21 December 2010

"God bless us, everyone"

What was Charles Dickens modeling when he gave us "Tiny Tim"?

"'As good as gold,' said Bob, 'and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.'"

1870s illustration
It is Christmas, and so our television screens will be filled with one of literature's most enduring portraits of disability, Tim Cratchit in Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol.

Tim has a small part in the book, but it is a powerful one, even before the pity inducing film performances of the 20th century. But, after debating with a friend on Twitter over whether Tim was a "positive" or "negative" for the disability community, I wanted to separate Dickens' Tim from Hollywood's Tim, because they are somewhat different characters - different in crucial ways.

The first difference stems from both time and intent. The book Dickens wrote at the start of the second industrial revolution was an indictment of early capitalism, barely less "radical" politically than the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels which would appear just five years later.

In Dickens' story Scrooge's capitalism runs over everyone and everything in its path, it is as malevolent to the well-born as it is to Tim and his family. Tim might be there to heighten sympathy a bit, but really, he is just another voice protesting for a more humane world. When Hollywood, or the British film industry, retold the tale before and after the World War, it became more Christian than political, and more sympathetic than angry, and Tim's position within the story changed.

1951 Tim
"The image of the Tiny Tim gained popularity in the 1940's and 50's when charities focused on finding cures for disabilities such as polio. They realized that pity opens wallets, so they began poster child campaigns. These campaigns played on society's fear that this thing, this disability, this horrible tragedy, could very easily invade their homes. Unless, of course, they sent in money to find a cure. The undertone of these campaigns was clear: G-d forbid you end up with a disability like the child on the poster. You're life will no longer be worth living; you'll be less then human (Shapiro, 1994)."

Tim gets prettier in these films, cuter. Of course everyone does. In the 1938 Hollywood version Bob Cratchit is fat. Capitalism has no longer run amok, rather, we are telling a story of charity, and charity needs the 'poster child.'

So the film Tiny Tim is sweet, high-voiced, pretty, and pathetic. But is that the character Dickens described?

To me, the literary Tiny Tim is something very powerful - especially in the context of his time. Whatever Tiny Tim's "affliction" - kidney disease is the most speculated - Tim was a fully embraced human in this story, when all across Britain, northern Europe, and the United States society was beginning to dehumanize those who could not 'compete.' The first "school" (asylum) for "idiots" was opened in Paris in 1841, with various other separated facilities appearing along with industrialization over the next 30 years. Tim was not separated. He fully participates in the life of his family. He even participates "as a male" - going to church with his father and brothers, not staying home with the females as they prepare the Christmas dinner.

And unlike so many "defectives" of the period developing as Dickens wrote, Tim has a voice. A clear, respected voice. This may not sound like much today... unless you've ever attended an American IEP conference or its equivalent in other nations... but in 1843 it was perhaps as radical as Dickens' call for redistribution of wealth.

Dickens is also decidedly less "romantic" about the ending. Though films often end with a "cured" and robust Tim, all Dickens will say is, "Tiny Tim, who did not die." There are no promises of "normality" here, only promises of humanity.

The visions of disability matter, and they need to be brought out into the open, and discussed. I like to use Edward Scissorhands as the classic example of trying to drag "the disabled" into "normality" by making them "heroic servants." I'd love high schools to do The Elephant Man - the play- rather than hold "carnival game"-type disability awareness weeks. (Compare it to the very different film as well). I saw a fabulous college version of Richard III a few years ago with Richard as a "contemporary" disabled man. In a wheelchair, constantly stared at by an unblinking video camera.

But we can begin this Christmas, in our homes, to explore those visions, and the divides between sympathy and empathy, and between victim and human. I see Tiny Tim as a great step forward for 1843, and sadly, in many ways, a great step forward today. But it is not a big enough step either way.

- Ira Socol


Chris Vacek said...

Hi Ira,

Nice piece. I get it.

And indeed, I think Dickens was ahead of his time, or at least challenging it vehemently. Perhaps what Dickens saw, and what you see, and what I see, are not so different. At the core is more than apathy framed by differentness, there is power in separation and dominance at the expense of tokenism. But for what it's worth, this immutability in the human disposition towards the disabled can only be broken by raising the conversation to a new level of volume and saturation. The holidays are a good time for this conversation, true, but so is every other day, every other learning moment.

May your holidays be blessed, and may you stay safe and healthy as we set out to challenge the conversationalists this upcoming year.

Miss Shuganah said...

I hope that I do not end up double posting. Apologies if I do.


Thank you for separating out the real Dickens from the Hollywood Dickens. While I have never read A Christmas Carol, I should have realized that Dickens wold never depicted Tiny Tim the way that Hollywood does.

The Hollywood version is a stripped down sentimental caricature of a disabled person, the kind that modern people seem to need in order to feel better about themselves.

I cannot think of anything more reprehensible than the objectification of children, particularly disabled children. Sentimentality covers up a multitude of sins. That is not empathy or even remotely close. And for that reason I have a hatred for Jerry Lewis and for Jerry's Kids. Let's roll out the next child and see the numbers change on the tote board. This a lethal combination of cynicism and sentimentality.

As you well know, my older daughter has severe cerebral palsy. People either think of her as "mental" as written on our masonry a few years back, or they think of her as some special angel. She is neither. She is a child. She is a human being. She can be a human board. She can be a mule kicking machine. She can be very funny. She can be one of the sweetest most affectionate people I've ever known.

Likewise, I am also not allowed to be human. I've lost track of how many people have been in awe of me simply doing what needs to be done and then being extremely disappointed because I also have many flaws.

This objectification and sentimentality strips both of us of our humanness. It's a huge disservice. My daughter is not an angel flying too close to the ground, and I am not some superhero with Super Mom emblazoned on my chest.

My prayer, such as it is coming from an irreligious woman like me is, "May God bless and keep the sentimentalists.... far away from us." (With apologies to the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof.)

The Goldfish said...

This is an absolutely brilliant post, Ira! :-)

A great depiction of what Hollywood did to Tiny Tim is in the Bill Murray movie Scrooged, which is a modern version of a Christmas Carol when the Scrooge character is a television executive. Whilst being visited by the various ghosts himself, he's putting on an all-singing all-dancing live television adaptation of the book. But they have Tiny Tim played by an international gymnast - not only does he throw away his crutch at the end, he performs sommersaults.

The Goldfish said...

P.S. by sheer coincidence, I just came across an old link to this essay from the 60s that I had read ages back - Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro. To be honest, I can't remember if it is any good (except that I kept it) and I don't have time to re-read it just now, but I thought I'd share in the hope it's worth sharing.

Miss Shuganah said...

Thanks for the link. Does seem relevant. I am suffering mightily from a head cold, or I'd give it a thorough read.

I did write this post The New Darkies back in April. I feel that people with disabilities are the new "N" word. When the school psychologist told me, "she is a joyful child and will have a good life," that was somehow supposed to console me that Kid O was never going to be taught how to read or write. She was six, and yet he had no compunction about all ready writing her off. it was then I envisioned us on the plantation porch. I suspect that disabled people of color have at least twice the obstacles. Disabled children are consigned to the plantation porch. Back of the bus. The realm of low expectations.

Cheryl said...

I'm truely HONORED to be quoted, but could you please change the link to


I have changed blogging formats. THANKS!

Cheryl said...

I'm sorry to be a pain, but the link is not right. You need to take the %20 off of the end

Miss Shuganah said...

Sometimes people raise their kids right.

A simple act elevates all

I don't believe in God, but I do sometimes believe in people. As Anne Frank said, "People are basically good." Stories like this restore my faith in mankind. Small acts of compassion go a long way.