Archive for January, 2013

January book reviews

January book reviews
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booksLast month, I began a new tradition in my blog of doing a collective book review at the end of every month. There were five books I read last month and they were all over the board as far as subjects. Some were paranormal, some were fiction, and one was a letter collection. I thought it was a good idea, not only for myself in keeping track of what I read, but also for people who ask me quite often what I’m reading right now.

This month, I decided to do a little bit of a theme with my books. I have a lot of books I haven’t read yet in my Kindle. I’m trying to read all of them before I go and buy new books. So this month I scrolled through and picked out all of the historical novels that I haven’t read yet and I read as many as I could in 31 days. I couldn’t read as many as I had hoped, unfortunately. I was rather ill for the majority of the fall and winter, and it became really bad at the beginning of January. I lost a few weeks of reading time. February will be better though!

Here are the book reviews for January.

Becoming Marie AntoinetteBecoming Marie Antoinette
by Juliet Grey
5 stars

As if you expected me to read anything else! I devour everything about my Queen. This is the first novel in a trilogy about Marie Antoinette’s life. It shows her childhood and upbringing in Austria through her own eyes. Written in first person, the novel conveys intimacy that leaves the reader feeling like they’ve stumbled onto the Archduchess’ diary. You have to approach this novel from a fictional perspective, not a history lesson. The characters, based on the real people that populated her life, are well-written and well-defined. The novel follows Antoinette’s life through the day she becomes Queen of France and I was quite impressed with how the narrative voice grew up with the little Archduchess, into the Dauphine, and into the young Queen in the last pages. The novel was not without its faults though. No novel is perfect. Some of the language sounded a little too modern at times. Overall, however, it didn’t detract too much from my experience and enjoyment of the world of 18th century Austria and France. I highly recommend this trilogy if you love historical fiction as I do.

Days of Splendor Days of SorrowDays of Splendor, Days of Sorrow: A Novel of Marie Antoinette
by Juliet Grey
4 stars

This is the second novel in Grey’s Marie Antoinette trilogy, which follows the Queen of France from the beginning of her reign through the dark days of the French Revolution. (The third and final novel, The Last October Sky, is due out in September 2013.) I found this novel to not quite be as fluid as the first. I don’t hold the author entirely at fault for this because I’m in the process of writing my own novel at this period of French history and untangling the truth from the spiderweb is incredibly difficult. I found her research to be thorough, however, just like the first novel. Anything that had to be leant a poetic license carefully blended into the story and I couldn’t find anything that truly struck me as false. Again, some of the language drifted precariously close to modern voices, but the author managed to pull herself back into the period before it distracted me too much from the story. Villainous people in their own time (as viewed by their people) are likable while still quite flawed and realistic in the novels. It is their flaws that bring them down from mythology. I will definitely read the third novel.

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My Left Foot as seen by a quadriplegic

My Left Foot as seen by a quadriplegic
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Daniel Day-LewisIn my lead up to the Oscars next month, I’m slowly watching Oscar movies I haven’t yet seen in my spare time. A couple of nights ago, the selection was My Left Foot.

I have avoided this movie since it came out despite Daniel Day-Lewis being in my top three favorite actors, if not my number one (he’s neck-and-neck with Clark Gable in that race). Something about My Left Foot has always terrified me. I can’t quite explain it but I’m sure you can draw conclusions. I’m severely disabled. Christy Brown was severely disabled. I’m an artist and writer. Christy Brown was an artist and writer. The idea of watching a film with Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly mastering being so severely disabled seemed to fall under the category of “hitting too close to home” for the last 20-something years. The problem was I don’t like claiming people as “favorite” in anything without examining their entire body of work. So I set aside my peculiar fear of this movie, cuddled my dog for comfort, and reluctantly clicked My Left Foot on Netflix.

