In Patternmaster, on page 673, there is a quote about mutes born with physical or mental deformities:
“And there was a certain Patternist woman who had made an art form of controlling and changing the development of unborn mute children. Already she had created several misshapen monstrosities that had to be destroyed. She got away with what she did because infants and even older children, Patternist or mute, were considered expendable. Those who were defective in some irreparable way were routinely destroyed.”
This provides an interesting (and terrifying) look into how disability is treated in their world, while also showing more of the racial/disabled dichotomy between mutes and Patternists: disability is essentially turned into a race.
A problem that arises with this quote is that of uniformity. As science progresses, the potential of genetic engineering increases, and has begun to create interesting questions of disability and identity. For instance, if there is a mother that has a known inheritable disorder, there may be a way to swap that part of the DNA of their egg out and replace it with a ‘healthy’ piece before that egg is fertilized. (You can read about this here, with more in depth, science-y explanations). This possibility is a positive one in terms of ridding humanity of a few diseases that it would be better off without, but that comes at the cost of erasing an entire identity of a group of people who already have that condition and have come to create their own community and culture. Who has a right of saying that culture and community don’t need to exist anymore? The Patternists do have the telepathic ability to change one’s genes, as can be inferred from the above quote, and it’s clear that they do, in fact, cure anything that can be cured. This creates a healthier society, but certainly a less diverse one. In Mind of My Mind I believe Mary mentioned making the mutes happier and healthier, but with that health was a loss of identity.
Another facet of the quote is the murder of those with incurable or “irreparable” defects. The dismissal of life of individuals (specifically children) with severe disabilities is something often over looked in our world. People with disabilities are “four to ten times more likely to be abused than their peers without disabilities” (source). There are countless cases of parents killing their disabled children because they themselves can no longer deal with taking care of them. An instance that comes to mind is of a mother, Tania Clarence, who killed her daughter and her twin sons with very severe disabilities (article here). There is a definite toll that having an ill or disabled child has on a parent, and mental illness is a definite factor when it comes to cases of filicide, but in many cases like that of Clarence, the parent is painted as the victim. The linked article even quotes someone saying, “[Tania’s] love, commitment and tenacity in the face of the overwhelming responsibilities such care entailed was extraordinary. Ultimately, her story of dedication and love became a story of despair and utter hopelessness.” Disability comes with a struggle for autonomy over one’s body, but for children, this autonomy – and humanity – is never granted, nor is it acknowledged. In the novel, this issue is amplified because of the sociopathic efficiency with which disability is dealt with.
What further angers me about all of this, is that it would have been extraordinarily easy for the Patternists to program a very kind set of mute parents to take care of the irreparably disabled children until they passed away, without even having to bat an eyelash or give thought to these children or mutes again. These children weren’t even important enough for the minimal mental energy needed to set up a loving family.
With the ability to change genes in the Patternmaster series brings comes the consequence of loss of diversity and identity for many, and the ability to easily off children with disabilities that are too difficult for the Patternists to be bothered about. All in all, there is a massive amount of ableism. Butler, as we’ve seen before in her work, takes a problematic element of our world and puts it in a new light in her stories to show their harsh realities, such as ableism and racism. But, in Seed to Harvest she creates a race dichotomy based on ability.
The issue of race in Patternmaster ties in with ableism in some ways. The mutes were all seen as inferior people, therefore it is a race issue, but they were mentally less able than the Patternists. The race tensions aren’t between privileged light skinned people with dark skinned people like in our society. Instead, it is a race of extremely mentally able people and those lesser able than them being forced into slavery.
This is not to say that race isn’t a factor; as Anyanwu says to Doro in the series, calling the mutes ‘mutes’ is equatable to the use of the N word, and the story parallels American slavery and race issues in many ways. The assumed lesser humanity of the ‘lesser’ people illustrated in the Patternmaster quote is everywhere in our history as a nation: the people with more power experiment on those they perceive as lesser. They get away with it, because the people they experiment on are “considered expendable.” (A simple Google search of ‘black slaves experimented on’ brought up hundreds of results. This one details medical experiments that took place even after the end of slavery up until the 1970s, and is incredibly horrific.) In the case of Patternmaster, however, the lesser race are the people without the innate telepathic ability: mutes, and all children. In Butler’s Patternist world where skin color wass not seen as an important classification, there was still an economic and sociological need for a social hierarchy, and disabled people filled the lower end of that hierarchy. Their autonomy is immediately diminished when they are classified in this way.
In my discussion, I framed the fictional world of this series in terms of our world, trying to reconcile their actions with similar actions in our reality. I accused the characters of being sociopathic in their efficiency of dealing with children as they lack remorse for their actions, but perhaps to them it is seen as kindness. Their own complacency with their physical and mental ability has blinded them to the possibility that a satisfying life can be led without those abilities. This is symptomatic of a capitalist society, where value is placed on contribution to society, or in their case, the Pattern. The Patternists have literally been bred to believe that they are superior, and they are entitled to what they have, which is a connection with everyone through the Pattern. I don’t believe this dismisses their behavior, regardless, but I am trying to leave room for their reality being different from my own.
As someone with many chronic illnesses, I have often thought about what I would do if I were faced with a treatment that would miraculously cure all of my disabilities. I don’t think I would want it. I have built an identity around being a disabled member of society, and have found a place among communities that, were I healthy, I would not belong to. The disabled people in the Patternmaster series don’t have this choice. They are cured, or they are killed. At first, when reading the novels and writing this post, I kept thinking that I wanted to know more about disability in the Patternist world, and was disappointed that there wasn’t more explicit information on it. Now I am starting to see that the lack of mention in the novels may have been intentional. People with physical and mental disabilities are destroyed, and the invisibility of their suffering says more than any quote could.