The fight within

The fight within

If you have experienced abuse because of who you are, as I did in my formative years, you tend to internalise the bully’s message that you’re second rate, so that when you are treated unfairly, you think you deserve it. Only the exceptional, and those given support and courage by others, might have the confidence to stand up for themselves and demand fair treatment.

For many years I could not. Denial was easier; so was attempting to see if I could get away with pretending to be “normal” (i.e. non-disabled). So in that stage of my life I told myself, keep quiet, or you’ll be pigeonholed as a disabled writer.

I believed that being pigeonholed would turn off the hypothetical reading public. In my head, this public was non-disabled and uninterested in fiction about disabled people. What’s more, if I did “come out”, I would be “making a fuss”—and wasn’t I an imposter? After all I don’t use a wheelchair. I’m not really disabled, not like them. Furthermore, I believed I would be confined by a hypothetical publisher to only being able to write about disabled issues and characters.

Neither did I want to think I would be given “special treatment” because of my disability. I wanted my writing to be considered equally, on its own merits, alongside fiction by non-disabled authors.

Being overlooked

This self-defeating conditioned prejudice extended into my not playing “the disabled card” when appealing against a company that wanted to sack me as their publishing manager when it didn’t even have an equal opportunities policy. Equally, when another publisher downgraded its promised large-scale publicity campaign around the launch of my novel without even telling me because I, believing honesty was the best policy, informed them I might be having a major operation at that time (which in the end did not happen), I did not complain. Moreover, because I expected to be treated in an inferior way (par for the course, you can’t blame them), it took a couple of years for it to dawn on me why nothing happened on publication day. And more years passed before I could summon up the ability to complain about it. (You deserved it. What good is a disabled writer?) This publisher’s response? To do nothing, and in my estimation this set my career back by years.

What this experience did was confirm a childhood lesson from being bullied: “Don’t confide anything—it might be used against you.”

There are layers of irony in this. I may not even have become a writer if I hadn’t discovered Marvel comics as a child, because at least four of Stan Lee’s characters were disabled: the blind Daredevil; wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier; Iron Man (vulnerable to the shrapnel menacing his heart); and the hero I most identified with, Thor, secret identity Dr Blake, whose walking cane could turn into Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. Magic! Reading this normalised my experience, making me realise that I didn’t have to be a perfect physical specimen to stand a chance of having super-powers and saving the day. (In your dreams, kid.) My first writing gig was for Marvel, and I ended up inventing what is now the main Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Irony is present, too, I poured my feelings about my body into my YA novel Hybrids (HarperCollins Children’s Books) and I believe this gave authenticity to the character of Johnny Online, who is, essentially, me. Yet no-one would know the truth behind the words, for in those days I could only address this topic in a coded manner; although I did discuss disability with kids on school visits.

Room for hope

I like to think that attitudes towards disability have changed since the years that formed my self-image. There is now an appetite for “authentic” confessional and diverse fiction. I wonder how long this will last. Nowadays I am unafraid to be totally out there, because I believe society needs to hear our stories, and it gives confidence to other disabled folk to see someone like them out there.

It took going to see a play, Robert Softley Gale’s “My Left/Right Foot”, to change me, so I can do the same for others—like in my rap musical “Validation” now in development, public readings of which recently gave me fabulous, confidence-building responses. I’ve also made a disabled 14-year-old wannabe slam poet the heroine of my new YA novel Perfect Girl, and I’m developing a disabled superhero of the same name.

Now that I can face down the bully in my head, I realise that there is no possibility of being pigeonholed, for everyone’s experience of disability is different, and that the publishing industry and the public need to hear their stories.

David Thorpe is a comics writer who came up with the Marvel Universe 616. His YA novel Hybrids was called “stunningly clever” by the Times, while Stormteller led to the first two Hay Literature Festival climate fiction panels. He’s written a dozen books of solutions to the climate crisis. You can find him on Twitter @DavidKThorpe