It took twice as long to get through the entire movie as its runtime because I kept having to stop and take breaks. By the end, my eyes were so red and glassy from the exhausting emotional experience that my family tiptoed quietly around me as if I might have another one of my panic attacks to which I am prone. As I suspected, I would not have been capable of watching something like that when I was younger. Following my instinct to not see it 24 years ago was correct. I saw so much of myself in Christy Brown that it was like having certain old wounds ripped open and exposed to the world. Something about Daniel Day-Lewis – a decidedly able-bodied and athletic man – so thoroughly and masterfully crossing over into my world, so to speak, disturbed me in a way that I haven’t yet been able to understand. I think it had something to do with being reminded of how easily he could cross over into my physical world, while I can never cross over into his physical world. I will never climb through the rugged Irish countryside for solitude, or experience the thrill of speeding on a motorcycle, both things that he reportedly does. Human experience will always be limited for me. Yet this man who immersed himself in my world for this film managed to drag out the darkest parts of this kind of life into harsh, blinding light just by the pain in his eyes and the rawness of his performance. I didn’t know whether to love or hate Day-Lewis for exposing the darkness.

Day-Lewis’ interaction with the disabled community, and dedication before, during, and after the film made it even more compelling to me. He’s famous for being “obsessive” and “so Method” in his movies. I read that he spent months at a hospital for severely disabled people in Ireland getting to know them and learning to live that way. During filming, he couldn’t jump in and out of character, so he remained in his wheelchair even when the cameras weren’t rolling. Crew members were reportedly irritated by having to haul his wheelchair around for different setups. People had to feed him and give him drinks on breaks as well. When his English agent visited the set, he reportedly refused to jump out of character and the agent left in a frustrated huff. Being contorted in hunched positions that come with cerebral palsy broke two of his ribs but he kept filming with little to no complaint. And when he won his Best Actor Oscar for playing Christy Brown, he took the award back to the hospital where the disabled patients taught him to live that life and he spent a day letting them look at his Oscar in person and spent time with them.

Truthfully, there was no other way to approach this story from where I sit. If you open yourself to the claustrophobia of existing in a body that won’t obey your alert and beautiful mind, you have to be willing to go through the mental anguish of feeling trapped, rejected, and misunderstood. You have to be willing to find a way to push yourself through the imprisonment into a world of your own creation while everyone around you seems to push you back into entrapment for the sake of simple survival. If I ever got to speak to Day-Lewis, I would ask him directly if he ever felt trapped in his own body while filming. If so, then he truly grew as a human being.

Many parts of the film could have easily been lifted from my own life. I was rather bothered when teenage Christy was with the other neighborhood kids playing spin the bottle and none of the girls wanted to acknowledge it when the bottle pointed to him. His guy friends stood up for him and the girl only kissed his cheek because they pressured her into it. Christy always seemed to be so painfully aware that his peers were moving past him and having boyfriends or girlfriends while he was not. He was a normal adolescent inside though, and craved those romantic connections. He liked the girl and painted her a sweet little picture to tell her so. At first, she swooned quite dreamily, thinking the romantic gesture was from his brother. When she realized it was from Christy, she took it back to him and told him she couldn’t accept it. She couldn’t accept the feelings of a man with such a severe disability, made obvious by the fact that she thought it was wonderfully romantic until her friends pointed out the true artist. Christy was largely left behind his peers.

The same story repeats itself over and over again no matter if it’s 1950 or 1990. I don’t have cerebral palsy like Christy did but my disability is no less “frightening” or “intimidating” to many who cross my path. I became aware of exactly how unsuitable I was as a girlfriend in middle school going into high school. Like every girl, I had my fair share of crushes. I watched my friends pair up, have first kisses, go on dates, etc., but it never happened for me. I learned to make boys laugh in an effort to make up for my physical shortcomings, and they were perfectly happy to pal around with me, but no boy ever had a crush on me. I knew exactly why. I knew as clearly as I knew the pain in Day-Lewis’ Christy when he was rejected more than once by ladies. Occasionally, I got brave early on if I liked a boy. I would tell him so. Rejection without looking me in the eye or giving me a clear reason why came too many times and I basically stopped trying when I reached my junior year in high school. I never had dates to dances, I never really went to parties, and I never had a prom date. The first boy I ever really loved came along my junior year – more than a simple crush – but by that time, I lost all nerve to try. Carl was on the football team and his girlfriend was a cheerleader. I never stood a chance and I knew it. Not only was I in a wheelchair but I lived with an abusive stepfather, so I was rather insecure, quiet, and unwilling to expose myself to more pain. He may or may not have known about my feelings – I don’t know. He was my friend regardless. To a teenage girl in love, though, friendship was just a consolation prize.

