Me, The Bobbsey Twins, and Switched At Birth

[Edited to add: At the bottom of this post, I used to have a collection of links to things other people have said about why representation in media is so important to them.  But then the collection kept getting longer and longer until I finally decided it was time to put all the links together in a page on their own  You can check them out at Blog Posts on Why Representation Matters.]

This post was going to be about Switched At Birth.  And, it still is mostly about that, except that it isn’t mentioned until near the end of this post.  Because the more I struggled to write about Switched At Birth the more I realized that I could not possibly begin to communicate what this program means to me as a Deaf woman until you first understand about the first time that I met me inside a book.

For years it is missing and you don’t even notice.  You still read.  In fact, you read voraciously, swallowing books whole, zooming through shelves of books at a dizzying pace.  An adult would think you haven’t been reading for long, but really you have: you’ve been reading long enough and persistently enough to have consumed hundreds of books in your brief life time, maybe thousands of them.  And still, you never notice.  Not because you don’t miss it, not because you don’t yearn for it, but because you don’t realize that it’s possible to have a world in which it exists.  How do you notice something missing if it’s never been there for you?  Even if you need it?

And then, one day, it happens.  You think you’re just reading a book, as ordinary as any other book. To be precise, it is a Bobbsey Twins book, and certainly not the first one you’ve read. You’re old enough to have been reading on your own for ages, but young enough to think that the 12-year-old twins in the book are practically full grown adults.  The 6-year-old twins are much more relatable for you.  And here is Flossie talking with her mother.  A friend of hers, another little girl like her and like you, is coming over to visit.  And you turn the page, and it happens.

Your heart seems to skip a beat and then beats again, faster than before.  You freeze, staring at the page, watching as the whole world opens up all around you, richer and more tangible than ever you knew.  Because all of a sudden, now you know you’re real.  You.  Yes, you.  You’re a real person, flesh and blood. You exist. You exist, and you belong somewhere in this world.  And you finally know this, without having known until now that you had needed this simple validation of your being.  It’s as if you have been stumbling about, sure you’re fine because you’ve never known any other way of being.  Then you suddenly get to drink a tall, cool glass of water.  And for the first time you realize that you had been ravenously thirsty for your entire life and hadn’t even known.

Do you understand?  I’m a little girl–or, I was, when this happens more than 35 years ago.  And for the first time in my life, I’ve just met me in a book.  Because Flossie’s friend is a little deaf girl like me.

Just like me.  Here is me.  At last.

I hadn’t even known I had been waiting for this.  But now that I do, I can feel something cool and desperately needed rushing to fill ravenously empty spaces inside me I hadn’t known were there.

Do others know this sudden and fierce joy of discovering that it’s possible for the world to include you?  That it’s possible for you to exist, to be real, to belong, to be okay as you are right now, to be recognized as not a freak, to be a recognized human being?  Do they know what this euphoric revelation is like?  Or is that reserved only for those of us who have spent our lives in a world that erases us, only for those of us who know without ever being told that clearly we don’t exist, not really, or else we would have met someone like us by now inside of a book?  Or in a TV show? Or in a movie?

If you have lived this erasure, this invisibilization of you, then you have some idea how I felt on that day more than 35 years ago when I discovered me inside a Bobbsey Twin book.

Do you know, then? Or can you guess? How I felt when I finally unfroze enough to go on reading, to turn the page again, to learn more about this little deaf girl, this little piece of myself that had been dressed up by some author I’d never met and gently folded into this book?

I turned the page.  And the little deaf girl was having trouble understanding Flossie and her mother, over and over, and having to ask them to repeat.  This by itself was fine.  She was deaf.  They were hearing.  They didn’t know how to sign.  Having a few misunderstandings along the way, having to ask hearing people to repeat themselves a few times (or write things down if lipreading simply isn’t working) is normal when you’re deaf, at any age from little girlhood up through adulthood.  Sooner or later, as long as the people you’re talking with are patient and keep working to make communication happen, it sorts itself out.  By itself, a few minor communication breakdowns is not a big deal–not in real life, and not in a book either.

But what wasn’t making sense was that every time the girl misunderstood something, she interpreted it as something that didn’t even remotely look the same when lipreading what was really said.

