by Barbara D'Amato
I received an email recently from a person who had read DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS and took me to task for using the word “autistics” to refer to people with autism. The writer—I haven’t asked to use her name, so I won’t—said quite rightly “a kinder way to reference people with this diagnosis is people with autism or a person with autism.”
Since the book is about a doctor who treats autistic children, and is based on Bruno Bettelheim, who claimed autism was caused by cold parenting, and since I kill him horribly at the start of the book and criticize his beliefs quite clearly, I felt I was good on autism. Even my correspondent says that she appreciates that I have taken this opportunity to educate people about autism. But she’s right; unintentionally I was insensitive.
In my defense, people I talked with who treat persons with autism as well as parents of autistic children often say “autistics” too. It’s a shorthand. I used it without thinking.
This made me remember a lot of books I’ve read, many of them written in the 20s, 30s and 40s, that used words we now object to as racial, religious, or ethnic slurs. Most of these writers were probably unaware of being insensitive and, judging from their bios, were open-minded and liberal people, even ahead of their time. We wince when we read these words now. I feel sorry for the authors, because most of them were using terms in general use and they meant no harm.
How do we describe characters we want the reader to dislike? I’ll bet that a lot of us give him or her physical characteristics that in the real world we know the person can’t help and shouldn’t be blamed for.
Of course, when quoting a character in fiction, you need to use the language and the opinions of that character. But what about narration? What about the text that is in no one’s head but the author’s?
I have a couple of questions for all of us. What words or descriptions have you used in past books that you now wish you hadn’t? How politically correct are you today?
A lot of us complain about the political correctness ogre. You can’t write vividly or vigorously while you are hobbled, can you?
Nevertheless, I often feel its chilly breath on the back of my neck when I’m writing.