This week hasn’t exactly been a fantastic time for me. Losing a parent can really make you get stuck in a maudlin, even slightly dark frame of mind. So it’s no secret that seeing photos coming out of Hurricane Harvey of elder folks near drowning in a nursing home due to lack of evacuation and inability to move well put me in a foul mood. It also got me thinking of conversations I’ve heard over the years about disability and the end of society.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. You and your friends are sitting around and having some beers, and the conversation turns to the apocalypse. Maybe you’re watching The Walking Dead, or reading Divergent, or even going to your favorite post-apocalypse live action roleplaying game. But in between talking about what happens if Daryl dies on the show and exchanging larp armor suggestions, someone inevitably brings up what they would do in the event of the apocalypse. Doesn’t matter what the apocalypse cause: zombies, an outbreak, Donald Trump. Everyone gets to play the “what would I do in the case of society’s end” game.
I used to indulge in this game myself with my friends. But these days, when the subject comes up, I get very quiet. Because there’s only one answer:
I’ve read a lot of apocalyptic fiction in my life. From The Stand to Alas, Babylon, I’ve gone through the gamut. It’s a fascinating genre, really, considering what the fall of our civilization would do and what would happen to our plucky band of intrepid protagonists. How would they struggle? Who would survive? I used to identify with the hard-working protagonists, enjoying their constant battles and sacrifices. I, like so many others, put myself into the perspective of the struggling hero. I never thought I’d be one of the people left behind. The reality is, however, I’d be one of those who probably perished in the first few days/weeks/months, the footnotes in the Roland Emmerich movie who isn’t even in the credits with a name, who stares at the incoming giant wave or alien attack with the defeated, accepted resolution that this is the inevitable end.
As a disabled woman, disaster epics, apocalypse fiction, and post-apoc tales aren’t a vicarious thrill for me anymore. Theoretical zombie apocalypse escape plan BS sessions with friends aren’t amusing anymore. They’re an exercise in facing my mortality.
I grew up thinking I could handle anything. I was a young woman who largely lived out of my backpack, ready to grab it and go on a regular basis. When I read about characters in end of the world stories, like The Passage, The Road, Swan Song, or any of the countless others en vogue for the last thirty years, I always put myself into the head of the protagonist. I thought in their situation, I’d strap on my best sneakers, grab supplies, make sure I had my friends and cat food, and survive, me and my cat and my friends/family, together.
The reality of this vicarious thought exercise changed dramatically as I developed serious health problems. Chronic health issues like mine require continuous medical care, including a regiment of medication three times a day. Prescriptions, of course, run out, and when the corner pharmacy has been annihilated by a horde of zombies, there’s no more medication to keep me alive. Within days of running out of pills, I’d end up in some serious trouble. A lack of my painkillers would send me into serious, dangerous detox, while the lack of my endocrine medication would lead to a complete collapse of body systems. Within days, I’d be suffering. Within a week, I’d probably be dead.
And that, dear readers, is without considering the difficulties of locomotion for me in a wheelchair during a societal breakdown. I have difficulty navigating the crowds at New York Comic Con, or walking through New York City due to potholes and breaks in the sidewalk. Imagine off-roading in my wheelchair during a hectic evacuation, either pushed by one of my friends/family/a stranger or riding in the electric wheelchair until the battery runs out. I think about the protest I went to after the Eric Garner shooting, where we marched up the middle of 6th avenue. Two buses blocked our way, and three people had to stop to lift my wheelchair over the tiny gap between vehicles. Such a small thing, but in an emergency so deadly.
This personal look into how reliant I am on society to stay alive has been an eye-opener for me. In a world where destabilization is so much closer than we ever thought possible, I look for solace to literature to relax, and realize how many of the narratives I enjoyed before leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I reread The Stand and came to Stephen King’s chapter where he outlined all the people who died in the collapse of society post- Captain Tripps. And after so many of them, he wrote: “No great loss.” It always gave me the shivers. I’d be one of those people, probably, slowly dying in the face of the end. No adventure to go meet Mother Abigail. Just toodles, and hoping my life didn’t earn me the “no great loss” title in the end.
And so it brought me back to the inherent problem about post-apocalyptic narratives: they are, by nature and design, ableist in the extreme. Apocalyptic fiction doesn’t just embrace the erasure of the disabled and medically compromised, it normalizes their obliteration. It presents stories where we’ve re-embraced survival of the fittest as the only moniker and lionizes those who overcome hardship through leaving behind the injured and ill.
