CCR 711: Junius Wilson and “Being” on Trial

“Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the High Court he had never reached? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers. But the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.” -Kafka, The Trial

“Unable to elicit responses that suggested the contrary, staff and doctors concluded from the available court documents that Wilson’s alleged criminal behavior was the result of deviant biology— of a bad nature. ” -Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner, Unspeakable

Kafka’s writing displays a tension between an individual trying to  make his way in the world who gets marked or entrapped simply for being alive. In the Metamorphosis, Gregor Samson wakes up into the nightmare of being transformed into a “gigantic vermin,” often depicted as a beetle. In The Trial, Josef K wakes up to find himself on trial for no reason–though the narrator insinuates that “someone must have been telling lies.” In The Castle, K finds summoned by The Castle to work in a town, when the same castle, through a near-comical network of bureaucratic dysfunction, executes him. From “The Country Doctor” to “The Penal Colony” and “Poseidon,” Kafka’s characters face alienation, guilt, and bureaucratic bulwarks against basic freedoms. Their being gets sentenced, suspect and shamed.

Moreover, his characters try to fight these existential sentences as best they can. But this is to no avail. As “The Messenger” makes clear:

“he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard. . . and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment.”

Reading Unspeakable, like many of the readings thus far in 711, Kafka has been close by. Here, Junius Wilson is “guilty,” much like Kafka’s characters, for his own mode of being. He is guilty by being black in the Jim Crow South. He is guilty by being deaf, muted and uncomprehensible to many–a break further exacerbated by the limitations his Raleigh signs later play compared with ASL. Later, he is made guilty of a crime he never commits, it seems, by Arthur Smith. And still later, under the sterilization law, his misdiagnosis of being “a danger to himself and others” leads to his castration.

And like Kafka’s protagonists, Wilson is often powerless against these bureaucratic powers, walled away and forced into silence. Most tragically, as Burch and Joyner writes toward the end of the book, “Junius Wilson’s story, while unique, is but one of many over the centuries. Attitudes and policies, as well as literal walls, keep us from knowing the details or recognizing the faces of these men, women, and children” (216). In other words, the same walls that keep people “warehoused,” hide them from public view, often intentionally.

And when we do hear the stories of such figures, they are often built by the tropes outlined by Dolmage: stories of pity and overcoming. Here, for example, many of the papers ran stories of overcoming regarding Wilson in the late 90s during the difficulties with Branch, like the following that Burch and Joyner quotes:  “Despite his confinement and the injustice perpetrated upon him . . . Mr. Wilson remained steadfastly optimistic and serene in his demeanor” (212).

While Wilson does indeed present something heroic, and I would argue that overcoming is part of his story, I think that Burch and Joyner’s larger story–as she frames Wilson, McNeil, and others within broader shifts in disability awareness and advocacy– picks up on the complexities and conflicts of these issues. Wilson did seem to make the most of times in his incarceration, as when he sold worms or rode his bike. He “passed” in this form and eked out some agency. His transition to the house also could be seen as a “victory.” He did “overcome” in many ways. But as André Branch might argue, such victories are Pyrrhic. They cannot give back his life, nor redress the misplaced paternalism that framed his care.

And despite the gains that litigations bring, Wilson gets shuffled from trial to trial, forming the center of debates that he little knows about nor controls. His body, despite being the focal point, is being moved by others, his motives at best interpreted in imperfect ways. “What is best for him” remains a haunting question–and its very asking is haunting too.

Into this conflict, however, I think Burch and Joyner presents a focus, quoting Roger Williams:

“’It’s not that this is a horrible thing that happened in the past, but that today deaf people are being just as isolated, and just as deprived in institutions around the country.’” The conclusion is “’not that we should castigate North Carolina for their horrendous behavior circa 1920,’” he believes, “’but that we need to go look at our systems today’” (213).

Taking up this potential task, amid this conflict, can feel much like Kafka’s messenger needing to overcome impossible odds to get the message of a dead man to dead ears. Efficacy is tough to find or justify in some ways. And practical issues, like funding and available documents, make the task even more difficult–as Burch alludes to. But the role of recovery work, taken in turn with present-day reform,  presents a tool and a promise, so that people like Wilson no longer “fall through the cracks,” born on trial, just for being alive.

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