Volume > Issue > The Illusion of Superman Americana

The Illusion of Superman Americana


By Peter Wilson | March 2003
Peter Wilson, who resides in southeastern Connecticut, teaches and tutors at Mitchell College. He is recovering from a spinal cord injury incurred 22 years ago.

When I was younger and TV was still in its naïve infancy, the airwaves were chock full of weekly heroes and their amazing exploits. Hardly a week went by without us kids sprawling in front of that monstrous set of ours to cheer on the “man of steel” as he battled for “truth, justice, and the American Way” after managing to change his outfits in a phone booth or elevator in a matter of seconds (how he pulled that off no one knew). Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, Superman was the quintessential urban action hero of the 1950s, with lots of imitators. Not a few of us urchins donned a makeshift cape and attempted to simulate his flying feats — there were plenty of broken limbs and frantic moms to testify to the singular influence of the “man” from Krypton.

In our own day a rather different type of “superman” reigns over Metropolis — one who has none of the charming demeanor of Clark Kent or the humble manners of his alter ego. This superhero has no flaws, no inborn aversion to Kryptonite, no imperfections at all. In our narcissistic culture, Superman Americana has all the “right stuff”: the ultimate diet and a perfect physique; up-to-date hardware, software, underwear; an airtight portfolio (pre-Enron); a soccer-mom bombshell of a wife; two or three of everything; a living will and a pre-packaged funeral plan (even death worries about inflation). And most important of all, he has p.c. views on all subjects. He is the perfect specimen, fit and outfitted for the Darwinian struggle. Even his wars are antiseptic, smartly executed facsimiles of actual combat. Distant memories of gulags and internment camps linger and wait in the wings, preparing to take on a new generation of misfits. Just think of your local abortuary and its lead-off position in the yellow pages if you doubt me.

The disabled know there are no such supermen — not really, certainly not in the end. They take this knowledge from their own broken humanity. Daily they wrestle with counter images imposed on them by mind or body, by an indifferent social milieu, by a bureaucratic and nightmarish human services industry, and by their own personal tragedies. The world of the disabled is a constantly changing obstacle course with endless hurdles and tire hoops to jump over or through. They view it from many vantage points — from the latest model electric wheelchair (like my friend Rick) to a dilapidated outworn walker (like my friend Steven) to a muted, tranquilized mind (like another friend). Every day provides an opportunity for heroism, largely unsung. Many of my compatriots have fallen in action, having exhausted their coping skills or assets or hope, and are pushed onto the borders of a Dickensian world — the nursing home, the psych ward (where you can find a bed), low-income and no-income housing, the streets, or, worst of all, the “Support Group Network.”

Not all minds (or bodies) are beautiful. Most do not end up capturing a Nobel Prize in the evening of life. People with disabilities come in all shapes, sizes, conditions, and intellects. Our incomes, though, are fairly consistent — consistently low and frequently lower because being disabled can be very expensive. Many of us still don’t have our state parking permit because we don’t have cars. Some are veterans (like my friend Bilbpwho must pay their own way to and from medical appointments because their VA travel vouchers got chucked. We don’t have accessible apartments because we can’t find any or because they’re out of reach of our budgets. We don’t shop on the Internet; we’re lucky enough if we can juggle rent, food, utilities, and medications in the same month. Fewer and fewer of us obtain quality medical care, either because we can no longer afford private insurance or because quality care is becoming extinct. We are increasingly under the spell of “medicrats” who run clinics by cutting services (instead of bureaucratic waste) and who end up (with apologies to Hippocrates) “doing harm” to the disabled person. We don’t have a lot of hobbies because diversions are pretty expensive these days and our incomes too embarrassing. But we do have a ton of appointments and red tape, mostly with human service professionals who haven’t much of a clue about how disabled folk go about managing survival in a dot-com world. Usually too busy shuffling papers and whining about budget (read: staff) cuts, they mostly fail to notice that another “client” has fallen through that wonder of wonders — the “safety net.” And when you really need them you can always count on their being in transit, at another meeting, or “away from their desks.”

The disabled often lack the intimacies of friendship, family, or spousal relationships. Thus, they become even more isolated from the functioning world. No amount of Internet services can fill this interpersonal void, and often such techno-personalism ironically makes them feel even more confined. Disability becomes a full-time job with an overwhelming sense of stress made more acute by loneliness and alienation from the able-bodied community. Exhaustion and depression frequently result from the herculean efforts needed to make oneself feel included and within “the norm.” So, many prefer to be left alone to take those little anodynes that soothe tension — spirits, lottos, and smokes usually being the preferred vices. Boy, do disabled people smoke. Church people often view us as a necessary nuisance and an embarrassing reminder of the Gospel. Often, they explain away its demanding call to prefer “the lowly and despised” of this world — we’re just too darn inconvenient.

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