The following chapter is excerpted from the autobiographical book, "The Gift." We will be sharing a new chapter in each issue.
An inferiority complex would be a blessing, if only the right people had it.
Alan Reed ~ American actor… the voice of Fred Flintstone
A colleague and I were waiting at the Oakland, California airport when a conversation ensued.
“I see you’re taking next week off?”
“To a retreat.”
“Oh yeah. What kind of retreat?”
"I’m one of three adult mentors and a bunch of teenagers."
“That doesn’t sound like much fun. Is it a church group or something?”
"No, it's about fifteen kids and three adult mentors who come from all over the country.”
“Good for you.”
"The only problem I have is I'm supposed to be an adult mentor and I end up learning more about life than I contribute to these kids. They’re so well adjusted."
“I know the feeling. What brings everyone together?”
“We all have a facial difference. We have these retreats every so often so the kids can get together and share their experiences. It’s incredible how these young people have their act together, they’re an impressive bunch of kids.”
“Kind of a week-long group therapy thing?”
“Well, I suppose you could say that.”
“Do you help them deal with problems they have?”
“Like feelings of inferiority and stuff like that?”
“Excuse me? Wow, you caught me off guard. No, we don’t do that.”
“I don’t know, maybe because it never occurred to any of us or at least to me.”
“Aren’t you, kind of, skirting the issue?”
“What about it?”
“Why aren’t you teaching these kids to deal with their inferiority complexes?”
“Like I said the kids have never mentioned the subject. Because I doubt any of these kids have this so-called inferiority complex. What makes you think this is an issue?”
"Ah, come on, any person with a messed up face has an inferiority complex."
“I’ll be, is that right?”
“I’m not trying to hurt your feelings but it’s just common sense.”
“I’ll be damned. Do you think I have one of these inferiority complexes?”
“Well, since you brought it up, sort of, yeah.”
We talked a while longer and you can guess where the conversation went from there. I decided I needed to get a book for the three-hour flight back home. I hoped the book would prevent a continuation of this mind-boggling conversation.
Since the brief conversation at the Oakland Airport sparked my curiosity, I decided to talk to the kids about it at the retreat. A few days later, the teenagers and I had a discussion about feelings of inferiority. I asked them a question straight out, “Do any of you have feelings of inferiority?” Every kid there has periods when they felt self-conscious about their facial features. Unlike many they have great support from family and friends.
When I was in my thirties, I went to a counselor to learn better coping skills. We talked about a claim I've heard for years. Acquaintances, friends, even some family assumed, because of my face, I had an inferiority complex. A claim I’ve heard over and over again throughout my life. A point to note, these sidewalk psychologists talking about inferiority complexes piss me off to no end. When I felt the need to challenge this notion, the accuser would look at me as if I was not only inferior, but perhaps a little insane as well. It seems to me those people who have come to that conclusion are never going to change their minds.
The counselor asked me if I had feelings of inadequacy. My answer was no, but there were situations when I felt lacking, but never inferior. Perhaps some imagined how they would feel if their faces looked like mine? Would they have feelings of inferiority? It’s logical to assume if their faces looked like mine, they would have feelings of inferiority.
Once a family member told me that people didn’t stare at me, it was more my imagination than anything else. As people with any degree of facial disfigurement will tell you, people stare! Not everyone, mind you, just a few are tacky enough to stare. Not only does this small group of people stare they can be rude while attempting to take a second or third peek at my face. Some have the audacity to point you out to their friends.
Growing up my parents told me to just ignore those who stare at you and to disregard those who make upsetting remarks. I’m sure you remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I learned something about that saying… it’s baloney! I learned the hard way when I was seventeen waiting in line at a movie theater. If you find yourself in a similar situation just leave as soon as possible. Like anyone else, it’s always smart to be aware of your surroundings.
How many times have you heard this? “Children can be so cruel!” It’s a belief that’s almost never true yet most adults believe it. Are children cruel? Do children tease? Of course, they tease and to they can be cruel too. When our girls were little all they hated was taking a nap. Most children are simply curious. Most haven't mastered the use of language. They just ask the question, “What happened to you?” It's not mean-spirited; it's not teasing they just want to know what happened.
I was at a grocery store when a little boy looked up at me and asked me what happened to my face. I smiled at him and just as I was about to tell him what happened his mother went off the deep end. The mother was beyond embarrassed and insisted her little boy apologize. I told the mother it was all right, the boy was just asking a question, and he meant no harm. The mother kept insisting he apologize to me. I felt so bad for that kid and wondered what lesson this child was learning from his mother’s crazy reaction. It’s been my experience children will tease, but in terms of cruelty they can’t compete with adults. Adults play for keeps they don’t tease in the same manner as children do. Adults are much more toxic. By the way, when a child is cruelly teasing you can bet an adult is the one who taught the child.
When I mention this to people some look at me in total disbelief as if what I profess couldn’t be true. They will argue it’s not true; today’s adults are much better informed than just a generation ago. To think adults today would be prejudice against those with physical differences is absurd.
Zogby International has been tracking public opinion around the world since 1984. They conducted a poll for the “Game Show Network” called a “Report card on Prejudice in America”. Their method for getting results was unusual. They polled more than 10,000 people about matters of race, religion, political affiliation, and disabilities. Not only did they ask how people felt about these matters they turned the questions around. They asked the audience how everyone else in the group of 10,000 plus people felt about these issues. You can search the Internet for the results of this survey if you want to read the entire report. For the subject at hand there is one interesting conclusion Zogby discovered.
Who do Americans least like to work with? The number one response was obese people. Twenty-six percent of those people interviewed answered obese. The facially disfigured people were the second largest response. Twenty-two percent answered they would least like to work with facially disfigured people.
When Zogby’s asked people how they felt about certain aspects of our society they got completely different responses. These same people thought America had prejudice toward people but they themselves were not prejudice.
When asked about their own prejudices they did not have prejudices toward obesity or facial differences.
There is a little-known history in cities across the United States. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, city councils across America began enacting ordinances. The laws were called vagrancy laws but it wasn’t long before it became obvious whom the laws were meant to control. The ordinances made it a misdemeanor for facially disfigured people to be seen in public. These city codes quickly became known as the Ugly Laws.
City of Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034
“No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense.” (Repealed 1974).