Welcome to Berg’s Bookclub.
I’ve been meaning to write a book review for Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum for the last month or two. One of the things I hate the most is giving up on a book and not seeing it to the end. However, if I’m honest, the only reason I finished this book was for an essay I was writing for my coursework about the representation of disability in literature, which I will post once official grades are up.
Normally, when I write a book review, I don’t mention the author and their background because I don’t usually care about whether the author knows what they are talking about. I just want the story. This is known as the death of the author – where the reader will read a book without considering the author’s intentions and experiences. But I’ll make an exception with Susan Nussbaum.
At the age of sixteen, Nussbaum was in an accident that left her disabled. So she has first-hand experience of what it is like to be disabled. She is a disability rights activist and wrote this book which is described on her website as:
… a ferosiously honest, funny, completely unstopable trip through an institutionaly corrupt home for disabled teenagers – Barbara Kingsolver
As someone who had a personal experience with disability, I expected her book to represent disability as something that can be normalised, just like Jacqueline Wilson did with her book, Katy, and Cammie McGovern with her book, Amy and Matthew.
Nussbaum is the only author out of the three that is disabled. She is also the only one to show the disabled characters in an overwhelmingly negative and stereotypical view.
I find this especially interesting because Nussbaum claims to dislike these stereotypes in her article which was published in The Huffington Post.
The whole of her book contradicts her article but supports the equation she mentions and allegedly dislikes about disabled characters in fiction. Most of which I feel are not needed.
Berg has his crown on, ready.
Look how important he looks! Bet he feels he could take down Jon Snow if he had to. Ready?
Trigger Warning: This book and the book review contains context of rape and abuse.
Brief Intro and Synopsis.
Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
Inside the halls of ILLC, an institution for juveniles with disabilities, we discover a place that is deeply different from and yet remarkably the same as the world outside. Nussbaum crafts a multifaceted portrait of a way of life hidden from most of us. In this isolated place on Chicago’s South Side, friendships are forged, trust is built, and love affairs begin. It’s in these alliances that the residents of this neglected community ultimately find the strength to bond together, resist their mistreatment, and finally fight back. And in the process, each is transformed.
Only, there aren’t any love affairs that start in the book because of the plot – they either already exist or start just because … they start. And I wouldn’t count the rape as one of those love affairs.
The only love affair that begins is Joanne and Ricky, which is not a major part of the book and it should have been. There is no trust built. No one has each other’s back and… are they transformed? Maybe…
But, here’s what the book is really about. It is about a bunch of lost and mistreated teens who are imprisoned for being disabled, mistreated, isolated and finally chain themselves to a tree to fight the institution.
Still doesn’t sound bad… until you read the book and realise it is mostly stereotypical of disabled people.
The disabled narrators
YESSIE – The first character who is introduced. She is originally homeless and is tricked by another character, Michelle, to enter the specialist residential home for disabled teenagers. Yessie is also the main protagonist of the story – in the sense that she is the most (If not the only) active character in the story.
TEDDY – 22 years old and is therefore not a teenager. He should have left the home awhile ago and this is his aim throughout his life in the book. Although it is rarely shown that this is what he is trying to do, it is mostly told.
Teddy only ever wears suits and is accidentally ‘killed’ in the shower as he is left unattended and the water is scolding hot.
MIA – Physically disabled and visually impaired. She needs an electric wheelchair and glasses but has neither so has to rely on others to move her around and see for her. She is Teddy’s girlfriend and is raped by Jerry, a member of staff.
This is one stereotype Nussbaum mentions in her article, although admittedly in the content of the film, she states that one stereotype of the blind or visually impaired female is to be preyed upon by predatory men.
JOANNE – is the only disabled employee of the place, subscribes to this disability campaign magazine and has pictures of disabled rights campaigners on her office wall.
The Able-bodied narrators
MICHELLE is the one that goes out on the streets and tricks disabled people into institutions.
RICKY is the one that falls in loves with Joanne and genuinely cares for the kids. He hates putting them into the isolation room. The room which is like a padded cell, covered in foam and smells of urine.
JIMMY is the only LGBT character and may or may not have a crush on Yessie.
Pierre – physically abused by Lewis, is starved for inappropiate behaviour, may have rickets.
Cheri – sent to a mental hospital for running away, best friends with Yessie.
Jeff – Rapist and paedophile.
Lewis – Child abuser.
Nurse – catches Jeff because Mia has caught an STD.
The institution manager – Fires Joanne for campaigning.
The CEO – the monster behind the institution.
I forgot the last two names because they only appear right at the end of the book… right at the end…
The Plot and Representation
There is a plot but only 75% into the book. Yes! I was that bored that I ended up checking the percentage of my kindle. Willing the percentage to move. Honestly, that 75% took weeks!
So what happens in the first three quarters? Every resident of the home is tortured, aside from Yessie (because for some reason she has that awesome protagonist power where nothing truly horrific happens to her).
As already mentioned, Mia is raped by Jeff – I can’t remember her age – or the state that the home is in – but as the home is supposed to be for minor’s that would make him a paedophile as well as a rapist.
Blind characters in films, for example, are generally portrayed by attractive female actors who are victimized by predatory men – (Nussbaum, The Huffington Post.
