Anger and Affability, The Rise And

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ANGER AND AFFABILITY: THE RISE AND
REPRESENTATION OF A REPERTORY OF
SELF..PRESENTATION SKILLS IN A WORLD WAR II
DISABLED VETERAN
By David Gerber

State University of New York at Buffalo

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At the age of 30 in 1944 Sergeant Harold Russell, a Cambridge, Massachusetts
butcher, was serving as a demolitions instructor at a North Carolina military
base. During a training exercise, he tried to determine why an explosive charge
failed to explode. When the defective charge suddenly exploded as he stood
before it, his hands and some of both forearms below the elbow were blown off.
In that instant, he became one of only 64 Americans serving in World War II
who were bilateral hand amputees as a consequence of traumatic injuries. While
agonizing about his bad luck and what he perceived to be his helplessness, and
worrying about whether he would ever work again or marry and have a family,
Russell nonetheless was soon able to develop positive feelings about himself and
hope for the future and to adopt a positive response to the physical rehabilitation
opportunities made available to him and other amputees at Walter Reed Army
Hospital. He rejected the useless, glove-covered cosmetic hands that at first
he wore to mask his condition, and chose instead two metal prosthetic hooks.
When manipulated by the shoulder muscles, these imposing hooks allowed him
to do a wide variety of ordinary tasks, such as handwriting, using a rotary phone
dial,and opening a pack of cigarettes. He resumed a sexual liaison that he had
been broken off before his accident, chose a career, elected to go to college, and
courted and eventually married Rita, a woman he had been too shy to express
his feelings for before his injury.'
His positive self image and response to rehabilitation earned him the attention
of the hospital staff, which recommended he be cast as the principal actor in
an Army training film, Diary of a Sargeant (1945), produced to inspire recent
war amputees. Though without formal acting training, and though the dramatic
possibilities open to him in the brief, matter,of,fact Army film were limited,
Russell established a strong screen presence, which brought him to the attention
of William Wyler, the Hollywood director, and William Sherwood, a Pulitzer
Prize winning playwright and screenwriter. The two men had been attempting
with little success to get ideas for the conception of a disabled character to be
cast in the movie that eventually became the enormously popular The Best Years
of Our Lives (1946). Alongside the Hollywood professionals Frederick March
and Dana Andrews, Russell starred in the movie, which concerns the troubled
reintegration of three recently demobilized veterans. He earned two Academy
Awards, one for acting and the other for the encouragement his performance
and his life were giving to disabled veterans.r
In contrast to the creation of the characters played by March and Andrews, the
conception of Russell's character, the Navy veteran and bilateral hand amputee
Homer Parrish, involved a close, ongoing collaboration between actor, director,

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People with visible disabilities are not alone in experiencing being stared at,
and other types of unwanted, intrusive attention, such as prying questions, paid
them in public by strangers, as a form of social oppression. Women and visibly
distinctive foreigners, for example, have similar experiences of being the objects
of unwanted, even if at times flattering, attention. But, generally speaking, the
attention disabled people receive under these same circumstances is not only
intrusive, even if subtle (furtive glances, for example), but also, disabled people
rightly suspect, combines emotions (pity, aversion, horror, fear, morbid fascination) that are negative and frequently unmixed with positive attraction. This
unwelcome attention and lack of a normal street invisibility are intensified in
their oppressiveness by the knowledge that most able-bodied people are incapable of looking much beyond the disabled body when encountering someone
in a wheelchair, using a cane, or lacking a limb. Unconsciously interpreted as a
defect, the visible disability becomes the sole basis for a prejudiced conception
of the entire person, whose complex identity is crowded out before stereotypes
associated with blindness, deafness, lameness, etc. People with disabilities, however, often come to feel their disability is little more than an inconvenience,
and thus, see themselves not as defective or freakish, but as different only in an
unimportant way that is not the measure of who they are. While certainly not

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and writer that lasted throughout the production of the movie. For this reason,
and because of Russell's uncommon injury, it was widely assumed then, and
in later years too, that Harold Russell and Homer Parrish were, in fact, the
same person. Believing this impression enhanced the film's attraction to popular
audiences, the studio did nothing to correct it. 3 The fictional Homer, however,
lacked the resilience, ambition, and independence that characterized Russell
during the period of his own rehabilitation and reintegration.
This essay attempts to explain why Russell, a man who quickly came to the
conclusion that he must not let his disability, and others' attitudes toward it,
hinder his future or blight his feeling about himself, helped to create a character who is weak in resolve and ambition, and who lacks self-confidence and a
spirit of independence. Indeed, while the movie ultimately carries an upbeat,
inspirational message about Homer's future, he is more likely to inspire feelings
of pity, and even to some extent of fear and aversion, than of equality of capabilities and common humanity in the able-bodied audience. I will show how, in
playing Homer, Harold Russell was actually enabled to express a fuller range of
emotions, both about himself and about how people reacted to him as a disabled
and disfigured man, than he could ordinarily and publicly express. The culture
and politics of the 1940s, placed considerable pressure on men like Russell to
find individual solutions, within a constricted range of emotions, to the problem
of bearing a visible disability in a world of able-bodied people. To put people at
ease in the presence of his metal hooks, Russell had learned the importance of
presenting himself as genial and unthreatening. But beneath the affable persona
he developed during rehabilitation lay other emotions, principally bitterness and
anger, largely due to the insensitivity manifested by able-bodied people when
they were exposed to his handlessness. In allowing him to express such emotions,
the role of Homer had a therapeutic value for Russell at a crucial stage of his
emergence as a man desiring a normalized existence.

