Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown -- three needs of a human being

Director: Jim Sheridan, 1989.

What would it be like to be in a room with your family, totally aware of what's going on, and yet not be able to communicate with them? Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor, experienced this and described in his book, which was turned into the film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He had been healthy for most of his life until a car crash left him with "Locked-In Syndrome." But what if you had been unable to communicate from birth? That's Christy Brown's true story in this film.

Born in Dublin to a large poor, working-class, Catholic family in the early part of the 20th century, Christy Brown suffered from cerebral palsy and could not speak or even move his body. The only thing he could control was his left foot. More than disabled, he was considered nothing more than an animal. He lived his early years lying on the floor in the living room watching his parents and many siblings go about their lives while he was ignored, like a piece of furniture.

Sheridan could have milked this story for its sentimentality. But he refrains from doing so. Instead, he lets Daniel Day-Lewis lose himself in the main role as the adult Brown. He plays the man as a cantankerous yet brilliant artist who does not want sympathy. Rather, he wants to be treated as a person, a real human being. Lewis is so good in this role it seems he really has cerebral palsy, and he worthily won the Oscar for best actor, his first. (He was nominated for his outstanding role in Gangs of New York, but won his second Oscar for another brilliant performance as the oilman in There Will be Blood.) But the young Brown, played by Hugh O'Connor, is completely believable, too. He even looks like a young Day-Lewis. Then there is Brenda Flicker, giving an Oscar-winning performance as Christy's mother.

Mrs. Brown is the only person who really believes in Christy. Like mothers the world over, she stands by her son and supports him when no one else does. When Christy picks up a piece of chalk in his left foot and writes a single word on the floor, all their lives change irreversibly. No longer is Christy the mongrel in the corner. Now he is a person with intelligence; a person who cannot easily make himself known, but a person nonetheless.

As he grows, his control of his left foot improves, allowing him to produce beautiful art work. But his speech is still limited, sounding like gutteral grunts. When Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw) offers free treatment in a new clinic, he reluctantly agrees to participate. This begins the friendship between the two that enables him to learn to talk in clearer and understandable ways and shows her the beauty of the art he produces.

Christy Brown was no saint, and neither were his parents. But they were people in a tough situation and trying to make the best of it. The normality and banality of the Brown family serves to underscore the abnormality and disability of Christy.

In My Left Foot, and through Christy Brown in particular, we see underscored the three things people the everywhere desire: to express themselves to others, to express their own creativity, and to express and share love, especially genuine love in the intimacy of marriage.

Fundamental to humanity is the first need. We want to be able to express ourselves to those around us, especially our family. Our ability to communicate in words lifts us above the animals. We can think and craft sentences, theses, even books. When we cannot express ourselves, we feel trapped, imprisoned, helpless. This is how Christy felt until he was freed with a piece of chalk and his left foot.

Once we can communicate with others, a deeper need is to be able to express our unique creativity. We have all been made in the image of our creative creator (Gen. 1:26). Part of this image is the ability to create. Art is one form. Christy had that gift. For years he must have felt a yearning to express himself through this artistic outlet, yet was unable to do so. Once he could communicate he was given the tools necessary to paint: brushes, canvas, paints, etc. And he made contributions to the world that others, with the use of all their limbs, could not match. He even painstakingly wrote his own autobiography, typing it a letter at a time with the toes of his left foot, offering hope to many!

Perhaps the deepest need of the human heart is to express and share love. Christy was no exception. How hard it must have been for him as a child to have to listen to people around him mocking him, all the while simply wanting love, particularly from his father. Yet his father never told him he loved him. In one scene where Mr. Brown (Ray McAnally) takes over building a room for Christy in the small back yard, Christy's mom tells him, "Well, Christy, that's the nearest he'll ever come to saying I love you." Christy comes to experience parental love and shows love back to his mom by giving her what she does not have: money. He gets to receive and share love within his family.

But this is not enough. Most of us want something deeper, the intimacy of love between a man and a woman. God made mankind in his image as man and woman, and joined them together in marital union (Gen. 2:21-25). As part of God's original intention, Christy wanted this. His love for Dr. Cole was misunderstood and unrequited. Often when this need is foiled or blocked, we can fall into depression, even despair. This happens to Christy, but eventually he finds a woman who will love him as wife.

My Left Foot is a very human story, showing the grittiness of life in poverty and the struggles of life with disability. More than this, though, it reminds us that even the disabled are human beings. We cannot and should not look on them as anything less than a person bearing the image of God.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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