I’ve discovered a new genre of books. It’s the “She’s Less Scarred Than She Thinks She Is” category, which is characterized by a female protagonist who has facial scars, typically received in some horrific childhood accident. The tendency is for parents to somehow be involved in what happened, leading our heroine to have complicated family issues intertwined with her issues about being scarred. Unfortunately, rather than these issues being portrayed as separate, the author implies the family issues are an extension of the scarred woman’s baggage related to her “horrific” appearance. If she only got over her scars, then she would also free herself from familial discord.
In these novels, the reader mostly learns about the scars and their horrific nature from the protagonist, who uses words like “disfigured.” We also learn about how people react to these scars largely from her perspective. In other words, the scarred person is telling us about the scars and what it is like to have them. Other characters either don’t mention them or behave as though they are the equivalent of a zit. When the scarred woman directly mentions her disfigurement to other characters, they say things like, “Everyone has scars,” “I bet most people don’t even notice them,” and “Maybe you should care less what other people think.”
Speaking for people with facial disfigurements the world over, I wish to register my complaint that this category of books are not only false reflections of what life is like for someone with scars, they are actively harmful to those of us with scars. It’s irresponsible for a writer to pretend to know about something like this when they have not walked in those shoes. It is one thing to imagine what it would be like to be a thirty-something lawyer who is a mother of three kids and another thing altogether to imagine what life is like for a person with facial scarring. It would take an extremely talented writer with a very high degree of empathy to do such a character justice and most authors are not Lois McMaster Behold.
To debunk the myths these books perpetuate, let me start with the easiest. “You should care less what other people think.” That’s a great idea, but it misses the point. it isn’t what other people think that is so harmful to a disfigured woman. Rather, it is what people do – treat the person differently. Not getting a job because you are scarred is not based on someone else’s thoughts. Being treated with pity is not based on mere thought. Having trouble dating is not a problem caused by thought. Not caring what others think will get you nowhere because it is the actions of others that are at the crux of the problem.
“I bet most people don’t even notice them,” is a statement typically based on an individual’s own perception of the scars. Since they have grown accustomed to their presence, they assume that must be the case for others, even total strangers. It is a conclusion based on the notion that one’s own current experience is identical to everyone’s experience, regardless of differing circumstances. Dr. Jones teaches medical interns to remove gall bladders based on the one time she did it. She does not concern herself with teaching about how lifestyle, age, weight or other aspects of medical history impact the surgery because her experience was a certain thing so everyone’s experience will be that same thing. Personally, I would not have Dr. Jones or any physician trained by her operate on me, but you go ahead.
Now, for my personal favorite of “Everyone has scars.” This fallacy is pervasive in our culture. I hear it about disability and sexual orientation all the time. Oddly enough, I never hear it about race, religion or ethnicity. “We all have some Jewish in us,” is not acceptable. Why, then, is it perfectly fine to invalidate a person’s entire life experience by minimizing it to, “Everyone has it.” I can tell you with complete certainty that I have scars very different from those of your average forty-something woman and we experience life in very different ways.
My biggest problem with novels in this genre is the damage they can do to someone who lives with scars. She isn’t going to be guided to some place of personal fulfilment and emotional health by reading a book that invalidates her experience. Instead, she will feel like she’s failed because, unlike the female protagonist, she has not suddenly realized her beauty and begun living a fairytale existence. Holding out that carrot of happiness is cruel because no amount of personal or emotional growth will change the world we live in. It’s not kind to people with scars on their face. Pretending otherwise, turning that delusion into a novel and letting it go out into the world is irresponsible and mean.