Caitlin talks with filmmaker, activist and blogger, Cheryl Green about brain injury, the comedy satire film project ‘The Gab,’ her documentary ‘Who Am I To Stop It, the problems with disability awareness campaigns and much more. FYI, There are many F-bombs dropped so consider it NSFW.
[Cheryl Green in flowing green dress next to white dog. She is portrayed as The Fool card in tarot decks]
CAITLIN WOOD: Hi, you’re listening to the Criptiques Podcast. This is Caitlin Wood, and my guest today is Cheryl Green. She does several blogs; she does StoryMinders.com and WhoAmIToStopIt.com, and she also does radio shows. She’s probably one of the busiest people I know. So, welcome, Cheryl.
CHERYL GREEN: Thank you! Thanks for having me on the show. I’m super excited.
CAITLIN: Thank you! And you also are a contributor to Criptiques, the anthology. You wrote a really great easy on brain injury and brain injury culture versus crip culture. So I thought that would be a good place to start. I think a lot of people, one, a lot of people aren’t familiar really with crip culture. But two, I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with brain injury culture. So I was wondering if you could just talk about that and what the differences are and your experience as someone with a brain injury coming into the disability justice community, stuff like that.
CHERYL: Sure, sure. Well, first of all, I don’t know very many people in the brain injury community who know what “brain injury culture” is. When I started my interview podcast show, it was all people with brain injury interviewed, and I would ask them that. And I finally just quit asking that because people are like, “What do you mean? What’s brain in– What do you mean? What do you mean?” And you know, the brain injury community is a community that people join it basically through a medical event. So you get a brain injury, you’re in the community. I mean, not everybody joins what we call the brain injury community. But that’s how you join, is by having a medical event. So usually, you’re going through the medical system. Most of us are kicked out of the medical system before we’re ready, but that’s where it all starts. That’s where we get our label, that’s where we get our diagnosis, that’s where we get something that we may or may not choose to identify as a disability. And so there’s no sense of culture or identity wrapped up in that. It’s just here are your impairments, here are the therapies you can do to correct those or get over them or compensate for them. And you don’t ever find out about disability rights, ADA, what are accommodations. But then, you also don’t find out about Krip-Hop Nation and people who are doing arts within the disability community, people who are writing and making cultural artifacts and feeling an enormous sense of pride in themselves with their disability. So I think that’s the big difference. Well, I can’t say that’s the big difference cuz I only gave one side of it. [both laugh] But that’s sort of, that’s why when I ask people with brain injuries, “How do you define disability culture,” that’s why so many people don’t or can’t answer it. Generally, when people with brain injury get together in a group setting, it’s in a support group or some kind of social event that was planned by the support group or by a facility or a rehab program. And so again, it’s not about culture but about let’s come together as people with a similar diagnostic label and possibly, quite probably, very similar symptoms and problems. Let’s come together and play board games or watch movies or do structured social events with just people who are like ourselves. Rather than let’s get together and do artworks and write essays and make critiques. So that’s why we don’t really have a brain injury culture. I’ve never heard anybody use the term besides myself, or if I have, I just can’t remember, which is not saying a lot. Cuz I can’t remember. But I don’t hear other people use the term. I asked, and then I just quit asking.
CAITLIN: And you mentioned in your essay in Criptiques that you’re looking for other people interested in crip culture who have brain injuries and that you’ve only heard of a few. Have you talked with many of them? Well, I know you’ve only talked with a few. What was their reaction when you reached out?
CHERYL: It’s a very positive response. It’s a sense of oh my gosh, I don’t have to explain a thing to you! You get it! It’s conversations around identity, conversations around people need to get with the program and see us as valuable, complete, whole human beings. And it’s not “see my ability, not my disability!” I find that treacly shit to be bullshit. I think that is so silly: “See my ability, not my disability.” First of all, if you don’t see my disability, I’m not gonna get any accommodations.
