A few days ago I received an email from someone I did not know. The writer said that she had been reading my new novel, was "really enjoying it," and therefore felt profoundly disappointed to come across the word "retard" in the text. She wrote in measured, intelligent language of the derogatory and damaging nature of the epithet, and expressed her view that even when the word is used to express the point of view of a character, its appearance in print is still harmful.
I wrote her back, thanking her for her thoughtfulness and care in communicating about this issue. I told her of my own view that in fiction, when one hopes to represent a complex world, full of goodness and sorrows, and full of human beings - themselves complicated mixtures of valor, weakness, compassion and limitation - every word may have its place.
Ten years ago I might have left it at that.
But I went on to add that I heard her disappointment over my choice, and was grateful to her for her impulse to connect. I told her I'd like to think more deeply about what she said, and to consider whether the use of such a word, even given my explanation about why I chose it, might best be avoided.
My first boss was a man named Edmund W. Gordon, professor emeritus of education and psychology at both Yale and Columbia, and Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College. I worked for him back in the late eighties, while he was acting director of Yale's African American Studies Program, and my job consisted of various duties ranging from office support to editing his articles to chauffeuring him to some of his meetings and speaking engagements. Among the many wise gifts I received from Ed was a particular locution he would use. Whenever, during the often thorny conversations that would arise in his field - that is, conversations concerning historical and ongoing inequities and anti-bias work - people seemed to reach an impasse, a place where entrenched beliefs on either side prevented forward movement, Ed would say, "Under what conditions might it be possible to envision [whatever was at stake]?"
With this modest formulation, he invited people into a space where, without having to abandon any convictions they felt the need to clutch tight, they could proceed further in conversation with others, and further in conversation with themselves, expanding the boundaries, perhaps, of their own imaginations.
This phrase informed my whole family. It became part of our regular parlance and way of thinking. Another phrase, similar at core in its movement toward keeping alive difficult dialogue, both between parties and within the individual speaker, is one I associate with my father: "I'd like to think about that." How often he has used this simple utterance as a way of granting dignity and validity to the opposing position, without relinquishing or invalidating his own perspective. And note how it isn't a flat submission or commitment: "I will think about that." It's, "I'd like to." As in, I welcome it. As in, I believe it will benefit me to entertain a different viewpoint. To lend my imagination to walking around in your shoes. To enlarge my mental field, my field of consideration and empathy.
"I'd like to think about that," I told the reader who shared her concerns earlier this week, and I meant it - not simply that I will think about it, but that I'd like to. Meanwhile, she shared with me a link, sponsored by the Special Olympics, that I will share here: Spread the Word to End the Word .