that if the aunts who are bringing her up discover her imperfection, they will give her away to the Charity Guild, the way they dispose of other useless objects.
Leonard Kriegel's story tells how a dozen wheelchair-bound men in a rehabilitation hospital, rebellious over their confinement, launch a "cavalry charge" out of the hospital gates and down the hill to a candy store. Their unauthorized caravan has no practical purpose, since they don't actually want to buy anything. Theirs is the need to declare independence, to act out defiance of authority.
Not every item in this anthology is of equal relevance to the point the book tries to make. Resentment of medical autocracy is reflected in the excerpts from Martha Weinman Lear's "Heartsounds" and Eric Hodgins' "Episode," as well as in the two selections dealing with mastectomies. There is only a tagential relationship to the book's theme in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," the cruel and haunting tale of the exploitation of a crippled woman by the sly trickster she thinks of as "simple."
"Ordinary Lives" aims to provide an antidote to the inspirational tales of saintly suffering that so often constitute the formula for stories about the disabled. To the extent that we recognize that the book's selections are not about disability but about the human condition, that aim is realized.