One of the book clubs I recently joined is reading “Circe” by Madeline Miller. You guys know I never don’t have autism in the front of my brain, but when I got to the part about how the Minotaur was born, my spine started prickling.
Most of us have some rudimentary understanding of the myth, yes? The Minotaur was born from a not-so-same-species hookup between Pasiphae and a white bull. He turned out to be a human-devouring monster, so he was kept in the Labyrinth, and eventually killed by Theseus.
In Miller’s rendition, Circe, who is a witch, and the aunt of the Minotaur, helps deliver him, along with Daedalus, the royal craftsman of Crete. It’s a very harrowing, bloody scene, basically an emergency C-section with no sterile tools. Argh. But goddesses who can heal in a day probably aren’t in danger of sepsis or tetanus. The newborn creature bites off some of Circe’s fingers and is placed hastily in a bag, then a cage in a locked room.
Circe goes off to gather herbs and grow her fingers back, and has a vision of the Minotaur being killed as an adult. This tells her that he has a destiny which should not be cut short by killing him in the present. She comes up with a spell which keeps him relatively tame for three seasons of the year, but every harvest season, unfortunate humans have to be sacrificed to his appetite.
Thus do we have the scene set for how terrible and beastly such a creature is. Daedalus the craftsman, who built the cage, starts to ponder the practicality and ethics of keeping the Minotaur trapped in such small confines. He recalls that beneath the castle lie hundreds of unused rooms intended as granaries. If he can seal up the exits, the creature will have more space to roam as he grows. This is how the Labyrinth is conceived and created.
So there we are. This sort of sums up a societal approach to intellectual disability/mental illness, doesn’t it? People trying to come up with “whys”—these conditions are often seen as inherently fearful and abnormal, so there must be some appalling creation myth to explain the people who embody them. I am often reminded of such “whys” when we take A to medical appointments, and I am invariably asked if I had a normal pregnancy and delivery. No, I want to reply, I conjured up evil spirits, and smoke filled the air as I birthed him. Evil mothers doing garden variety unnatural shit. Birds dropped dead, the sky turned purple, and gazelles mated with apes. And then, Dear Reader, I vaccinated him. Thus was Damian born.
The vision Circe had can be seen as anti-euthanasia. So when we as a society moved away from choosing this option (one hopes), we had to shape a moral belief system that allowed for the “mentally afflicted” to be seen as destiny-bearers just as much as you or I.
Practically speaking, what do we do with those who fall on the severely afflicted end of the neurodiverse spectrum? We contain them. Special classrooms. Special schools. Special Olympics. Our children are just so special. But gently, so they don’t feel caged. It is for their own safety, we argue. We cannot allow the flower of our “normal” youth to be tainted by association, to have their aspirations sacrificed in the name of tolerance. Resource guarding looks selfish, but it isn’t really, we assure ourselves. Why, just see how happy the creatures are in their confines. They have their families to love them. See how we occasionally let them out in public in carefully orchestrated ways. And if we rarely see their families otherwise, well, those are the fruits of bestiality, are they not?
Where Miller’s narrative stabbed most effectively at my heart was through Daedalus. He was the only one who worried about the Minotaur having room to grow and (somewhat) thrive. Human rights today are still compromised this way, whether we are talking of the rights of women, racial minorities, the LGBT community, the poor, the incarcerated, the disabled, and so many more groups I am not able to name here. Every time someone tries to advocate for the marginalized, there is a member of the majority to cry injustice. Because when you are so used to privilege, any step towards equality feels like oppression, as the saying goes.
Do you want to know how the Minotaurs amongst you are living? Or do you prefer that people more like your own family be at the heart of a civilized society? If you donate money to charities, does that alleviate the occasional twinge? Do you ever look around at the crowded parties you attend and think “Who’s missing?”
Our children live in the empty granaries beneath your castle. If your instinct is to write to me and say “but I know a severely autistic kid who doesn’t live like that,” I hope you know that he or she mostly does. It’s just that you get to live in the light all of the time, and they dwell in the Labyrinth that our collective shame has built for them.
Miller, Madeline. Circe. Narrated by Perdita Weeks. Audible, 2018. Audiobook.