A few days ago I was talking to my friend, Hunter, when I was complaining about how much I hated subways, and then I said without thinking, “And there are so many crazy people, it’s frightening.”
He was silent for a moment and then said, quietly, “You shouldn’t call them crazy.”
“Mentally unstable,” I offered, hesitantly.
“No. Don’t put them down like that. They never harmed you.”
“Well, you still can’t help getting scared when they sit next to you and start shouting at you for no reason,” I said defensively, though I was already feeling pretty guilty.
“They can’t help being the way they are,” he said. And because he rarely gets serious when he tells me something, I nodded. I felt guilty about the clumsy slip of my tongue, and I knew he was perfectly right. I certainly didn’t mean to look down on them: I just wasn’t sure what to call them without being insulting—retard had such negative connotations, and moron sounded so insulting. But walking home that night, I had a lot of time to think about people with low IQs and the wrong way I perceive them. My personal fear of degenerating in intelligence has been so great that I have hoped very, very intensely that I might die before I ever begin losing my mind. I would rather lose my body, lose my senses, lose my appearance, lose my very life before I would be able to surrender my mind. I know I would never bully them, or take advantage of them, or laugh at them. Dear God, no. But I am terrified of them. I just wanted to cry or run away every time I saw them, and I don’t think I really saw them as human beings whom I could either respect or understand. Pity, yes. But respect? No.
But reading Flowers for Algernon today changed my perception drastically.
For the first time in my life, I was able to look at the world through the eyes of a person with a low IQ (even if it’s only through fiction). Every time Charlie said with all the blissful innocence of ignorance that his friends were all good and nice, I could feel my heart breaking. How could people be so cruel, so horrible? It was similar to when I had seen Memento, a film about a man with anterograde amnesia, and how awful I felt to see people using him, lying to him, and twisting his amnesia for their own disgusting purposes. Stuff like that just makes me so sick with humanity as a whole. Yet it’s dreadfully hypocritical of me, for if I don’t take advantage of people in such horrible ways, at least I flee from them and fear them as less than human beings. The silence of moral people speaks louder than the cruel deeds of bad people.
Anyway…I’m feeling very emotional and going off on all sorts of weird tangents right now, but to jot down a few quick observations before I begin to forget….
I realized that every piece of writing in this book from beginning to end was breathtakingly beautiful. Not only when Charlie became a “genius” and a polyglot, but the good-heartedness of his earlier writings, and the determination even amid his mental degeneration, makes me cry every time I read it over again. How wrong I was to flee from people with mental disorders, just because I found their thickly garbled speech or unpredictable behavior unsettling. They too are capable of affection, and loyalty, and they need it more than anyone else.
It was heartbreaking to realize what a hypocrite I’d been when reading the way Charlie burst out at the professors and doctors who had experimented on him, saying that they hadn’t respected him as a human being before he had become “smart”, and the sadness dwelling in his words when he said things would have been different, that Norma and his mother would have treated him differently, if he had returned to them still mentally young, still clumsy and uncomprehending. Oh, but how am I any different from Norma, or Rose, or the doctors? Have I ever reached out to any of those people as human beings, or seen them as capable of real emotion? From now on, I’m going to treat everyone thus challenged with as much kindness and warmth as I would treat my dearest and nearest friends – or at the very least, I’ll try hard to. The one character who really shines in this book is Alice. Although from a literary viewpoint, she did feel slightly unnatural or stilted at times, I really, really admire her. She seems to be one of the few who accepted Charlie with love and patience at all times, and I wish I could be like that. I really do.
At the end of this book, when Charlie relapsed into his former state, I felt heartbroken, but also filled with admiration at Charlie’s determination to live with dignity, hope, and grace under such sadness. I’ve knuckled under in resignation and defeat under far more trivial things.
Anyway…this post is so messy and disorganized I’ll probably have to delete it in a few days and rewrite it, but I was just feeling so emotional and sad and sorry that I knew I had to write or I would burst. One of the best books I’ve read this month – and one that would make anyone think, deeply and searchingly. I hope I will never forget the lessons I have learned from this book: because that would be a moral degeneration far worse than the intellectual relapse Charlie went through at the end of this beautiful, heartbreaking book.