Thursday, September 03, 2009


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.


Dana King said...

I write mostly in close thired-person or first person, so I can phrase my narration in words the POV character might use. When I occasionally step back and assume a more distant narrator's role, I'm less colloquial, but will still use a term the character under discussion might have used.

I don't see where you have anything to be uncomfortable about for using "autistics." You'd heard the term used by professionals, so it must have a certain degree of acceptance. Someone, somewhere, will take exception to almost anything written, no matter how tepidly phrased.

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, when I started I was so slavishly following the conventions of older hardboiled writers that I used incredibly awful language to describe older or overweight people. When I see those passages in my early books I feel like jumping off the planet.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Dana, I agree that "autistics" is probably not disparaging, but as my correspondent said, "we are all people first and whatever else we bring with us is secondary."

Sara--yes, exactly. We read it or hear it and use it. One of the put-downs I think may be considered unpleasant in the future is "stupid" and its synonyms. But it's quite acceptable right now.

Corey Wilde said...

Anytime you put something in print, someone, somewhere, is going to choose to be offended. IMO, that's their choice. If you let their sensitivities inhibit your writing, you're going to lose your own voice, the only thing that really distinguishes a writer.

Think about Chandler: he wrote some god-awful prejudices into his stories, and it wasn't just his characters talking, it was an attitude and perspective of the times that he shared. Would he do it differently today? Probably. That he did it then, does that mean he is any less a good writer for having accurately reflected and been a part of his times? Nah.

I'm not saying one should go out of his way to offend people, only that Lincoln nailed it with that 'can't please all of the people all of the time' idea. Sometimes you just have to shrug it off and move on.

Michael Dymmoch said...

I agree with Corey. People are too quick to take offense at everything these days, too slow to try and figure out where the speaker is coming from and whether a perceived slight or insult was intended as such.

Stupid is a great word for someone who isn't using his brain. Using it to refer to someone incapable of doing better with his mind reflects only on the stupidity of the person hurling the insult. And making a big deal of a braying ass is asinine.

(BTW Asses are not stupid as equines go, just stubborn.)