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Read Mike Ervin's review, "Euthanasia Made Easy," in the Chicago Reader.

  The sub-human life
Stereotypes about autism made it easy for Leland director to take easy way out

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"The United States of Leland may be the worst assault on the worth of the lives of people labeled 'mentally retarded' in many years," says Not Dead Yet. MORE.

We asked Contributing Writer Cal Montgomery her thoughts on why Leland Director Matthew Ryan Hoge might have used the killing of an autistic teen as a plot device.

Her response:

A disabled person in a writing program once told me that the disabled characters in her fiction were challenged by nondisabled classmates who wanted to know what disability "signified" in the stories. They took nondisabled characters as the norm -- I wonder whether they did the same with straight characters, white characters, and male characters? -- and any deviation had to be for a reason. Disability needed to play a symbolic role within the story or it shouldn't have been there, they seemed to think.

I suspect that that's what happened with The United States of Leland. How do you allow for the possibility of sympathy for a character who kills a kid? You make the murder victim someone the audience won't naturally have sympathy with, or someone they think will be better off dead. It's kind of like Kevorkian discovering that the American public cares too much about death-row prisoners to be up for vivisecting them and moving on to a group of people whom the public finds less sympathetic or assumes has a lower quality of life. The victim has to either be subhuman or be trapped in a subhuman life.

Which is, of course, a standard way of viewing disabled people in general, and autistic people in particular. We're just like regular people -- except less. We're missing some important part, and that makes our lives tragic -- for us and/or for those around us. Sentimentality gets mistaken for sympathy, and we are significant not for who and what we are but who or what we aren't.

Academics tend to regard people labelled "retarded" (and possibly those labelled "psychotic") as especially subhuman, because they are believed to have little or not ability to function in those areas of life that academics think are most important. I suspect that the sort of people who are drawn to writing screenplays, creating characters, and participating in producing representations of human beings, human relationships, and human emotion are likely to regard autistic people as subhuman because we are widely believed not to be able to function in those areas which, after all, occupy a central role in the lives of people concerned with fiction and human storytelling.

So an autistic character in a film is likely to be a sort of void onto which anything -- or nothing -- can be projected. At best it's lazy writing and lazy storytelling on the base of unthinking acceptance of stereotype. But unthinking acceptance and reproduction of stereotypes perpetuates those stereotypes; and in a context in which there are no alternate images of us being presented (and in which the backlash against any of us who attempt to create alternatives means that we can't succeed in doing it) that's very dangerous.

I get annoyed when I see the same ol' demeaning stereotypes about women being promoted in films. But it's merely annoyance. I take comfort knowing that today there are plenty of alternatives to sexist stereotypes that can be found in the mass media. But seeing the same ol' demeaning stereotypes about autistic people (or mutatis mutandis, disabled people in general) frightens me because there's not much more than those stereotypes out there. And because the stereotypes are used to justify incarceration, violence, and death.

Leland director Matthew Hoge needed a victim whose death wouldn't arouse much focused emotion. Too much focused emotion would make it difficult for him to portray the murder as morally murky. Of course, if they'd done that, if they'd had Leland kill a James Bulger clone and then managed to portray the killer and the killing as complex and murky, they would almost certainly had a much better film. In the 2001 Tom Field film In the Bedroom, which Leland has been compared to, started with a killing that was very clearly the act of a bad man against a good man, and moved from there to a morally ambiguous murder that was the act of a good man against a bad man who had caused the killer direct harm. The filmmakers took their time to make it clear why the second murder was morally ambiguous.

Hoge, though, took a shortcut, using stereotypes about autistic people that he likely assumed his audience shares with him, so that he didn't have to do any of the complicated storytelling that would ordinarily be required in order to suggest a murderer might not actually be a bad guy.

And it's true: most people do share those stereotypes -- in part because most people get their information about people like me from filmmakers and writers and others who accept those stereotypes uncritically.

So just as I'm not necessarily going to get all upset when Nazis are used in a story as a shortcut to generate all kinds of thoughts and feelings -- 'cos I share a lot of the standard prejudices about Nazis -- most people aren't going to get upset with the stereotypes in Leland. In fact, the stereotypes are so deeply embedded that filmmakers and their audiences likely cannot imagine why we'd be upset. And if we try to explain why we're upset, then, well, if we're capable of objecting, then we're not really "autistic" anyway, are we? That's what they'd say. And, they'd insist, any non-autistic person who objects doesn't understand the "real tragedy" of autism.

'Killing disabled kids as acts of kindness'

"The United States of Leland may be the worst assault on the worth of the lives of people labeled 'mentally retarded' in many years," says Not Dead Yet. The movie examines the motives and life of teen Leland Fitzgerald (played by former Mouseketter Ryan Gosling). who brutally murders a boy who's autistic, stabbing him 19 times. Writer and director Matthew Ryan Hoge, "evidently wanted a movie in which audiences would be able to sympathize with someone who commits one of the most horrible crimes imaginable," says Not Dead Yet; he accomplishes that goal by "choosing a victim that audiences would not identify with."

Ryan, the young victim, is merely an object. Even his own mother describes him as having "nothing there." He serves only as a palette on which Hoge, through protagonist Leland, can mix society's most bizarre fantasies -- Leland being, as the film puts it, "a blank canvas."

Leland's problem, the film would suggest, is that "he is just too damn full of empathy," says Not Dead Yet. He kills Ryan -- stabbing him 19 times-- "out of kindness.That's what the audience is supposed to believe.

"No one would believe this for a minute of course, if Leland's victim had been a popular, nondisabled teenager. Our fear is that audiences may be all too ready to sympathize with the killer simply because his victim is someone they don't see as quite human. We've seen it play out in real life."

"If you saw a child with autism being assaulted on a public street corner, would you stand by and let it happen?" asks Dick Sobsey. Sobsey, Director of the JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at the University of Alberta. The United States of Leland, he says bluntly, " promotes ideas that kill people with autism and other disabilities."

"Pretty much all human beings have aggressive and antisocial thoughts or impulses from time to time,." he says. "Thankfully, most human beings keep these under control and do not act on them."

If you saw a child with autism being assaulted on a public street corner, would you stand by and let it happen?
-- Dick Sobsey

Guilt -- that is, "our own sense of doing wrong," and shame, "the belief that others would judge our actions as wrong," generally keep people from acting out their violent impulses.

"Disinhibition" is "the process that allows people to overcome guilt and shame to commit violence," he says, adding that a form of disinhibition takes place "when potential perpetrators of violence construct rationalizations that justify their crimes.

"Depersonalization and dehumanization are wel- known mechanisms that allow people to disinhibit violence by making the victim's suffering less problematic," he explains.

After studying violence against people with disabilities for the past two decades, I am convinced that a society's attitudes and beliefs about people with disabilities is the most important influence that leads to higher rates of crimes against them. In the ecological and multifactorial models of violence against people with disabilities, this is the outside layer of the onion, the context that shapes violence in our society." (Read more from Sobsey on this issue).

Disability activists are exhausted with society's continuing belief "that killing a disabled person is a 'sensitive' and 'sympathetic' act," says activist Laura Hershey, who will join demonstrators outside Denver's Mayan Theater on Friday "Murder is not mercy; and people with disabilities are not better off dead. That will be our message to people buying movie tickets."

Posted April 8, 2004

Read Mike Ervin's review, "Euthanasia Made Easy," in the Chicago Reader.

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