CAITLIN: [laughs] Exactly.
CHERYL: Second of all, come on now! How are we gonna hide this? You know? And third, why in the hell should I be expected to hide it? Why should one kind of person be encouraged to be proud of some part of their identity, but if it’s a disability, oh, don’t see it! No, you didn’t see it! Don’t talk about it. It’s bad. No, it’s not bad. Maybe it’s hard, but it’s not bad. And I don’t, I’m not in the business of promoting shame, I’m not in the business of promoting stop seeing our disabilities and only see our abilities. Every single human being has abilities. Let’s just agree to that. Then we don’t have to say it.
CHERYL: So you have a disability? OK, and?
CAITLIN: So, related to this, and full disclosure: You and I are homegirls. We work together. I see you a lot.
CHERYL: [giggles] Yeah.
CAITLIN: So I got sent over email an Instagram campaign for people trying to raise awareness for TBI. So from what I could see, I believe that this person–I think his name is Maz McWilliams, I’m not sure if I’m saying that correctly. I think he had a brother who died as a result of a TBI. But his campaign is a melon a day where people photograph themselves wtih watermelons in an attempt to raise awareness for TBIs.
CAITLIN: So I already know you, so I kind of know your response. But for the listeners, can you talk about your feelings about number one, awareness campaigns around disability, but also specifically around TBI awareness and campaigns like this? What are your thoughts on it?
CHERYL: Ok, so my thoughts on the watermelon campaign. I kinda feel like anyone who listens to you describe it really oughta know what’s gonna come out of my mouth right now. How do you raise awareness for TBI with a watermelon? I mean I can’t. Oh my gawd. I understand; it’s cute. You know, the inside is soft and very fragile and very delicate, and it’s the best part. And the outside is very firm, and it’s probably very bitter if you bit into it. But besides the fact that the inside is precious is soft, and the outside is hard and doesn’t taste good, I don’t have one clue on God’s green earth how a watermelon raises awareness about anything, one. Number two, how taking a photograph of yourself with a watermelon does the world any good. Because, let me tell you, one of the pictures in that campaign was like this person with a watermelon print dress eating watermelon. She had watermelon seeds on her face. I’m like, Ok, I do not know more about TBI now. I know that you’re a sloppy eater, and you probably made that dress, and it’s cute. Now, what?
CHERYL: There was a baby who was homemade earphones, like big over-the-ear headphones that were made out of a watermelon. Like what good does that do the world? It does the world nothing. Why are you wasting those fucking watermelons? They’re delicious. Don’t put them on your head. Eat them! Anyway. Awareness campaigns in general are very problematic to me. Number one, they are usually rooted in some kind of agency or organization that raises money for itself rather than raises money to give to the people who need it. Awareness events are often originated or rooted in organizations or agencies that serve people with a certain impairment or diagnosis. But they’re not cultural agencies or organization. They’re not run by the people who have that diagnosis or impairment. They’re run by the helping fields. And they may do a lotta good, and I think raising awareness and raising consciousness is good. But my problem is, when that’s the goal of the event, I don’t want that. Hey, you should be aware of me! Ok. I’m aware. It’s good to know the statistics like how often does a brain injury occur, cuz it’s more than you think. What kinds of things can cause one? It’s more than you think. How bad can they be? It’s worse than you think. It’s valuable to know this stuff. Ok, now that you know it, what are you going to do to either protect yourself from getting a brain injury or be compassionate and show inclusion and respect to people who are living with brain injury, and frankly, their care partners and their communities? These events don’t usually deal with that. They just are wheee! Statistics and fundraisers! And wheeee! So I’m not a big fan of awareness events. I don’t know anyone who just wants someone to be aware of them. Most people wanna be appreciated and accepted, if anything, rather than just have someone be aware of them. I know it’s not all people, but most people. How about you raise some fucking cash and give it to some fucking people living in poverty, people who are living on the streets because they have multiple brain injuries and don’t have the capacity to get themselves into safe, secure housing and are at risk for further injury? How about you raise some money and you get some of these organizations that serve people on the ground like that? I don’t mean on the ground like on the ground, but out in the world. If you’re gonna do a campaign, get some money in the hands of people who are struggling and suffering because they don’t have access to resources because they are impaired, and a lot of people are living in generational poverty. Forget your stinkin’ watermelon. Oh my gawd. OK. [both laugh]
CAITLIN: Ok, so fuck watermelons.
