The Two-Headed Quarterback: Disabled Identity in Night Vale

Warning: this post contains discussion of medical and parental abuse, murder, and spoilers for “Dana.”

A small meta blog where the cooling rods are cold, the ableism is fantastic, and JJ Abrams ruins our favorite franchises while we all pretend not to weep.

Welcome to Space Crip.

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Hello, listeners/readers/magick users who access the blog by astrally projecting themselves into the Internet and joining with the essence of Space Crip.

Like a good portion of the intertubes, I have become an avid listener of the podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, having listened to twenty-eight episodes within the span of three days. Partially because my laptop was in for repairs and partially because I surrendered to the half of my Tumblr dash that had been swallowed by the fandom. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show (and therefore did not get any of the references I made in the previous four paragraphs), Welcome to Night Vale is a fake community radio show set in a small desert town full of weird, unexplainable phenomena that the citizens consider just a normal part of everyday life. The show’s host, Cecil Baldwin, a lifelong Night Vale resident, comments on town matters, like a glowing cloud that hovers over the town and rains down dead animals, mayoral hopeful and five-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels, and the beautiful, perfectly-coiffed out-of-towner scientist named Carlos who’s trying to understand the town’s inherent weirdness.

Like all Quirky Towns, Night Vale is populated by Eccentric Townsfolk. Like Old Woman Josie who frequently hosts angels (all named Erika; all technically non-existent according to the all-powerful city council) in her home out near the car lot. Or John Peters, you know, the farmer who grows heavily-subsidized imaginary corn. Or the focus of today’s post, Michael Sandero, high school senior and quarterback of the Night Vale Scorpions.

Prior to a run-in with a sentient lightning bolt, Michael had cerebral palsy. According to Cecil, Michael was “in the advanced stages of cerebral palsy.” Considering that CP is not a degenerative condition, we can only take that comment to mean that disabled people in Night Vale are ranked, much like Boy Scouts. Michael Sandero had apparently earned enough disability merit badges to claim the title, “Advanced.” Good for you, Michael Sandero! (Pity about the sentient lightning bolt; Michael was only a few “You’re too young to need a cane” comments away from getting his fourth Ableist Microaggression Star of Honor.)

Cecil also described Michael’s CP as a “terminal ailment,” which one might think is a slip-up on Cecil’s or the show’s part, but a little extrapolation and spirit-channeling on my part has revealed that, in Night Vale, impairments people are born with are referred to as “terminal.” Because, according to the tea leaves at the bottom of my Snapple, all babies in Night Vale are born at the Greyhound bus terminal as their panicked parents attempt to flee before the town claims their newborn child’s eternal soul. Of course, no one in labor has yet managed to leave Night Vale. In fact, no one has ever managed to leave Night Vale. Which leaves us to wonder why they have a Greyhound bus terminal in the first place. . . Anyway, regional slang. Isn’t it quirky?

In addition to having CP, Michael also had an amputated hand owing to several overdue library books. My sources in the all-seeing winter realm tell me that, as part of the library’s amnesty month, Michael was fortunately able to give the librarians lurking the public library his throwing hand rather than paying the normal fee of 87% of his blood plasma.

However, unfortunately for Michael’s standing in the Most Honored and Ancient Disability Lodge of Night Vale (did I tell you how close Michael was to getting his fourth Ableist Microaggression Star of Honor?), a sentient lightning bolt robbed him of his cerebral palsy and—without asking—foisted a new hand upon his body. Additionally, the lightning bolt granted Michael “the strength of two Jeeps” (model and year unknown) and “the intelligence of a heavily concussed Rene Descartes.” We don’t know why the lightning bolt would do this. I think, perhaps, it is best we do not know. If the pantheon of the Olden Faith wanted us to understand the inscrutable ways of lightning bolts, they would have made us capable of speaking thunder.