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the only response to being physically disabled, this attitude is especially prominent today, as both the social acceptance and the social roles of the disabled
are rapidly, if unevenly, expanding." As we shall see, coming to terms with the
oppression of unwanted attention formed a much more profound challenge for
Russell in the course of his rehabilitation than did mastering the manipulation
of his prosthetic hooks.
The spiritual and mental burdens caused by the social pressure of unwelcome
attention for people with disabilities, along with the prejudices associated with
those who give such attention, are dealt with in a variety ofcomplex ways that are
only just beginning to be understood. Researchers in the past adopted quite limited approaches in determining the range of self-conceptions found among the
disabled. Until recently, the dominant paradigm for understanding the socialized
self-image of the disabled was associated with Erving Goffman's conception of
stigma. Goffman's point of departure was not the social oppression of people with
disabilities, but instead the assumption that the disabled internalize the attitude
of the able-bodied majority that physical difference is the mark of a defect, and
thus, are unable to accept themselves in their physically impaired condition. For
Goffman, people with disabilities are a particularly acute case of the way individuals respond to social stigmatization through shame and self-hatred, which
he believed bred denial and efforts to pass for normal. In Goffman's view, then,
the typical reaction, say, to being a hand amputee would be wearing a masking
cosmetic hand, even though it is functionally useless and cumbersome, rather
than using the highly functional, but quite visible metal hook, or not wearing
any prosthesis at all. 5 Sharing Goffman's assumption that devaluation and shame
commonly take over the disabled individual's self-concept, other researchers emphasize how that state of mind may also produce resignation, invalidism, and a
greatly exaggerated sense of physical weakness.?
The emphasis on the management of stigma through shame, helplessness,
and denial represents a conceptualization largely framed prior to the enormous
changes in the lives of people with disabilities that have been taking place in the
last quarter-century. New, greatly expanded social roles for disabled people have
been facilitated by improvements in diagnosis, medical treatment, and rehabilitation that have greatly lessened premature death and enhanced the quality
of life, and by new technologies that facilitate personal mobility and access to
the built environment and enlarge employment possibilities. Knowledge of the
social contingencies and cultural biases, especially those present in intelligence
testing, that shape diagnosis and labeling has led to effective questioning of the
very existence of non-organically based mental retardation. In combination with
analogous deconstructions of other categories of disability, such insights have
greatly advanced the dethroning of medicalized models of disability, and have
pointed to the normality of impairment and the extent to which handicaps are
socially constructed. The authority of able-bodied experts over the lives of the
disabled will probably never again be as unquestioned as it was in the first half of
this century, under the reign of science and medicine. The growing acceptability,
and frequently the valorization, of all manner of cultural differences, which have
led to a challenge to conventional aesthetic and cultural ideals, has given rise
to growing public tolerance and positive media images of the disabled. Buoyed
by these trends, but impatient with the pace of the changes now underway, the

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growing number of healthy and ambitious disabled men and women have united
in two political formations, the Disability Rights Movement and the Independent Living Movement. Allied with able-bodied members of families of disabled
service consumers and sympathetic professionals (educators, medical doctors,
psychologists, rehabilitation specialists, social workers, and architects), disability activists are demanding acceleration of the pace of both formal recognition
of the rights of the disabled and of public and private accommodation of those
requirements that would enable disabled people to become self-sufficient. 7
In a social climate of growing opportunities for normalization, we would expect
to find emerging views of the self-concept of people with disabilities and their
management ofoppression that holds out the probability offinding more positive
orientations toward the self and a richer repertory of social skills than Goffman
could have imagined from the particularly narrow vantage point of the United
States in the 1950s. Certainly the activists staging "wheel-ins" and "crawl-ins" to
protest government inaction on inaccessible public transportation, or struggling
to bring together the public and private resources to make it possible for a woman
with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair to live in her own apartment, give few
signs of either denial or a desire to pass for able-bodied.
The late 1970s and the 1980s did witness the emergence of a larger view of
disability and the consciousness of the disabled than had been considered by
previous researchers. Two especially sensitive ethnographers, the anthropologist
Gelya Frank and the literary scholar Marilynn Phillips, are representative of these
new interpretive trends. Basing their work on extensive interviews, mostly with
congenitally disabled or chronically ill adults, both Frank and Phillips have not
only effectively criticized Goffman's view of the disabled self-concept, but have
demonstrated effectively how, with various degrees of support from parents,
community, and disabled peers, people with disabilities, as children, begin to
learn a repertory of skills for managing able-bodied people's responses to them.
By adulthood, they possess an array of, in Frank's term, "strategic behaviors"
that provide a framework for confronting the daily oppression of unwanted
public attention, while preserving their self-respect and maximizing their selfconfidence.f
This armamentarium is characterized by a combination of emotional styles
and modes of self-preservation. In part, there is commonly an affable public
presentation of self that is, in effect, acting, the purpose of which is to put ablebodied people at ease during first encounters. But this affability is not an end
in itself. For it is accompanied by "display and avowal," a presentation of the
body that openly challenges the able-bodied stranger to confront visible physical
differences and move beyond them-or failing that, move away. Gelya Frank,
who has done extensive work with congenitally limb deficient young adults,
finds either no desire to mask their condition with cosmetic prostheses or a
willingness to do so only on a purposefully selective basis. Frank has interviewed
people who reject prostheses completely, if they are able to make a functional
accommodation through the use of their foreshortened limbs, because prostheses
are often painful, feel unnatural, and often require assistance to get on and off.
A variety of positive orientations toward their bodies and negative orientations
toward those who reject them, combined with a willingness to be assertive in
projecting physical differences, accompany these strategies."