Worse, these stories accept the death of those who are disabled as not only the norm, but as a heroic sacrifice to the survival of the healthy, a gift the disabled and ill can bestow on their fellows. Most of these stories have at least one or two examples of people who commit suicide to keep the disabled or ill person from becoming a drain on resources, or to keep them from suffering too long. While people battle furiously over things like doctor assisted suicide in the real world, they’re willing to accept disabled folks taking themselves out of the equation as an inevitable, even noble, deed in society collapse fiction. And it says something very eerie about how people look at the disabled in these stories:
In a stable society, the disabled are tolerated, if not welcomed. In the face of disaster, they are a liability, and one to be excised for ease of the able-bodied.
There are exceptions to that narrative, stories that stand out for the characters willing to stand up for those less able. One of my favorite scenes from the first season of The Walking Dead comes when Rick and his band of friends encounter what they first believe to be a group of thugs in Atlanta. The scene is uncomfortable in that Rick and his (mostly) white friends immediately size up the other group, made up of mostly people of color, as a threat, with the narrative implying they believe they’re gang-bangers and criminals. (They’re known as the Vatos gang).
However, the story flips the whole thing on its head when we discover the ‘thugs’ are actually protecting a building full of the elderly and infirm. The Vatos are cooks, janitors, and family members of the elderly who refused to abandon the patients when the able-bodied staff fled. They are willing to face the hordes of the undead to protect the elderly who cannot flee easily, even in the heart of besieged Atlanta.
This caregiver narrative is often absent from apocalyptic fiction, as the notion of care of those less able is relegated to characters deemed salvageable or valuable to society. Protagonists will focus on the rescue of children over those who are disabled, seeing them as the future of society, while those who are injured or disabled might be a drain. Only those disabled characters who are seen as highly valuable are fought for and preserved, such as in the case of Mother Abigail in The Stand, wheelchair-bound Vriess in Aliens 4, Professor Xavier in Logan, or even Bran in Game of Thrones (which can be considered an apocalyptic tale considering the White Walkers invasion). These characters require effort to be expended to keep them alive but are almost always preserved only because their abilities are deemed too highly valuable to lose. Otherwise, care is often withheld or deemed a drain.
What’s often frustrating in these narratives is the way adaptive or assistive devices are treated, as if they are equally burdensome and do not allow characters to navigate the world with greater ease. Characters who could continue to be included in narratives are often set aside or sacrificed because other characters don’t even bother to seek out assistive devices like braces, crutches, or wheelchairs. This makes characters who utilize such devices so important in fiction. A prime example of a character whose assistive device is included but never overly emphasized is Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, whose missing arm is replaced by a metal one. She is a prime example of a disabled heroine who is not only not marginalized, but who thrives as the movie’s protagonist.
I particularly appreciated Dale in The Walking Dead comics for this reason. Originally able-bodied when he joined Rick’s group at the beginning, Dale (spoiler alert) loses a leg during the course of the flight from the zombies, and though it gives him trouble, he remains a part of the group. (In the television series, the storyline is transplanted onto Hershel). Seeing someone with mobility issues still included as part of the group as opposed to being discarded was a major sticking point for me in loving Kirkman’s comic and eventually the TV series.
Another fantastic example is Raven from The 100. The former space-dwelling engineer becomes badly injured during the course of the show, her leg and back permanently damaged. Though she can walk with the help of a leg brace, she is slowed down and in constant pain. Raven struggles with her new challenges, considers ending her own life, and ultimately faces her new disability status with a grim finality, realizing that at any moment she could lose her life due to her limitations. Still, she survives each season with determination, supported and bolstered by her friends, who do not let her give into depression. In fact, few characters in the show are as resourceful or vital as Raven, who is supported by others in her role in the community. Raven is a wonderful example of a narrative that embraces the disabled, rather than obliterates them.
Yet there are more stories which sweep away the disabled than embracing them. And what’s worse, the idea of the disabled being abandoned is lionized, given a sort of solemn acceptance. It’s known the disabled need to be forgotten, left behind. The able-bodied in the stories often embrace how painful and awful it is to lose someone because of their medical situation or disability, but largely move on with a sense of acceptance. It’s accepted, of course, that the fittest move on, and don’t try to waste resources on their differently abled friend. There are countless scenes where someone must be sacrificed to help the rest of the group survive, and more often than not it is the cruel “I tell it like it is” character who points out the disabled/ill person as a drain on resources who should be chosen. And though the others moralize, in the end, they often agree. The message becomes clear: the differently abled are expendable.
More often than not, these scenes include some kind of noble sacrifice moment, where the disabled/injured/ill person looks deep into the heroes eyes and asks to be left behind so they can help the group. They stop fighting, stop trying to survive, ending the drain they put on resources with solemn acceptance, the last heroic gesture they can make. This is often mirrored in zombie stories when a single person is bitten and they calmly pick up a weapon to end their lives, the generous actions of a person trying not to inflict their sickness on others. Yet while some stories have heroes fighting to save the zombie-infected person, few have heroes fighting to keep their diabetic friend alive.
