I think I just made up a word there, but last Sunday's Washington Post did a rare in-depth feature story on Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and because of his Iraqi-war coverage through the character of B.D., disability is present in his work.
While Trudeau's certainly covered war in his cartoon strip before, using a major character like B.D. to show the experience of a National Guardsman who is shipped to Iraq, loses a leg to a bomb and comes home to deal with both adjustment to life as an amputee and post traumatic stress creates a new level of comic-reading awareness to the perils of war. And the experiences of permanent disability.
Approaching his cartooning like a journalist, Trudeau has learned much from injured veterans and the Post article begins by explaining how much more crip savvy Trudeau is than reporter Gene Weingarten who is writing about him:
It's hard to know what to say to a grievously injured person, and it's easy to be wrong . You could do what I did, for example. Scrounging for the positive, I cheerfully informed a young man who had lost both legs and his left forearm that at least he's lucky he's a righty. Then he wordlessly showed me his right hand, which is missing fingertips and has limited motion -- an articulated claw. That shut things right up, for both of us, and it would have stayed that way, except the cartoonist showed up.
Garry Trudeau, the creator of "Doonesbury," hunkered right down in front of the soldier, eye to eye, introduced himself and proceeded to ignore every single diplomatic nicety.
"So, when were you hit?" he asked.
Trudeau, who successfully dodged the Vietnam draft with a medical dispensation, proves to have some psychological understanding of injured vets as he explores B.D.'s PTSD and attempts to fit in again with his cartoon family. This understanding comes from having met and really listened to this new generation of injured soldiers:
So when the new invitation came from the Pentagon -- essentially, carte blanche to visit injured vets -- the investigative cartoonist leapt at it, not sure what he would find.
The very first person he spoke to was a 27-year-old MP named Danielle Green. She had been a college basketball star, a left-handed point guard at Notre Dame. Green had just lost that hand in Iraq. She'd been on the roof of a police station, behind sandbags, trying to defend it from enemy fire, when she took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade.
"This was an elite athlete, and she'd lost her whole professional identity," Trudeau said, "but that's not what she wanted to talk about. What she wanted to talk about was how her buddies carried her down, put her on the hood of a Humvee, where they stopped the bleeding, then went back up to the roof, against orders, and found her hand buried under sandbags. They took off her wedding ring and gave it to her. She's telling me this with a million-dollar smile. This was not about bitterness or loss. It was about gratitude."
Interestingly, Trudeau's wife, former morning news anchor Jane Pauley, links her husband's recent coverage of B.D.'s mental illness to her own public struggle with bi-polar disorder:
The truth and hope Trudeau's fictional characters present is part of what the best of art can offer, and though I don't know the particular experience of losing a limb myself, he does seem to present the some truths about disability. And he shows them with a sort of humor that rings true as well.
Pauley thinks the story of B.D. has been something special, the best work Trudeau has ever done. And then she says:
"I don't think he's consciously aware that it has anything to do with me."
With . . . her?
Pauley smiles. "Garry's mind is very compartmentalized. The department doing the strip in his brain is not directly connected to the husband part, but . . ."
Pauley takes a forkful of scrambled eggs.
". . . it defies credulity that on some level it is not present in his work. What is he writing about, really? He's writing about mental illness, and how it's possible to find a way out of it, with help. It's very hopeful."