Will success spoil David Freeman?

Not bloody likely

JOHN HOFSESS February 1 1974

Will success spoil David Freeman?

Not bloody likely

JOHN HOFSESS February 1 1974

Will success spoil David Freeman?

Not bloody likely


Perhaps because I grew up with the postwar baby boom— an unremarkable generation apart from its bullying numbers, but one with a terrific press agent — I’m more accus-

tomed to downhill than uphill stories. Jim Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Duane Allmann, Jim Morrison, to name a few. When the social landscape created by one’s peers is nothing but a series of careless accidents, suicides, breakdowns and split-ups; when the dominant clothing style makes everyone look like limp, raggedy-Ann dolls with some of the stuffing gone out; when the most persuasive and fashionable movies, books and plays keep telling you, over and over, that the apocalypse is near and there is nothing to live for except cheap thrills, well, it seeps into one’s bones and saps one’s strength. Still, no matter how popular despair became, I have always taken it as axiomatic that only those who keep their chins up have a chance of seeing straight.

Heroism fascinates me, especially the kind that usually goes unnoticed: the daily struggle of resilient people to gain some mastery over their destiny, to live with self-respect. It’s an inch-by-inch process. No single act may seem “heroic” but the outcome is far removed from the common fate. Why? How does it come about?

The common fate of a crippled person, for example, is a small government pension and a monotonous, constricted life. But not for David Freeman.

Though impaired by cerebral palsy since birth, Freeman has gained international recognition in the past three years as one of Canada’s finest playwrights. You won’t find the author of Creeps, Battering Ram, You’re Going To Be Alright, Jamie-boy and other plays, screenplays and works-in-progress being toasted and interviewed on radio and television talk shows. In fact, because he

is not generally judged as “presentable” by television’s standards (his speech is strained and slow, his movements spastic, the effort to speak causes him to drool uncontrollably), you may have heard little about him if that medium, so preoccupied with antiseptic niceties, is your chief source of information. Freeman was born a man least likely — to do anything. Yet he has gone further than most people no matter what their wealth or wholeness of limb. His sovereign gift: the rage to live.

“When I was bom, the doctor predicted I wouldn’t last the night. When I lasted the night, he predicted I wouldn’t last the week. When the week was over, I wouldn’t last the month. After a year, the doctor realized a CP could be damn stubborn.”

It was January 7,1945. The Freemans, a poor Toronto family, were having their third child. Their elder son was bom mentally retarded and died at the age of 7. A daughter, Gloria, survived. Their second son, David, (their last child) was born a CP — afflicted with cerebral palsy. Something went wrong at the moment of birth. A blockage of oxygen to the brain, impairing the infant’s motor functions. Just that, a stroke of devastating bad luck, and a human being who might otherwise be handsome, graceful, or athletically swift, is fixed for life as a clumsy spastic. In Canada, it happens in about two cases out of every 1,000 live births. This was David Freeman’s introduction to an indifferent universe of chance.

The first thing a CP learns is to know his place and stay in it, somewhere below “niggers” and “queers” in the dungeon of social pariahs. “I want to be a writer,” Freeman told a teacher at the Sunny View School for the handicapped (which he attended from age seven to 17). “That’s nice, David,” came the sweetly condescending reply, “but

really, dear, wouldn’t it be more practical for you to run a newspaper stand? Bearing in mind your disability ...”

Freeman learned to swear young. And often.

Perhaps if he had spent more of his early life passively watching television (sitting like a lumpen mass of flesh in a chair, munching sweets and getting fat) instead of reading (fiction, history, psychology, anything he could exercise his mind with), he might have accepted his lot as a cripple, for television offers so few examples of spunky character, and offers so little reason for living. “Ideas, ideas, ideas!” he wrote in a diary, describing a moment when he was 15. “But only spastic hands with which to write them. Spastic hands to represent my thoughts in meaningless, retarded scrawls and scribbles that only I can understand and even then, with difficulty. Watch television. Yes ma’am. Sure thing, ma’am. What the hell do you think I am?”

Puberty is particularly cruel to the physically handicapped. It drives them deep into fantasy, sometimes so deep they never get out. What’s the use of all that sexual desire when ho one wants to touch you? It only makes one feel more ugly, alone and estranged. And when, moreover, those sexual urges are mixed up with pride, when one questions those who say they love you, when self-hatred has ruined all chance of your believing in some uncomplicated sentiment, when you constantly demand proof that it is love, not pity, that motivates them, then practically every relationship is a battleground for neurosis. The guilt and gaucherie of normal adolescence is magnified still further in the disabled and grotesque.

“CP girls get together with CP boys only as last resort,” says Freeman. “It’s a

fact of life that

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nobody grows up thinking they will marry a physically disabled person. All the boys want Marilyn Monroe and all the girls want Tony Curtis but no one wants the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“There were certain things about me my dad had trouble accepting; for that matter, so did I. One was my relationship with girls and the possibility I might never marry. He greatly exaggerated any involvement I ever had with a girl, and, in his mind, I was a four-star swinger. I did little to discourage this fantasy, mostly because I was trying so hard to believe it myself. But I already knew, from painful experience, that a cerebral palsy victim had to be extra careful around members of the opposite sex. A word, a look, a touch or gesture taken the wrong way could land a CP in hot water.”

