The main entrance to the arts centre was bedecked with bands of white plastic tape, with ‘Peace Week’ printed on each strip in blue letters. It reminded me immediately of the tape used to cordon off crime scenes while police gather forensic evidence. The organisers of the week were playing on that image deliberately: Peace Week was established in response to violent street crime in inner city Manchester. Now it is in its tenth year.
The arts centre was hosting a film installation by Liz Crow, Resistance: Which Way the Future?. I don’t know if the centre deliberately arranged to feature this artwork during Peace Week. It may just have been a coincidence – but coincidental or not, the installation has something tough and dark and powerful to say about non-violence.
Entering the room, you sit down before the first of three screens. The film coughs into life with the sound of an engine. The first image: an exhaust trailing smoke, the underbelly of the bus. You watch for a long time. At first you are expectant. Then the wait starts to grate on you. What’s happening? What are you waiting for? With a sudden roar, the bus drives off, revealing a young nurse with a clipboard standing outside a creeper-covered country house. She makes a decisive mark on her clipboard, then walks briskly into the house.
Resistance is about Aktion-T4, the Nazi extermination programme directed against disabled and mentally ill people. In 1939 it became mandatory for German doctors to compile registries of their disabled patients, which were dispatched to the Aktion-T4 headquarters for review. Staff examined the lists and decided who could be allowed to remain in their communities (for now) and who would be taken away. It began with removal to ‘observation centres’, pseudo-scientific institutions that were staffed by doctors with a particular interest in eugenics. At regular intervals, there would be a selection. Patients would be loaded into buses and driven away.
From the disabled people caught up in all this, there can never be any testimony. Approaching one museum about hosting the Resistance installation, we were told they want first-hand testimony. No testimony, no coverage. Well, disabled people arriving at a killing centre never left alive; the day you boarded that bus was the day you died. So disabled people remain invisible. There won’t be testimony, as there is for the Jewish holocaust; the ‘rules’ are not the same. What we face is a hidden history…Even second-hand accounts are scarce. There was a point today [during a visit to a killing centre] where I felt so angry. We asked about the portraits in little clusters on the crematorium walls, these beautiful faces with boundless untold stories; what were their names, their histories?
The Resistance story is told from the perspective of Elise, a middle-aged woman who is given the task of sweeping the floor at the observation centre. She performs this duty with awkward, hesitant movements. She doesn’t speak; she simply watches, and she notices, and she knows. At first I assumed that she was mute, but at night, when the patients are in their dormitory and there are no nurses to hear, we learn that she can speak. Here I felt a stab of cynicism. The non-speaking, all-seeing resident of the locked institution became a cliche with the popularity of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Couldn’t the creators of this installation have reached for something deeper? But as the film progressed, I realised that Elise’s daytime silence and secret night-time speech serve as a metaphor. They did have voices and stories, these people, but we’ll never hear them because some other people decided that they didn’t count for anything and had to be cut off. There won’t be testimony.
At the drama’s end, the audience proceeds to the next screen, which shows interviews with the actors. Listening to them discussing their experiences of making the film with the drama still fresh in my head had a very powerful effect on me, as it shook up the assumptions that I had formed when I saw the piece unfold. When I realised that Elise could speak, I assumed that she wasn’t disabled at all, but just playing a part. I assumed that the actor in the wheelchair was really able-bodied, and that the blind actor was really sighted. This turned out not to be true. Knowing that the company were disabled, I felt a kind of fierce elation: the use of non-disabled people to play disabled characters has always annoyed me a bit. (Why does it happen? With so many of us on the planet, it can’t be that casting directors just can’t find enough of us to play the parts.)
