Without apology, I love Norman Rockwell.
Mr. Rockwell’s paintings engagingly capture moments, and tell truths about human experiences, emotions, politics, conflicts … social unrest. He was prolific and consistently masterful at wrestling story into two dimensions. I respect that.
The word story is sometimes used to mean “lie,” and that’s not how I’m using it here. The most powerful communication tool humans have are stories. Stories can tell lies, sure – but stories can tell truths. Stories are wired into the human DNA like almost nothing else. The human brain looks at a house and sees a face. The human brain relentlessly creates narratives to explain to itself its experiences.
In law school we were not taught rules cold, we were told stories into which the rules situated themselves – and it helped us remember and it helped us discern.
If I tell you res ipsa loquitur is a Latin term used in legal contexts to mean, “the thing speaks for itself,” that would be hard to remember – maybe even hard to understand. But when I tell you the story of Mrs. Gray who complained for years of stomach pain, later to find via x-ray that there was a hemostat in her gut … you can see that ‘yep, there’s a hemostat in your gut … pretty clear the only way it got there was a surgical team leaving it there and sewing you up.’ The thing speaks for itself. Res ipsa loquitur. The story, the image … now, you’ve got it. Gray v. Wright, 96 S.E. 2d (W. Va. 1957).
Rockwell’s artistic and storytelling mastery is often overlooked. The art world is not keen to bestow praise on artists, like Rockwell, who are accessible, portray the ordinary, use images idealized and nostalgic. Also, Rockwell was prolific – a bulk practitioner of sorts – and that is always looked upon with suspicion. ‘Well Maud, how good can they be if he churns ’em out faster ‘n you can make dinner?’ And Rockwell’s work was mass-produced on the Saturday Evening Post and Look magazine covers. I imagine Rockwell’s work lined the bottom of a good number of stylish bird cages in its day. Picasso never suffered such a slight.
In 2010, filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg pooled their private holdings of Norman Rockwell’s art, exhibiting their collections in, “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Lucas and Spielberg revealed in a short, introductory film to the collection that they each have drawn on Rockwell’s images extensively in their films.
Mr. Lucas described his film American Graffiti as a “direct descendant of Rockwell.” Mr. Spielberg’s World War II film, Empire of the Sun, borrowed heavily from Rockwell’s images, most notably in a scene in which Jim’s parents tuck him into bed on the night of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai … which is a filmed version of Rockwell’s painting, Freedom From Fear shown here.
Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis, drew incessantly on images from Rockwell paintings.
People who write off Rockwell’s work as trite and simple forget his deep and jarring commentary and chronicling of the American civil rights movement. His piece The Problem We All Live With was met with stunned disbelief when it was published in 1963, but the painting did its part to advance the national conversation about desegregation and civil rights for black Americans.
As I sit with disabled people as they attempt to dissemble their weaknesses, endeavor to conceal their vulnerability while simultaneously revealing it just by asking for help … I find myself thinking of Norman Rockwell’s paintings and wondering … how might he paint these stories?
The people I know through my work are interesting to me, and no less human than the hoity-toits I run across. They are ordinary and flawed … ashamed of themselves sometimes. I am moved by what they are up against.
Some years into this work, I became convinced that the process of pursuing Social Security disability benefits is so soul-letting… such a difficult and exhausting endeavor … taking many, many years, that I concluded the human beings in my office were not there on a whim, not there as a part of a complex con. With the rarest exception this was true – at least in my case load.
Claimants of disability benefits are consistently portrayed by a flippant and shallow press as cons, but they mostly are not. I am not given to giving up – on anything – but I have almost entirely given up on the press. They flit into the issue and out again on deadline so quickly they are unable to grasp the subtleties. And then, of course, there are the think tanks feeding talking points which make it frightfully easy for a journalist to do very little thinking at all on complex topics.
Even when there is a dearth of evidence to prove a client’s disability, I know the disability exists. I do not know that the evidence for proving the disability exists – but I know the disability exists.
Sometimes there is not evidence to prove what is true and real.
My rudimentary way of explaining this point: If I were to ask you, “what did you have for breakfast last Friday morning?” And, then when you tell me, I ask you to prove it. Go ahead – prove it.