“We’ll fix you up,” said Flossie’s mother.

“But I’m already mixed up,” said Flossie’s friend.

I couldn’t understand.  Why hadn’t the author talked to a deaf person to find out what really happens when we misunderstand things?  Why hadn’t the author simply stood in front of a mirror and mouthed the characters’ lines to herself to see how they appeared on the lips?  This is all it would have taken to realize that, no “fixed” and “mixed” don’t look remotely the same on the lips.  There are plenty of other words and even entire phrases that can be mixed up with each other by a lipreader, even a skilled one.  But “fixed” and “mixed” and the other pairs of words the author chose throughout this scene were not among them.

But this.  This was only irksome.  What was much more upsetting than this relatively minor inaccuracy was reading about how Flossie and her mother responded to the little deaf girl saying she was mixed up.  Did they help her so she would be less frustrated?  Did they repeat themselves so she wouldn’t be mixed up any more?  Did they start using gestures more, or drawing pictures to help her understand what they were saying?  The girl was old enough that perhaps she had started to read a little–did they try to see if it might help for Flossie’s mother to write down what she was saying?  No, they didn’t.  Instead, they laughed, and did nothing to help.  They laughed and I wanted to crawl into the book and start hurting them the best way I knew how, by kicking and scratching at them.  And then I wanted to go find the author who had written that horrible scene, who had made two characters who I was supposed to like and admire be so mean to a little girl like me.  I wanted to kick and scratch at the author, too.

Slowly and reluctantly,  after talking with my parents about the book, I started to understand.  No, the little girl’s deafness wasn’t there for me.  No, she wasn’t there so I could have someone to relate to, to make it easier to imagine myself inside the story.  No.  The point of this scene was to achieve what was meant to be a humorous effect for hearing readers.  See how funny these communication difficulties are?

Here I am in a book.  For the very first time in my entire life.  And the only point of having me there, as far as the author was concerned, was so others could laugh at me, at a little girl like me having trouble understanding what Flossie’s mother said.

Can you picture the devastation I felt then?  Can you understand how this impacts me even now, 35 years later?  Can you understand now why I still crave deaf characters in fiction, want them, need them?  Can you understand now why I also want to see other characters with any other disabilities in fiction, even if they don’t share the exact same disabilities that I do?  And why, despite my desire, I still so frequently cringe when I see that a book, or a TV program, or a movie is going to feature a character with disabilities?  Because as much as I still need to see me in fiction, I also don’t want to be hurt yet again by stereotyped depictions of people “like me”?  Sometimes I pass over a book that clearly has a character with a disability because I’m so afraid of what I’ll find when I open it.  And yet, as afraid as I am, sooner or later, I always come back and read it after all.  Because when there are so very few people “like me” in fiction, how can I not?

Edited to add: A reader, Jamie Berke, helped me identify the title of the book referenced above as being probably “The Bobbsey Twins in Echo Valley #36. Because I had read this more than 35 years ago, I couldn’t remember the title on my own. This volume apparently is no longer available in modern reprint, only as a collectible. Thanks, Jamie, for your research skills!)

Do you understand now, what the TV program Switched At Birth means to me as a Deaf woman?  This is the first TV program to have multiple characters who are Deaf, like me.  No, the show isn’t always perfect.  But, the authors and directors are clearly trying very hard.  And a lot of the time, they do get it right.  And because so many of their deaf characters have important story lines in their own right (and not just as side kicks), I can place a little more trust that eventually something they get wrong today might get “fixed” or countered by something else done better later on.  This is the first time I have been able to tune into a TV program and trust that, at some point in the hour that follows, something will happen that will resonate with me in a way I don’t experience with any other TV program.

This is also much of why I am so excited about their first-ever all-silent, all-ASL/subtitled episode that will air this Monday, March 4, 2013.  This probably also is why there are Deaf people across the nation planning special viewing parties just to watch this episode together (if this is you, be sure to tell @NADTweets via twitter!)

Please do read some blog posts written by other people who also care about seeing “people like them” in fiction.  Because this is something that MANY of us care deeply about.  Not just deaf people, or people with disabilities, but also people of color, people who are poor, people who are GLBTIQA, and probably many other characteristics I haven’t mentioned in this post.

