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Sherrill Bodine knows firsthand how the casual use of a word causes harm

Sherrill Bodine

Sherrill Bodine

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Updated: December 1, 2012 6:21AM

As an author I understand and respect the power of words. I know how words can both uplift and inspire or wound and destroy.

Recently, I was wounded when a well-known commentator called the President of the United States “a retard.”

This cruel, thoughtless word holds a particularly strong power over me because I am the daughter of a woman who was labeled “retarded” from birth.

When my mother, Gwendolyn Buckles, was born at home in 1924 or 1925 — the date has always been debated — she appeared to be an adorable, healthy baby.

It is vague at what exact moment our family doctor told my grandparents that Baby Gwen was mentally retarded, but for as long as I can remember, everyone else simply called her “not right.”

What is neither debated nor vague is my grandparents’ decision at a time when children like my mother were often hidden away or institutionalized. They chose to rear Gwen exactly the way they were rearing her brother, and how they would rear all their children: Gwen would have everything, do everything her siblings and cousins enjoyed. She would have the normal life they wanted for her.

When my grandparents discovered she was pregnant (the male progenitor unknown), they made another decision: They chose to allow Gwen to give birth. Also unknown: the possible mental condition of the child. Me.

From the time I was five years old, I became not only my mother’s playmate but the keeper of her secrets and her protector. I helped make thousands of choices for her which shaped her world and set the course of our lives. I had to choose how to protect her when she heard cruel taunts of being “a retard.” I can still see the confusion in her watery blue-green eyes and hear her tearful voice asking me, “I ain’t stupid like they say, am I, Sherrill Lynn?”

I told her, “No! They’re the ones who are stupid and cruel and you should never listen to anything they have to say.”

I had to choose how to protect myself when school friends asked, “Are you a bastard? My mommy and daddy say you are.”

Now, the term “bastard” seems archaic, a relic of a less enlightened time.

Then why haven’t we left the label “retard” behind us?

We have banished derogatory terms for ethnic groups, race, sexual preferences and we censure those who are thoughtless enough to use such words. Yet we haven’t banished this cruelest of terms against the developmentally challenged who are helpless to defend themselves.

Long ago, out of my personal experience and love for my mother, I chose to teach my children the power this word has to wound, and through their love for their grandmother they have spread that truth. Please join us in finally making this cruelest of terms a relic of our past, which surely will make a brighter future for all of us.

Sherrill Bodine is the award-winning author of several novels, including All I Want Is You. She donated her fee for writing this column to the Service Club of Chicago. Visit her website at:

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