Do you have witnesses to what you ate? Will I believe those witnesses? Do you have a photograph of empty dishes? How do you prove what was in an empty bowl that has been washed? How do you prove it was yours? How do you prove when the cereal was in the bowl ? How do I know that photograph is of last Friday’s breakfast? Prove it. How would you prove you ate nothing?
Proving what is true and real is astonishingly difficult.
I am not the best lawyer; I cannot ’20 C.F.R. 96 dash 9 p’ with even the worst of ’em. Whenever lawyers and judges talk like that, it quickly turns into Charlie Brown’s teacher in my head. For me the rules are meaningless unless situated in the story.
So I think about Norman Rockwell and his paintings … his enviable skill at encapsulating an entire narrative in a snapshot. That seems to me a bit of what is required to do this work well.
But Rockwell’s subjects – if you look, each embodies a single, cohesive piece of the story. In The Problem We All Live With – the six-year old girl, Ruby Bridges, embodies courage and vulnerability. She is small and alone heading off to the whites only school where she will not, presumably, have federal marshals – the protective entity in the painting – shadowing her once in the building. The smashed tomato and “nigger” scrawled on the wall graphically show racism and violence towards blacks. It’s all there in the frame. But each entity plays a singular narrative role.
In a disability case, the disabled person, is often as much at thwarting the lable of “disabled” as she is trying to prove it. That’s not a single narrative, it is two frustratingly divergent narratives embodied in one entity. And she’s a real person, not an actor – not someone I can affix to canvas.
So … my office is two short, straight blocks from a light rail stop. A client was coming to my office for our first meeting, and was delivered to the rail platform on time. She called me from there for further directions. I gave her the street name on which she was to walk – just the two short, straight blocks to my office. She verified that she was looking at the street sign while we were on the phone. I expected her within 5 minutes or so, but after 10 or 12, I called her cell phone to see if she was lost. She answered the phone and I learned that she was not on foot – she had gotten on a bus. I asked her if she’d changed her mind about coming to see me, and she said, “no, I couldn’t walk up the hill, so I took the bus.” The bus was heading in the opposite direction from my office.
Mr. Rockwell – any ideas? Any ideas how I might get this piece of truth into evidence?
The incident clearly shows a difficulty with simple decision-making, an inability to follow simple one or two-step instructions. You can well-imagine a person with these types of deficits having enormous difficulties in the workplace, not making it past the two-week probationary period, and giving management and customers absolute fits.
These facts are at the base of a disability case, but they are difficult to get into evidence. I cannot testify to them myself, and people are so embarrassed by these events, they are disinclined to speak of them.
The client couldn’t tell me which direction the bus was headed, so I asked her to put the bus driver on the phone. The bus driver told me where they were, and I asked him to drop my client off at a nearby 7-11 on his route where she would be safe. He handed the phone back to her, and I explained that the driver would let her out at a 7-11 and she was to wait for me there.
I jumped in my car, drove a mile to collect my client so we could prepare for her hearing.
In our meeting, my client, while a little bit embarrassed about the mishap, did not recognize its relevance. To her, the most relevant information about her disability was that she has ankle pain and asthma, and couldn’t take that hill. To her, that was the crux of the problem. I, of course, was less interested in the ankle pain and the asthma – because there are at least a katrillion jobs you can do when your only problems are ankle pain and asthma–I am interested in her cognitive deficits.
Lacking basic cognitive function seriously inhibits your ability to work in a competitive workplace. The ankle pain and asthma don’t help either, but they’re minor factors in the scheme of things.
So then … I have in my care a vulnerable person … the type of person who might get on a bus say, going off in a direction – any direction – hoping it will deliver her to a building gaining distance in the rearview mirror. She will miss doctors visits, forget appointment times, get lost on busses, and if she gets to her doctor, she will talk to the doctor about that annoying ankle. And those records will be the bulk of what I have to tell this truth.
I dream of having an array of oil paints – burnt umber, titanium white, cerulean blue – and the talents of Mr. Rockwell – with which to tell these truths.
But all I have are these paltry medical records … and Tums.