I am constantly re-blogging Tumblr posts from other people that relate in some way to the importance of representation in popular culture.  I particularly tend to re-blog things related to disability representation, but I also re-blog things related to people of color representation, LGBITQA representation, and so forth. You can find a collection of these under the representation tag at my Tumblr blog, and other related tags.

I used to have a collection of links right here at the bottom of this post to things other people have said about why representation in media is so important to them.  But then the collection kept getting longer and longer until I finally decided it was time to put all the links together in a page on their own  You can check them out at Blog Posts on Why Representation Matters.

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24 thoughts on “Me, The Bobbsey Twins, and Switched At Birth

  1. There is never anyone ‘like me’ in fiction. People say stuff like, whatever next, people will want groups for disabled black lesbians? Well yes I am that, and also mixed race and jewish and a whole lot of other stuff.
    I’m not sure that I want to see stuff about people like me in fiction. Unless it’s that sort of fiction that is so grounded in personal experience that it is real. But documentary material about any of my identities or any combination of my multiple identities, I’m lapping it up. Because they are like me and not like me, but they are authentic, unlike the fictions people may construct around identities that interest them.

  2. Well done! This is the first of your blogs entires that I have read, and I will probably spend the rest of the afternoon ignoring my laundry and devouring our site. I have and do log to find a piece of my own world in the worlds I escape to on pages. This is wonderful!

  3. Back in the 90s I ran after every depiction I could find on television that even *remotely* touched on transgendered topics. Recording them all on my VCR to hold onto them as long as possible. Now I find there are so many out there that I can pick and choose the good ones and not panic about deleting shows on my DVR that I have watched. It seems that same pattern happens with quite a few topics.

  4. Andrea … wonderful piece … I’d like to link to it in my blog tomorrow. I so agree about the need to see oneself on screen to see a world that includes you. I loved Sue Thomas F.B.Eye … and I once met the real Sue Thomas (who was even more impressive). I notice, really notice, people with disabilities when I see them on screen. I didn’t think about the fact that they aren’t there for me … because I’m not yet ‘audience’ … that’s something I need to ponder.

  5. Andrea, I tood that right from what you wrote … they didn’t write for YOU as audience, they wrote about YOU for the amusement of a different audience, the hearing audience – that’s almost more disturbing than not being included at all.

  6. Thanks … yes, it occurs to me as you mention this that perhaps some (or much) of what hurt me about reading that scene in Bobbsey Twins was precisely the realization, that even in the one occasion that I finally “met” me in a book, the author still didn’t write with the awareness that deaf girls like me were going to read it also.

  7. Cindy and I both watch “Switched at Birth” on a regular basis. I have always felt that this show is as important for people with disabilities as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” was to help bridge the gap between the gay community and the general population. I hope that this show helps people to relate better and helps to reduce the “invisibilization” that you mentioned in your blog post. So are you Emmett/Bay or Noah/Bay? 🙂

  8. Hi, congrats on your new blog! Your first post is certainly well written. However, you have a typo in your link to We Can Do that you might want to correct.

  9. I’ve loved every minute of Switched At Birth–never been more excited about a TV show–and tonight’s ASL episode was no exception. I absolutely loved the experience of being immersed in an hour of purely visual TV. It was cool to be focused on one of my senses, instead of torn between half-listening, and reading a text message, and whatever else. The background music quickly became annoying, so I turned it down to almost mute. Somehow the focus and the quiet made me feel like I was “hearing” better. And it was just interesting to see the different nuances of how people came across without sound. Fantastic episode.

    The show as a whole is fantastic. It doesn’t just have a token disabled character (played by an able-bodied actor) with a cliche disability issue episode (written from an ableist perspective) now and then. (Glee, I’m looking at you!) Rather, there’s an entire Deaf community. We get all kinds of views and perspectives on Deaf issues. The characters aren’t entirely defined by being Deaf; they’re rich and complex human beings, but we get to see how being Deaf impacts all aspects of their lives and selves. I’ve never seen anything like it on TV before. As a hearing person, it offers a fascinating new perspective for me. But as a disabled person, I identify so strongly with so much of this show, and it’s incredible to see some of my most lonely struggles finally validated in the media.

