My first blog in a long time and there is a good reason why it has taken so long – I have been reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and it is huge and I have very little time for reading for pleasure.
I have finished reading the novel at much the same time as the #7daysofaction campaign has been launched. #7daysofaction is a social media campaign to raise awareness of adults with learning disabilities who are being warehoused in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) across the UK. When I first started research disability in the 1990s, I was particularly inspired by Jenny Morris book – Pride against Prejudice and when considering the right to family life, I am always reminded of these words:
“Powerlessness characterises the experience of residential care and the nature of institutionalism affects even those of us who are not in residential care. The possibility of institutionalism hangs over many disabled people living in our own homes, fuelled by the fear that one day the support which makes our independence possible will disappear, or that an increase in functional limitations will prove too much for whatever resources are available to us” (Morris, 1991: 127)
The Goldfinch is not a book about disability. Indeed, it has been criticised for its lack of understanding of minoritised positions and stereotyping (see here). But it holds that same fear of the institutional life.
Theo Decker’s mother dies in a terrorist attack at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Grief barely understood and he has this encounter with social workers:
“you’re a minor child in need of immediate care. We’re going to have to place you in some kind of emergency custody?”
“Custody?” The word made my stomach crawl; it suggested court rooms, locked dormitories, basketball courts ringed with barbed-wire fences.
“Well, let’s say care then.”
Care/custody is a useful juxtaposition when considering the plight of people in ATUs. If institutions are set up to be places for assessment and treatment, then there must surely be assessment and treatment plans to support this. And once assessed and treated, there should also be a plan to move out, carry on living elsewhere. Yet the numbers of people with learning disabilities living in ATUs remains fairly static, and the lack of movement from such places coupled with the distance from home is more suggestive of custody than care.
From this point, Theo understands his life as trying to avoid being a person in ‘care’ and falling through the safety net. Because, although as Morris notes (ibid: 130), “Most of the general population has very little direct knowledge or experience of residential care”, we also know we would rather live with a family than ‘in care’, or with friends rather than at a ‘boarding school’.
So, what keeps Theo out of state ‘care’? After all, he is an ideal candidate for institutional life; he is an orphan, a liar, a thief, a cheat and an addict. (The trick of Tartt’s writing means that whilst her hero is unlikeable, the reader hopes for better, sees him as redeemable.) Well, Theo is privileged – he is a white, educated, non-disabled male. He is blessed with ingenuity, friendship, connections and the kindness of relative strangers. Thinking about this novel, in conjunction with thinking about the #7daysofaction campaign and people with learning disabilities in ATUs, what troubles me most is that it is easier to make connections and draw parallels with the fate of a painting rather than a human being.
Central to the novel is the picture The Goldfinch – Theo’s mother’s favourite painting and for Theo a much-needed connection to her. The painting of the goldfinch shows it standing on a perch, looking outwards towards the viewer. It is considered to be an exemplar of trompe l’oeil, in that the shadows and perspective make the bird stand out from the canvas. Goldfinches were apparently often kept as pets and on close inspection there is a ring around its leg, where it is chained to its feeder – a prisoner in plain view. A painting can be viewed in many ways. As a museum exhibit, it can be seen, interpreted and perhaps valued by many. However, as a stolen artefact, it loses that power. It is hidden and becomes a bartering tool for the few. Negotiation never considers the role of the painting, its history, its message, its artistic merit, its unique identity. Instead it is about market value and prestige.
Under current social policy regimes:
“Social workers and service users become increasingly engaged in economic exchange rather than reciprocal relationships and what drives their encounters is the value of service packages rather than collective endeavours.” (Penna and O’Brien, 2009: 116)
This underlines the crassness of the market economy when applied to people.
And of course the analogy is flawed. A central theme of the book is the value attached to objects. To make a direct comparison with the plight of people with learning disabilities means that as in many artistic and policy-making depictions, people become objectified. A painting may communicate something of the thoughts of the artist and be received in any number of ways by its viewers – but ultimately it is silent. People with learning disabilities are not silent. They are silenced. And they are not seen as valuable with a unique identity when they are placed away from those that love them, they have no market value, no prestige. (Read this account here – blog “I can’t get the words out”)
This can all feel really hopeless, but I learnt something else from reading The Goldfinch – all 771 pages of it. Start at page one and just keep going.
Morris, J. (1991) Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability London: Women’s Press
Penna, S. and O’Brien, M. (2009) “Neoliberalism” in Gray, M. and Webb, S (eds) Social Work: Theories and Methods London: Sage
Tartt, D. The Goldfinch London: Little, Brown Book Group