The knowledge also enriched my understanding of the drama, which ends on a mocking note. Someone (presumably Elise) has tried to rescue the selected patients by putting a sharp object in the way of the bus wheels, but a mum with a pram knocks it out of the way as she strolls blithely down the road. The bus drives off with its cargo. Cynicism was like an aftertaste in my mouth: even if Elise had been able to put the bus out of commission with this feeble gesture, surely there would have been other buses. But hearing the actors in conversation with one another made me realise that the title of the installation didn’t just refer to Elise’s efforts. “Most disabled people, me included, don’t really have a voice. But most disabled people in Germany, under Hitler, under euthanasia, had no voice, absolutely no voice at all,” the actor Jamie Beddard commented, a voiceover helping the audience to follow his impaired speech. “And as an artist and as a disabled person, I’ve got a responsibility to unleash some of their voices.” His colleague Sophie Weaver said with angry defiance, “They weren’t individuals to anyone else. They were just…a collection of people that…weren’t worthy of life. Why does somebody believe that I should be killed basically for being who I am? Kind of, how dare somebody make that kind of choice about my life?”
The defiant questions aren’t rhetorical. There are still plenty of people who are prepared to make that choice about the lives of others. Four years ago the learning disability charity Mencap launched its campaign Death by Indifference, which profiled people with learning disabilities who had died in British hospitals as a result of medical neglect (sometimes deliberately inflicted). “After Daisy died, we discovered that staff were fully aware that Daisy’s life was in danger,” one mother wrote. “They did not try to save her, they just documented her decline. This was not an accident, and it wasn’t the case that they did not realise how ill she was. They told us they had ‘misjudged her quality of life’.” After Daisy’s death, a doctor told her parents, “It’s almost like losing a child, isn’t it?”
That was Britain in 2005. A few weeks ago, in Britain 2012, two specialists in bioethics published a paper arguing for ‘post-birth abortion’. They singled out disabled babies for special mention. The concept of mercy killing has been with us for a long time, and it’s not going away. Even people who balk at the idea of euthanasia for disabled babies share the ideas that lead down this path, such as the belief that such lives are tragic and pitiful. Think of the disability that it would most frighten you to develop, and ask yourself: do you honestly see people with that condition as having the same potential to live fully, like you?
The day we visited [the killing centre], there were school children there. They were obviously learning about this part of history. They were laughing and joking with each other. But with us being there they didn’t look at us. There was a real awkwardness there and it was very strange to experience that they didn’t want to look at us or acknowledge us…
Resistance: Which Way the Future? is a testament to the fullness of disabled lives. The third and final part of the installation featured many disabled people telling personal stories of discrimination, prejudice, and what it means to resist. Their faces weren’t shown; we listened to their stories whilst looking at a photo montage of people who were killed in T4. As the installation drew to a close, the tellers began to weave their stories into a broader tapestry. “Solidarity is a case of familiarity. To feel familiarity you need to know people…We need allies (non-disabled people) to notice when we’re missing. This isn’t just about disabled people. This is about society.”
The interesting thing about these stories was that the tellers were invisible. Had they been featured on the screen, audience members would inevitably have been looking for signs of the disability. Is this person deaf, does she use a wheelchair, is he mentally ill? People have all sorts of assumptions about disability, and they interpret what they hear in the light of what they see. A person who isn’t visibly disabled must not have it that bad, really, while a quadriplegic is a ‘hero’ and an ‘inspiration to us all’. Disabled people end up being typecast as welfare scroungers, objects of pity, children in adult bodies, suffering angels, objects of contempt, personal heroes on the basis of how non-disabled people judge them. As the disabilities of these speakers were never shared, you couldn’t pigeon-hole them. You could only listen.