Christy Brown had a similar relationship in the film with his doctor. He fell in love with her through their friendship and she married someone else, which shattered the last hope in life that he had, and led him through the black door of considering suicide. The film depicts Day-Lewis as Christy grasping a pencil with his foot and writing a suicide note – “All is nothing, therefore nothing must end.” He then dropped the pencil and picked up a straight razor, which he attempted to use in slashing his own wrist but failed because of his own limitations. This was when the thought popped into my head: “I didn’t know whether to love or hate Day-Lewis for exposing the darkness.” Suicidal tendencies or full-fledged suicide attempts are a very dark secret among the disabled – so much so that we don’t even talk about it among ourselves in hushed tones. When the full weight of never leading an easier life and facing a life of solitude settles upon your shoulders, the weight presses you further and further into the grave if you allow it.

My method was not going to be slashing my wrists. Women very rarely mutilate their bodies in suicide, I’ve learned since then. I’ve been suicidal twice in my life to the point of formulating plans of how I was going to do it. The first time was as a senior in high school. My former stepfather was regularly sexually assaulting me for quite some time, combined with a lot of other issues related to facing 60 more years as a quadriplegic. I calculated how many sleeping pills it would take – not many because I’m small. The second time came at age 24, a few months after my miscarriage. I was in an abusive relationship and entirely blamed myself. If the only people who wanted to be in my life were parasites, then there was no reason to live. That time, it was going to be oxycodone and vodka. And as I watched Christy Brown fail at his escape attempt, I thought again what a cruel twist of the universe that people like us couldn’t even physically accomplish the escape. These severe disabilities are the only prisons from which escape is truly impossible. I have since found better spiritual footing and I abandoned those plans after the second time, but the devil does lurk in the darkness once in a while.

The only time I felt a sense of calmness or reprieve in this difficult film was when Christy was painting. There were only short glimpses of Day-Lewis acting out the process but it was calming to see it. Day-Lewis apparently could not master it with his left foot but he could with his right foot, so many of those scenes were shot through a mirror to give the illusion of being his left foot. I’m not surprised. I’m right handed and my right leg is also dominant. Day-Lewis is also right handed, so his right leg would be dominant too. In the opening sequence, Day-Lewis pulled a record from its sleeve, put it on the record player, and set the needle with his foot. He practiced doing it so much that he did it successfully on the first take. Unlike Christy Brown/Daniel Day-Lewis, I don’t have the flexibility or dexterity to paint, write, etc., with my feet. I do it with my mouth as you can learn here. Painting and writing are indeed the only times when I feel wholly at peace and rarely think of the difficulty in my life. I expect at least part of Christy Brown must have felt that same sense of peace. That may be why I was able to relax when watching those sequences, although they may still have been disturbing or pulled some other emotion from watching it. I especially related to the sequence in Christy’s gallery showing in which being a “crippled artist” vs simply an artist was briefly mentioned. People like Christy and me have probably never felt (or past tense as he is dead) secure in knowing whether people admire our art because it’s good or because we created in weird ways.

