Neuro-queerness in An Unkindness of Ghosts

The term nuero-queer was first used by disability activists Nick Walker and Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon, to identify and explain the crossroads between nuerological difference, queer identity, and cultural conditioning. From our reading, neuroqueer can be a verb, noun, adjective, and it overall refers to a way of being, that contradicts societal expectations and celebrates difference. This essay will focus on neuro-queerness in An Unkindness of Ghosts, by River Solomon; specifically, I wish to analyze the relationships between Aster, Giselle and Theo, aboard the Matilda, and how their neuro-queerness allows them to impact their culture and society in a way that their neurotypical cisgender and heterosexual predecessors were incapable of. 

First, I would like to discuss the complexities of Aster and Giselle’s relationship. The pair are clearly fast friends, and see the other as one of the few people they can completely trust. When Giselle disappears, it’s only Aster that she reveals herself to, only Aster who can convince her to come home for sustenance. When Giselle injures herself, she only complies with medical attention from Aster, even as she sasses and complains. But the same cannot be said for Aster entirely. Aster often relies on Theo, the Surgeon, during the course of the novel, calling upon him when she is in a pinch or severely injured herself.  The novel takes time to have each woman recall an event from their adolescence, in which Aster played Husband and Giselle played Wife. Aster recounts this event another of Giselle’s antics and fancies, and when she leaves the play, it is to further educate herself under Theo’s direction. Giselle’s recalling is much more intimate, including details that may indicate a precocious sexual arousal, such as Aster’s appearance, warmth, the closeness of the encounter. 

In chapter 26, narrated by Giselle, she remembers when Aster found a book of Giselle’s mother tongue. The language Ifrek emphasizes unity, speaking of ‘we’ ‘us’ but never ‘I’. This tidbit of information serves to illustrate just how dependent Giselle truly is. Her lifelong affection and attachment toward Aster is one she cannot escape, cannot control. So she dives head in; 

“But it feels so much more satisfying to say the cruelest thing, to hurt, to harm. I wish I was better, but I’m not, and so there’s nothing to do but love who I am. “

Giselle is a true foil to Theo. Theo who is Heaven’s hands, Theo who hesitates and is consumed by anxiety, Theo who cannot tell Aster the depth of his love for her. Giselle represents the aversion to queer love, the attraction that Aster cannot put into words beyond what other people dictate. Giselle’s discovery of a love note between Theo and Aster is what triggers her to burn down the botanarium, symbolizing her rejection of what she can never have. She accepts that she cannot have Aster, and so makes her final act of defiance against her, telling Aster that for all the love she gives, it is not enough and so Giselle wants nothing at all. She begs Aster to be miserable in her dying breaths, resisting to the absolute last. 

Aster exhibits her neuro-queerness in a much more self-reliant way. Walker includes the occupation as a site that can be neuro-queered; Aster’s meticulous systems, of notes, schedules, rules, are what enable her to provide outstanding medical attention to her lowdeck patients. Her expansive knowledge of plants, chemicals, anatomy, all of which she has acquired and maintained through her innate fascination with simply knowing as much as possible, set her apart from mere apothecaries like Jane, as well as professionals like Theo. Where Aint Melusine may criticize Aster’s ways, her chasing of Lune’s ghost, her foolhardiness in fighting guards, these are all things that lead to Aster finding the truth. She refuses to accept the first narrative, of Lune’s suicide, of unending violence, and instead finds her own way. Through the ventilation ducts, through stolen books, forged passes. She often makes it out of these situations because of her vast knowledge and perceptiveness. What Aint Melusive called ‘insideness’ in a young Aster, is actually crucial to Aster’s survival aboard Matilda. Aster never gives up her botanarium, even though it’s discovery would likely have her killed. She may not be as headstrong as Giselle every time, but rather plays the long game. Waiting and watching, recording and knowing, ignoring the dehumanization, and sometimes, playing into it. Her insideness, her Austim is what builds her up, empowers her, saves her. 

Theo’s neuroqueerness is not as explicit, and could be argued as non-existent. I would say that Theo’s constant anxiety, around his appearance, his religious devotion, and Aster and all that she means, is quite enough to qualify as disabling. These great bouts of silence, or self-flagellation are just as harsh as Giselle’s extreme outburst; they’re simply opposite ends of the spectrum. His queer identity is certain; he rejects the label of man both in his own internal dialogue and to Aster. His attraction to Aster, from himself as a genderqueer person and toward Aster as another gender non-conformant person, is absolutely queer. It could be said that he is attracted to her insideness, her great intelligence and manner, so this would be a neuroqueering as well.  Theo never seems to criticize Aster’s methods or processing, but in fact often extends her reach above the lowdecks. For Aster’s response to this neuroqueer attraction: sfantasizes of  Aston the astomic physiomatician and Theo the aviotologist as lovers, as belonging in the spotlight, together. This is absolutely neuroqueer, in that Aster recognizes her greatly scientific mind as a positive, and her attraction toward Theo of masculinity to masculinity, as a positive. She does not wish to conform in this space as Aster, but to take up even more space as Aston. 