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The message here is essentially a normalizing one: Accept me as I am or leave
me alone; it's your problem and your choice. It is founded upon a full range ofadult
emotions from geniality to anger. There is another way in which normalizing
strategies enter the lives of such people's self-conceptions, and reinforce this
message. The traditional narrative for conceiving of the lives of the disabled, one
which continues to be the official line when most politicians address the subject,
or when charitable organizations engage in fund-raising among the able-bodied
public, is organized around inspirational messages that emphasize a positive
mental attitude, courage, self-help, and self-reliance. The lives of people such as
those studied by Phillips and Frank are quite often lived according to these values,
because this is a practical stance to adopt in living an independent life. But few
of them wish to be conceived as symbols of anything for public consumption;
nor do they conceive it their purpose in life to inspire others, able-bodied or
disabled. They do not wish to be thought of as "special," but instead want it
understood that they are as complex and multi-dimensional as everyone else.
Their willingness to be open about their disabilities and, in particular, to make
their bodies visible is based on a desire to layout their differences in every
encounter with strangers precisely in order to move beyond these differences.
It is the way charities often represent disabled people, on telethons and in mail
solicitations, as if they were nothing more than victims of a defective body or
battlers against adversity, frozen permanently in the role of poster child, that
alienates so many disabled people today from those who believe that they are
due gratitude for helping them. lO
Though suggestive, it is not clear how these recent trends in interpreting
the behavior and the consciousness of the disabled may be of use to historians
of disability. Because so little is known about the history of the lived experiences of people with disabilities, it is tempting to hypothesize that these selfunderstandings and styles for managing oppression could not have been possible
before the enormous changes in roles, expectations, and social status during
the last several decades. In other words, in the historical past the repertory of
management skills and self-concepts available to people with disabilities would
have to be as limited as the lives and hopes available to most of them. Goffman's
assumption decades ago that the disabled shared the negative views of disability
held by the able-bodied, therefore, may seem an accurate starting point for historical analysis. Another working hypothesis that may be drawn from current
research to assist us in historicizing the response of disabled people to oppression
can be based on the argument now being advanced that the congenitally disabled, whose strategic skills emerge simultaneously with their personalities, have
had the best chance of both possessing a positive self-concept and becoming effective tacticians in managing others' reactions to them. Impairment incurred
in adulthood, we may thus assume, is too great a threat to the established personality to be absorbed and accommodated without an immense, and, for many,
unsuccessful struggle. In the less accepting social order of the past, with its narrow roles for disabled men and even narrower roles for disabled women, we may
be led to suppose that those disabled in adulthood, like Harold Russell, would
be especially lacking in the psychological resources to strive for a normalized
existence. 11
There are several ways in which Russell's life suggests the need to question the

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usefulness of these hypotheses. Russell suffered a devastating loss as an adult, but
embarked upon a rapid physical and spiritual rehabilitation. He was able to take
advantage, it is true, of the considerable opportunities a grateful, and perhaps
guilt-stricken, nation made available to disabled veterans. Yet Russell and other
disabled veterans found that the able-bodied people they encountered daily in
public showed a great deal of thoughtless prejudice in dealing with them. As
important, therefore, to his rehabilitation as formal instruction in the use of
his hooks was the understanding that he himself must purposefully develop the
ability to manage others' impressions of him, and furthermore, that he could
only do this successfully, if he accepted himself as he was.
Faced with this realization, he was limited in his range of tactics by the culture
and politics of his time. That his basic response to oppression was, and would
remain, an individual one was testimony, in a time long before the emergence
of the social movements organized around disability, of the ideological primacy
of traditional values of self-help and self-reliance among the disabled veterans
of the 1940s. The very rudimentary psychological counseling they received in
the hospital and the advice literature aimed at all veterans facing reintegration problems showed compassion, but urged men, just as they had been urged
while in the armed services, to be tough, uncomplaining, and active in adjusting
themselves to the social order, as it was. They also were told to mobilize private
resources from within their families to assist them; and their wives, girlfriends,
and mothers were especially urged by the various experts advising on reintegration problems to provide sympathy and inspire individual efforts. The principal
goal of the national veterans organizations was linking individuals and their farnilies with the public benefits they were promised under the OJ. Bill of Rights,
which those organizations had been instrumental in framing through an intense
lobbying effort. The benefits themselves were structured and dispensed not so
that veterans would be dependent, but instead so that all but the most severely
mentally or physically disabled individuals would possess the tools deemed neeessary to reintegrate themselves quickly. No organization systematically sought
to organize around the goal of confronting the prejudice shown impaired veterans. Russell did experience the informal solidarity of the hospital ward and
thereafter of the friends he made there. These peer groups were places where
men vented their frustrations and voiced their fears, and where they were offered
morale support, but they did not function to organize them politically against
the attitudes that oppressed the disabled. 12
The culture of the 1940s also constrained Russell, as an individual fashioning
a tactical emotional arsenal. The pressure on him to be a cheerful, inspirational
role model for other disabled veterans, and hence to model his life within the
narrative of triumph over adversity, was intense. That pressure was deepened by
the upbeat, high-minded wartime propaganda messages, urging uncomplaining
personal sacrifice and dedication, that the Roosevelt administration and American military commands constantly beamed at civilians and servicemen alike
throughout the war. Victorian notions of propriety lingering in the public culture of the mid- 1940s advanced standards of politeness in speech and behavior
that made angry confrontation with insensitive strangers undesirable.l '
The result of all of these influences was an emotional style that combined
affability with the calculated repression of anger, and bonded both of them to