Interestingly, months following the lightning strike, Michael grew a second, more attractive, more intelligent head. As Cecil says, we don’t know if this new head “is a result of the previously reported lightning strike, or just another odd coincidence in the kid’s odd life.” As an independent blogger—as opposed to a radio journalist employed by the unearthly station management—I’m allowed a bit more leeway in my reports. Not held to the same standards as Cecil, I’m free to speculate, to guess how Michael came to have two heads, what those two heads mean, and, most importantly, if any of us are at risk of sprouting another head. . . if we haven’t already.

Let’s take a moment to consider how the lightning bolt’s “cure” affected Michael emotionally. One day, he’s a seriously bad quarterback (I mean, really bad, like Desert Bluffs bad), and the next he’s got super-human strength that the town hopes will lead the Scorpions to a winning season. Post-lighting bolt Michael may be the town’s only shot at avoiding the “government-administered pestilence that follows a losing season record.” Suddenly, he’s a fairly popular guy whose name is frequently dropped on the community radio show. After the lightning strike, his mother may have even ranked him higher “on the public ‘Which Of My Children I Like Best’ board outside her house.”

There’s a new Michael and Night Vale loves him.

Of course, the old Michael still exists. He’s still inside Michael. Nothing’s changed for Michael internally. He’s the same person he was before the lightning bolt’s vicious and unprovoked attack. His body is different and he has the intellect of a French Enlightenment philosopher with a concussion, but his self—the he who he is when he’s alone in a room with only himself and his heartbeat—carries on. There’s a continuous Michael spanning life before and life after the lightning bolt. Yet, everyone acts as if there’s a completely new Michael sprung out of nowhere, replacing the old Michael who is dead and gone. The town smiles favorably upon a different Michael, a better Michael, a Michael who by comparison makes the old Michael look like a disappointment.

To deal with the incongruity between the New Michael the town loves and the Old Michael who never left Michael, Michael grew another head, a repository for the New Michael. (It’s not a coincidence that Michael’s new head is smarter, more attractive, and better loved by his mother.)

Michael’s found a physical way of resolving the identity crisis faced by many disabled people (especially children) when a world constantly holds them up in comparison to the able-bodied person they could be if they just tried hard enough. It’s like a really ableist Old Spice commercial.

“Hello, cripples. Look at yourself, now back to me, now back at yourself, now back to me. Sadly, you aren’t me, but if you stopped eating gluten and switched to goji juice, you could be like me.”

Or it’s like if W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness had a baby with ableism and futurity.

W.E.B. Du Bois, you know, the author and civil rights activist, wrote of double consciousness as the “peculiar sensation” black Americans felt straddling the twin identities of black and American, reconciling their self-image with how they were perceived in a white supremacist culture. The term has been the foundation for a lot of profound work in ethnic, feminist, and post-colonial studies.

As a white person, I would never ever ever ever ever ever ever say that disabled people experience double consciousness ~just like black people~ because that erases the particularities of anti-black racism that Du Bois obvs crafted into the definition of double consciousness. But, on the other hand, I’m not gonna be all like, “Hey, guys, guess what? I came up with this totally new idea about ableism and how we perceive ourselves versus how society wishes we were. Totally original idea I came up with all by myself!” and not give intellectual credit where credit is due, because that would be plagiarism and my people have stolen enough stuff from black people already. I mean, who am I? The Apache Tracker of black philosophical thought?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, a long time ago, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote something that has enabled me to conceptualize how disabled people relate to time. We are who we are at the present moment (in all our disabled glory), but constantly reminded of the non-disabled person who we could/should be in the future.

Michael Sandero comes at this experience from a different angle, from the position of someone who has been “cured,” who has achieved the able-bodied self desired by society. As I said earlier, he’s still the same Michael who had CP, so this tacit rejection of Old Michael by the privileging of New Michael is deeply hurtful. In a way, Michael turns literal W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness by growing another head, a second consciousness in order to manage the dual identities thrust upon him.

This hurt Michael feels interestingly enough runs contrary to one of the founding principles of Descartes’ philosophy: the mind-body split. Cartesian thinking would have you know that the mind (or soul) and body are separate things united by God. The self and the body are different, so Michael really shouldn’t feel so rejected when citizens of Night Vale express a preference for his new body. They’re talking smack about your old body, not your eternal soul.