For all three of these characters, their motivation for revolution is not just to save their society, but to save themselves. Giselle, who cannot breathe in every social constraint and expectation. Aster, who cannot know all that she desires for fear of punishment. Theo, who cannot love Aster openly or express his true identity. Yes, they recognize the intense, barbaric violence for what it is. But who was motivated more than these three to fight back? Would they have been motivated at all, without their neuroqueerness?

Salem Smith, MPP – Nothing About Us, Without Us

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s southern US, an era of eugenics and Jim Crow laws. While the story is one of tragedy and injustice, it is told from the perspective of a young white girl, who is personally unaffected by these oppressive complexes. This prioritization of white, abled, and wealthy perspectives or interpretations dilutes the logos of the narrative. To Kill a Mockingbird and other memoirs like it are disability and Black trauma pornography that serve to invoke the sympathy, and assert the lack of culbability, of white abled readers, while doing none of the same for Black disabled readers.  

This story is told exclusively from the perspective of Scout Finch, between the ages of 5 and 9. Harper Lee, the author, is also a white woman, and is likely the real voice behind Scout, referring to her own childhood in the south. Scout, while being a strong-willed and outspoken youngster, is still a white perspective, and a limited one at that. Scout and her brother Jem, are only friends with other young white children, like Dill, Cecil, or Walter. Most of the adults in her life are white, with the exception of their nanny, Calpurnia. Even when she reacts to racist sentiments, it’s to distinguish her father as an (white) individual separate from the Black clients he defends. While Scout is being raised to stand in solidarity with those less fortunate than her, her father never interrogates whiteness with his children, only moral platitudes of fairness or non-violence. From chapter 9, 

“ ‘If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?” 

‘For a number of reasons,’ said Atticus. ‘The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.’ 

In Atticus’ own words, defending Tom Robinson’s hopeless case is a matter of personal reputation, of upholding his own excellent defense record. He doesn’t ask Scout to empathize with the Robinson family, or to consider the real reasons behind being “licked a hundred years before we started.” Rather, he continues;
“…we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” 

Scout is, of course, about 6 years old during this conversation. But what sort of conversations should we expect people in Tom Robinson’s situation to have with their own children? Certainly not that everyone is still friends, or that Maycomb is still home. This teaching solidifies for Scout that 1) the Finch family is still white, no matter who Atticus represents, 2) cases like Tom Robinson’s are practically inconsequential since the outcome is obvious. Some other implications tied in may be that Atticus is the main subject of the case, that others’ perception matters more than being equitable. These are the priorities, to defend white reputations of modesty or class rather than to renounce hateful racist rhetoric and white privilege. 

Another way that this story prioritizes whiteness is that the Black population of Maycomb hardly ever directly speaks on their pain. Lee expresses certain tensions, undertones of Jim Crow laws, but throughout the whole book, no Black person actually speaks the full truth of their pain over Tom Robinson’s trial. Given that this story is told from the perspective of a white child, it’s easy to explain away Scout’s limited view. The issue is that not only does the novel lack these candid, agonizing moments; instead we have just as many reminders that despite being children, they are still treated as better than Black adults. When Jem and Scout visit Calpurnia’s church in chapter 12, their entrance is a show-stopper.

 “When they saw Jem and me with Calpurnia, the men stepped back and took off their hats; the women crossed their arms at their waists, weekday gestures of respectful attention. They parted and made a small pathway to the church door for us.” 

It becomes clear that some want the Finch children to leave, but the majority are excited to have them, to give them “respectful attention.” During Tom Robinson’s trial, four unknown Black attendees voluntarily give up their front row seats for Jem, Scout and Dill. Later on during the trial, Reverend Sykes begs the children to leave, worried about what their father might say, and yet Jem, at only 12 years old, has enough authority to refuse the request. Interactions like these are commonplace, routine, and unquestioned by everyone in the room, and those who disagree are shunned and excluded. Whether out of compassion and understanding for two white children who have yet to comprehend the full sin of racism, or fear of retaliation from white adults, there is no widely shared discomfort with this intrusion upon Black spaces. The Black adults here are portrayed as welcoming, genial, loving, and ironically, color-blind. Even when Tom’s case is lost, despite Atticus’ attitude of resignation, the Black community comes down on the Finch household in droves, with whatever they could get their hands on to express their appreciation. Atticus doesn’t refuse their offerings, even though he immediately acknowledges what an expense this must have been. Throughout the rest of the novel, the Black community of Maycomb is invisible. Culminating with Tom’s eventual murder, the issue of anti-Blackness is neatly wrapped up. As Atticus puts it, 

“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe…some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.” 

