The story of Gemma Hayter reminds us that the slowness of our developing humanity has a terrible price.
Gemma Hayter was a 27-year-old woman with a developmental disability, living independently in Britain, who was brutally tortured before being left to die naked and alone on a railway embankment. The details of her treatment are horrific enough that I won't repeat them here, except for one point that I think is too important not to share: she believed that the people who committed the atrocities against her were her friends.
Following the sentencing of her convicted killers, Hayter's family released a statement, and one line jumped out at me in particular: "Our Gemma was a very loving and vulnerable woman who trusted everyone, and her trusting nature and vulnerability led to her death on 9 August last year."
That could describe Schuyler. It could describe a great many of our loved ones, children and adults alike.
Gemma Hayter's case is a stark reminder that the seeds of societal disregard for persons with developmental disabilities ultimately manifest in abuse, in violence and in death and heartbreak and deep sorrow. If you choose to look, to really see, you can follow the line from jokes about "retards" in film and television and the stages of comedy clubs to the young people repeating them on the schoolyards, and you can watch those kids grow into young adults and observe them as they live their lives without empathy or compassion for those who have never had value or humanity in their eyes. Small steps, leading inexorably to a moment where killing a living, thinking, feeling human being might be difficult enough to give them pause, but doing harm to a worthless retard, just for laughs? What's wrong with that? How is the world diminished by a loss like that?
It's not a butterfly-flapping-its-wings-in-China kind of mysterious connection. It's real, and there is measurable responsibility to be faced for the harm that springs from such small seeds.
As I said, I do feel like there are incremental steps being taken towards a larger good. Sometimes you have to look hard to see them. Sometimes I think I see them when they're not there. Overbelieving, perhaps, or overwanting.
WTF, hosted by comedian Marc Maron. Maron can be a really sharp and funny comic, and he's done some fantastic interviews with others in his industry. I think I was vaguely aware that he'd been something of an apologist for comedians who had gotten in hot water for using words like "retarded" in their work, but I'd never heard him actually do so himself. That is very much a distinction of questionable significance, I admit.
Recently, Maron interviewed a comic named Anthony Jeselnik. Jeselnik's comedy works for a very specific crowd, I suspect. He's a joke-teller. He delivers short, one or two line jokes, and they are generally both absurd and edgy, crossing as many lines as he can find to cross. Imagine the love child of Stephen Wright and, I don't know, Satan. Jeselnik's humor isn't for everyone; I can't imagine very many people sitting through an entire set of his without a thinking "Oh, wow, I don't know about that" at least once or twice. To be honest, while I recognize how excellent Jeselnik is at his craft, I don't care for some of his material myself, partly because I think he's planting the kinds of seeds that I spoke of earlier. I will say, however, that unlike someone like Tracy Morgan, Anthony Jeselnik isn't trying to have it both ways. He's not trying to offend without consequence while at the same time depending on work in bland network tv comedy or family-friendly film. If you make the effort to go see Anthony Jeselnik in a club or listen to his material on tv, you've got a pretty good idea of what you're going to get. Being offended at one of his shows is a little like going to a Ku Klux Klan rally and saying, "Wow, these guys are kind of racist."
In Maron's interview with Jeselnik, there was a lot of discussion of "How far is too far?". Perhaps inevitably, the topic turned to jokes about people with developmental disabilities, and again, Jeselnik declares the topic fair game. But here it's Maron who discusses his own material on the subject, material that I hadn't heard before. It's hard to listen to, even as he is firmly convinced that his humor is inoffensive.
"I used to tell this story, and I just stopped telling it because there's nothing right about it... I genuinely said to the audience that when you see a mentally disabled person, it's hard not to be filled with joy because they're so childlike and they experience joy so immediately that when they're having a good time, you literally feel elated because of their sort of unfiltered ability to experience joy. So I don't think we should be arguing about the word 'retarded' or about 'mentally challenged' or 'developmentally disabled'. I think they should be called 'God's clowns'... And I meant 'God's clowns' in a nice way. I didn't mean like God was making a fool out of them. They're there spreading joy in this way. It was really well-intended."
So yeah. As much as Maron insists that he's not being offensive, he is in fact being WILDLY offensive. The fact that he's being cute about it doesn't change the fact that he is completely dehumanizing people with developmental disabilities, reducing them to a superficial and amusing construct. As soon as I heard the words "God's clowns", I made a mental note to remove Maron's podcast from my iTunes subscription list.
But then he continued, and maybe won me back a little. Maron said that later that night, he attended a concert, and standing behind him was a man with a developmental disability, shouting joyfully for the band. And at first, Maron felt validated by this young man and his exuberant happiness. But then...
"When I heard him, I again felt that excitement like, you know, he's so excited, it's so raw. And then I look over and he's with someone who must have been his dad, and this dude just looked like every bit of everything had been drained out of his being. And it was in that moment that I realized that I guess it's only fun for a little while. And that's when I stopped doing that bit."
There is so much that's wrong with this. The fact that he can't identify at all with the young man himself, but only feels the beginning of compassion for the young man's father, is troubling. More than troubling, really. It is an incomplete epiphany. But when I listen to it again, I can at least hear the beginnings of something, a spark of understanding. Maron sees how the lives of persons with disabilities might be more challenging than he's considered in the past, although he's unable to see any further than the challenges facing a disabled person's family. It's woefully inadequate, but it might just be a different kind of seed, one from which good things might sprout.
Later in the interview, Jeselnik also has his own "almost" moment. He's unflinching in his commitment to making jokes about those with developmental disabilities, but he goes on to explain why he won't make jokes using the "N-Word":
"I had a joke where I used the word 'nigger' but I just couldn't. I said it twice in the joke, and I said 'I just can't, I can't do this.' I didn't feel right saying it."
"Well, you probably shouldn't, right? Does that frustrate you, that you can't say that word?"
"It kind of bugs me because I feel like I can't say it. There's no other word that I feel that way about."
"And why do you feel like you can't say it?"
"You know, I feel like I have friends who I can picture their faces, you know, black friends, when I say things..."
"But you don't want to be one of those guys who are accused by your black friends of just using it gratuitously because you want to try to take some ownership of that word."
"I don't even care about being accused of it, I just feel like that word has so much power over a certain group of people, more than any other. I would never want to hurt someone's feelings... That word gets so specific that I don't think I could look my black friends in the face if I came off stage after telling that joke."
"You know why that is? Because there's no reason for white people to use that word. I've had discussions with guys before who are like, 'Hey, it's just a word.' Yeah, okay, but it's a word that has a very deep meaning to a lot of people..."
It makes me think of this again:
Here are two guys who are, in my opinion (and I suspect in yours, too), squarely on the wrong side of history regarding humor based on laughing at people with developmental disabilities. And yet, I can't help but think that there might be seeds there, tiny little dormant seeds that may never break open, may never send shoots up into the sun.
But they might. They very well might. That's the kind of thing I hope for.