In college I dated a guy who told me I put God in a box. He said I must not have much faith, to think God couldn’t cleanse all wounds and heal all ills. He wanted me to go before the church and let them lay their hands on me, to pray away the little broken things within.
“Don’t you want to hear again?”
It was painful for me. Not because I wanted to hear again, but because I hadn’t felt broken before he pointed out my cracks. I wasn’t sure, anymore, if I was good enough for someone the way I was—some of my edges chipped. Was I not lovable without my hearing? Did my disability make him squirm?
I remember arguing with him. Maybe he was the one boxing God in. After all, I said through tears, doesn’t the church tell us God doesn’t operate on a linear scale? Maybe the slew of scientists and doctors who were brilliant enough to create a bionic hearing device were all part of some holy master plan.
Maybe—just maybe—finding the strength to overcome adversity and grow into a place of self-acceptance is all part of the process.
Maybe God knew exactly what he was doing, and my boyfriend knew nothing at all.
Maybe I don’t have to be well to be happy.
That’s a concept woven beautifully into Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and it’s stuck with me for several days since finishing the book.
Without giving away spoilers, let me tell you why this book won’t let me go.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is the story of a young British lord who embarks on a wild cross country tour with his best friend/secret crush. Funny, poignant, and anachronistic in all the best ways, the journey takes readers on a misadventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Along the way, Monty and co discover themselves amid the rubble of their trip.
The theme of ableism was one of the many, many noteworthy messages on Monty’s whirlwind European tour. Lee took off the kid gloves to deal with disability, and for that alone I have a great deal of respect for her. As much as I loved raffish protagonist Henry “Monty” Montague (and help, I love him so much), it was a secondary character battling with an incurable medical diagnosis that really resonated with me. He handles his lot with grace, patience, and acceptance, even as Monty struggles to make peace.
Let me pause here to say that I have dated several Montys, which might say more about me as a person than it does about them. Chronic flirt, unruly drunk, dimpled cheeks, and impossible egomaniac aspects notwithstanding, so many significant others in my youth felt a great need to be some sort of champion for me, as if I asked for one. They wanted to make things better, to solve my problems, to make my disability more palatable for them to swallow.
That last bit bears repeating. It took me years to realize it wasn’t me who was uncomfortable with my hearing loss, but them. Born out of a place of good intentions, their actions served a selfish need. Rather than trying to understand the ramifications of my deafness, they sought a solution to the problem.
I’ve had a lifetime to shoulder my deafness. I’ve not only made peace with it, but I’ve made friends with it, odd as that may be to say. My discomfort as a teen and, later, a young adult, didn’t come from a place of being unhappy with who I was, but rather unhappy with how others acted around me.
New boyfriends—and sometimes even friends—on finding out I was really, truly deaf without my implant, would stammer and backpedal, apologizing as they went. There was an adjustment period, always, as I waited for these new additions to my life to make their own personal peace with something I’d accepted years ago. Sometimes it took them minutes, sometimes days, sometimes—as with the college boyfriend I mentioned early on—that peace never came.
In those quiet pauses, as I waited for them to realize what I already had, I wondered if they really felt sorry for me, or if they only felt sorry for themselves.
In Gentleman’s Guide a psychic makes mention of a real life Japanese practice called kintsuku-roi, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. The character describes the tradition as “the practice of mending broken ceramic pottery using lacquer dusted with gold and silver and other precious metals. It is meant to symbolize that things can be more beautiful for having been broken.”
“Because I want you to know,” she says, “that there is life after survival.”
I wish fifteen year old me had that line taped to the inside of her locker. I wish seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year old me had this book. I wish the string of boys I dated during that time had known Monty, and had seen the way he grows, and how he learns to meet the people in his life where they are. Maybe I’d have been more confident. Maybe I could have looked them in the eye as they handed me another stack of late night research, or apologized, again, for being reminded of what I am, and will always be.
“I don’t need to be well to be happy,” I’d tell them, and smile.
This post is meant as a personal love letter of sorts. It’s a thank-you to Mackenzi Lee for writing this beautiful book and for creating characters that have stuck with me long after the ink ran out. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking of Monty and co for a long time to come.
Thanks for reading, friends. Remember to be kind to everyone and always try and meet the people you love where they are.
Also read this book, damn it.