Born into a family of book publishers, you might say the power of the written word is practically in my blood. As a little girl, my parents read to me every night before bedtime, usually downstairs in our living room and with the fireplace lit during the cold winter months.
At my grandparents’, where I visited weekly, my grandmother always read to me – usually the Swedish classics – whilst I listened attentively to every word, soaking them up as if they each were a pearl of fresh water.
Even after I’d learned to read myself, the tradition of reading aloud continued and every summer holiday my mother would choose a book to read to my older brother and me. Back then she was working with children’s literature so we had the enormous fortune of receiving lots of wonderful books by writers from around the world.
So I’ve got enormous respect for the power of words. Words can heal but they can also hurt – badly. My own experience as a child goes contrary to the popular saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Because other children calling me names because of the way my face looked like hurt me much more than any physical confrontation ever did. I learned at an early age that words have enormous power to humiliate, shame and ultimately dehumanise.
One of those words is ‘harelip,’ an outdated description of people like me, born with a cleft lip and palate. As a young girl, the mere mention of ‘harelip’ made me freeze with terror and mortification. For who wants their face to be likened to that of a hare?
When I was about 12 I received a copy of ‘Children’s Island,’ a very well known Swedish novel about Reine, an 11-year old boy, who goes AWOL from summer camp. Published in 1976 it soon became a modern classic that thousands of pubescent school children were given to read. I thought it was an OK read, without being exceptional, perhaps because I couldn’t quite identify with the main protagonist. I don’t remember much of the story line except for a couple of pages towards the end of the book where Reine is on a cruise ship to Finland and comes across a teenage boy nicknamed Death:
“Death had been operated on for harelip, a white scar emerging from one of the nostrils like frozen snot.”
In retrospect I can appreciate that the novel was written from an 11-year-old boy’s perspective, hence the language, but at the age of 12, I felt humiliated by the author (an acquaintance of my parents’ as it were) and vowed never to read anything else by him. Whenever ‘Children’s Island’ was mentioned, either in school or elsewhere, I’d hide away, lest someone made the humiliating connection between Death and me.
For many years, I was unable to let that word pass over my lips – so much did I fear it. Even now, I struggle to say (and write) it and hearing someone else using the term ‘harelip,’ no matter how innocently, makes me see red. The difference is that today I don’t hesitate to challenge openly and loudly the use of that derogatory word. Only recently I challenged a journalist on his use of the word to describe Chinese children born with cleft lip and cleft palate and who had been abandoned by their families because of the stigma and prejudice attached to birth defects.
It’s not about political correctness, nor is it nit picking as that journalist opined; it’s about fighting ignorance and prejudice, similarly to how racism and sexism is fought. Words carry energy, and they leave behind an imprint that can either heal or hurt. For me, the use of ‘harelip’ to describe the condition I was born with suggests that I came into this world less whole, less human and less worthy. Although using the correct terminology, cleft lip and palate, is quite a mouthful (no pun intended), at least it doesn’t debase my – and that of others born with a cleft – innate wholeness. It doesn’t dehumanise, it doesn’t degrade because it carries no negative connotations.
So words do matter a great deal.