An example of a scene that faces down this issue comes from The Stand. King introduces Stu Redman as our everyday hero, a caring soul who becomes the heart of the survivors on their way across the country to meet the magical Mother Abigail. In the first scene of Part 3 of the TV series, Stu is elbow deep in a man’s guts, trying to remove a burst appendix on a cold concrete floor. Stu is no doctor but does his best without anesthetic and with nothing but a medical textbook to guide him. And though his patient dies, Stu at least attempts the operation rather than let the ill man die without a fight.
This instance, however, just like the zombie bite, is an example of an onset illness, meant in the narrative to convey the fragility of human health when there are no hospitals, no safety nets for the often changeable human condition. But more chronic, ongoing illnesses are treated much differently in these stories, often signaling an accepted death sentence with no attempt at treatment.
Physical disabilities might be badly treated in apocalyptic fiction, but equally marginalized in these stories are those with mental illness. Already often badly used in fiction, the mentally ill are often portrayed as not only a drain on society but a danger to those around them. Those with mental illness or neuro-atypical status become an outlying wildcard in the apocalyptic survivor stories, playing the role of simple sidekicks, quirky but unstable comedic relief, or else hampering burdens to the survival of the group. While these stories highlight the heroes often suffering from things like PTSD and depression, rarely are conditions like these treated as illnesses to be addressed. Instead, they are dangerous shifts in personality to be treated with “tough love” scenes as other survivors cajole the character to get over it, get stronger, move on. Those that don’t are often killed off, a victim of their own emotional instability.
Those portrayed with chronic, less environmentally-contributed mental illnesses are usually treated far worse in the stories. Apocalypse stories often include someone with mental illness to throw in the magical crazy prophet trope or the unstable person who will endanger the group. Rarely is their mental illness addressed as treatable, or even manageable, and the ‘crazy’ character often becomes a casualty of the story, perishing due to losing control of themselves to their ‘madness.’
A well-explored version of this story happened in the TV show Defiance. Set in a post-alien invasion Earth, new frontiersman Rafe McCawley tells his children their mother Pilar died rather than admit he left her behind due to her mental illness. After society fell apart, Pilar could no longer get treatment for her bipolar disorder and became erratic. Rather than face handling an unstable Pilar, Rafe takes his children and leaves. Pilar survives, however, and later comes back to reunite with her family. She becomes a villain of the show, however, as her bipolar disorder makes her do inappropriate things like, oh, kidnap her daughter’s half-alien baby. But while the show attempts to show characters empathizing with Pilar’s situation, it also showcased the show’s protagonists turning on Pilar, calling her crazy and eventually killing her while she was in the throes of her mania.
Her death in the show too closely mirrored the violence so often perpetrated on the mentally ill in our world when they act out inappropriately. And this is one of the good examples of well-explored mental illness characters. Many others are far, far worse.
It’s no secret that fiction of any kind reflects the anxieties of the times. In the 50’s it was the body snatchers, mirroring the fear of invasion and infiltration by the Russians. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was concerns over rampant consumerism and wanton behavior that bred our slasher film fascination, and the 2000’s are all about fears of society collapsing in the face of global terror and societal instability. Yet what does it say about our society as a whole when our fiction is not only about people trying to survive such collapses but embraces survival of the fittest as the rubric for that fiction’s heroic journey?
Too often the disabled are set aside in our society, considered burdens and drains on resources. Yet while most at least show basic discomfort with the marginalization of the disabled, our apocalypse fiction envisions futures where the disabled not only don’t exist but go heroically to their deaths so as not to be a bother in times of trouble. The concept smacks of an insidious undercurrent of near eugenics-level categorization of the disabled and chronically ill most would find distasteful when called out in the open. No one wants to admit they accept the disabled as a burden. Yet there it is, in the stories about our most difficult times. In those stories, the disabled are deprioritized and erased from existence, sacrificed at the feet of the able.
I’ve stopped indulging as much in apocalyptic fiction lately. My own medical status has made it difficult to enjoy stories in which I would be annihilated pretty quickly, or else considered selfish for trying to survive. Instead, I look for stories like The 100 when people with disabilities are equally valued and fought for, and not just treated with pity but embraced as integral to the continued survival for their skills, experience, and contributions to society.
I envision if there was a zombie apocalypse, I’d be there, whacking zombies in the head with something and then zooming along in my wheelchair until my medicine runs out. There’d be no noble “save yourself!” from me unless necessary due to circumstance, and not because I would be a ‘burden.’ Instead, I’d strive to be a comfort and an ally to my friends and those around me, contributing to the whole as I do in my everyday life, right up until the end. Would that the fiction I consume had the same confidence in me as I try to have in myself.