That seems to be the logic most curebies and well-meaning ableists ascribe to. I’ve observed conversations with able-bodied people about this, and many seem surprised that anyone would take constant assaults on the state of their body as a personal slight.

“I just want to stomp out [insert impairment], not you!”

“But I have [insert impairment]. [insert impairment] is within me. I am permeated by [insert impairment]. You can’t get rid of [insert impairment], without getting rid of me. It goes, I go. We’re a package deal.”

From the outside, it’s easy to separate to a person from their disability, to rend soul from body. But phenomenologically—that is, how we feel as we go about life—having a disability—having a body—is a huge part of our lives. We can’t sever body from self, so we create two selves. Just like Michael Sandero.

The creation of a separate self (or growth of a new head) based on how other people think you should be may seem like an act of surrender to external forces, but I think that all depends on how we relate to our separate selves. If we believe that within us is an able-bodied person waiting to emerge like a butterfly and we, our true selves, just have to be chipped away for them to break free. . . then internalized ableism controls our perception of our dual selves. On the other hand, we could also understand our other able-bodied self as a fabrication of society, a convenient fiction that places us into the socially-acceptable category of able-bodied at some point in the distant future. When we acknowledge that the us society wants is not us and never will be us, we come closer to our true selves.

I close this segment on a happy note: Michael Sandero has decided to undergo surgery to remove his new head, effectively rejecting the able-boded Michael the world prefers. In a blazing act of resistance, Michael destroys that which Night Vale holds so dear as he reasserts his true self as—

Hold on, blog intern Ian is handing me a note.

Oh, no.

This is not good. This is not good at all.

Dear listeners, Michael Sandero’s surgery has not gone according to plan—at least not according to his plan. As Cecil reveals in the latest episode, “Dana,” Michael’s mother, Flora Sandero, “had her son’s original head removed instead as she liked the new head much better.”

Having spent the last two-thousand-or-so words explaining how Michael’s original head represents continuity from disabled Michael to hyperable Michael, and how it could also more broadly represent disabled self-identity, I don’t have to tell you how tragic it is for the Most Honored and Ancient Disability Lodge of Night Vale (and disabled people, in general) that Michael’s original head is now gone.

The Night Vale Scorpions may still have its quarterback, but disability acceptance has lost a mascot.

I cannot wrap my mind around. . . What kind of parent would do this? What kind of surgeon would do this? What kind of town would do this? (I thought the answer to that last question was Desert Bluffs, but apparently I was wrong. So, so very wrong.)

If we can learn anything from this tragedy it is the importance of vigilance. No matter how secure we may feel in our proud disabled identities, no matter how many merit badges we may earn for the Most Honored and Ancient Disability Lodge of Night Vale, no matter how adamantly we insist society is at fault and not us, we remain vulnerable to the attacks of an ableist society that seeks to rob us our right to self-definition and self-respect.

In other words. . .

The able-bodied are coming to decapitate us. Trust no one. Lock your doors. Hug yourself tightly and do not let go.


Good night, Internet. Good night.

5 Responses to “The Two-Headed Quarterback: Disabled Identity in Night Vale”

  1. September 8, 2013 at 3:22 am

    That’s a really interesting POV, and sadly the kind of thing that happens when creators don’t think through the full implications of what they’ve created.

    I’m not familiar with the podcast, but it does seem quite light-hearted with a lot going on, from your description, but they still probably should have given more thought to how the character would be perceived. It sounds like the writers approached the story as a pretty common ‘ordinary guy gets extraordinary abilities’ trope (as in Spiderman, the Incredible Shrinking Man, the 50ft woman etc.) but if the writers chose to make the character disabled, they’ve got to think through the implications.

    Intelligent and provocative read, as with everything I’ve read here.

  2. 4 Heartbroken
    October 5, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Thank you. I noticed the strangeness of the QB, then searched and found you. I’m now heartbroken.

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Space Crip

People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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