When you are disabled, you get used to non-disabled people passing judgment on your body and brain. Because of this, sometimes you start to feel as though you have no right to yourself at all. The chilling and logical conclusion of such appropriation is the dissection room in the T4 killing centre, where gold fillings were harvested and bodies of pathological interest sliced up. The people who inhabited those bodies had become just so much property. But this appropriation happens in a myriad other ways before it reaches the point of murder. I remember talking with a group of disabled women who had been sexually assaulted (an experience that is frighteningly common within the disabled community) and hearing one woman explaining why she had never told anybody before: “I think I thought it was reasonable at first…you see, I’ve never felt like my body really belonged to me…”
This appropriation starts to happen long before it reaches the point of sexual abuse, or physical violence, or verbal bullying. It begins with the casual judgments in the street: “Ugh, how awful, I wonder how his mother copes.” It begins when your teacher takes you to one side and kindly explains that she doesn’t think it would be a good idea for you to help with the art display, as it needs to look its best for parents’ evening and you’ll only mess it up. It begins when a landlady hears about your condition and tells you hastily that her property ‘wouldn’t be suitable at all’, changing her stance to a belligerent, “We don’t have any rooms left,” when you tell her that you’ve researched the place and you know it fits your needs. It begins when a potential employer decides that you just wouldn’t cope with the job you’ve applied for, solely on the basis of your impairment and what she thinks it means. When you are disabled, you don’t test out your own capabilities; you get told what they are. And maybe you start to believe the limitations that are imposed on you. Even when you realise that these are utter crap, you often can’t do much about it, because you don’t have enough power on your own.
The final message of Resistance is that you are not on your own. This hit home for me most strongly at the end, when the voices faded out and the first screen flickered into life again. As the audience leaves, people are encouraged to fill out a lime-green postcard (‘If I could do just one thing…’) and drop their answer in a box. The pens that were provided were all Bic ballpoints. I can’t grip those so well, but rummaging around on the desk I eventually found a broad felt-tip marker.
My support worker and I were the only people in the exhibition room. I thought for a long time before I began to write. The silence was companionable. Even though we weren’t speaking, I was keenly aware of her presence just behind me. Eventually my message was written and I dropped it into the transparent plastic box. There were a lot of ‘just one things’ in there. We left.
This artwork is about non-violence. A few weeks ago I co-facilitated an informal discussion group on pacifism at the annual conference of the Student Christian Movement, and someone in the group asked me the question that always surfaces: “How does a pacifist deal with people like Hitler?” I talked about the terrible suffering that Germany had undergone during the Great Depression, not helped by the punitive effects of Versailles. Hitler exploited these things during his rise to power, and it is doubtful that he would ever have succeeded if he hadn’t been able to feed on public desperation. If hundreds of thousands of people had gone into the Weimar Republic with bread-baskets, would there have been any need to send in hundreds of thousands of people with guns later on? Non-violence means responding to poverty and despair, in an effort to prevent people from becoming brutalised. It also means remaining attentive to the warning signs of greater violence, and one of these signs is the cultivation of sheer contempt for vulnerability.
Aktion-T4 aimed to weed out defectives, people who need too much, who aren’t self-sufficient. Disabled people had no place in the Nazi worldview because they were perceived as parasitical. Yet no one in this world is self-sufficient. I don’t know about you, but I don’t slaughter a cow and tan its hide and sew together my own shoes. Nor do I assemble the plane that flies me to Palestine with my bare hands and pilot it myself. I rely on other people to stay alive, but so do you. We need each other. A militaristic worldview turns that need into something shameful, which has to be minimised at all costs. This is the beginning of violence.
It’s pretty common to hear people disparaging those they disagree with as either mentally ill or ‘retarded’. I feel especially bothered when I hear people involved in peace and justice work doing it. Contributing to marginalisation and stigma does not have any place in peace work, ever. Once or twice I have tried to challenge it, sometimes with success, and sometimes with a flat-balloon failure. The last time I objected to somebody characterising a particularly aggressive supporter of political Zionism as mentally ill, I was treated to a description of how his bullying behaviour was a clear sign of psychiatric disorder (because ‘being mentally ill’ and ‘being a bully’ are synonyms, apparently). It made about as much sense as trying to undermine him by accusing him of being diabetic. In using disability and mental illness as pejorative terms, you inflict harm on people who are disabled. Looking back on that installation, I wonder how many viewers will be shaken up by the horror of the T4 programme – yet accuse someone of being ‘retarded’ or ‘psycho’ the next time they get into a disagreement.
As if to be ill or disabled is the same as being wrong.
And what’s wrong usually requires correction, doesn’t it? Sometimes you just rub it out, like a mistake in a notebook…
Visit the website of Resistance: Which Way the Future? for still photographs, transcripts, journal entries by the cast, tour dates, and more.