Reviewed by Bill Kirton
When you read this book, be prepared to think; not in any heavy, academic, pretentious way, just gently, quietly, reasonably. Be prepared, too, to re-examine how you use words and how you look at (and judge) other people. That doesn’t mean it’s some worthy, ‘improving’ tome, couched in arcane philosophical or psychological terms. On the contrary, it’s a careful, uncomplicated invitation for us to take a wee step back from our assumptions, the everyday attitudes we carry, the loose way we use language. It challenges the way we create compartments, chop reality into manageable chunks, box them up and label them, even though some chunks shouldn’t be in the same box and most labels are at best inadequate and at worst wrong.
And the problem inherent in such an approach is exacerbated when what we’re dealing with is not abstract ‘chunks of reality’ but people. Cally Philips has worked a lot with people with ‘learning difficulties’. (The need to use quotation marks around apparently familiar, ‘normal’ terms is obvious from the early pages of the book.) The expression ‘learning difficulties’ has (thankfully) evolved from ‘mental retardation’ and worse because nowadays we try to be careful of the terms we use. There’s certainly been progress, but there’s still an underlying assumption that, because most of us ‘feel normal’, those who are different must be ‘abnormal’. But, as the author points out, the people who’ve decided what ‘normal’ means are – yes, you’ve guessed it – the ‘normal’ ones. ‘Normal’ isn’t a hard scientific fact; it’s a consensus.
So, we assess ‘disadvantaged’ individuals, judge them, stick labels on them so that we can accommodate them in a specially designated bit of our reality. They are ‘other’. And now we’ve dealt with them, so we can ignore them. But that doesn’t work for the author here. She doesn't keep quiet, doesn't look away, doesn't hide behind the labels and attitudes provided by others. She’s honest and says what she sees. And she chooses to use a very clearly fact-based fiction to show that the category ‘abnormal’ is as rich, varied and human as its ‘normal’ counterpart and that, however we refine the labels we stick on people, they’re still restrictive and misleading.
But everything I’ve said is outlined much more simply and accessibly in the introduction. Her style is friendly, conversational and honest and, when we move to what she describes as ‘fictional stories based on factual experience’, she continues to draw us into her revelations by creating characters and situations which, yes, underline the message but are also moving, funny and entertaining. In her own words, she’s ‘respect[ing] the real-life experience of the people whose lives [she’s] fictionalised’ in order to ‘teach insight for those of us who so badly need it’.
The first story is called
gets to be God and there’s a beautiful
irony in the title. Gary
But, in a group improvisation, with the theme of ‘where do you want to go?’, poor, powerless
gets to be God. It’s a beautifully orchestrated story with a poignant ending.
The other three stories work in similar ways. In Jonjo Can't Sit Still, Jonjo has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (which we all glibly shorten to ADHD and assume that the label ‘explains’ things). The impact of this story comes from the fact that Jonjo tells it himself and so we get access to his normality, which turns out to be as legitimate as ours. Philips lets him ‘explain himself’ by using a combination of his own impulses and the language other people use about him. The writing is very clever as we see the logic, the ‘normality’ of how his mind works, of how he interprets/understands expressions. He loves to run and he’s ‘an accident waiting to happen’, so he runs, a car hits him and the accident has happened. Why did it happen? ‘There is no reason to an accident’ he says. His father uses the expression ‘you’ve hit the nail on the head’ so when he tells a doctor ‘I have low self-esteem’ and sees from her facial expression that he’s surprised her, he says ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to hit the nail on the head’.
Philips helps us to share the world as he sees it. He’s sensitive to clichés, to what others say and think. And he loves to run. So the ‘normal’ people give him Ritalin to slow him down. Then comes his first accident and he’s on crutches for a while, which allows him to share another insight. ‘Crutches slowed me down a bit,’ he says, ‘but Ritalin slows me down on the inside too and crutches only slowed me down on the outside’.
I’m doing too much story-telling, but it’s simply to illustrate how the fictions are so carefully tailored to enhance the central message with regard to the tyranny of labels. The central figures of the other two stories, Heather and Angus, have different problems again and give more examples of how badly they’re served by our preconceptions and how the differences between us and them blind us to the similarities. We are, indeed, all Jock Tamson’s Bairns – not equal, no, not by a long way, but all the same, all individuals with our idiosyncrasies and gifts, flaws and beauties. In the last part of the book, we see the fictional ‘No Labels’ drama group improvising again, interacting. All its members have ‘difficulties’, but the improvisations impose no restrictions. They can be who they are and the results show that who they are is valid. In fact, the improvisations sound like much more positive ways to pass the time than watching TV or indulging in all the other herd activities that constitute normality for the majority of ‘normals’. These are lives being lived, individuals with their own precious selves, all different, all valuable.
Labels are supposed to identify; in fact, they obscure.