22 April 2014
By Emmeline Burdett
‘Good Kings Bad Kings’ is the first novel by the acclaimed US playwright Susan Nussbaum, and is the winner of the 2012 Pen/ Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize founded by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. The novel is set in the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC), which is referred to by those ‘in the know’ as ‘illsee’ - with the emphasis on ‘ill’.
ILLC is a nursing home for disabled young people, and its name is a complete misnomer. The young people sent there are not taught ‘life skills’, but merely removed from mainstream society, and subjected to the whims of their ‘caregivers’ (the ‘good kings, bad kings’ of the title). These range from the sadistic ex-prison guard, Louie, to the home’s bus driver Ricky Hernandez, who tries his best to mitigate Louie’s cruelty to his favourite victim, Pierre Washington.
The novel is an impassioned and eloquent broadside against institutionalisation, showing clearly that it is an unequal relationship in which abuses can happen and can just as easily go unnoticed. One resident is raped by a staff member, and another dies after being left alone in the shower and trying to push himself away from the scalding hot water, but no real change occurs until one teenage resident - the vibrant Yessinia Lopez - sits outside the front of the building with a poster which reads ‘THIS PLACE ABUSE AND KILL CHILDREN’ (sic). The media and a disability rights organisation pick up the story, and the novel ends on an optimistic note.
I did have a few concerns about the use of language in the novel. For example, on the first page Yessinia describes herself as ‘physically challenged’, but it becomes increasingly clear that the challenges she faces are not primarily physical. It seems that in the US, terms that represent disability are less clearly defined with regard to their political impact. The healthcare systems, which facilitate institutionalisation – paying for disabled people to live in nursing homes but refusing money to live independently – are only strengthened by terms such as ‘physically challenged’. Such terms tacitly discount any possibility of an impaired individual being rendered disabled by oppressive social constructs and relationships, and locate the ‘problem’ solely within the impaired individual’s own body.
I was also somewhat annoyed by the ‘Questions for Discussion’ at the end of the book. Asking such questions as ‘Is it unusual to hear disabled characters tell their own stories? … How might this impact the way you view disabled people in real life?’ clearly assumes that the reader of the novel will not be disabled.
Nevertheless, it is unusual to hear disabled characters tell their own stories, and Susan Nussbaum is to be applauded for bringing important matters to public attention in such an engaging and powerful way.