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The project that eventuated in The Best Years of Our Lives originated with the
intuition of Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn that, when the war was over,
American society would face profound challenges in reintegrating the sixteen
million men whose lives had been disrupted by military service. There was ample oral and literary tradition, going back to Odysseus, and including the recent
American experience after World War I, to support this belief. IS But Goldwyn's
immediate inspiration was an article in Time that described the ambivalent feelings about returning home on furlough of some servicemen who had been in
combat in the South Pacific. Happy as they were to return, they also found
broken romances and marriages, high prices, profiteering, and shortages waiting
for them.!" Goldwyn commissioned the journalist and occasional screenwriter,
MacKinlay Kantor to do a screenplay based on the readjustment problems of
recently demobilized men. Overwhelmed by the classical provenance of his
theme, Kantor produced Glory For Me, a 268~page novel written in Homeric
blank verse about three variously combat-injured men, whose intricately connected homecomings in the all-American metropolis of "Boone City" are filled
with tensions, insecurities, frustrated hopes, and misunderstandings, mostly with
the wives, sweethearts, and daughters.V The characters are all disaffected from
the emerging post-war social order and unable easily to resume their personal
relations, for which Kantor ultimately blames the social order, rather than the
men themselves or even their recent combat experience. Goldwyn was mystified
by Kantor's prose poem format, and feared controversial material, preferring safe,
formula entertainments. He paid Kantor, shelved Glory For Me, and began to
plan an epic based on the life of General Eisenhower. 1s
The well-regarded Hollywood director William Wyler, who owed Goldwyn
a movie under contract, could not be persuaded to undertake the Eisenhower
project, but when he discovered Glory For Me, he was interested in its cinematic
potential. Thus began the revival of Kantor's treatment, which would be greatly
changed in order to defuse its political messages and make more acceptable its
troubled, alienated characters. Robert Sherwood was hired to work with Wyler

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a tactical sense of human relations that emphasized the subtle management of
interpersonal encounters with the able-bodied public. A certain tension would
always lie below the surface of this self-presentation, because its attempt to substitute genial manipulation for confrontation provided no outlet for anger and
bitterness. This tension assists us in explaining the significant difference between Russell's emerging conception of himself and the conception of Homer
Parrish he created with Sherwood and Wyler, a conception that simultaneously
allowed for both masking and articulating his inner feelings about the oppression he experienced as a disabled man. As we shall see, at the heart of that
explanation must be the limited cultural possibilities available to Russell and
other disabled veterans of his generation to confront oppression publicly and to
challenge the official, inspirational narrative of their lives.!" Even today Russell addresses "negative" emotions obliquely, through symbolic anecdotes, as I
discovered in interviewing him in 1990. It took me some time to understand
that Russell's affability, which quickly makes one feel like an old, valued friend,
has had its limits, and that Russell was attempting to explain to me what those
limits were at the time he made The Best Years of Our Lives.

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in revising Kantor's material.l" For all three men, there was no doubt of the
need to reformulate Kantor's character Homer Wermels, a severely disabled,
young Navy veteran whose brain injury in combat led him to drool, slur his
speech, twitch and shake, and walk with a foot-dragging gait. Kantor himself
had described Homer as "a boy" when he entered the service and "a monster"
when he left it. 20 Goldwyn, Sherwood, and Wyler were united in feeling that
the character was impossible: no audience could remain seated for long before
the images that would be necessary to realize Homer; and no actor could be
persuaded to play him. It was at this point, as they searched for ideas to help
them reconceive the disabled member of the trio, that Wyler and Sherwood
saw Diary of a Sargeant, and decided that they wanted Russell in the movie.
Goldwyn and a number of Hollywood insiders he consulted were unsure, fearing
that the public would be as put off by a hand amputee fitted with hooks, as by
Kantor's original character. The humanitarian concern with the rehabilitation
of disabled veterans expressed in a series of public opinion polls that Goldwyn
had privately commissioned finally convinced him that it was worth the risk, so
he agreed to sign Russell. There was probably no precedent in movie history for
giving a starring role in a big budget project to an amateur, let alone a disabled
one. 21
What goals shaped the revision of Kantor's treatment? The question cannot be answered without an understanding of Wyler's recent history. Known in
Hollywood before the war as a demanding and gifted, but facile director, Wyler
had made such successful middlebrow melodramas as Dead End (1937), ]ezebel
(1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Little Faxes (1941), each one considerably more stylish and with greater pretensions to seriousness than the average
Hollywood product, but like the man himself, thought to be lacking gravity.
Wyler returned from the war, however, a changed man, with larger goals than
box office receipts. He had had a commission in the Air Force, which asked
him to do documentaries on the combat experiences of B~ 17 bomber crews flying dangerous missions over Germany. He lived with the young crewmen and
experienced, while filming from a narrow perch near the bomb bay, the same
dangers. He knew many men who never returned from these missions, and he
lost a cameraman over Germany. Wyler himself left the service deaf in one ear,
because of the engine noise he was exposed to while shooting film. These experiences left him disgusted with what he felt to be the frivolity and opportunism
of his pre-war life and movies. For him, he later wrote, the war had been "an
escape into reality," from which he vowed never to return. He now wanted to
make realistic films that portrayed the hopes and fears of ordinary people. He
also felt a sense of obligation to remember the courage, sacrifices, and hopes for
a better world of the men, living and dead, with whom he had served. The Best
Years of Our Lives was the immediate focus of his effort to discharge this debt
and transform his artistic goals. 22 Russell remembered Wyler's approach to the
movie as less a project than "a mission; a crusade.,,23 Wyler filled the production
crew with veterans. He went to great lengths to give the film the gritty look
of reality, expending considerable energy and money to obtain the right sets,
costumes, acting, and camera work. And, above all, he wanted characters and
scenarios out of "real life." Sherwood, a New Deal Liberal who had once been a
close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, was infused with the Depression