CAITLIN: And we have worked together on several things.
CAITLIN: We did a PSA called “Your Daily Dosage of Inspiration,” which has gotten a lot of good feedback and was recently featured on the Ouch! podcast, if I can do a little brag.
CHERYL: Oh, brag away! It was Episode 106! It was brilliant.
CAITLIN: [laughs] And you and I are also currently working on a project called The Gab. So in The Gab, it is a talk show that is a satire of talk shows like The View and The Talk and The Reel, my favorite. And it’s all disabled women, and you play a character, Natasha.
CAITLIN: So tell me about Natasha.
CHERYL: Oh, Natasha is just a barrel of laughs, is what Natasha is. Natasha is going to be a character who is living with brain injury. So she is autobiographical. And she is likely to figuratively put her foot in her mouth a lot, which is autobiographical. But I think the bulk of Natasha’s character is really based on more on people around me than myself. So there are comedians like Nina G. Comedian and Maysoon Zayid who both are disabled, but both, when they do comedy around disability, it’s primarily around other people’s responses to them. And I know Maysoon in particular makes a big point of doing comedy that has absolutely nothing to do with disability because it’s so damn expected that disabled people are just gonna crack jokes about their disabilities. One of the cool things about The Gab is that it takes a similar perspective to Maysoon Zayid in that we are not gonna talk about disability all the time because we are more than that. All people are more than that. Disability is one part of you. It may be enormous; it may be 99% of your identity, but there’s something else. There’s always something else that makes a person a person. And it’s up to each person to decide what their identity is and how much disability plays a role. So that’s The Gab. But see, Natasha is just super obsessed with disability. So she’s not going down Maysoon’s road at all. She’s not even necessarily going down Nina G.’s type of road. She’s just disability all the time. Brain injury’s the only thing that’s important. And that kind of comes from the fact that, that is really common. You wanna know what is common in brain injury culture? It’s to talk about your brain injury and nothing else. Oh wait. I have to correct myself. You can talk about other people’s brain injuries too. There is very little that gets talked about in the brain injury community than brain injuries. It is the most important, if not only, thing worth talking about. And it gets hard for me cuz I’d like to talk about other things too, but it’s not reinforced. And when I meet new people for the first time outside the crip community–and even within the crip community, but mostly outside–first thing they ask me is about my brain injury. People want me to tell the story of how it happened. And frankly, I find that very selfish because I get kind of upset sometimes. It’s not always, but sometimes. You are asking me to relive a very vulnerable time, a physically excruciating time, and quite frankly, the scariest time of my life. Because as I was lying there on the ground, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna live or not. It went through my mind because not everybody lives through a traumatic brain injury. And people, they don’t even know my last name, they don’t know what kinda work I do, they don’t know anything about me. And frankly, my obsession with cats, to me, is more important than my brain injury. But that’s not what people wanna know. So Natasha. Ooh! Long way around the barn! Natasha is obsessed with disability. She also represents sort of the traumatically acquired disability community in that she really thinks she can speak for all of disability just cuz she’s had a disability for a couple years. And I don’t think when people do that they do that to be malicious. But I do believe–and I have heard this from others–that people in these sort of sexy acquired traumatic injury areas get the platform. We get the microphone, we get the platform, we get the rotunda, we get everything so much more than people who have been living with impairments their whole lives. And I think it’s partly it’s because of the story. Oh my gawd! You used to be normal, and now you’re fucked up? Ooh! I wanna know what happened! Yeah, walk through the train wreck with me so I can be happy that I didn’t go through such a terrible train wreck. Wheeee! But if it’s a lifelong disability, nobody wants to hear about that. Nobody wants to hear about boo-hoo, you were segregated your whole life. Boo-hoo, you’ve always been discriminated against. People don’t care about the oppression and discrimination. They wanna hear about your personal problems that you just got and what you’re gonna do to fix them. And so the traumatic brain injury community, I think also sometimes the spinal cord injury community, we get all the press. And so Natasha’s really gonna represent that hyper-focus on the disability, hyper-focus on impairments, and hyper-focus on feeling like she can speak for everyone even though the other two hosts–you and Lavaun–have experienced your impairments and had your impairments for many, many years.
