“Why do you like her so much?” My grandmother Ruth and I were five flights up in my grandparents’ apartment in Yonkers, New York overlooking the Bronx River Parkway. Given that both my parents hailed from New York City, every summer my family and I would take a trip from Urbana, Illinois to visit. My grandmother turned to me, her face lit up. “Meg, Joan is not just a comedienne….she’s so much more.” The subject had come up when Grandma Ruth happily read an article about Joan Rivers’ new late night Talk Show coming that October. “You are too young still to hear it but I loved her the most in her album “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most.” You should have heard how she mocked the Royal family! She makes fun of everyone, including herself.” She turned to look straight in my direction. “The best part of Joan is that she doesn’t care what people think about her.”
“Let’s call the piece, the ‘Awesome Powers of Ethan Z!”, she said. I was on the phone with the phenomenally talented editor of Scholastic’s wonderful Storyworks magazine, and was thrilled they were profiling our nine-year-old son Ethan. When we heard the news that Scholastic was planning to do a story, I was over the moon. To make it all the sweeter, the piece would be written by the editor herself, an accomplished author in her own right.One of her books, which focused on bullying, won a Golden Kite honor for fiction and was an Oprah book club pick.
As I listened, I thought it was a good thing we were on the phone because I could feel my smile disappear. Although I knew that it was hard for anyone to imagine living an ordinary life having only one finger on each hand, the proposed title made me struggle. I didn’t think we were awesome or should be construed as having special powers. To me, we were simply normal and I wanted to be thought of that way.
“Wow, you do that so well. You are so incredible……what a great job you do typing!” I looked up from my iPad and cringed. The woman had been sitting on the commuter train when I hopped on and smiled as I sat down next to her. I typically don’t give a thought to the person I am seated next to, but this particular passenger had already offered to take my tickets out of my purse for me when I initially sat down, so this one I noticed. It’s taken a lot of effort, but in the past few years I have learned to swallow my pride and appreciate these offerings as simple acts of goodwill. These days, rather than resenting the help, I am grateful there are still strangers out there who feel compelled to do acts of kindness for others.
Even so, I am still taken aback when strangers are simply amazed at whatever I might be doing on a particular day. Later that evening, I couldn’t help but still feel slightly annoyed. I found myself muttering aloud. “Why can’t people just accept the fact that just because I look different doesn’t mean that my accomplishments are so out of this world? I was just born this way.” I then decided to poll the DHIFI audience, asking what others thought the right response should be in this context? The responses were interesting and I could tell I was not alone based on the feedback of others who have their own version of a physical difference. One woman, Holly, responded with, “They think we’re fantastic and amazing etc. I usually just shrug my shoulders and say thank you. I get frustrated at the ‘admiration’ for just doing my thing (I type faster than many two handed people). We’re not at home hiding and I guess they think that’s cool and want to congratulate us.” Another, named Rachel, added, “I get they are being nice but telling me it’s amazing how I brush my teeth or drive is always bizarre to me. I don’t compliment them for being able to read with their contacts.” Some others who are the parents of children with a physical difference came up with a more natural feeling of understanding. One Mom named Jennifer stated, “I take huge pride in every new thing she accomplishes and then it becomes old hat. Of course she can do X,Y,Z. But to a stranger that newness would be fresh….. I don’t know what the answer is. I guess I prefer they admire her over gawking or worse.” Finally, still others suggested simply saying thank you and then offering a compliment about the other person.
The following day, the irony did not escape me that although a stranger would take one look at me and think otherwise, my real challenge that day was to figure out how to once again swallow my pride in this context. If I just thanked the person for their offered “compliment” then that person would continue to think that what I am accomplishing is so incredible…..the opposite of my reality. I struggled at the mere thought of such a reaction and the message it would send.
My memories of my grandmother’s affection for Joan came flooding back. And I thought of why Ruth admired Joan so much. As I read the outpouring of shocked and saddened reactions to the news, many had the same point to make, that she never worried what people thought.
The comedic actress Patty Duke, a contemporary of Joan’s, tweeted, “Joan Rivers will always be a pioneer. She paved the way for a lot of comedians. I’m very sad that she is gone.” Most interesting to me, however, were the comments about what Joan Rivers was able to accomplish in the beginning, back in the days when saying what you thought as a woman was an outlandish, forbidden thing to do. For a woman to freely joking about whatever popped into her mind was just taboo. As Molly Mulshine wrote in a recent New York Observer article, “[Joan’s] self-deprecating jokes had not only make people laugh, but also needed to coax the audience into accepting a girl who told jokes.” As Mulshine described, “The scene wasn’t just male-dominated when Rivers began her career. At that point, it was simply male. Her first review in Variety goes out of its way to note that her material was, ‘evidently her own, as she has a wonderful command of it,’ as if women were not only unlikely to write their own jokes, but also would have trouble memorializing someone else’s in a convincing way.” In Jeremy Egner’s New York Times piece, “Joan Rivers Overcame the ‘Handicap’ of a Woman Comic,” written the day she died, he described the cultural odds that Joan was faced with in the 1960’s, noting that his own paper had a review that did not exactly age well: “Joan Rivers, a new comedienne of ripening promise, who opened at midweek for a two-week run at the Bitter-End, is an unusually bright girl who is overcoming the handicap of a woman comic, looks pretty and blonde and yet manages to make people laugh.”
In the years that followed many other women were able to take the stage and emulate her success. When one admiring female comic praised her recently as one of the “greatest female comics,” Joan gently corrected her (jokingly) to say one of the “greatest comics” because being female was never the point. Joan plugged away at her craft, staying on top even at age 81, to the point that her choice of scandalous and taboo topics no longer separated her from her male peers. Instead, they became the norm for her and those female comics that followed in her footsteps.
Now, thinking back to the woman on the train’s amazed reaction to my ability to type on my laptop with only one finger, just like when I am being offered unneeded help, I need to let go of feeling so resentful on this point too. Joan showed us all that the key to success was not to take anything too seriously. Therefore, I need to make sure that her legacy applies even more broadly than just the funny female crowd. So, the next time someone on the train is amazed by me, I’ll simply just chuckle to myself and offer a warm smile and a sincere “Thanks.” And then, perhaps, we will move on and talk about something else.