Imbecile, Idiot, Cretin, Funny-Looking Kid

14866775264_dfcefee472_hIdiot, cretin, feeble-minded, moron, mongoloid, retarded, funny-looking kid: all accepted medical terms at different times in history. More recently, the accepted terms are mental retardation, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. People in pediatrics sometimes use FLK for “funny looking kid” to describe a baby or toddler whose face and head “just don’t look right,” but who don’t have an identifiable genetic disorder. I remember the first time I encountered FLK on a child’s medical chart in nursing school. I was shocked when my nursing instructor told me what it stood for. I was even more shocked that she didn’t find the term offensive. FLK seems to be a throwback to phrenology—that pseudoscience of belief that low foreheads and bumps on the skull can foretell the criminal and devious propensities of individuals.

I had relatives with mental illness and mental retardation. My father’s father and brother were tucked far away in the southern Appalachians of Tennessee: our family’s living skeletons in the closet. I was told that my Uncle Charles was retarded, and that my grandmother was convinced it was because she’d fallen down a flight of stairs when she was pregnant. My maternal great-grandmother raised Uncle Charles on her cotton plantation in rural Georgia, so Charles had a thick Southern drawl and was the most openly racist of any of my relatives. He also had a serious speech impediment, talking as if he had a partially paralyzed mouth. He laughed loudly at his own jokes, startling me by suddenly reaching over and tickling me under the chin or slapping me on the arm. As a child he frightened me; as a young adult he embarrassed me. By then he lived with my grandmother and drove a delivery truck for a cousin’s florist. With savant-like abilities in math, he had been tested at Emory hospital at age ten and assigned an IQ of seventy. He was considered feeble-minded, trainable, and partially educable.

In my childhood, we went to my grandmother’s house in Tennessee only at Easter, as if this were part of our family’s annual pilgrimage of penance, death, and resurrection. Grandmother’s house smelled of sick-sweet Easter lilies, slimy collard greens, and Cimmerian dust from the dirt-floor basement’s coal-piles. My grandfather had a mask-like face and lay in a tall four-posted bed staring at the ceiling. He talked infrequently and when he did, it was in staccato monosyllables. Poorly controlled diabetes and bipolar disorder had left him disabled. He frightened me more than Uncle Charles did. Grandfather was a lawyer but had lost his temper in court so many times he was relegated to library legal research. After he lost that job in the Great Depression, he spent his days playing chess at the YMCA, while my loquacious grandmother sold World Books door-to-door. This was the oft-repeated family story.

Southerners are often stereotyped as inbred imbeciles. My Northern-born mother would tell me stories of my father’s family when he wasn’t around—about the mental retardation and mental illness that my father had been able to transcend by escaping to go to graduate school in New York City. Once there, my father was required to take speech therapy to get rid of his speech impediment: his Southern twang. Both of my parents continuously corrected my speech, determined to prevent me from developing a marked Southern accent. My mother examined the official IQ and academic test scores of all four of her children. With every “ya’ll” that slipped out and every “B” obtained, I felt increasingly marked by the Southern blight. It wasn’t until much later in life, while caring for my elderly mother dying of cancer, that she informed me I was related to Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederate States of America. My paternal great-great grandmother from the Georgia cotton plantation was Varina’s first cousin or something of the sort. I have not found an adequate place for that fact in my history.

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