CAITLIN: Right. And I think her focus, too, on the disability is that it’s a specific focus on the disability. It’s not disability culture or positive stuff about disability. It’s all medical. She’s very medical model but thinks that she’s being progressive.
CHERYL: Absolutely. And to me, that’s what the brain injury community is really stuck in. It’s very, very medical, and there’s not much exploration on what it means to look at other parts of disability like culture on one side and oppression on the other side. Yeah. Yeah, oh man. She’s just gonna be like the most fun and the most horrifying character I’ve ever played.
CAITLIN: Yes. And we have shot some footage, including you doing a spoken word about disability.
CHERYL: [laughs] That’s so funny. I was like, we haven’t shot any. I don’t remember shooting anything. Right, yes. Now I remember shooting that, yes.
CAITLIN: Yeah, we shot a pretty horrendous spoken word piece that I’m proud to say I wrote.
CAITLIN: Because it is that terrible. And you nailed it. You nailed every horrible line that I vomited out.
CAITLIN: So I can’t wait for people to see that cuz it’s atrocious, but you did a good job.
CHERYL: Thank you! Thank you! And you know, I think the thing I’m most proud about, first of all, is that I will be seen in public in that leotard that you made me buy. And that it was 37 degrees out when we filmed it, and I’m barefoot. And you can’t tell that I’m freezing! I could not feel my toes for about eight hours. And let me tell you: [pretends to sob] Those were the worst, most depressing eight hours of my life. Cuz Caitlin! You don’t even know what it’s not like to not be able to feel your toes one day. And I was like, I get it. I get it. I don’t know how I’m–
CAITLIN: You understood disability that day.
CHERYL: [still pretending to sob] I did because I didn’t think I could go on!
CAITLIN: You’ve been working on a documentary for quite a while now called “Who Am I To Stop It” that you refer to as a non-inspirational documentary. And it centers on artists in the Pacific Northwest who have brain injury. So can you talk a little bit about that and what made you wanna pursue this project and who are the people in the documentary.
CHERYL: Sure. Well, what made me wanna pursue this project is I made a mistake. It was a little bit of an impulsive accident. So because I’ve received grants from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, I was qualified to do some crowdfunding online through USA Projects. They’re a non-profit, and so donations are tax deductible. But also, you pay sort of a very hefty fee to use them, but in return, you get sort of a counselor, sort of a guide to walk you through all the steps of crowdfunding. And it’s very prestigious. I signed up because I got an email. I’m very literal. [giggles] It’s got its up sides, but it’s got a lotta down sides to it. I got an email saying hey, you qualify through RACC, Regional Arts & Culture Council, you qualify to sign up for USA Projects. So I went and signed up. I’m like, I guess I’m supposed to sign up cuz they said I qualified. And I get an email back from them: “Thanks for signing up. What’s the project you’re proposing?” I thought, “What?! What do you mean project? It just said I was qualified to sign up, so I signed up. I don’t have a project.” But I didn’t wanna look like a fool! So I wrote back. I said, “Well, I would like to do a documentary about artists with brain injuries.” And so I emailed my very good friend, Cynthia Lopez, who just so happens to have also filmed and edited my first two short comedy films, which are about brain injury. I called or emailed her and said, “Hey, can we partner on this movie?” And she said, “Yes, sounds great.”
