By Mark E. Smith
When a well-known disability figure died a while back of “cardiac arrest,” it seemed a shock to many outside of his circle. After all, he seemed the portrait of health and an inspiration to many. However, upon his sudden death, most who knew him on a more personal level understood that cocaine and methamphetamine ultimately contributed to – or caused in the immediate – his death, that his passing wasn’t truly a surprise or a mystery. See, his foremost coping mechanism for some 30 years was hardcore drugs – and a lot of us witnessed it first-hand at times. Yet, the headlines both in and out of the disability community never mentioned the lifetime of drug addiction or almost certain overdose. Rather, the headlines read, “Disabled Icon Passes Away…,” going to note the heroic, awe-inspiring nature of his life. It’s as if the three dimensions of his life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – were selectively erased by death, where only sainthood remained in print.
In death, just as within life, others projecting sainthood upon those of us with disabilities truly ties into stereotypes, where the general public sanitizes our lives to make themselves feel better. After all, disability can be painful for outsiders to witness, where they want to avoid its realities – and there’s no better way for a outsiders to avoid the realities of disability than by convincing themselves that people with disabilities are doing fantastic, even when some aren’t.
Artist, Frida Kahlo, is arguable the best example of how the mainstream takes the depth of disability and human experience, and gentrifies it to an inspiring story fit for iconic status and the silver screen – even when it isn’t – simply to make all feel better.
Frida Kahlo, born in 1907, outside of Mexico City, is the most celebrated female painter of all time, with her work now fetching $10-million per painting. At the age of 6, Kahlo contracted polio, recovering with a limp. While studying pre-med at age 15, Kahlo was in a terrible bus accident, where a metal rod pierced through her abdominal region. Kahlo spent a year in bed, her body encapsulated in a cast – and it was at that point that she began to oil paint.
Kahlo’s painting were of self-portraits and still-life, primarily painted on tin, in a votive technique practiced by Mexican street artists. And, it was painting that brought her and renown muralist, Diego Rivera, together, married in 1929, with Rivera 20 years her senior.
At the time, Kahlo was mostly known as Rivera’s wife, with little recognition toward her artwork. Rivera, on the other hand, was an internationally known painter, political activist – and womanizer. And, Kahlo was loyal to Rivera till no end, following him wherever his career took him, sharing his political beliefs, and even forgiving his adulterous affairs, right down to the one with her own sister. Meanwhile, Kahlo underwent over 30 surgeries, and even had a lower leg amputated. Yet, through all of this, Kahlo painted 143 paintings, many depicting pain, and 55 were self-portraits, including reflections of her disability and chronic suffering. Kahlo wrote, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, formally reported as due to health complications. Internationally, not much was known about Kahlo till the 1970s, when Mexican-American painters discovered her work as inspiration, and in the early 1980s, the media latched on to the story of “Frida Kahlo, the heroic female painter who overcame so much to pursue her art despite disability and male oppression.” Magazine and newspaper articles were written, as were biographies. Then, in the 1990s, exhibitions were held, paintings sold to celebrities like Madonna for $1-million, and by the early 2000s, movies were made. Today, Kahlo is among the most revered painters of all time, where her paintings are now priced with Picasso’s, and countless merchandise – from screen-printed T-shirts to children’s books – portray her as among the greatest heroines, a saint in the minds of many.
However, where Kahlo’s public persona stops today isn’t where the real Frida Kahlo’s entirety stopped during her lifetime. Filtered from the popular articles, biographies, and children’s books is a three-dimensional Kahlo, one where far more human flaws flourished well beyond disability, where her now-described heroic life was anything but heroic.
By all accounts, Kahlo was obsessed with Diego Rivera, where despite his attempts to leave her, she used every means to keep him. Kahlo’s close friend, Dr. Leo Eloesser, stated that of the over 30 surgeries that Kahlo endured, many were unnecessary, merely ploys to retain Rivera through sympathy, where Rivera was actually astoundingly loyal when Kahlo seemed in need. Kahlo was also a lifelong alcoholic and drug addict, fueled with constant rage, attempting suicide several times. And, as a proclaimed communist, Kahlo supported and admired Stalin and his regime at the time when Stalin was killing millions (she was so enamored with Stalin that she painted “Stalin and I,” a self-portrait of herself and Stalin). What’s more, when Leo Trotsky, second in line to Stalin, was expelled from the Communist Party and deported from Russia, Diego Rivera provided him exile in the Kahlo family home, where Kahlo began an affair with Trotsky. Yet, she then turned upon Trotsky due to his opposition to Stalin, and upon Trotsky’s assassination, Kahlo publicly denounced her lover (who was just one of many of Kahlo’s affairs, including a bisexual affair with entertainer, Josephine Baker). Lastly, even Kahlo’s death in 1954 has been sanitized in popular culture, where it’s rarely mentioned that she committed suicide after years of being bedridden due to drug abuse.
Indeed, Frida Kahlo seems a tale of two people when we know the facts: A heroic overcomer of disability who created great art while in the shadows of a philandering husband, or a drug-addicted manipulator, whose inability to cope led to her suicide. Yet, it’s only the first portrayal – inspiring heroine – that people want to know. Why is that?
Again, because it makes them feel better, that’s why. As a culture, we want disabled heroes and heroines, and we’re willing to omit those character traits that don’t fit the mold – and in Khalo’s case, there were many. In the public process, however, of sanitizing disability experience, the entirety of the individual is removed. Much like many other great artists, Khalo was both a saint and a sinner, and just so happened to have a disability. Nevertheless, if we are to celebrate the disability, then the public dictates that there’s no room for the sinner on the page – just sainthood.
No, I don’t know how my acquaintance or Kahlo wished to be remembered, but I trust that they lived all parts of their lives – including the terrible – with some reason and purpose. And, the biggest tragedy in their lives may not have been their deaths, but the loss of valuable lessons that could have been learned from the troubled parts of their lives that most will never know – the selectively forgotten.