My New Year’s Resolution: Repairing Broken Vessels

Four years ago, a well-known attorney and blogger from my hometown began referring to me as a “gimp” on his website. Another local blogger, who was not as well-known and who wrote under a pseudonym, published a series of articles on his website referring to me as “Fetal Freddy.”

My name is Frederick Lamar White, Jr., hence “Freddy.” And when I was a teenager, my father died, tragically, after losing control of his car and careening into a couple of pine trees directly across the bayou from our family home. For most of his adult life, despite his tremendous successes, my father struggled, profoundly, with alcoholism and manic depression. So, this anonymous blogger, who appeared to be closely associated with a woman named Von Jennings (who was, at the time, running for Mayor of Alexandria), bestowed upon me the alliterative nickname “Fetal Freddy,” because he claimed that my disability, cerebral palsy, was the result of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Von Jennings, by the way, didn’t receive more than a few hundred votes and finished almost dead-last in the primary. Her unofficial, anonymous campaign blog has been silent ever since. And the other blogger, the attorney who liked to call me a “gimp,” died a couple of years later.

Again, this was years ago, ancient Internet history. I had called both of these bloggers out, repeatedly, for their bigotry and insensitivity, and in the end, in my opinion, the good guys won. But looking back on this, I don’t think I was entirely honest with myself or with my audience: I compartmentalized their public hatred against me as nothing more than desperate politics. I shrugged them off as ignorant, perhaps even sociopathic, and I assured anyone and everyone within the sound of my voice that I was not really bothered, that I was strong and resolute and would not be silenced or intimidated by anyone who sought to run me out of the public square by mocking or attempting to humiliate me because of my disability.

The truth is, though: I was shaken. The first time I read a post calling me “Fetal Freddy,” I broke down in tears- not just because it was disparaging me, but because it was also intended to disparage my mother and my father.

Every time the other blogger called me a “gimp,” I felt more self-conscious about expressing my perspective as a disabled American, more uneasy about photographs that were taken of me in public. In my five years working for the Mayor of Alexandria, I never addressed the City Council once, and I probably could have volunteered to speak on any number of issues. But I never even volunteered. I consciously hid out of sight of the cameras- in the back row or in the corners of the Council chambers- because I knew that there was a man in my community, a lawyer, who would take whatever footage he could find of me and distort it. He’d already found photographs of me taken during a family vacation and altered them to make it appear as if I was wheelchair-bound.

*****

Last week, while making my annual holiday pilgrimage to New Orleans, I met at Pal’s Lounge with a former elected official who knew me, exclusively, because of my website. After about twenty minutes into our conversation, he noticed the way I gripped my pint of beer and asked, politely, “Do you have some sort of palsy?”

I didn’t tell him this at the time, but I was stunned by his question. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t offended, not even in the slightest. I was stunned because, I thought, “Wow. How did you not know this about me?”

I’ve written about my disability before, of course. Two years ago, I wrote a post titled “Everyone Has a Disability” about being bullied and assaulted by a drunk girl at the Blue Nile on Frenchman Street. But, for the most part, if I share them at all, I tend to share these experiences on my Facebook, not here on my website.

I didn’t, for example, write about how, only a few months ago and while driving an electric scooter back to my hotel room, I was violently assaulted by a security guard outside of a nightclub at a Las Vegas casino. I didn’t write about how I fell in the pouring rain on the way back to my car after a late-night law school class and how more than a dozen students walked by me and ignored my pleas for a hand up before, finally, a maintenance worker in a golf cart, a man who didn’t speak a word of English, rode by and helped hoist me onto my feet. And I haven’t written about what it’s like to know that, wherever I go, I’m not turning heads because of my supermodel physique; I’m being stared at because I walk funny. Or how small children sometimes seemed scared of me.  Or the ways in which adult strangers sometimes condescend to me; how, sometimes, when I’m with a group of friends or family members at a restaurant or at the airport, people ask those accompanying me questions like, “Is he okay?” or “Can he walk on his own?”. I haven’t written about people who think they can cure me with chiropractic massages or magnetic shoes or seaweed juice or ashes from incense burned by their guru.

In part, I haven’t written about these things, because, frankly, I am more interested in writing about other things: Health care, education, racial and economic justice, equal rights, building healthy and vibrant communities. And, in part, I haven’t written about these things because I’d been so beaten down, years ago, that I was afraid.

*****

Two years ago, when the Rising Tide Conference honored me with their annual Ashley Morris Award, I spoke about the importance of exposing yourself to some vulnerability in your writing, how vulnerability can be empowering. It was a lesson first taught to me by my very first creative writing professor, Marsha Recknagel.

Marsha, a native of Shreveport, also introduced me to two powerful books by one of Louisiana’s all-time greatest writers, Andre Dubus.

When he was in his prime, Dubus was left permanently disabled when, while attempting to help a distressed motorist, he was struck by a passing car. He wrote two brilliant and evocative books of short stories and essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair and Broken Vessels.

I’m not sure what, exactly, triggered this for me. Maybe it was having a stranger ask me, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” after watching me walk back to my seat during a Saints game watch party last week, and maybe it also has something to do with Steve Gleason and how he has managed to transcend his disability, shatter stereotypes, and inspire the entire country.

But I made a decision, this year, to be a better and more forceful advocate for the physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled. Or, if you prefer, the physically, mentally, and developmentally challenged. Or, better yet, to paraphrase Steve Gleason, “the superhumans.”

Somehow, I’ve managed to carve out this little place for myself on the Internet, and for some reason, people actually pay attention to the things I say. If there is anything I can do to raise awareness, to educate the public and my neighbors, to advocate for the rights and the basic dignity and humanity of those who, too often, are ridiculed and patronized, and to help repair broken vessels, then I think I must.

Life is too short. No white flags.