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decade's ethos of the dignity of "the little man," and he felt comfortable with
these goals.i"
The movie they made, however, was much more a reflection of the Holly,
wood system than a bold, new departure into politically charged realism, such
as characterized the Italian cinema in the immediate post-war years. The look
of daily life was certainly there, but the movie did not penetrate very far into
the meanings of its characters' difficulties in daily life.2 s To some extent, this
was a result of the tug-of-war Wyler and Sherwood engaged in with Goldwyn
over whether the movie should have obvious political implications. Sherwood
wanted development of those post-war social problems that most affected vet,
erans' lives, and wrote into an early draft of the script a riot of veterans over
inadequate housing. Fearing attacks by the Right and adverse audience response,
Goldwyn vetoed such material, which also offended his patriotism.r?
But pressure from Goldwyn alone cannot account for the final shape of the
movie. Goldwyn respected Sherwood too much to interfere in fundamental ways
with the script, and he kept the promise he made to Sherwood to let him de,
velop the plot as he saw fit. Instead we must look to the artistic goals Sherwood
and Wyler themselves brought to the film. Wyler's newly born commitment to
social realism must be understood in the context of his own artistic philosophy,
which would never evolve far enough to alienate him seriously from the Holly,
wood system that he had been working in for two decades. As Wyler explained
in post'war articles and interviews, audiences would not accept unadulterated
reality on the screen. Realism and the social messages it usually projected had
to be wrapped in a melodramatic storyline that stressed the sort of interpersonal difficulties (romance, unrequited love, sexual desire, and conflict between
parents and children) that audiences could easily understand.F Audiences also
demanded sentimentality and happy endings, and this Wyler was willing to give
them, if he could also get across what he believed to be his larger points. Sherwood had little trouble with this. His brand of liberalism, the celebration of
the common man, easily turned into the sort of sentimentality characteristic of
Frank Capra's films about hard-pressed, decent people, who do the right thing
and experience happy endings. It was Sherwood who changed Kantor's brooding
ending to Glory For Me, in which all of the characters had dedicated them,
selves to fighting the "savage ... weather" of a peace characterized by racism,
anti-semitism, and class inequality, and put in its place a conclusion that sees
each of the three veterans securely united with a mate. As critics at the time
and since have observed, while a stunning technical achievement and consis,
tentlv well-acted, The Best Years of Our Lives seems locked in a battle between
melodrama and message that ultimately sees the latter concede more and more
ground to the former, which is, after all, the path of least resistance.r''
The transformation of "Homer Wermels" into "Homer Parrish" involved a
different creative process and a more radical departure from the original characterization than did the reconceptualization of Kantor's other two veterans, Fred
Derry (Dana Andrews) and Al Stephenson (Frederic March). With Al and Fred,
Sherwood largely accepted what Kantor had done, changing the two men only
slightly, to make them more sympathetic and reformulating their adjustment difficulties so that these were somewhat less politically charged. Homer's character
changed in fundamental ways and continued to evolve significantly throughout

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the production process. Sherwood and Wyler dispensed with so much of Kantor's character-his name, disability, inarticulate and slurred speech, alcoholism,
suicidal rages, frequent cruelty to those close to him-that it was necessary to
imagine a quite different person.r" Once it was decided to cast Russell in the
role, moreover, it was logical that he would have to be intimately involved in
assisting Sherwood to imagine the feelings of a man without hands. This was the
other unique feature in the recreation of Horner's character: it was an ongoing
collaborative process. During production, Russell met with Sherwood two or
three times a week to discuss how Horner might act in one situation or another.
In emotional terms, moreover, Horner continued to evolve long after Sherwood's
script was completed. One especially crucial scene, in which Horner and his girl,
friend Wilma talk about their future one night in his bedroom, was rehearsed
for a week on the closed set, while Wyler, Russell, and Cathy O'Donnell, who
played Wilma, tried to find plausible emotions for the characters. 30
Yet, though Russell's own biography was an important source for Horner,
Horner and Russell were quite different people. Sherwood also incorporated
into the character aspects of the personalities of men Russell had known on
the amputees ward at Walter Reed, and even of Franklin Roosevelt, who was
paralyzed as a consequence of polio in 1921. Sherwood had worked with the
president in much greater intimacy than was ordinarily true for members of his
staff. This intimacy included discussion with Roosevelt of his paralysis, which
the President had with few people other than immediate family and old frienda'!
What did remain the same from novel to movie was that Horner's story is
embedded in a melodramatic romance. Prior to going into the Navy, Horner made
a commitment to Wilma, who has lived next-door since they were children, that
they would marry upon his return. When he returns, in his own eyes a changed
man because of his amputations, he fends off all discussions of the future. He will
not talk about getting a job, a subject Wilma's father introduces at an informal
get-together on Homer's first night horne. He has been physically rehabilitated to
the extent that he can do many physical tasks that require exacting coordination,
but he is content to spend his days drinking beer at his Uncle Butch's tavern
and taking piano lessons there, target shooting in his garage, and cashing his
generous veteran's benefit check at the bank. He continues to be embarrassed by
his condition in spite of his prowess with the hooks. He has his hooks hidden in
his pockets when we first encounter him awaiting a plane ride among strangers
in an airport hanger, and then when he meets his family on the front lawn of
his horne just after arriving in Boone City; and he will not embrace Wilma
when they first meet. He is defensive and hostile when a prying stranger evinces
interest in his hooks late in the movie. His anger at unwanted attentions and
his psychological impasse regarding his future gives his target shooting a trace
of menace, and in one scene leads him to frighten his little sister and her young
friends by violently using his hooks to shatter a glass window through which the
children have been staring at him.
Horner is evasive, even hostile, when Wilma attempts to discuss their future.
He suspects she mistakes pity for love, and as it is eventually, delicately, established in the much-rehearsed scene in Horner's bedroom, he is ashamed at the
possibility that he will not be able to play the conventional, dominant male role
in their sexual relations after his hooks are removed upon retiring for bed. Wilma

