Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Time to Use the R-word!

Oye vey... Houston, we have a problem.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Time to Use the R-word!

  1. Wow, what a conundrum. It’s the duty of the writer to provide an experience, to take you inside someone else’s world. That may mean looking out at the world through prejudice and hate, whether the character has a redeeming epiphany about it at the end or not. Those characters may use language that’s not appropriate. Do you censor it because it’s not polite? Imagine Grand Theft Auto without the swearing or gore. “Would you please kindly step out of my way, sir? No? Then I’ll go another way.” That wouldn’t sell.

    Censorship of anything in art is a slipperly slope that makes me nervous. Especially if the art/writing portrays reality. Yep, there were lots of kids who used the R-word in my/our generation. (b. 1966) But I don’t let my kids use it. Does that mean we can rewrite history by taking it out of characters’ mouths? Sorry, no.

    You brought up another fascinating question. Can you be an author who personally doesn’t use the word, but lives with characters who do? Is that ethical, logical, congruent? It’s a like being a split personality. Your characters are a little like your children. But I think it can be done.

    Your writing is wonderful. Your personal choices are clear. By your character using the R-word you actually demonstrate how hurtful the word is. I’m cool with that.

  2. Interesting. And I agree with Daria.
    It is a shocking first line of the book. When I read it I thought, “Wow brave guy!” I wasn’t upset because I understood exactly why it was there. And the whole first page of that book brilliantly underlines the whole horror of where bullying and thoughtless name-calling can go!

    When my kids read it they audibly gasped. I took the opportunity to explain to them that what an author writes isn’t necessarily what they think or feel. It is the character using the word, not the writer and that often the writer uses it to highlight something awful.

    I frequently read people getting upset with Stephen King, assuming he’s racist or that he abuses animals, or whatever when he lets his characters speak and act freely and realistically. I can only shake my head and wonder if those people pretend to themselves that bullying/ racism/ wife beating/ insert relevant anti-social behavior isn’t really as bad as everyone makes out.

    I don’t think most readers think that authors have to believe the same as their characters. I hope not anyway! It will be a sad sorry day when authors turn off their imagination or stop observing human nature, whether it’s at its best or worst!

  3. Daria – Thank you. I’ve written a few blog posts about the writer’s job, in some cases, is to offend the reader. Conflict is how fiction works, and sometimes that conflict takes us to uncomfortable places. I’m concerned that this will lead to censorship, which bothers me more than the use of the R-word.

    Danielle – I think you’re right. Most readers do know that authors aren’t like their characters, but there a lot of people who still don’t get it. There the ones who always seem to write the bad reviews 🙂

  4. Well I suppose you could look at it this way…. (and why I mentioned Stephen King earlier), even the most financially successful and/or well loved authors have their bashers, or readers who misunderstand their words. I’ve heard King called all sorts, but I love his books. Ditto JK Rowling – I’m willing to bet she doesn’t lose much sleep over idiots who burn her books.

    The very fact that you’re worried about people’s reaction and that they might misinterpret the passage says a lot about your writing: that you write what you think is necessary for the story even if you find the characters’ actions unacceptable – That’s what makes the stories believable, and most of us out here do appreciate that. And we are very much able to ignore the minority of bad reviews, or take them with a pinch of salt.

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. I value your 2 cents!

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