Writing About the Handicapped

When I first started writing Lies of the Heart, I knew the central mystery of the book would focus on why Jerry LaPlante, a mentally handicapped man with the I.Q. of a ten- year-old child, would murder his speech pathologist.  What I never expected was the sheer amount of curiosity people would have about my own brother, who was diagnosed with mental retardation at six months old.  Most of them wanted to know if Jerry’s character was based on my brother, Joe, but even more simply wanted to know about Joe and how he views and operates within his world.

The early questions were easily answered: No, my brother isn’t a violent man, he isn’t terrified of God, and he isn’t secretly plotting anyone’s imminent demise  (this, disturbingly enough, disappointed more than one person!).  As for the similarities, I did base some of Jerry’s language tics on Joe’s, and like Jerry, my brother loves cartoons and is never without his pad and pencils because he loves to draw–but the comparisons mostly end there.  And yet the questions were still piling up the closer we came to the release date (again, about my brother, not the actual book, a true lesson in humility) so I decided to go straight to the source for answers.

I called Joe four days after Easter, and after he recited every item left in his Easter basket–a daily update that was confusing, given that there was always more rather than less in the basket–I asked if I could interview him.

“How come?” he asked.

“People are curious about you because I wrote about a mentally handicapped man.”

“I not kill anyone,” he reminded me gravely.

After I assured him once again that he gave me permission to write about Jerry years ago, and that everyone knew that he absolutely did not kill anyone, nor have any plans to do so, he cheerfully complied and we began.

M:  Why do you think some people are more interested in hearing about you rather than my book?

J:  I not know.  (a small giggle) Maybe cuz I better looking than you?

M: Joe.

J: Sorry, Mel.  Hmmmmm.  (more giggles) Maybe I take more showers? Not smell so bad as you?

M: Nice.  Okay, next question. How would you describe yourself to someone?

J:  I tall.

M: That’s it?

J: Very tall?
M: More please.

J: You bossy today.  Okay.  I love to work.  I work very hard and I love to work

hard and help anyone who needs me.  I retarded, but that not the main thing.

M: What does that mean to you, “retarded.”

J:  I not know.  Different, but it not bug me most times.  I am adult first.  Smart first.  Happy first.

M:  That makes me really happy. Okay, so what is the happiest thing in your life?

J:  My whole life. I happy I on earth.  I happy about mom … her is up in heaven now.  That a good place to be.  With God.

M:  What do you think about God?  Who is God to you?

J:  He strong.  He a good person and help everyone.  He come down on earth sometime and help you.  He good-looking, like me, but he have power for everyone else.  He keep everyone in heaven and every night he have dinner at his table with them.  He come down sometime, but we not see him.

M: Why don’t we see him?

J:  He want it that way. It better.  He still come, we know it.  We feel him, right?

M: You are so smart.

J: I know that.

M: But if God is so powerful, why do you think there are things like war?

J: War sad.  God no like it. He can’t stop it all the time.  Make me sad.

M: Why?

J:  Cuz people shouldn’t kill each other.  It not fair.  They confused and won’t give up.  They should give up. Not everyone take everything.  People should be fair… Ask something good now, okay?  Better?

M: What’s wrong with my questions?

J: Depressing!

M: Okay.  Well, then, what about Santa Claus?

J (laughing): Oh, that guy!

M: What’s the deal with that guy?

J:  You know!  He come down at Christmas … from the North Pole.  He have powers, like God, but he not God.  Not that much power.  Smaller kind.

M: When are you the most scared?

J: Uh-oh. Back to bad questions.

M: Please?

J (dramatic sigh): Okay. Ask again please.

M: When are you the most scared?

J: Stupid noises at night. (long pause, then giggling again). And sometime your face.  It scare everyone it so ugly.

M: Nice.  What makes you angry?

J: Um…. your face?

M: No, really.

J: Ummmm, okay.  Sometime at work I get mad.  And rude people in cars.

M: And what do you do to calm down when you’re angry?

J:  Sometime take a deep, deep breath.  Tell myself to calm down.  I not kill anyone.

M: I think we’ve established that already.

J: Just in case.
M:  Do you ever get angry when you’re talking to people and they can’t understand you?

J:  No, not really.  I slow down when I talk.  I start over. Talk slower.  It a pain sometime, though.  Better questions now.  Please.

M: Fine.  If there was one thing you could snap your fingers and do, what would it be?

J:  Hit the jackpot.

M: Money?

J: No, jackpot of pads, pencils, rulers, erasers, cheeseburgers, chocolate ice cream. Like that.

M: That would be a messy jackpot.

J (dreamy): Perfect jackpot.

M: Okay, just a couple more.  What do you think about this book I’ve written? Do you want to say anything about it?

J: Not really.

M: Do you remember that I read some parts to you?

J: Yeah, sort of.

M: And?

J: Um.  Pretty boring.

M: Sheesh!

J: Sorry.

M: That’s all right.  Okay, last question.  Who is your most favorite person in the whole world? And I better like the answer to this one.

J:  You, course!

M: Good answer.

J: I get one right?
M: You got them all right, buddy.

J: I smart like that, right?

M: Definitely.

It wasn’t until long after the interview ended that I realized why Joe was preoccupied with being mistaken for a character who could commit a murder: he didn’t want words like “retarded” or “handicapped” to define him, and he didn’t want to be lumped into an homogenous group with a title.

It’s not the main thing, he said, and he was right.  He’s still one of the smartest guys I know…


  1. Dan
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I like J, he gives you a hard time. He must know you deserve it. ;) I also like his world view – I need to learn to put happiness first, myself.

  2. admin
    Posted September 12, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Dan! I love the way Joe looks at the world – and I especially love his sense of humor! He would LOVE you!!

  3. kirsten
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    I really loved reading this. I think that having this brief insight into not just your brother’s outlook on life, but to your relationship together, is what made me realize how you were able to make the character of Jerry into such a three dimensional character – which is something I think a lot of other writers typically fall short of when writing about someone who is different from them.

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