    My earliest memories of seeing somebody in a wheelchair in fiction are The Secret Garden (Colin), and Heidi (Clara). I didn’t understand why characters in wheelchairs never stayed in their wheelchairs! (I’m looking at you again, Glee.) And it did bother me. Kids want to see characters that are “like them.” But whenever I thought I found a “like me,” they had to be fixed, made unlike me, in order for the book to have a happy ending. It hasn’t changed much. Wheelchairs still generally only come out to indicate tragedy, and/or teach an inspirational lesson to the able-bodied. There usually isn’t much for me to identify with.

  10. I am not disabled or deaf but I really enjoyed your blog post! I took ASL in high school and enjoyed it as well. I wish more colleges offered ASL classes.
    Switched at birth is my favorite show!

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  13. For me, it was Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams. From the first page, it was like a shock went through me. I didn’t know, barely cared, what autism really was or anything. All I knew was that for the first time in my life this was someone like me, talking about all the secret things I had no language to talk about, laying bare things about myself I couldn’t even face, page after page after page, from the initial poem onwards.

    In a world without windows, in the company of shadows,
    You know *they* won’t forget you, they’ll take you in.
    Emotionally shattered, don’t ask if it mattered,
    Don’t let it upset you, just start again.

    In a world under glass, you can watch the world pass,
    And nobody can touch you, you think you are safe.
    But the wind can blow cold, in the depths of your soul,
    Where you think nothing can hurt you till it is too late.

    Run till you drop, do you know how to stop?
    All the people walk right past you, you wave goodbye.
    They all merely smiled, for you looked like a child
    Never thought that they’d upset you, they saw you cry.

    So take advice, don’t question the experts.
    Don’t think twice, you just might listen,
    Run and hide, to the corners of your mind, alone,
    Like a nobody nowhere.

    From that point I was hooked, I devoured the book, I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe anyone could know me that well. It wasn’t just that I had never seen anyone like me in a book, ever. It was that I didn’t know people like me could be in books. I didn’t even know people like me could exist. I kept trying to come up with reasons that she wasn’t like me, because it was too overwhelming that in so many ways, on so many levels, she was. Whatever I think of some of the things she says sometimes.. she did that for me, and I have to be grateful.

    I later found out that I was very lucky this was the first book by an autistic person that I picked up. While I can identify with almost any autistic person to some degree, she’s actually within a broader subgroup of autistic people who have more in common with me than most autistic people do. If I’d picked stuff up by Temple Grandin, as I did later that year… I’d have identified with some of it, but not nearly so much or so profoundly. It wouldn’t have had that sense that this person knew my soul.

  14. This is a brilliant piece. Thank you for writing it.

    My moment of sudden inclusivity, a little bit like what you experienced with the deaf character before the author let you down, was when I first saw the character Liesl Levy’s nose. For the first time in my life I saw a nose like mine in a piece of artwork that wasn’t some kind of garish exaggeration in Nazi propaganda. A girl who was supposed to be pretty, in a serious comic (Family Man by Dylan Meconis), looked like me. I was shocked at how much I was moved. *It was something I hadn’t even realized I was missing.* And it definitely prompted me to hold fast to that feeling — when I commission artists to draw my character Rivka, who has my heritage, I make sure they’re drawing my nose. It’s about time we see that nose on a hero.

    Your description of what the author got wrong about lip-reading rang very true. I hope everyone who reads this applies your lesson not only to researching what it’s like to lip-read but about anything else that’s outside their personal experience.

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  17. Wow. This is a really powerful piece. Its really important for people to be able to see themselves represented in the media. And represented in a positive light, not as something to laugh at. I’m really sad that you had to experience that. My heart broke when I read about how it was supposed to be a joke in the book. People don’t realize that things like that can hurt people. I actually used to be obsessed with the series switched at birth. I think they did a good job at portraying characters that were not defined by their disability and thrived, as people.

    All your differences make you who you are. And everyone is beautiful and powerful.

    ( an-american-wallflower from tumblr)

  18. Pingback: Meeting Myself in a Book for the First Time, Again | Rambling Justice

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