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will not accept these evasions, and presses him repeatedly for a commitment.
Earlier in the movie, in a conversation with Al and Fred in which the three
men share their anxieties about returning home, Homer has spoken fondly but
dismissively of Wilma as "Just a kid." As it turns out, however, in his absence
she has matured as a consequence of having to live with the knowledge, first,
that he might not return, and then, though neither she nor Homer's parents
appear to have visited him during his hospitalization, with the knowledge of his
injury. She knows her own mind, and will not be dissuaded. When her parents
suggest that she go away to live with an aunt in order to make a break with
Homer, Wilma forces the issue by coming to the Parrish's, setting in motion
the interpersonal process that eventuates in the bedroom scene, in which their
future is finally resolved.
It is Homer, however, who suggests that the discussion, which begins in the
kitchen, continue up in his bedroom, where he wants to share with Wilma his
bedtime ritual. Now Homer finally finds his own voice, and quickly becomes the
focus of the scene. At night, he says, he must have help getting the hooks off,
after which, until someone helps him get them on again, he is as "dependent as a
baby." He asks for her help in taking off the hooks, and takes off his pajama top,
leaving him in a tee-shirt. She assists him, and for the first time in the movie,
we may clearly see his stumps, as the camera focuses unambiguously on Homer's
arms. Rather than being appalled or frightened, as Homer anticipates, the script
tells us that Wilma is inspired by his courage.V She passionately kisses him and
tells him that what he has told her makes no difference. He is now convinced of
her love. She maternally tucks him into bed, and quietly leaves the room. The
scene ends with the camera focused on Homer: framed against his pillow, he is
lying in bed, and there are tears in his eyes. Soon, in the movie's last scene, the
couple are married.
This powerful narrative sequence has its dramaturgical problems. It is not
clear what is the source of the courage and self-knowledge that make possible
Homer's extraordinary confession of his anxieties about his manhood.V Wilma
forces the issue, but Homer, who has been an inarticulate, shallow character up to
this point, suddenly takes it over, with his statement and the display of his body.
No doubt Sherwood and Wyler were quite content to have the scene "work," as
it does so powerfully, on the emotional level, for that is all that effective drama
requires. For our purposes, however, this is less the point than the extent to
which the character that Russell assumed an intimate role in creating differs in
significant ways from the man he himself became after losing his hands. If for no
other reason than that the movie leaves an impression that Homer's impairment
resulted in a psychological feeling of helplessness, practical dependence, and an
embarrassment over his body, all of which in his own life Russell came quickly to
reject, we need to inquire about the functions for Russell of creating and playing
Homer.
Russell's rehabilitation was far from effortless, as he has made quite clear.
Inevitably he was bitter about the defective munitions that had caused his accident; disgusted with his condition, and anxious about the future. Initial efforts
to go out into the able-bodied, civilian world beyond the protective confines of
the hospital were blighted by a mutually reinforcing cycle of unsolicited, random
attention from strangers and a self-consciousness that frequently manifested it-

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self in his own public anger, acute embarrassment, and retreat. These aspects
of Russell's rehabilitation certainly did influence his conception and portrayal
of Homer. But what stands out in his two autobiographies, Victory in My Hands
(1949) and The Best Years of My Life (1981), and my oral history interview with
him in 1990, is the speed and resilience with which he came to realize the need
to put his disability behind him and lay down the foundations of a new life. In
this, over many years, Russell consistently has represented himself as a very different man than the fictional character he plays on the screen, and he thus seems
much more like the disability activists one encounters today. To some extent,
the differences are illusory-that is, if we wish to see Russell as representing a
completely open stance toward his disability and others' reactions to it. Unlike
Homer, Russell made the choice early in his rehabilitation to keep from public
view feelings, especially anger over the oppression of people with disabilities,
he came to believe were a practical hindrance to his rehabilitation and to his
usefulness as a model for other disabled veterans. (The purposefulness of this
repression of any but "positive" feelings, however, suggests a conscious strategy
of self-presentation, which is, in fact, what Homer, who is painfully inarticulate
and defensive for much of the movie, lacks. Homer's anger serves no purpose
but to delay his ultimate acceptance of Wilma's love.) Whatever inner turmoil
Russell occasionally felt, it was so deeply hidden by the time he took up the
role of Homer that Wyler came to think that he was actually too happy and
well-adjusted, and needed to conjure up the bitterness and anger the director
believed the role required. Wyler, who had strenuously objected to any effort
to give Russell acting lessons in fear that he would not be himself in playing
Homer, now seriously proposed to send him to live at a Veteran's Administration hospital for a few weeks to help him rediscover some negative emotions.
Russell objected, and the idea was dropped.l"
These differences and similarities may best be understood if three challenges
Russell faced are examined: shame and embarrassment; planning for the future;
and sexuality. Homer manifests shame and embarrassment over his condition
in diverse ways. Russell did, too, but within six months of his accident he had
come to understand the need for a different emotional stance. Two experiences
were significant in this breakthrough. One was the realization that while the
glove-covered artificial hands would allow him to pass for normal, they were
functionally useless.P Reinforcing this rejection of a cosmetic quick-fix was his
encounter not long after he began to experience doubts about the artificial hands
with Charles McGonegal, a World War I veteran who had lost both of his hands
in combat. A self-sufficient and successful California rancher, McGonegal was
a walking advertisement for the prosthetic hook, and that is how the military
used him. A training film, Meet McGonegal (1943), was made to show recent
amputees all that McGonegal could do with his hooks, and how self,confidently
and good-naturedly he used them. (When it was realized that the young World
War II veterans could not completely identify with the affluent, middle aged
family man, Diary of a Sargeant was made to take its place, but segments of the
earlier film appear in the latter in order to illustrate its positive influence on the
character Russell plays.)
McGonegal also visited Walter Reed to encourage the men. His messages to
them can be summarized as: You define your limits by your attitude toward your,

