Friday, 7 October 2016

Dear Sally

I just watched Sally Phillips' documentary on Down's Syndrome screening, which I thought was excellent and if you haven't watched it I highly recommend. After I finished, I felt a strong need to get in touch with her to thank her. I have no idea how one does this - I guess I'd have to contact her agent or something? Anyway, I think really it would be more for my benefit than for her's, so in the end I decided to just write her a letter that I would publish here instead of try to send to her. It follows below.

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Dear Sally,
Thank you for making me feel less like a crazy coercive anti-feminist by giving the pro-life position a more human and likeable face. I don't know if you identify as 'pro-life' yourself - I for one don't like the snide tone the term carries with it (are pro choice people anti life?) - but in essence what your programme portrayed one of the instances in which someone may be opposed to the right to choose, without coming across as preachy, judgmental or dictatorial, but still communicating the emotional charge that such a subject carries. Thank you.
My mother was open about the fact that she could not have brought a child with Down's Syndrome into the world, given the current state of society. She felt that the world was not a sufficiently accepting and loving place for someone with the condition not to suffer immensely. That's where she and I differ - I don't see anything wrong with suffering.
My mother died when I was eleven, and it was my experience of grief that brought me round to thinking that avoiding suffering needn't be the central aim of my life. In the years that followed her death, my world, along with my beliefs, my politics, my goals, changed immeasurably.
She had raised me to be critical and inquisitive. To trust my instincts and experience before dogma and tradition. To ask questions, to challenge the status quo. To wait until I understood and respected someone before meeting their demands. To hope for and work towards change. I remained this way at heart, but something else in me changed.
I became closed off. I felt angry. I felt like I had been deceived. She had passed on this idealistic agnosticism to me, this nondescript left-wing notion of 'one day things will be better', of working together for a fairer future, but she'd left out one crucial bit of information. The fact that, in the end, everyone dies. In the end, when death comes, it's not a compromise. It's not one you can wait out. It's as final as anything brutal. It comes, it takes, and it leaves you with less than you need. I don't think I'd understand this if it wasn't for her premature death, and this knowledge completely changed my understanding of what life is.
I started being critical of my own criticality. 'What if I'm wrong', I thought for what felt like the first time in my life. In the space of a few years I went from being a pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, broadly agnostic, basically atheist, human rights activist to a pro-life, anti-everything-under-the-sun, fully fledged Roman Catholic, let's-talk-less-about-human-rights-and-more-about-human-duties bigot.
I won't bore you with the details of my journey, that's not why I'm writing this letter. I'm writing to thank you, because for the first time since that tectonic shift in me occurred, watching your documentary made me feel like I don't need to conceal that side of me, like I don't need to be ashamed of my socially unpalatable beliefs.
Your documentary reminded me of what my mother raised me to be. Sure, she was fiercely anti-clerical and would have aborted a Down's Syndrome baby. But she would have been horrified to know the selective abortion debate had all but been shut down. She taught me to never be afraid to say what I think, to challenge dead dogma and trends. If she were still alive now I think your documentary would have made her really think, and she would have been the first to hear me out on my own position, disagreeing with me into the early hours. So thank you, for reminding me of who I am, of who she was, by being so brave as to be crystal clear about who you and Olly are in front a not always accepting, not always loving, world.

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