Shattering Stigmas is an annual blogging event that lasts two weeks. During this fortnight, we’ll be talking about anything and everything mental health related. The aim of these posts are to take away some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, to invite people to open up about their stories, and to help others learn.
I’m really glad that, on top of mental health, we can also provide you with a few posts about disability. One of my dearest friends, Natalie, has written a personal post featuring Kaz Brekker. You’re welcome. Natalie reigns over Goodreads here and can also be found on Twitter.
Kaz Brekker and the Miracle Cure
If you’re involved in the YA community, you may have heard of Kaz Brekker, aka Dirtyhands, aka Bastard of the Barrel, aka Thief of my Heart and Doesn’t Have the Fucking Decency to Put It Back.
He’s one of the protagonists from Leigh Bardugo’s amazing Six of Crows series and likely the toughest, baddest motherfucker in there. He’s feared, respected, looked up to. He masterminded a heist to break into the most secure prison in the world. He brawled his way through a armed criminal gang and won.
He also walks with a limp and uses a cane.
Kaz suffers from a form of mental trauma as well, but for this post, I mainly want to address his physical handicap. Physically disabled characters, I feel, can be broadly categorized into 3 archetypes: 1)the delicate flower who needs to be protected (this type is largely relegated to a background character and/or used to further the protagonist’s character arc; 2) the miserable guy who thinks he’s weak and broken (this character arc usually culminates into acceptance and maybe a miracle cure as a “reward”); 3) the badass who is perfectly happy in his skin and doesn’t need pity.
All of them have their flaws—Yes, even (3). Total acceptance cheapens the complicated feelings most handicapped folk have towards their bodies, even if they’ve made peace with it. I should probably mention right now I use a wheelchair. I suffer from myopathy, which is a type of muscular dystrophy that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass… and I can see your eyes glazing like Donald Trump’s when he doesn’t hear his name spoken every 30 seconds, so I’ll get on with it. I was told by a doctor years ago (awful, bad-tempered fellow) that I’d die at 16. I’m 24 now and still breathing, so fuck you.
(It’s just him. Most doctors are lovely and I wouldn’t have reached this height of living pettiness without them)
The point I was trying to make got away from me while I was distracted. ANYWAY, Kaz mostly belongs in Category 3. I say “mostly” because his character transcends the one-dimensional archetype into a nuanced, well-developed person. Included in that—ah, yes, finally, the apex point I’ve been driving towards 300 words ago—is his rejection of the “miracle cure.”
The miracle cure is what I like to call the ending of Avatarxt. What’s-his-name is magically healed at the end, part of his happily-ever-after package deal, along with the girl and two castles.
What gets me isn’t the unrealistic aspect, because that’s defeatist talk. I don’t shun medicine or physical therapy; I don’t want to be the kind of person promotes a positive body image over actual health. If a cure existed for myopathy, I might take it. Might. That’s a point that needs further unpacking. For now, let’s focus on the harmful implications of the fictional miracle cure. It suggests that we can’t be happy in a crippled body and that our handicap defines our identity. A character arc is self-defining. That’s the whole point, for the hero to learn and grow. If a miracle cure is what the hero earns at the end of his journey, then it implies his handicap is a flaw that had to be overcome for him to become a better, more fulfilled human being.
But wait! What if he’d already accepted his handicap before suddenly being bestowed the miracle cure? Same thing. Consider the “makeover” trope, where the male best friend realizes he’s been in love with the MC all along and the movie fades out with her in his arms, wearing a pretty dress and lip gloss, smiling fainting as he confesses he loves her inside and out. Then why end with her beautified? Why not roll the credits over her plain self? Because even though he’s accepted it, it’s still a “flaw” that had to be corrected. The message becomes insincere.
Going back to the cure for myopathy. This is delicate ground and I don’t presume to speak for the entire disabled community. Different people perceive and process their handicaps differently. I can only speak for myself when I say that I would accept a cure—conditionally. It’s not the most important thing in my life. It’s definitely an integral part of my identity, but it’s not all of me. Honestly, I’d be very upset if you treated me just like everyone else (i.e. not holding doors open, organizing outings that are physically taxing, etc).
An example might help. If I had a choice between being as physically able as the average person or winning ten million dollars, I’d take the money. Honest to God. Call me materialistic, but I’d take a mansion with the library from Beauty & the Beast over walking. Simply put, it’s about priorities. I don’t prioritize a cure as my life ambition. I am more than my disability. My dreams are bigger.
And now we come back to Kaz Brekker. He has the choice to be cured in his fictional universe, to ditch the cane, function without a nagging ache in his knee. But he chose not to. He decided to incorporate his handicap as part of his myth, choose a lead-lined cane to enhance his fighting style, transform his weakness into armor.
He rejected the miracle cure and came out on top. The deadliest boy in the Barrel is a cripple.
Now you see why I love him.