The story "The Village Watchman" by Terry Tempest Williams and the film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" both depict families which include someone with developmental disability. In Williams' autobiographical story, it is the author's uncle, Alan, who is described as "special" because his "brain was denied oxygen" during a "breech" birth. In Lasse Hallstrom's film, it is Gilbert Grape's brother Arnie, played by Leonardo di Caprio, whose developmental disability is never specified. However, as with Alan in Williams' story, Arnie Grape's mental handicap is also accompanied by a physical frailty -- as Arnie says repeatedly in the film, "I could go at any time." In both of these stories, we can behold the effects that a developmentally disabled person can have upon his family environment. Gilbert Grape is effectively forced to parent his little brother, because his father is absent and this absence has caused his mother to become morbidly obese. Williams' story about Alan is similarly filled with expressions of family concern not about Alan's "different" or "special" identity but more about his health. Alan's disability is accompanied by seizures, which necessitate his wearing a football helmet for protection. Williams describes the scars that Alan has on his head as a "line-by-line history of seizures." If we try to imagine the effects of a serious illness upon a family environment -- independent of developmental disability -- we can imagine the immense strain and pressure that can be put upon a family simply in dealing with a long-term illness. But in the case of both Arnie Grape and Alan Romney Dixon, the long-term illness is complicated by the developmental disability. In the fictional Grape family, we can see the effects of such strain placed upon Gilbert -- the title of the film seems to be a pun, causing us to think about the obese mother (who finds time for much "eating") while also causing us to recognize that it is the strain and difficulty of the family environment which is "eating" Gilbert. In the real family of Terry Tempest Williams, the caregiver function for Alan has necessarily been placed in the hands of the state, which maintains the sorrowful "dormitory" where Alan must live. Then again, the example of Gilbert Grape having to care for his brother Arnie shows us why Alan's family requires such assistance from outside.
Both the story of Arnie Grape and the story of Alan Romney Dixon reveal much about the role played by love in a family environment, and the healing power of love in dealing with something like developmental disability. However, it is important to be honest about both situations -- no human being is capable of perfect love. We must be honest about the role played by frustration. In both of these stories, obviously there is the additional problem of physical illness -- and I think anyone who has ever experienced a physical illness must understand that frustration is a necessary component. Even someone who has had a cold or a headache or the flu knows that the illness can interfere with immediate plans in a frustrating way. So we must imagine the way in which a much more serious long-term illness where the family-member "could go at any time" can affect life. Indeed, the true story of Alan Romney Dixon does demonstrate that someone with developmental disability and attendant physical illness can truly go at any time -- Alan is extremely young when he dies, and he dies as a result of complications from an ear infection, an illness which in most persons does not prove fatal. But there is much more that can be frustrating about developmental disability. In "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" frustration is the subject of the film's most moving and difficult scene. Gilbert has told Arnie not to touch his birthday cake before it is his actual birthday -- Arnie, although a teenager, behaves like a small child who cannot resist. When Gilbert discovers that Arnie has contradicted him, he hits him. We understand from the context of the film that Gilbert's love for Arnie is undeniable -- but in this moment, frustration gets the better of Gilbert.
The dynamic of love and frustration that Gilbert experiences in that moment of the film is probably something that everyone has experienced in some way or another. In this sense, Arnie's developmental disability can be compared to any number of other situations -- dealing with an elderly grandparent with dementia, for example, or even working on housetraining a pet, or any situation where we love someone who does things without knowing any better. One of the most fascinating things about Terry Tempest Williams' story is the way in which the fact that Alan does not know any better (and so is likely to use swear words in a Mormon community while bowling, despite the fact that Mormons are not supposed to swear) is actually liberating rather than frustrating. Both of these stories reminded me personally of an experience I had when I was younger, in dealing with a developmentally disabled individual. When I was younger, I spent a vacation weekend with cousins, and with friends of my cousin's family -- these friends included a developmentally disabled girl called Jen, who was several years older than I was, but I had been told that mentally she was on the level of a much younger child. Jen had a younger sister, Kate, who was close to my age, but who clearly had a level of responsibility and maturity above her age group which was the result of having to deal with her sister. This was during vacation, and so with a group of a number of children -- including myself and my cousins and Jen and her younger sister -- we had to determine some group activity to do. We discussed playing dress-up with Halloween costumes, so they were brought out of a closet and examined. Then we discussed going to see a film. The group was very interested in going to see a scary movie about vampires and werewolves, but this caused Jen to become very upset -- apparently she had a real problem with fear. This was not surprising -- I had been told in advance that she was on the developmental level of a much younger child, and obviously young children should not be taken to see scary movies. But in trying to include Jen in the group dynamic, it became a problem -- she simply was not attuned to the tastes and activities of the actual age group of myself, or my cousins, or even her own younger sister.
It was clear that the situation was extremely frustrating to the group, since we were eager to get out of the house and do something fun -- like see a scary movie. Even Jen's younger sister was frustrated, and was trying to convince her sister that the movie would not be that scary and that she could close her eyes when there were vampires or werewolves in it. But then one of my cousins did something that crossed a line -- in the boxes of Halloween costumes that had been brought out earlier, he found a set of plastic vampire teeth and put them in his mouth, and then jumped out at poor Jen. He probably thought it was a funny joke, but Jen's reaction was horrified. She ran out of the room screaming and crying. It was clear that she already understood, on some level, that she did not "fit in" with the group dynamic -- but she did not think the joke was funny, she thought it was directed towards her. It was at this moment that Jen's sister Kate changed her reaction. Rather than continuing to convince her sister it would be okay to see a…