How Do I Thank Someone For an Offensive Gift?

This all happened decades ago, and so has long been resolved. But I’m asking on behalf of my teenaged self, and those disabled teenagers and their parents living in the present.

I have cerebral palsy, which is a “from infancy” condition. I was also mainstreamed in school, and the only disabled kid in my local public school which had several hundred students.

Fast forward a dozen or more years. I’d since left that school and was attending high school in a different city.

My mother went back to my elementary school, once, to attend a town meeting, when one of the staff (a secretary from the principal’s office, I think, maybe?) goes up to her and presses a book into her hands and tells her it’s a present for me — because I made such an impression on her, and she thinks of me all the time (when I was actually a student there, she’d never said more than three words to me).

So Mother gives me the book, and, frankly, it grossed me out. It was a Christian/Inspirational autobiography by a woman with polio, all about how turning her life over to Jesus helped her overcome her depression and the tragedy of her affliction.

Not only had I never thought of my cerebral palsy as a tragic affliction, at the time, I was a budding Neo-Pagan witch. Mostly, though, it hurt — because it was obvious that this woman wasn’t remembering me, at all — she’d never taken the time to know me in the first place. For a dozen years, she’d been obsessing over her own fears of disability and soaking them in pity. And that book just proved it.

Still, my mother insisted I write this woman a “Thank you” letter, because it was a gift, and the woman meant well, and that’s the gracious thing to do.  I think I did write a boilerplate letter of less than 20 words.

So here’s my question: How do you (do you?) thank someone for good intentions when the result makes you feel like Hell?

– This Old Grudge Still Stinks

Dear Old Grudge,

As you know, this is often the way disablism rears its ugly head: in horrible, dehumanizing, demeaning Good Intentions. Rarely do we hear people saying outright hateful things (although sometimes they do of course); it’s often all about reducing us to our impairment. It’s all about how we — with our crippled bodies and our persistent insistence on existing — make other people FEEEEEEEEEEEEL. It’s nearly always about how they can HELP us — even when we don’t want to be helped. Or about how they think they would feel in our chairs.

So often I find myself complaining about disablism of this type and I hear: “Oh, she was trying to be nice,” or “when he opened the door you were trying to open yourself and hit you in the shins he was trying to help” or something similar. I think may other groups experience this well-meaning but awful dehumanization: when white people say how cute little black babies are or when someone whispers: “Asian women are SOoooOOO sexy and submissive.”

But I don’t think that, in these cases, the intention of the person matters. I mean, not as far as mitigating what they have said or done. And I think that your mother did you a disservice, even though I do understand she felt that You Write Thank You Notes.

The thing is, this woman gave you a flaming bag of poo.

So what do you do with a flaming bag of poo?

You give it back. You literally return the book with a thank-you note, of sorts.

Dear Ms. Lady I Don’t Even Remember,

Enclosed is the book you gave me. I am unable to accept books that reduce disabled people to objects of pity, so I am returning it. Thank you for thinking of me.

— That cripple girl you never said a word to

Now. This is proper. It is always proper to return completely inappropriate gifts. Would your mother have made you write a thank-you note to a teacher who gave you lingerie because you were his only female student? Would she have made you write a thank-you note to someone who sent you a list of Assisted Suicide places to go, should you ever wish to end the the endless torment that is clearly your life?

I hope not.

Those of us who stick up for ourselves and push back against the dehumanizing effects of racism, sexism, disablism, or ageism have to pay a price, of course. We are nearly always the one who is seen as causing the problem. And so we wind up having to deal with people’s feelings anyway.

But how are we to  change things if we always meekly write thank-you letters to our tormentors? So she would have huffed and whined about this to her friends. Perhaps some of them would have learned something. Perhaps even she would have.

I don’t think the matter is actually ‘resolved’ for you, by the way. You are writing me about something that happened decades ago, and you write with enormous passion about how you felt about it.

I think you have something to resolve with your mother, and perhaps showing her this letter might be a starting point for talking it through.

For what it’s worth, if your mother raised a girl decades ago who was mainstreamed into regular ed before the Americans with Disabilities Act and who also raised her to value her life and to not feel bad about having CP, I’m guessing she is a pretty damn good mom who not only fought for you but who understood who you were. She didn’t, for instance, argue with you about how the book wasn’t so bad or that you should be ‘grateful.’ I’m guessing she’d be willing and able to discuss this with you and to apologize to you — affirming how right you were to be angered by the book.

Because I am sure that if she stops and thinks, she will agree with me that when we ask our children to participate in their own oppression so as not to rock the boat, we are not doing them any favors. When we value teaching a girl how to be gracious over teaching her how to advocate for herself, we are making a mistake.

Every parent makes mistakes and this was one of your mom’s. I hope you two can finally resolve this in a way so that her part, at least, no longer rankles.

Good luck.

This letter originally ran in on September 15, 2016.

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