May 18, 2006

Hackneyed, Not History

by By Andrew Leibs.

As the film version of The Da Vinci Code opens, disability rights activists should stop to consider members of the disability community whose condition remains one of the most culturally maligned in the world.

I am speaking about albinism, the genetic inability to synthesize the dark pigment melanin -- the condition Brown misrepresents to make the villain of his bestselling book more sinister and appalling.

Every aspect of Dan Brown's book has been scrutinized -- except his abject ignorance about albinism.

Readers will no doubt recall the stalking Silas, who executes four people in one night doing God's work. Most of the stereotypes common to books and films that exploit albinism are present: red eyes, loyalty that leads to self mutilation and an abusive past that spawns a born-again brutality and proficiency in killing.

It is impossible for one with albinism (most of us detest the dehumanizing word "albino") to read Brown's book and not feel diminished. Knowing that Silas is the only experience most people will ever have with albinism is deeply troubling. Such characters take root in the imagination where there are no positive human images to balance them and thereby they assume great power.

In our age of political correctness and after decades of a disability movement I should not have to explain that persons with albinism do not have red eyes, are not skilled assassins, nor are they so eager to belong that they'll make brutality or banjo playing their life's purpose.

The trouble is, Brown's book -- and nearly every instance of albinism in popular culture -- reminds us that writers, even those who pride themselves on their research, cannot conceive of albinism in people without using its traits to tap and echo our deepest human fears.

What other disability is so relentlessly, so thoroughly maligned?

While advocacy and human decency have quietly ended the use of dehumanizing terms such as "idiot," "Mongoloid," "Negro," "Siamese twin" and "spastic," the word "albino" -- coined by a slave-trolling Portuguese explorer in the 17th Century -- is a one-word punchline on shows like The Simpsons, Mad TV, and Conan O'Brien.

It astounds me how every aspect of Brown's book can be scrutinized with virtually no mention of the abject ignorance exhibited by the author's use of albinism. What angers me most is the impunity that such writers still enjoy.

Brown is hardly the first writer to negatively portray albinism. Melville not only built Moby Dick around a maniacal quest for a white whale, but has Ishmael expound on peoples' varied reactions towards whiteness, calling albinism "the crowning attribute of the terrible," and the "colorless, all-color of atheism." Such idioms work for Melville, but gave succeeding writers, especially screenwriters, a convenient means to infuse villains with cruelty and superhuman strength.

Silas, his spiked cilice cinching his thigh, reminded me of Mr. Joshua, the assassin played by Gary Busey in the 1987 film Lethal Weapon. In one scene Joshua lets his arm be burned with a lighter to prove his loyalty -- a freakish act of self-mutilation that viewers are intended to link with his albinism.

Such characters take root in the imagination where there are no positive human images to balance them and there assume great power.

Such characterizations persist despite growing awareness and decades of family advocacy by the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, or NOAH. NOAH has only recently stepped up its opposition to negative film portrayals, which is one reason such uses persist.

Now, with the release of The Da Vinci Code movie, I wonder what it will take to make people aware of a wrong we generally no longer tolerate in human discourse -- pop culture included?

People suggest this lack of consciousness is simply a matter of numbers: there are only 25,000 persons with albinism in the United States. But if we are so few, why are the misuses so many? What makes "albino" a word common enough for the AP Stylebook, while the condition of albinism remains misunderstood or unacknowledged in people, unless it's used negatively?

As audiences exit The Da Vinci Code, I wonder if they will be left with yet one more misimpression of albinism, and whether they will care. Will albinism continue to give writers carte blanche for over-the-top villainy, or will a growing awareness of the condition and its misuses prompt long overdue action that leads to change?

Albinism is uncommon in most people's lives, but common and even clichéd in culture. Navigating one's identity and esteem through this disconnect is the main challenge of living with albinism. I suspect the same is true for other disabilities that writers exploit solely for their dramatic value.

Andrew Leibs lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Posted on May 18, 2006