My only problem with My Left Foot was the somewhat misleading end. It appeared that Christy Brown finally got his happy ending by marrying Mary Carr, but what the movie doesn’t show is her alleged and probable abuse within that marriage. I confess, I was disappointed when I read the allegations. I had hoped Christy found some peace and contentment in life, but it has been reported that his wife was repeatedly unfaithful and bruises on his body at the time of his death suggested she was beating him. As disappointed as I was, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Abuse rates among the severely disabled have always been shockingly high compared to other minority groups. Among women, reports say that between 57% and 63% will be sexually or physically abused in their lifetime. People in general with disabilities are twice as likely to face abuse than the average population. I have been abused in every form by different people in different periods of my life, so these statistics are, unfortunately, a grim reality. I think the statistics were probably higher in Christy Brown’s generation. Still, I wanted to believe he got a happy ending like the film suggested but I suspect it wasn’t that happy. It is like filmmakers to tie up everything in a pretty bow though. As a storyteller in my own right, I understand why the ending happened the way it did.

Part of this passage written by Christy Brown himself was quoted at the end of the film. It struck me because I could not have found these words in my own vocabulary, yet it reflects my heart and mind as exactly as it reflected his heart and mind. Read:

“It would not be true to say that I am no longer lonely, now that I have reached out to thousands of people and communicated to them all my fears, frustrations and hopes which for so long lay bottled up inside me. I have made myself articulate and understood to people in many parts of the world, and this is something we all wish to do whether we are crippled or not. It is a common need to make ourselves understood by others, for none of us can live entirely alone or by our own devices. Yet like everyone else I am acutely conscious sometimes of my own isolation even in the midst of people, and I often give up hope of ever being able to communicate with them. It is not the sort of isolation that every writer or artist must experience in the creative mood if he is to create anything at all. It is like a black could sweeping down on me unexpectedly, cutting me off from others, a sort of deaf-muteness.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The film was as dark as it was inspiring. And I still haven’t decided whether to love or hate Daniel Day-Lewis for exposing the darkness of imprisonment within these bodies in his performance. Once you open the door to hell, you cannot shut it again. You can only spend your life trying to stay on the safe side of it where inspiration, art, and love exist. Although I’ve looked through the doorway to hell more than once, just as Christy Brown did, I’m still here and I still know how to smile, paint, write, and live.

Jessica Jewett

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Artistry without hands

Artistry without hands
Posted by Jessica Jewett 8 Comments »

Jessica Jewett

Recently, a friend told me that I should write more about my life experiences, my disability, how I do things, etc., so that people can get to know me better. I admittedly focus more on topical posts rather than myself because I never want to give the appearance of being self-serving or self-centered. This friend has never steered me wrong, though, so I’m experimenting with letting you all, my readers, know me on a more personal level. I’ll be slipping in more blogs about my personal experiences and such to see how the response goes, and I’m beginning today by allowing you all to see how I paint, draw, etc. The drawing here at the top of this blog is one of mine that I never finished. Yes, that’s most of Scarlett and some of Rhett.

As you all must know by now, I’m technically classified as a quadriplegic. I have a congenital condition called Arthrogryposis. That means I cannot use my hands like the rest of you do and I never could. I also come from a family of artists. My mother and father are artistic, as were my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. All of that artistic energy passed to both my younger brother and I. The problem was nobody expected artistry out of me when I was a toddler because I couldn’t use my hands. The lack of expectation actually fostered a sense of freedom for me to figure out how to get by in life on my own as much as possible, so as a toddler, I somehow got the idea in my head to do things with my mouth. Nobody really knows when or how I made this decision about using my mouth instead of my hands but everybody basically agrees that it was around age three. It just happened as naturally as any child taking an interest in beautiful, vibrant Crayola markers. My mother likes to say I must have read an instruction manual on my disability before I was born because I came screaming out of the womb ready to take on the world.