CAITLIN: How many artists are there in the movie?
CHERYL: There’s three and a half. And that half meaning that she’s what’s called a secondary character. There are three primary characters and one secondary. And it’s not because she’s less valuable but because we can’t do four primary characters and give them all adequate attention. This fourth person is Nicki. She happens to be housemates with one of the primary characters, Brandon. So they interact a lot. They play music with the same group at the Independent Living Resources center. And so she’s in it a lot more than a secondary character would normally be. What I’m finding with this film–and not surprisingly–is that people are significantly, significantly isolated. So isolated. And I’m also finding that art, people describe art as extremely healing. Some people say it’s therapeutic; some people say it’s like rehab. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the soul. People find it healing. People find it to be the one thing that they have that they can be proud of and that represents them and speaks to them and is their contribution to the community. I mean it’s just incredible! It’s like it’s the same story over and over, no matter who I’m talking to. And a lot of people asked to be in the documentary. People have contacted me: “I am making my entire life story available to your documentary!” Which is kind of cute and sweet and not really how documentaries work cuz I’m already making it. So I can’t add your entire life story. But I love that. And so because so many people wanna be in the film, and they can’t because then it would never end, I started the Who Am I To Stop It Community Arts blog.
CAITLIN: When do you think the movie’s gonna be done?
CHERYL: Oh, you know. Just when it’s done. So, here’s the thing about when the movie will be done is that we are currently on hold at the moment because we’re fundraising so that we can continue. So we raised a lot of money through enormous, brilliant community support during my USA Projects crowdfunding, which I do remember, this is how you and I first started getting in touch. You broadcast my campaign and encouraged people to donate, and you and I hadn’t even met before. So that got a lot of attention, a lot of good funds. But those have dried up. Right now, I’m launching a sponsorship campaign. I’m looking for individual and corporate sponsors, everything from $1 to $10,000, whatever people wanna give. And so I’ve got to get that cash to come in. And then we’ve only got a few more days of filming left.
CAITLIN: So if someone wanted to donate, they can go to WhoAmIToStopIt.com.
CHERYL: Mmhmm. And I do wanna say that donations of $250 and larger are tax-deductible because you donate through our fiscal sponsor, which is the Hollywood Theatre. And that is a great honor to have a fiscal sponsor from such an amazing, local, historic theater, non-profit. They’re great. So it’s a nice incentive that those donations are tax-deductible. But we’re not counting. Every donation is valuable and goes directly to this film, and everybody gets thanked. I’m about to build a Sponsors page on the website where I can thank folks.
CAITLIN: Well, thank you so much, Cheryl, for joining me. So people can go to several of your websites. WhoAmIToStopIt.com is probably the go-to site where they can make a donation for your documentary and also catch up on your blog posts. But anywhere else people should check out?
CHERYL: My website, StoryMinders.com is a good place to see all the different kinds of things that I work on. And I am also a guest blogger with Lash & Associates Training and Publication. I think it’s LAPublishing.com. They’re a wonderful place because they publish blog posts as well as books by peers with brain injury. So they’re not just publishing the medical experts. They have a wonderful balance and provide a wonderful, much-needed forum for peers with brain injury. And I’ve also started guest blogging I think it’s Disability.gov. I can’t remember exactly. I could have gotten up and looked it up, but now I’m tired. I’ve only started guest blogging with them. I think Lash & Associates is a better place to find blog posts that are kind of different from the ones on Who Am I To Stop It.
CAITLIN: Well, thank you for coming on the Criptiques podcast.
CHERYL: Oh, thank you for having me. It was a joy. I mean it’s just such and honor to be involved with Criptiques and very exciting to be interviewed on your show. Thank you.
CAITLIN: Thank you.