I saw a news story yesterday morning about the Special Olympics’ campaign to end the use of the so called R-word, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending my use of the word in my book, The Takers. For those of you who don’t know the R-word is “retard” or “retarded.” This is a blurb from the Special Olympics’ website:
Spread the Word to End the Word is a campaign created by youth, in an ongoing effort with Special Olympics and Best Buddies International, to engage schools, organizations and communities by raising the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encouraging everyone to stop using the R-word.
Crap! Why am I unnerved by this? This is the first line of my young adult novel, The Takers:
We killed the retarded boy.
I don’t like the word. I’m not going to tell you I’ve never used it in my personal life because I have, but they are not proud moments in my life. I’m not sure if this matters, but I have never used the word to describe someone with Down syndrome. I have used it to demean people, but frankly, I’ve used it to demean assholes.
That is in my personal life. In my book, the main character is referring to someone with Down syndrome. I used the word to jolt the reader. I wanted the sentence to be cold and direct. I wanted the reader to know that the main character, while heroic at times, is extremely flawed. He’s a good kid who’s done some bad things.
I have had a major publisher in the UK back out of offering me a deal because the word is so prominent in the book. I was asked if I could change it, and I diplomatically pushed back because the first line sets the tone for the whole book. It’s a very weird feeling when you find yourself defending the word “retarded.” But I wasn’t really defending the word. I was defending the story.
I’m not some difficult artist who is unwilling to compromise. I’ve capitulated on a number of other suggestions from publishers, but I actually felt those suggestions made the story stronger, and they didn’t change the language of the story. As a writer, I chose my words very carefully. I don’t choose them because I use them in my everyday life. I don’t choose them to make me look smart or ignorant. I don’t choose them to arbitrarily fill a word-count quota. I choose them because they set the mood, enhance the character, describe the setting, etc. Words, even repulsive words, have a place in literature.
Having said all that, if you’re using the R-word to describe someone who has Down syndrome or is otherwise mentally disabled in real life, stop. It says more about you than it does about the person you’re calling retarded. If the Special Olympics knows I exist, I’m sure I’m on their hit list, but that’s okay. I can write other books. They do good work, and I’m not interested in fighting them, especially since we agree the R-word sucks.
BTW – I feel obligated to post the entire first section of The Takers for those of you who haven’t read it, so you don’t think I’m a total jerk.
We killed the retarded boy. He took his own life, but we killed him just the same. Everybody should have the right to go through life unnoticed, and we took that right away from him. Every chance we got, we reminded him that he was different. It was harmless fun, harassing the retarded kid, thrusting disgrace upon him every day. We were kids. What did we know? He was like a dumb animal to us. He didn’t absorb the abuse. He shed it like a snake sheds its skin. Or so we thought. We didn’t know that a tangible sense of worthlessness was building up inside his damaged mind. Slowly he came to believe that he was less than human, not because God made him that way but because we saw him that way.
His name was Stevie Dayton, and I think about him almost every minute of every day. In fact, it’s pretty much all I think about since the world ended.