And what this statement does, in line with the ultimate conviction, is re-establish that white supremacy is an undeniable truth. To Atticus, and to the white people of Maycomb, no matter how Black people suffer, it will always be this way and it should, because Black people simply were not made equal. This acceptance of the status quo, this maintenance of privilege, solidifies that To Kill a Mockingbird is a story for white readers, despite what other loosely held sentiments may be thrown in for good measure. 

In much the same way that the Finchs’ racism is unbeknownst to them, it is inconceivable that a disabled person like Boo Radley could have his own personal narrative. Boo is immediately characterized as an oddity, a recluse with violent tendencies. As the novel progresses, and his character slowly opens, almost agonizingly, it becomes clear that Boo Radley’s circumstances are not his own doing. The argument of nature versus nurture is sure to have been beaten to death in the gossip circles of Maycomb, when it comes to Boo Radley. Yet, unlike Tom Robinson, Boo Radley’s circumstances are not seen as incontestable. From Calpurnia, we know that Mr. Radley, Sr was the “meanest man God ever blew breath into,” and from Ms. Maudie Atkinson, “but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of-” 

The people of Maycomb are aware of what sort of abuse goes on in the Radley household, but don’t see any pressing need to intervene. They pity Boo Radley, and speak sympathetically to his situation, because it is a natural fact to them that Boo Radley deserved better treatment than he received from his father. As true as this statement is, the closest thing we have to direct characterization of Boo at this point in the novel is that, in his younger days, according to Ms. Maudie, “…He always spoke nicely to me, no matter what folks said he did.” But who is Boo Radley now, more than 30 years later? What chances has he had to tell his own truth?

The answer to this, is sadly, none. Arthur Radley, like many neuro- or physically diverse people, has a narrative of violence, inhumanity, and pure evil placed upon him. It is only through Scout and Jem’s companionship that Boo Radley is rehumanized, instead of through his own words or explicit feelings. Boo’s only line in the entire story comes from the last chapter, as he timidly asks 8 year old Scout to walk him home. Despite this clear evidence of his affection for the Finch children, as he gently caresses an unconscious Jem, or humors his vertically-challenged walking partner, he is not expanded upon or revisited after this passage. Scout recalls, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” And yet, Scout isn’t really walking around in them; she’s reshaping Boo’s narrative into one that works for her. Where she had earlier acknowledged that she and Jem hadn’t done much of anything to reciprocate Boo Radley’s friendship, she then turns to create a romanticized ideal of the isolation Boo has experienced. 

In their book, Cultural Locations of Disability, Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell posits the following; “Even in the face of benign rhetoric about disabled people’s best interests, these locations of disability have resulted in treatment, both in the medical and cultural sense, that has proven detrimental to their meaningful participation in the invention of culture itself” (Snyder, Mitchell, 3). Meaning that, regardless of best intentions, actions and behaviors that consistently dehumanize disabled people, whether it be by race or neurodivergence, are simply a reiteration of institutional power that these disenfranchised people will never be benefited by. It doesn’t matter that Atticus saw it as his ethical obligation to defend Tom Robinson just as he would any other client; Atticus was not able or unwilling to interrogate the ways in which his own attitude and “private” beliefs affected the outcome of the case. The Finch family as a whole never seems to take pause and really consider their role, or how much space they take up in the Black community of Maycomb (both figuratively and literally.) In the same vein, it’s meaningless that so many people had an opinion about the way Mr. Radley Sr brought up his sons. Because no one intervened on behalf of Arthur Radley, whether they found it necessary in the first place, or important in the second, Arthur too, was never given a real chance to contribute to his community. Sentiment and prayer, while lovely to taste, have no real substance. Imagine if perhaps, that those who were so inclined, such as Mr. Link Deas, had taken it upon themselves to resolve Mr. Ewell and his smear campaign against Tom Robinson? Or if Ms. Maudie had marched herself right up to the front porch of the Radley house and invited Arthur over for tea whenever he might want it? Those small steps taken by sincere allies, would’ve opened up a world of possibilities for people put into unfortunate circumstances like Tom Robinson and Arthur Radley. 