In one of his screen plays, titled Out There, unpublished and unperformed, Freeman conjured up a world “60 years after World War III” in which everyone was some kind of freak, some with wings, some with webbed feet, some with speech defects or mental retardation. The hero’s name is Foamy, an epileptic, a young man who refuses to perform The Ritual (an act of intercourse in public view, which makes one, in this particular society, a model citizen, accepted for life by the community) and who instead murders the Grand Duke, the source of all authority and tradition in the group. It requires no elaboration to perceive the function of such writing to Freeman. He was getting his own back, at a time in his life when the external world did little other than humiliate him. Words were his new muscles, his limbs; winged words, words that could walk and run, mock and lash. Yes! said his will, David Freeman will indeed be heard from.

It was here, in the pages of Maclean’s, in 1964, that Freeman got his first break as a writer:

“I am 19 years old. I have wanted to be a writer since I was about nine or 10, and now, since society has difficulty in accepting me as a normal human being, this profession seems to be the only one open to me . . . When I first began to write with a view to being a professional, I typed an average of two pages a day with one finger. Now, still typing with one finger, I average four pages a day. I won’t say this isn’t difficult at times ... but it sure beats sanding woodblocks.”

His article, The World Of Can’t, described the schools and workshops of the disabled from a new point of view. Their point of view. It angered a lot of people. One official wrote a letter to the editor saying, “Mr. Freeman ought to write for Grove Press. His talent for cheap sensationalism is endless.” Another told him privately that he was a

paranoid who needed psychiatric help urgently. Freeman was a new phenomenon to social workers of the period; a plucky upstart who told the truth, told them to stick their pity and their annual Christmas parties, and demanded career opportunities that befitted him.

A CBC television producer invited him to adapt his article as a television play. Freeman called it The Creeps. The first draft was tame but still too unpleasant for television.

“The producer wanted a nice, handsome boy in a wheelchair and a Marcus Welby script, or, in those days, a Ben Casey script, which came to the same thing. I told him to screw himself.”

If the outside world was often cold and impatient, his home environment was frequently too warm and doting.

“Communication between my parents became less and less,” he once wrote, “resulting in my father trying to leave two or three times. As a consequence, he

turned all his love and affection toward Gloria and myself. Although he always told us we were free to come and go as we pleased — as, indeed, we were — I found his love stifling. It frightened me to hear him tell how he needed us and how his world would end if we should ever leave him. I was approaching one of the key problems of cerebral palsy victims: his parents.”

Unable to leave home simply because he wanted to (“How will you look after yourself?” his mother asked, and he would have to cave in, admitting that even boiling an egg could be dangerous to one with so little muscular control) he invented a more noble reason, one that his parents couldn’t deeply or long resist: he would go to university, and just to make sure he gained the psychological distance required, he chose McMaster, in Hamilton. He was 21. Five years later, he graduated in political science.

The law of David Freeman’s life has been: grow or die. Self-respect always has to be found in uncharted territory;, there’s no ready-made map. When he sold his first story he wrote in his journal, “I have sold a story and there will

be other stories. I will invade their moral, square, little world and become a normal independent human being.” Now, out of university, with his aspirations pegged another step higher, he resumed work on his play Creeps, taking the advice of his director friend Bill Glassco to put into it all his rage and obscenities, the sting of truth.

Creeps was produced twice under Glassco’s direction, first at the Factory Lab Theatre, and then a long run at the Tarragon Theatre. It won the Chalmers Award as the best Canadian play in the 1971-72 season.

Last October, when Creeps opened in Washington, one critic called it, “the most moving play I’ve seen in years.” The Washington Post drama critic, Richard L. Coe, said of it: “It is a jolting play, forcing the fortunate to think about the souls inside bodies that are incomplete at birth. Playwright Freeman’s point is that inside they are wholly natural, normal, intelligent, aware, prideful and earthy — exactly like the rest of us. He makes his case with striking theatrical imagination and you will leave Creeps the richer for learning something you probably never knew before.” An off-Broadway production followed in December and was greeted with similarly high praise.

Like the family doctor who repeatedly predicted that Freeman wouldn’t survive the next week or month of infancy, there were those who expected a fast fade after Creeps. He had done it once, but could he do it again? What’s more, could he do it better? And true enough, so much of his life had gone into the play, he felt “used up” for a while.

His subsequent work, Battering Ram and You’re Going To Be Alright, Jamieboy, is broadened and sharpened by the insight (which he attributes to reading Tennessee Williams, his favorite playwright) that a handicap of some kind, a disfiguring touch, is common to almost all men and women. There are a lot of lost souls in worse shape than he.

In Jamie-boy (currently having its premiere engagement at the Tarragon in Toronto, under Glassco’s direction) Freeman depicts a squalid* brawling family of five whose nightly entertainment centres on the color television set. As in Creeps and Battering Ram, it is a hoarse, corrosive comedy, built upon a slim premise that works only because Freeman is a shrewd observer of human behavior and has great gifts of mimicry and mockery. He is not a poet, not a word-spinner, but he has his anger and he uses it well. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth but by God he’ll die with one. His success as one of Canada’s leading playwrights is now assured. David Freeman has been heard from. ■