In June 2012 I was fortunate enough to attend a talk Henry Winkler gave at a school in North London. I was there to sell signed copies of his Hank Zipzer books. ‘The World’s Greatest Underachiever’ – Zipzer is a young dyslexic growing up on the Upper West Side, who’s experiences mirror those of Winkler’s youth.
It was a relief, discovering what a fabulously nice guy he is. The average age of his audience was 9 years old, but he deftly managed to work some self-deprecating Fonzie gags in there for the elders. His warmth and enthusiasm was infectious and he deserves every accolade for the work he is doing.
There was one repeated phrase which lodged in my mind: ‘learning challenges.’ Cynicism calls P.C. bullshit – ‘learning disabilities’ remains the stable phrase for those facing dyslexia or similar conditions. Was Winkler simply smoothing the edges of his rhetoric or, as I personally suspect, attempting to subtly undermine any associated stigma?
My reasoning may be spurious, but are there parallels between his approach to dyslexia and any radical appreciation of mental health? Here’s a quote from an interview Winkler gave to justonemorebook.com:
First of all, if you are dyslexic or if you have a learning challenge, kids know. They know that it’s hard for them. They know that they’re not up to snuff. They know that they’re not doing as well as 75% of the class. So then to compound it by labeling them, by putting them down, by yelling at them, by grounding them because, you know, they’re not reading fast enough, it warps their ability to grow into a healthy self-image.
It has to be acknowledged that, like epilepsy and unlike bipolar disorder, there is support for a neurobiological theory of dyslexia. Regardless, Winkler’s quote – emphasising stigma, productivity, labels and self-image; puts me in mind of attitudes towards the mentally ill. The levels and quality of support and acceptance are critical in determining the outcome of such a challenge; more so than any point of origin.
Is it naive to hope for a day when a kind, funny guy in a tweed jacket is invited to address a hall of school kids and tell them about his ‘mental challenges?’ Hopefully this gentleman would use a better phrase than that. Maybe he’d be sharing the adventures of a young person finding their feet and making their way whilst hearing voices and constantly shifting moods.
On Monday The Guardian carried an exclusive interview Hadley Freeman conducted with Michael J. Fox. Like Winkler, Fox will ultimately be remembered for the green shoots of his early roles – those enduring, iconic characters whom neither the march of time, nor recurrent internet memes will ever unmake.
Another parallel is their later callings as representatives and campaigners for respective challenges. Winkler only received a diagnosis for his dyslexia later in life, around the time his step-son was in the third grade. Fox received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease back in 1991, arguably at the height of his fame.
I’m conscious of the minefield I could meander into here. I’m tying three separate conditions together; and I must emphasise that I am not calling them equal or necessarily equivalent. If I’m making a point its that adversity too often leads to surrender, and that the opinion and attitudes of others seems to be, more often than not, what holds us back.
Listening to him talk, you get the impression Mr Winkler remains amazed that he has achieved anything at all. Aged 30, Fox was told it’d be a miracle if he could continue working by the time he was 40 (his new series
premiered in September. Michael J. Fox is 52.)
I take the medication for myself so I can transact, not for anyone else. But I am aware it is empowering for people to see what I do and, for the most part, people in the Parkinson’s community are just really happy that Parkinson’s is getting mentioned, and in a pitying way…
He considers pity to be ‘…just another form of abuse.’ Though I struggle to put it into words, I think I get what he means. Pity is intrusive, a value judgement has been made and you’re devalued by stealth. Written off and with your agency reduced, based upon a snapshot. His comments on medication have a resonance too, in that he has made the judgement on whether to follow a regime; which is quite a bold move for someone with a bona fide medical condition (one which, interestingly, Fox describes as ‘a gift…that keeps on taking.’)
Exemplars and role models are essential in all walks of life. As an epileptic I was pleased to discover the existence of a ‘Parkinson’s community’, though I guess “we” can’t get our shit together in quite the same way. In researching this piece one curious thought cropped up – who amongst the bipolar could be considered the equals to Fox and Winkler? There’s going to be a hell of a lot to choose from
it seems, and for a Brit the obvious choice is Stephen Fry.
Fry has done a great deal in terms of advocacy and myth-smashing; and his candour, compassion and talent have long been a boon. However the bipolar appear to have a larger pool of famous faces and affluent names to draw representatives
from compared to dyslexia
. The spectre of ‘manic depression propaganda’ looms large – is this because bipolar disorder walks hand in hand with creativity? Or is it because the diagnostic criteria is so unreliable.
I find it difficult to believe that Stephen Fry or Vivian Leigh wouldn’t have been as talented if they hadn’t been bipolar. A diagnosis has many applications – it excuses Mel Gibson’s potent homophobia and antisemitism, while taking credit for Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But as Ophelia’s Mirror reminds us, a label like bipolar tells us very little about a person
. And Darian Leader notes that; ‘Emphasising the manic-depressive’s public creativity is, of course, also insensitive and stigmatizing to those who do not write or sculpt or paint or conquer to world-wide recognition.’
Perhaps what the bipolar need are fewer celebrity representatives. Stories of living day to day with the disposition, however one might choose to define it, will do far more to reduce stigma and challenge attitudes than the endless celeb confessionals; which reinforce stereotypes. Misunderstood genius or impressive train wreck. Everyone clamouring in and claiming ‘I’ve got that too!’, while Marty McFly and Hank Zipzer focus on ‘look what I can do.’