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self; and people will not be comfortable with you until you are comfortable with
yourself. Perhaps McGonegal's greatest practical contribution to the spiritual
welfare of the hand and arm amputees was his effort to help them become cornfortable in public, among strangers. He took them out to restaurants and night
clubs in Washington, D.C., and taught them how to deal with a problem that
proved psychologically incapacitating for many of them: the unwanted attentions they received from curious, often boorish, people, who stared at them, and
who asked questions about how they lost their hands and how the hooks worked.
Encourage a positive response, he said, by demonstrating how the hooks worked
and by an affable, jesting response to inquiries. Opening a pack of cigarettes was
one ploy to put people at ease, just as were smart quips, such as the one Russell
would frequently come to use, "I can pick up anything but the check." This was
nothing less than an impromptu public performance, and, to the extent that
one often simply wished to be left alone to drink one's beer in peace, it might
frequently involve repressing how one really felt about unwanted attention. But
McGonegal's point was that, for better or worse, these men would continue to
attract such attention. In effect, he told them, their lives were no longer completely their own (especially because they were also conceived as war heroes),
and they might as well use the situation to their advantage, taking control of
encounters with strangers to create good will. 36 In Russell's case these lessons
accomplished still more. They were instruction in acting long before he could
have anticipated starring in a Hollywood movie. Wyler understood this. He astutely responded to Russell's initial fears about being inadequate for the part by
suggesting that Russell knew what it was he had to do, because he had already
been playing Homer for two years. 37
The success of this strategy of positive attitudes, avowal, and display was soon
apparent to Russell. Shyness had always been a problem for him. It had held
him back in his relations with Rita, a woman he had admired from a distance
before the war. It had made his attempts at classroom instruction in demolitions
excruciatingly uncomfortable.Y' The hooks certainly made him stand out, and
would have been a severe, life-long trial for a shy man. But now for the first time
in his life, Russell found himself enjoying encounters with strangers, because he
was able to control their response to him, and because he felt himself gaining
significantly in self-confidence.
This breakthrough came rapidly over the course of months. His first furlough
home, also the first time he went among strangers without the company of other
amputees, was difficult. He was embarrassed about standing out, and his selfconsciousness made it difficult for him to do even simple tasks that he had already
mastered. In the company of members of his family, who had already seen him
at the hospital, he felt as if he were on display and hid his hooks in his pockets.
He longed to go back to the hospital. But when he did return, his psychological
breakthrough proceeded rapidly, as McGonegal and members of the hospital staff
encouraged him, and as he subjected his behavior during his leave to intense
self-scrutiny, By the time of his subsequent furloughs, he felt at ease sufficiently
to wave his hooks at the family and friends who came to greet him at the airport
when he first saw them in the crowd, and to embrace Rita enthusiastically when
he saw her there. 39 Russell's experience with the first furlough helped him to
capture Homer's emotions when he is first reunited with his family and Wilma

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on the lawn of his home. Homer hides the hooks in pockets, and will not
embrace anyone, including Wilma. But, unlike Russell, Homer does not really
develop much beyond this point until late in the movie when his problems with
Wilma are suddenly resolved. He remains ill-at-ease, defensive and cold, and
feels guilty for acting this way. The difference lies not only in characterization,
but in chronological sequencing, too. Russell and the rehabilitation staff alike
understood the need for the amputees to go out into the public and to be with
loved ones in deliberately paced stages. Homer, however, is thrown into the
company of his family and his girl, seemingly without preparation on anyone's
part. This intensifies the dramatic tension, to be sure, but in the process it denies
to Homer, Russell's ability to learn from his experience and to apply his insights
to his rehabilitation.
The same successful self-scrutiny directly influenced Russell's decision to plan
a career, and again establishes a significant difference between him and the character he portrays. Russell explains that he had never enjoyed the monotonous
physical work he had done as a butcher. He wanted a less exacting job in the
future. It struck him that if he could make strangers comfortable with the hooks,
he could probably sell them anything, so he opted to go into advertising and
public relations, which he imagined to be "85 per cent baloney"-Le. more
showmanship than substance. By the time he was contacted by Goldwyn and
offered a movie contract, Russell had decided to get credentials in his chosen
field, and was accepted for admission to the School of Business Administration
at Boston Universitv.P In contrast, the character Russell helped create seems
incapable of planning for his future and quite content to live off his government
check. The end of the movie may find him married to Wilma, but he has yet to
face the question of what he will do with the rest of his life.
Homer's effort to avoid discussing the future of his relationship with Wilma is
ultimately a product of sexual anxieties that strike at the core of his masculine
self-image. He is sexually passive to the extent that he will not embrace Wilma,
and it is Wilma who initiates the kiss they finally share toward the end of the
bedroom scene. Her sexual directness in initiating the kiss, and then the maternal
warmth she shows in tucking Homer into bed, regain for her the emotional
initiative that she relinquished when Homer finally articulated his fears about his
sexuality. Harold Russell did not experience these sexual anxieties nor this sexual
passivity, then or later. Within a short time of his injury, he actually resumed an
affair with a married woman named Harriet he had been involved with earlier
in the war. He had broken off the relationship when he was transferred to North
Carolina. After he was injured, he hardly considered resuming sexual relations
with anyone in particular, though the subject was on his mind, more as a source of
anxiety than an interest in finding a partner. But Harriet had gotten information
from his mother about his whereabouts, came to visit him in the hospital, and
chastised him for dropping her without explanation. She then left him her hotel
key. They continued this liaison, which Russell naturally felt was beneficial for
his morale, for a time while he was in the hospital. Thereafter, he says, he was
never again to experience doubts about his sexualitv.t!
Russell did experience anxieties about a relationship with a woman, but the
basis for this anxiety was not sexual. Rita, the woman he had known before the