Pierre is targeted by another member of staff, Lewis because Lewis doesn’t like another member of staff, Ricky and Pierre is apparently Ricky’s favourite. PS… it is never explained why Lewis hates Ricky…
Cheri runs away and as punishment is sent to a mental health unit which locks their clients up like prisoners… oh… and we don’t find out that Cheri has been running away UNTIL she is taken to the mental health residential home…
Many of them are not given the aides they need to see, move about and have their independence. They are isolated for disobeying orders and put into a padded cell that smells like urine. In addition, many seem to have below average cognitive development.
Meanwhile, Joanne tries out the prospects of dating with Ricky.
This, the torture, is the first 75% of the book. Literally, the characters Tell us about the environment in which they live, with the occasional and most gruesome acts being shown.
That dreaded “show don’t tell” problem.
Every disabled character is seen as a victim, helpless and defenceless, except for Joanne and Yessie. All of them have been abused in one or more ways by members of staff.
Can you see why I nearly put the book down? Is it ok at cry now?
But that leaves us with 25% right? So when did the actual plot begin?
With Teddy’s death… What was Nussbaum’s equation to the stereotypical book revolving around disabilities again?
Disabled Victim + Self-involved non-disabled Protagonist = Cured Victim + Redeemed non-disabled Protagonist
Teddy dies in an accidental mishap with the shower. A pipe explodes, releasing burning water while the carer is on the phone with her husband arranging her son’s party… outside the room.
This is what starts the somewhat, almost plot. After Teddy’s funeral, the disabled residents and Joanne stand outside with a couple of signs to shut down the residential home. This is only after Teddy’s death, organised by Yessie.
Not when her best friend, Cheri, was sent away. Nor when Mia was raped. Not even when Pierre was put in a life-threatening condition after being pulverised by Lewis. Only when Teddy dies.
It’s a shame because this book could have had potential but the violence and rape weren’t really necessary to the plot. Especially the rape! I mean why? The character had been raped by her father before she entered the home (told) and then good ol’ Jeff comes in and rapes her again. Graphically.
The critics on Nussbaum’s website say the book is humorous and hilarious but I found it…
I have no words to describe it – maybe I just don’t have a good sense of humour.
Seven narrators with alternating chapters in a book under 400 pages. This can be done very well or very badly. Why?
Because each character, narrator or not, needs to grow and tell their own story. And there are only 50-60 pages for each narrator to illustrate their character and those around them. So it’s a challenge and a hard one. But it’s not impossible.
Unfortunately, the only growth I see in the protagonists is in Yessie and Mia. In both, it is very minimal and for Mia, it is more of a cause and effect growth – dealing with the “it was her fault she got raped”, the STI and then standing up for herself.
However, the characters who were not being narrated came across as relatively stronger than the protagonists narrating. And this is a strength of the book.
I also feel that the “it was her fault she got raped” and the standing up for herself are the two only positive message in the book. The rape is the only conversation Yessie has with Teddy – where she briefly points out that he is being a jerk and no girl asks to be raped.
This brief scene gave a message that could have stood out more but I’m glad that Nussbaum at least acknowledges that Mia was never to blame and that Teddy actually listens to Yessie’s opinion on the matter.
This conversation between Yessie and Teddy is the only contact shown between them. And, while I am glad Yessie put him in his place, it puzzles me why she would start the campaign at Teddy’s death and not when her best friend Cheri was taken away.
I feel that Nussbaum set herself a challenge by having seven narrators and feel that if she cut them down to two or three, the characterisation in the book would improve throughout, including for the protagonists.
I also feel there was an opportunity missed with Joanne – the disabled employee. Maybe if Nussbaum focused on Joanne and Yessie or Joanne and Mia, it could have created a strong parallel between Joanne’s life and those of the residents. I think this is important because then it would show that it is possible for disabled individuals to be independent, to be capable, have a social life and romance. Less characters would have helped this.
This then may have helped Nussbaum to avoid the stereotypes found in fiction involving disabled characters and created a true, authentic representation of the disabled community. Maybe it’s a pointer that Nussbaum can think about in any future books, although I am unlikely to read any more of her work.
I also feel that the overuse of violence and abuse took the emotion away from the story and the characters and if the abuse was treated as a rare occurrence it may have had a higher shock factor towards it.
But in truth, I did not feel any empathy for any of the characters aside from Mia and Teddy. Mia because she is grossly violated and Teddy because he died in an accident, not because of purposeful abuse and neglect.
At the end of the book, after the story, there is a Question and Discussion page of around 12 questions where Nussbaum asks the readers about their thoughts on the representation of the disabled characters in the books. Leading questions.
7. The book makes the argument that institutionalization is cruel and inhuman. Why does our society rely so hwavily on institutionalization as a resource for disabled children. (p. 298)
This is a leading question to make the reader believe all residential homes for the disabled are bad. It also suggests and assumes the reader is going to be able-bodied.
Is it unusual to hear disabled characharacters tell their own stories… how might this impact the way you view disabled people in real life.(p. 298)
I am glad I read the whole book but for academic reasons, as it gave me an insight I would not have had otherwise. However, I would never pick up this book for leisure.
And the answer to her last question
12. …Disabled people often complain that books written by nondisabled writers can’t authentically represent disabled characters. Considering this book and others, what’s your opinion on this issue? (p.298)
I think many modern writers without a disability have written better and authentic stories that represent disabled characters in an insightful and truthful light than this book has.
Thank you for reading. Join me Saturday for my next post. I have just had my PIP assessment so my next post will be about the process.
Feel free to join Berg’s Bookclub on facebook.