Saturday, October 19, 2013

This is My Superhero Face

Every day I work, I talk to a woman with no face.

When she was born, she had hydrocephaly--fluid in the brain.  She wasn't supposed to live long enough for her family to celebrate her first birthday.  As a reward for making it to age two, she took a fall that cracked her skull, and again she was supposed to die.

She's over fifty now.

She has paranoid schizophrenia, though for years she insisted that she didn't, and when she isn't taking her proper medications, she believes her face is falling off.  She doesn't call 9-1-1 anymore, most days.  She was cited for calling to often last year, so instead she spends her days on the phone, calling one administrative line after another, asking any operator who answers if there's something they can do to help her fix her face.  She doesn't just call us (fire-rescue), though.  She calls the police, the hospitals, pharmacies, the private ambulance companies, individual fire stations and even fire chiefs in the city.

Everyone talks to her, some with more compassion, and patience, than others.

I'm not always patient.  Some days we're busy, with multiple phone lines ringing, and other days I've just talked a father through the process of giving CPR to his three year-old son, who he just pulled out of the hotel swimming pool, limp and blue.

On the quiet days, though, I'll stay on the phone with her for five minutes, even ten or twenty, and I'll listen to her talk about the bone she sees where her face should be, and the flesh she sees on the floor.  She's scared, and her heart is pounding because of it.  So we talk about what she cooked for breakfast and whether her father took her to the park the day before.  We talk about her two dogs and how much attention they want from her.  We talk about her neighbors who've just been arrested, and how much she enjoyed the months she spent in the group home last year.  We didn't hear from her during those months, but the day she got back home, she called us.

She doesn't work.  She isn't a "productive" member of society, as such.  She lives with her father, and he loves having her around him.  She has siblings and nieces and nephews, a large family who comes home to celebrate her birthday, or just to have dinner with her and their father.

She is loved.

When I think about women in literature and film, I think about her.  In the battle for women's rights--an always important and still-continuing fight--people (not necessarily women) seem to have decided that female characters must be "strong."  A woman must be independent.  A woman must have a career.  A woman must punch the face of any man who dares look at her breasts instead of her face, who dares imply something about her abilities because of her gender.  A woman must be capable of rescuing herself, and she must, above all, still be the supporting character in the film, rather than the protagonist.  She must still be in the minority, a female surrounded by a cast of males.  This is especially true in action thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, and the comic book genre.  Salt and Alien are the exceptions, not the rule.  The Avengers, in which the producers went so far as to actually cut the female avenger from the comics out of the script entirely, is far more common.

Women must be sassy, bold...strong.

I'm at work, and the woman with no face just called.  She's worried.  How strong is this woman who has survived so many things that should have killed her, who gets out of bed absolutely terrified to look in the mirror, knowing she won't see herself staring back at her?  She has no career.  She has no husband, no children.  She doesn't know martial arts, and she isn't an assassin, or a spy, or an archer volunteering to take her sister's place in a death trap.  She's a simple woman who walks her dogs and gives them a bath every day, who is proud of herself for cooking toast and bacon for her father in the mornings, and who is afraid she'll start to hemorrhage and we won't be able to get there fast enough if she isn't on the phone with us beforehand.  How strong is she, to still laugh and cry and enjoy life?

And she does enjoy life.  She thanks God every day for the miracle she has been given.  I know, because she tells me this on the phone every time I talk to her. 

Women are diverse, and strength comes in many forms. 

I am not a fighter.  A Syrian man I barely knew hugged me once and asked me to become his second wife, his American wife.  I laughed and shook my head, telling him I'd already gotten an offer to be someone's first wife, or I was hoping to.  Then I walked away and spent half an hour shaking in the bathroom, crying and trying to keeep the vomit down.

Does this make me weak, or strong?  Or am I right that things just aren't that simple?

There are many male protagonists who don't qualify as the strong we're focused on in women.  Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is an addict and a derelict.  House is also an addict, and a jackass as well.  The Hulk is a geek, soft spoken and socially awkward, and so is Clark Kent, considered to be one of the comic genre's biggest "strong male" heroes.  Some of that is an act, of course, but not all of it.

We've come to accept complexity in the male protagonist--to crave it, even--but not in the female.  There is as much variety in a woman as in a man, but where are the characters who reflect this?

I am not a fighter.  I've come close to killing myself on several occasions.  I've suffered flashbacks and nightmares, and sometimes I still do.  I hate confrontation.  I hate the dentist because I'm afraid he'll judge me and tell me to take better care of my teeth, and because I know he won't consider not having $400 for a crown as an excuse for not getting one.  I don't like guns, or talking on the phone.  I avoid the doctor like nobody's business and if I saw a car crash on the side of the interstate, I would be hard pressed to force myself to stop--then again, I've also been a party to a call in which a bystander did stop to help, and then got struck by a rubbernecking driver and killed.  I've hated myself and my body, my past, and the prospect of a future.  I've struggled to have a child, to carry a child, and I've been terrified during the emergency birth of my daughter, thinking I was going to lose the woman who means the most to me and the daughter I'd not yet met but had worked so, so hard to get.  I have a career, but I don't make a lot of money, and I'm terrible at saving it.  My ambitions in life are simple--have another baby (or two), adopt a child (or a pair of siblings), learn to deliver babies, become a successful novelist and buy a house in a city I haven't even dreamed up yet...maybe Seattle, or London.

I don't want to save the world, and I certainly don't want to punch people in the face.  I need my knuckles intact if I'm going to learn to deliver those babies.

I am a superhero.

I talked to a fifteen year-old girl on the phone.  She was terrified, alone and in labor.  I talked her through delivering her own baby--a boy, alive and struggling to cry.  I told her how to get the cord out from around his neck, and I rejoiced in the crackling wails he launched out onto the air after that.

I am a superhero.  I pay the rent and the power bill.  I go to work, and I make sure my daughter gets a new bike for her birthday.  I teach her how to ride it, and I take her out into the apartment complex for a bike ride whenever I can.

I am a superhero.  I bring my wife gift cards loaded with Facebook credits as a surprise on my way home, since I know how much she loves buying beautiful trees and fences for her virtual farm.

I am a woman.  I am fragile and at times egotistical.  I am impatient.  I am insufferable.  I am gentle, and I take care when brushing out a toddler's tangles to keep the pain to a minimum.  I can be weak and ridiculous, and this morning I searched for my car keys in vain only to find them in the kitchen sink (how did that happen, again?).  I am dark, and I am beautiful.  I am hatred and self-mutilation, joy and birth and tears and crooked smiles.  I listen, and sometimes I tune out.  I am calm in a crisis and broken when it's over.  I am sadness, and I am light.  I bitch and moan, but I do the dishes and sweep the floor anyway.  I talk to teddy bears and open my arms to a toddler who can't sleep because she has a headache.  I make three different dinners for three different people, none of whom can agree on what to eat.  I am a woman.  I am not the strong of women in movies, and I am a superhero.

My characters reflect this.  The woman in my novel is not white.  She is not tall.  She is not a warrior.  She is tortured and awkward.  She has nightmares and flashbacks, and she tries to kill herself.  She hears voices and sees things she's certain aren't really there.  She screams and shrinks away, but then, when she needs to, she acts.  She is protective.  She is scarred and beautiful.  She doesn't save the world, but sometimes, saving your piece of it is enough.   

She is strong, and so are the rest of us.  It's time for the media to expand their definition.

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