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Extraordinary bodies and "Lost"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  May 11, 2008 09:24 AM

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Yesterday I read Rosemarie Garland Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, one of the most major texts in disability studies. It's heavily academic, so if you're not used to that kind of writing, you might want to pick some other way of learning about the history and sociology of disability. Thomson writes,

To be granted fully human status by normates, disabled people must learn to manage relationships from the beginning. In other words, disabled people must use charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor, or entertainment to relieve nondisabled people of their discomfort ... If such efforts at reparation are successful, disabled people neutralize the initial stigma of disability so that relationships can be sustained and deepened. Only then can other aspects of personhood emerge and expand the initial focus so that the relationship becomes more comfortable, more broadly based, and less affected by the disability. Only then can each person emerge as multifaceted, whole.

This was interesting to read after watching last week's episode of "Lost," in which the concept of "who is special" was a key theme. "Special," of course, means set apart from others, whether that setting-apart is on the grounds of unusual ability or disability. (Every man named Ed who fancies himself a comic sooner or later tries on the nickname, "Special Ed.") Ben, Locke, and Hurley--astutely identified by the latter as the craziest guys on the island--were the central characters.

Ben is an interesting case of disability because he is not disabled, except perhaps morally, but acts as though he is. Ben "manage(s) relationships from the beginning ... [using] charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor, or entertainment" to achieve his goals. Unlike a disabled person who uses these methods to convince others of their full humanity, Ben uses them to keep others from realizing his full humanity. For him, ordinary human vulnerability, falling short of omnipotence, is a disability.

Hurley is not physically disabled, but he is fat and mentally unstable and feels the stigma of these two things strongly. There really are no words for how much I hated what was done with Hurley in this episode. THE FAT GUY MUTTERS "MALLOMARS" IN HIS SLEEP??? Wow. What was particularly offensive about that is that Hurley hasn't ever been shown before to have a particular sweet tooth--he likes the salty, greasy, protein-rich foods. But hey, I guess all fat people love all unhealthy food, so no need to keep the character consistent. I wish Jorge Garcia had protested against Hurley's Mallomar dreams, but "Lost" has a history of killing characters off that probably works well to keep the actors compliant.

The candy-bar-sharing scene between the disabled-in-his-own-mind Ben and disabled-in-the-eyes-of-others Hurley was kind of good and kind of awful. It was great to see the most hateful and most lovable characters sitting on a log sharing a chocolate bar. The setup, however, left a lot to be desired. Ben does not look longingly at other people's candy bars. Ben never begs or asks for anything unless it's a tactic to make himself appear less dangerous than he is. And Hurley would not have needed to be asked to share, even wordlessly. Just because he's fat doesn't make him a food hoarder. Hurley is a forgiving and empathetic person who can express love more easily in actions than in words. He understood how Ben was feeling--he, too, has lost people, has been destroyed by self-doubt, has known the hurt of being sidelined from the action. He understands Ben's disability. He would have split that candy bar with Ben before Ben had even allowed himself to realize he wanted it.

I would love to hear from any members of the disability community about the portrayal of former paraplegic Locke. (Comments are open on this post.) I think it's good. For the first couple of seasons, the question "How did Locke get paralyzed" was, like, THE question about Locke. And when you finally find out--it doesn't really matter. The able-bodied tend to see disabled people entirely in terms of their disability. Their disability is their story, what else in their life could possibly compare to that? Locke's character arc sets us off down that path, and then neatly diverges. Turns out Locke's story is that of a lonely, gifted yet vulnerable man desperate for something to believe in, something to belong to. The wheelchair just happened for a while. And his fierce desire to stay on the island that healed him isn't because he fears going back to the wheelchair, it's because he's finally found that thing to believe in and belong to. The disability has been pushed to the periphery of Locke's story, just as it is in the stories of many real-life disabled people. It's just the set and props, it's not the play itself.

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3 comments so far...
  1. Hi. I am a researcher who writes about media and disability topics. I mentioned the John Locke character on my Media dis&dat blog,

    I know others in the disability community have talked about John Locke before, i.e. "Lost" was reviewed in a disability context in the Society for Disability Studies journal Disability Studies Quarterly,

    I'll let others know about your column.

    Robin says: Thanks! I'll check this out. I did try googling around about the perception of Locke within disabiilty studies, but hadn't found much--my search was a rather perfunctory one.

    Posted by BA Haller May 12, 08 05:17 PM
  1. I put a link to your column on some disability studies listserves so hopefully you will get some comments other than mine. :-)

    Robin says: Thanks! I'm really interested to hear what someone thinks. I note that you DID say Locke wants to stay on the island b/c of his "cure"--I think that was his motive initially, but he has come to see the island in a much broader way--a cure for his spirit, not merely his body.

    Posted by BA Haller May 12, 08 05:54 PM
  1. Wow, finally someone has said it.
    I became a paraplegic in the summer of 2005, and started watching the first season of Lost that fall on DVD, when I was "stuck" living in my father's basement because I had no where else to go after rehab. It was for me, the only story in Lost for quite some time, and it's served as this strange metaphor (only after Katrina which was raging while I was in rehab) for my own recovery and eventually un-Lost-ness. I felt I had been marooned on this island that made sense only to those who had the happenstance to inhabit it, and I had to figure out, just like Locke, what my new mission in life would be. There really is nothing like sudden onset disability, where one day you weren't the same in the eyes of the world.

    Robin says: Wow. This is what stories were meant to do for us. I'm glad "Lost" was there for you when you needed it.

    Posted by sarah m. scott May 12, 08 09:02 PM
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Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

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Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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