Due to the nature of my disability, I spent most of my time on the floor lying on my stomach. I didn’t get a wheelchair until I was ready to start school (and it was fabulous Barbie Corvette pink, naturally), so being on the floor so much kind of skewed the way I viewed the world. Nobody realized the way I viewed the world was messed up until I started learning to draw and write. I often drew everything completely upside down or sideways. Part of it, we learned later, was due to me being dyslexic. I was told drawing things upside down was wrong, so I tried training myself to do it the right way. Everything went slanted for several years, as you can see in this childhood drawing below. I was about 11 or 12-years-old at the time.

Jessica Jewett

Once I got a wheelchair and was in school for years, the problem corrected itself, and my teachers began putting me in every art class they could find. I began winning local awards in St. Louis (where I was raised), but I was a perceptive child, and I knew people were more fascinated with how I created more than the creations themselves. It was upsetting to me and I developed a bit of a complex about allowing people to see me in the creation process. Even as a child, I wanted the work to be respected on its own merits and not given awards for simply being the inspirational poster child for overcoming disabilities. I overcompensated by trying to learn as much technique as possible. By high school, I was technically proficient but I stifled my personal creativity in the process. Here are some pieces I did in high school.

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

My complex about letting people actually see me in the creation process followed me into adulthood. I still don’t normally allow people to see me actually doing things with my mouth and I’m always the first to make jokes about it before anyone else has the chance. I hadn’t really thought about it in a while but that beast raised its ugly head in West Virginia over the summer. I went on a PRS retreat and brought a pad and pencils but I never touched them. My friends asked me one day over breakfast if I wanted to draw, but I realized I was in a room full of people and abruptly said no. Among many people I respected there, including Ryan, the idea of putting myself in a position of being watched, in my mind, like an oddity, was too much to bear. So I avoid it. There are only three pictures in existence of me doing my painting or drawing. I had thought about posting a video months ago but I never got around to it, mainly because I’m not comfortable putting it on display yet. However, at this stage in my life, I can reconcile my discomfort with the curiosity that comes with being me. I live in this body, so it’s all very normal to me, yet I understand that it is a bit extraordinary to people not living in this body. I shouldn’t hide what I am or what I do.

This was a portrait I did in 2008, I think. It was somewhere around the end of 2007 into the beginning of 2008 and I gave it to the subject of the portrait. The pictures were taken by my brother because, at the time, I had been posting progress of the work and some people didn’t believe that I was actually disabled. I was accused of lying and faking my disability for attention, so my brother took a few pictures of me working on it to prove that I was telling the truth. (See, we get back to the freak show aspect of my life, as if it’s too bizarre and I must somehow be dishonest.)

In these pictures, I’m using a blending stump that is taped into a chalk holder. When you use charcoal pencils, most of the work is done with the blending stump, which is paper based, rather than the harshness of the actual pencil. I can’t put paper based things in my mouth or they’ll fall apart, so I found a chalk holder that would contain the blending stump. It protects me from swallowing unwanted things and makes the implement longer so I don’t injure my eyesight as much.

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

This next piece is one that I’ve never shown in public. I did it last summer as a birthday present for someone very dear to me. I have moved into oil painting and I find it much more to my taste (figuratively) than anything I’ve done besides charcoals. My friend – the one who advised me to write more about my own experiences – was here when I did it and she took the picture as I was getting started. With painting, the best way to do it is to section out the canvas first and fill in each square as you go. It’s a trick to reference photos without tracing that allows you the freedom to change things about a photo’s composition. That’s what I did with this painting – used image references to create something in my style. I tend to paint somewhere in between Realism and Impressionism.

I don’t actually handle painting chemicals. That would be toxic. I have to paint when people are available to help me, which would only be a handful of those who I trust enough to watch me. This particular painting took about 48 hours total to complete, broken up over a few days. It turned out a lot better than I expected given that I’ve never had professional training in oils.

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

As soon as summer was over, winter brought on a constant barrage of illness for me though. I haven’t been able to paint much. It’s not a good idea to expose yourself to painting chemicals when your respiratory system has been under attack for months. I’m finally starting to get better though and I intend to get back to it. Maybe you’ll see more as time passes.

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