Works Cited 

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder, Cultural Locations of Disability, Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. Print.

Breakout Room 3/18 Sec. 2 Group 2

Karlie, Faith, Lily, Salem

Faith: P4,Barker +Murray, “Humanisim is means of ….uncodified certainties.” I like how they broke down what that actually meant.

Foss: Defined humanism. What did you all think about the burn-victims of Japan?
Faith: i think it was interesting that there was a specific name for them

Salem: what did the name translate to? Do you all think that giving a specific name to people who experience a particular tragedy, especially one that results in disability (?) like is that othering those people or like, sympathizing with their pain or both? where is the line between like, pity and sadness versus paying homage i guess

Faith: The name was radiation-effected people, I’m not really sure

Karlie: I read it more as like, a label of their medical condition because it’s such an exclusive condition

Salem: that makes sense, but like, at least in the US medical industry they’ve definitely used straight up slurs against people with disabilities as like, the formal nomenclature for their impairment or condition

Faith: it says “disability in postcolonial…as a generic disabling force.”

Salem: so basically, how it affects you as disability on a societal scale versus personal circumstance depends on the culture you come from and the environment you’re in

Faith: Different environments can make you more disabled than others, depending on your physical surroundings that immobilize you. You’re only as disabled as the society around you decides you are.

Breakout Group 1 Section 2 3/2

Brianna, Arden, Nicholas, Daniella, Salem

Tobin-Siebers, Theory in Disability

  • Nick, Foucault on the docile body, what does this mean? p 175
    • Basically the restructuring of the solider is eugenic sentiment, that people can be removed or corrected from the mass population – Arden 
    • P 174, pp 2 “the human subject has no body…dependent on its order”
      • Objects are defined by the language used around them, disability is made such by the language we use about the body 
      • Not all “impairments” are disabilities, some are just pain or cumbersome, but arent cause for people to be “othered”

H. Lee, TKAM

  • Salem- Perpetuating racism cannot be something that’s disabling because that mindset doesn’t have any negative pushback from the white majority
  • Brianna- if you step outside of the norm, it’s separating you from the majority, even if its the right thing to do 
  • Scout is being influenced by ? townspeople and also Calpurnia

Salem’s Response to Wilde’s The Happy Prince and The Star-Child

Despite being children’s stories, some of Oscar Wilde’s work is rather dark. Stories like these two give conflicting moral endings despite their characters having roughly the same fate. In each, a beautiful and beloved prince is selfish, suffers a great deal and then helps many others. Each story shares a harsh reality with us- you are only useful and good if you are beautiful and kind, the latter of which each prince lacked. But what do these instances of suffering aim to teach us? In these stories, we are being conditioned to both accept and abhor the treatment of Others. We accept that ugliness is punishment, but pity those punishments still.

In our society, those who aren’t “normal” become targets for ridicule, abuse, and mockery. Ofcourse, being humans full of empathy, this recognition of ridicule and abuse against the disabled becomes patronizing pity. Neither of these attitudes are helpful to disabled people, and yet these attitudes are highly rewarded in both stories. Each prince sacrifices much to help the sick, the starving, and in turn is punished himself. Each boy sufferings willingly, self-righteously, but their rewards are different.

The Happy Prince, who knew nothing of his people’s suffering during his own life, does everything he can to help them all, down to every flake of goldleaf on his person and the life of his dear friend. The star-child, who was cruel and selfish without cause, gives his own food, his own body, and almost, his own life for a stranger. It can be debated, certainly, who’s sacrifice was greater, who’s suffering was more productive, and so forth, but instead we may focus on the moral value attached to each character, and what that in turn says about their suffering.

The star-child is not a character we are supposed to like from the beginning. We are inclined to be angry and disappointed that a beautiful child from the stars could be cruel, and when he is turned into a beast, this seems a fitting punishment. This differs from the sacrifice of the happy prince’s goldleaf, but both are treated poorly following their fall from beauty. This highlights how superficial the love gained from beauty is, and how deeply people are willing to be unkind.

But these lessons are undone and somewhat contradicted by the characters continuing to suffer. The Happy Prince still loses his dear friend, and is brought down from his pedestal so that he cannot see the fruits of their labor. The Star-child quickly passes within 3 years, but it is not highlighted that his final destination is heaven, as is the case in many of Wilde’s stories. For these reasons, I feel that both these stories are representations of the ways disabled people are unable to be completely included in society. Even those who make their best efforts to mask, to assimilate, to hide their own pain may not be ultimately rewarded. And if you are ugly enough, like the Star-Child, that deprivement will be seen as morally upstanding.