Susan Nussbaum, author of the 2013-2014 One Book Villanova selection “Good Kings Bad Kings,” challenges members of the Villanova community to expand their attention beyond the boundaries of the campus.
The Villanova community has a long history of serving people with disabilities. The University recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival, the largest student-run Special Olympics event in the world.
In addition, LeVeL, a student group focused on “leveling the playing field” for people with disabilities, recently received a $5,000 award for its social engagement. Since LeVeL’s inception in 2012, the group has already logged over 12,000 hours of service.
Yet off-campus, ableism and discrimination prevail. “Good Kings Bad Kings” follows the workers and residents at ILLC, an institution for juveniles with disabilities. The novel reveals the instances of abuse and neglect common at ILLC.
In addition to exposing the conditions of institutions like ILLC, “Good Kings Bad Kings” also critiques popular, clichéd and demeaning depictions of people with disabilities. Its characters, while disabled, are fundamentally human.
The book is a product of Nussbaum’s long history of disability rights activism. After being hit by a car as a 24-year-old acting student, she experienced firsthand how the world viewed people with disabilities. She quickly grew angry and ashamed.
Later, Nussbaum heard about Access Living, a disability rights activist group. She began to work there and receive the articles her coworkers shared with each other. Many of them recorded instances of abuse in institutions.
“For some reason, I started stockpiling these articles,” Nussbaum said. “They were so stunning to me, you know, in the negative sense. It occurred to me that it might be something that someday I would write about.”
The catalyst for the book was actually a play. Nussbaum, unhappy with the production’s depiction of a character with a disability, set out to create a more realistic portrayal.
“I thought there needed to be something better,” Nussbaum explained.
Popular depictions of characters with disabilities have upset Nussbaum from the very beginning of her disability.
“I lay in the hospital for months, wondering what the world would be like as a disabled person,” Nussbaum said in her One Book talk. “I had no vision for my own future—I didn’t know what came next.”
The only disabled people she had known, she realized, were fictional characters. Furthermore, she realized these fictional characters fell into a small number of stereotypical roles.
“This imagery burned in my brain over the years,” Nussbaum said. “It’s all I had to go on.”
In her talk, to help convey the pervasive nature of these stereotypes, Nussbaum shared her version of the popular Bechdel test, geared toward movies starring characters with disabilities.
First, a movie that features a disabled character as either an inspiration or a villain fails the test. Second, a movie that has the disabled character cured, killed or institutionalized by its conclusion fails the test. And finally, a movie with a plot that revolves around the disability fails the test.
These popular depictions of people with disabilities have real-life consequences. Nussbaum related the story of her friend, a fellow writer and activist, who crossed the street to buy a cup of tea.
While she was waiting at the light to return to her office, a passing man tried to put change in her covered cup. The change bounced off the cover and onto the street. To add insult to injury, the man then asked, “Closed for business?”
“What we know about disabled people derives from cultural iconography around us,” she said. “We’ve internalized it.”
The lack of positive depictions of disabled people is not the only reason behind ableism and discrimination, but “it buttresses and reinforces.”
As such, Nussbaum’s realistic portrayals of people with disabilities in “Good Kings Bad Kings” become all the more important. The novel is written in first-person and changes viewpoints among a half-dozen characters of varying age, race, gender and ability status.
Nussbaum revealed that the characters are mostly combinations of people and voices she had heard over the years, but that Joanne’s voice is her own.
“Sheer laziness led me to that choice,” admitted Nussbaum. “I had all these voices and I needed to bring in another perspective and I didn’t feel like making up another character.” Her favorite characters to write were Yessenia and Ricky.
Nussbaum hopes that her book can change the conversation surrounding ableism and disability rights, but is also simply happy the book is out there.
“My hope is that people will read it,” Nussbaum said. “And beyond that, I’m just kind of amazed and gratified that anything came of it.”
Gregory Hannah, a member of both the One Book Villanova committee and the Office of Disability Services, felt similarly.
“I was happy to see that the theme of the One Book was people living with disabilities and people being around disability issues,” Hannah said. “LeVeL, the Office of Disability Services, and even the Special Olympics Committee can feel that the One Book Villanova Committee has recognized the great work and change that has taken place in our campus community.”
With an active, thriving community speaking out against ableism on-campus, Nussbaum’s novel has been particularly well-received. It also, however, challenges the University community to reach out and ignite change off campus.
Through her work, Nussbaum is igniting change as well, both on and off the page.