I find myself thinking a lot about what it means to portray a disabled person in all of their complexity, whether it be in stories, songs, news articles, etc.
Last week, one of my classmates in my creative writing workshop class suggested that I listen to the song Epilogue by The Antlers on their album, Hospice, drawing a corollary between this song and my novel-in-progress. The past couple of days, I have been absolutely mesmerized by the entire album.
Pete Silberman, the leading singer, has stated that this concept album is about an emotionally abusive relationship that he had. The tricky thing, though, is that Silberman uses an analogy of a hospice worker falling in love with a woman with terminal bone cancer who he is caring for, and their subsequent downward spiral of a relationship, to speak about his own experience that does not involve cancer, hospice, etc. The usage of this analogy is obviously a complicated, and perhaps problematic choice. When asked why he used it, Silberman said:
A hospice can be representative of what emotional and psychological abuse can do. Let’s say as a hospice worker, you’re taking a lot of verbal abuse from someone who is dying, cause they’re, absolutely and rightfully so, bitter about what’s happening and feeling like it’s completely unfair, which it most obviously is. And you’re in the position of feeling like you have no right to complain about your situation because it’s so much worse for them. So you think the least I can do is give them a punching bag.
In later interviews, Silberman expressed some concern over using this metaphor, though, especially when fans began approaching him with their stories of losing loved ones who had cancer. He was somewhat taken to task for perhaps “biting more off than he could chew.” He has been reluctant to share many autobiographical details, and has been somewhat frustrated about listeners’ tendencies to try to piece together the definite story.
Hospice is a heartbreakingly raw exploration of an abusive relationship, yes. (The lyrics are absolutely devastating.) In some ways, this album follows The Antlers everywhere. Silberman has noted that he was very angry at the time of making this album, and that it was, in some ways, an act of vengeance. Still, though, the lyrics contain so much nuance; so illustrative of the experience of being in love with someone even as one is being consistently hurt by them.
I have so many questions, though. Sometimes, I think, the drive to find out autobiographical details is precisely because of the marginalized subject matter being addressed. I wonder what it would have been like for fans who related to the songs because of their own experiences with people with cancer in their lives. What it was like for disabled people with cancer themselves to listen to and read the lyrics of this album? What does it say about our ableist cultural imaginary that it is so easy to imagine a hospice patient abusing their caretaker, when, frankly, caretakers in general are much more likely to abuse disabled patients? How much does analogy take away from the specificity of direct experience? How do I listen to this album and intimately connect so very much with the theme of emotional abuse, and (past and present) trauma, while also feeling that the concept / analogy does a disservice to other disabled realities? Also, how do we hold the complexity of a sick and/or disabled person using whatever power they have, and the experience of being pigeonholed by trauma, to abuse and lash out at loved ones?
I hope someday for there to be such nuance in conversations about disability that analogy becomes complex and radiant; not simply reduced. I long for abuse to be discussed always in connection with systemic oppression, and to not simply become “the end of the story.” In some ways I feel that this album tries to start such a conversation with its moments of incredible, multilayered complexity. In some ways I feel let down.