Allan Mayer’s Weblog

One Door Away From Heaven

Posted on: March 10, 2009

 Andy Cope, author of the SpyDog series, once asked me the inevitable question: as authors are supposed to write about what they know, do I presume that you witnessed scenes like those in ‘Tasting the Wind?’

Of course the answer is Yes. I did work in a ‘Mental Handicap’ hospital in the 80s, people were treated like sub-humans (not wanting in any way to forget the good staff who struggled to maintain people’s dignity against the odds) and there was a culture of what disability guru Wolf Wolfensberger called ‘death-making.’

It is this experience, more than any other, which informs Tasting the Wind.

In the prologue a man dies having been tied to his hospital bed by a nurse and allowed to choke on his own vomit. The scene was based upon something which really happened, although I have changed the circumstances radically so that its origin cannot be traced back.

Now I would have expected everyone who read that to be appalled. I was surprised when I put it out for review that more than one reader followed the tack of ‘well it wasn’t really murder was it?’ (no, technically it wasn’t) but then went on to say that because I didn’t say what the hospital’s restraint procedures were they were probably doing something quite acceptable.

THEY TIED HIM TO THE BED AS A PUNISHMENT THEN LEFT HIM TO DIE AS THEY HAD SEX IN ANOTHER ROOM FOR GOODNESS SAKE.

Now I do have a different perspective here because I work with people who have severe learning disabilities on a daily basis, but it does seem sometimes that even in these supposedly enlightened times we still lower our standards of what is acceptable when dealing with a severely disabled person.

Imagine that it is one of your loved ones- your wife, child, mother. They’ve done something that a nurse finds unacceptable- like complained about the food. So the nurse ties them to the bed and goes off and leaves them to choke. Would you be talking about hospital procedures then?

The first Dean Koontz novel I ever read was One Door Away From Heaven. It featured a psychopathic killer who murdered disabled people, dressing his actions up as ‘utilitarian bioethics.’  What he did was shocking, but I was even more shocked by Koontz’s postscript, where he explained that utilitarian bioethics was actually being preached by some American academics.

One of the arguments put forward by this warped philosophy was that the existence of severely disabled people brought sorrow into the world. You get rid of those people, you reduce the amount of sorrow.

I don’t need to point out the similarities between this and the beliefs of a certain mid-twentieth century dictator.

Yesterday I atteneded the funeral of a twenty-four year old lady who had been born with severe learning and physical disabilities. And we celebrated her life. We didn’t talk about her in a pitying and patronising way, we remembered her as a person who had touched all of our lives. For the moment the sum of sorrow in the world is increased by her loss.

And I am left with the question: what does it mean to be truly human?

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