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war but had been too shy to pursue, was the sister of a friend, and he had known
her for years. During the war she married and had two children. It seemed that
he had lost her forever. But her marriage failed, and she obtained a divorce while
Russell was in rehabilitation at Walter Reed. She now pursued Russell, whom
she found reluctant to see her and, once he did, to commit himself. The problem
was not the sexual one that bedeviled Homer, for Russell had already resumed a
sexual liaison. Instead, the situation with Rita caused him discomfort because it
forced him to recall his previous failings with her and in doing so, the dead-end
life that he felt he had been leading prior to entering the service, and that he
worried the circumstances of his injury could force him to resume, if he did not
struggle against them. Before the war, he had lacked personal and employment
goals. He had disliked his job, but saw no alternatives for a man with only a high
school diploma in the middle of the Depression. He had not been able to tell his
feelings to the woman he loved, and he was still living with his widowed mother.
Moreover, at the point Rita came back into his life he had not yet committed
himself to a career, and had doubts about whether he could support her and the
two children with his veteran's benefits. The psychological and practical benefits
of the spiritual rehabilitation that McGonegal inspired resolved the problem,
however, though not without some awkward and painful moments. By the time
Russell signed his movie contract, he and Rita were engaged. 42
We are naturally led to wonder whether emotions displaced from this real life
drama assisted Russell in understanding Homer's emotional crisis and in rendering such a powerful performance in the role. Writing in the late 1940s, he
gave this impression in Victory in My Hands, but since the situations were not
the same I chose to pursue the matter in interviewing him. What I discovered
was that while his own relationship with Rita was an influence on his understanding of Homer's situation, other, much less predictable influences, which
he did not find it easy to address in Victory in My Hands and in other public
contexts, were also at play in his conception of Homer. Victory in My Hands
was written, Russell says, to encourage disabled veterans: it was an inspirational
tale, conceived within the limitations of the conventional, uplifting disability
narrative of self-help and struggle against the odds, at the end of which the
character at the center emerges respected by his peers and confident in himself.
Russell was strongly, though informally, encouraged, by cultural tradition and by
the press, the military, and civilian politicians, to conceive of the meaning of his
experience in this way. In framing his first volume of memoirs as an inspirational
tale, it was necessary to leave out aspects of his experience that he felt could not
be accommodated within these time-honored, but narrow narrative constraints.
Thus, the story of the sexual liaison, which involved adultery and was acknowledged by both parties to have no point other than pleasure, was not told for over
three decades. In the post- 1960s cultural climate, he felt it could appear in his
second memoir without causing offense. 43 The narrative of the relationship with
Rita, however, fit perfectly into the inspirational frame, for it involved not only
overcoming adversity, but doing so in ways that did not challenge conventional
morality and, in providing a home for Rita's children, actually buoyed up the
traditional nuclear family. Nor did the inspirational message allow much room
for the expression of anger at the oppression disabled people encounter. Once

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Russell learned from McGonegal how to deal with unwanted public attention,
the logic of this narrative frame was that he was no longer to be too bothered
by offensive behavior; it was instead just another challenge to be mastered.
If we look more deeply into the motivations behind Russell's acting, we get
a different picture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crucial bedroom
scene, the intensely emotional climax of the Horner,Wilma scenario. As Russell
matter-of-factly observes in his first memoir, the scene is premised on a falsehood,
at least in so far as Russell's own life was concemed.t" Russell was quite able to
get the hooks on and off by himself, skills he was taught precisely so that he
would not be as "dependent as a baby" at night or any other time. Because many
in the contemporary audience actually felt that Horner's story was Russell's,
and the Goldwvn studio did not discourage this contlation, the claim of artistic
license is a problematic response to the interpretive, and indeed the ethical,
difficulties, with which this element in the plot confronts us. This is particularly
true to the extent that the scene gives the public an impression that subverts the
claim of men like Russell that they are capable and self-sufficient. The entire
rehabilitative struggle of Russell and the other amputees he knew was done in the
name of a personal independence. But Russell accepted this falsehood, because
it advanced the melodrama.t'' which was itself based on a sexual passivity that
he did not share with Horner and a relationship only vaguely similar to that he
shared with Rita.
What then was the inspiration for Russell's extraordinary performance in the
scene? The answer ultimately lies in emotions-anger and bitterness-which
seem particularly inappropriate to the scene. For Russell, the inspiration for the
scene lay not in the opportunity for recapitulation of his drama with Rita, but
rather in appearing before the camera without his hooks, displaying his handless
body. But it was not a simple matter for him to tell me this. When I asked him
why he accepted the logic of the plot, even though it undermined the claims of
disabled people to independence, he at first parried my question with a response
I did not feel was convincing-s-t'It was a great scene to play."-in light of the
scene's intensity and pathos. Then he broke the impasse over the matter by
answering me indirectly, with a symbolic anecdote. This proved difficult for
me to decode. Why? Precisely because the anecdote served simultaneously, in
ways I was slow to grasp, to express and to mask feelings of bitterness and anger
that, in the act of self-recreation, he accustomed himself not to express, because
they seemed to him little more than unmanly complaining, they were not the
inspiring stuff to be expected from role models, and they did not help him to
manage his encounters with strangers. Moreover, I had accepted as the measure
of the whole man, the affable mode of public self, presentation that Russell has
mastered, so I was not prepared for the strong, negative emotions the anecdote
expressed.
Russell told me of a friend, a disabled veteran he had known at Walter Reed,
who had lost both his legs, and who regularly went to a crowded public beach near
Boston to swim. This required him to take off his artificial legs and crawl down to
the water. The friend derived great satisfaction from this ritual. Indeed, he felt his
satisfaction in the ritual was the mark of the completeness of his rehabilitation.
The reason for his satisfaction was that he had come to understand that, as he

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told Russell, "'I had the bastards then.'" My immediate response to this anecdote
was confusion, hecause as an able-bodied man who has never experienced the
oppression of the disabled, it was difficult for me to understand the feelings of
liberation, self-possession, and control over an encounter with others that are
experienced by those who know that the reaction to their disabled bodies is the
source of their oppression. Was "having" the bastards simply monopolizing their
attention, I wondered as I pondered the remark? No, Russell explained to me,
his friend was saying, in effect, "'The bastards, they had to look at me.' "46 In
other words, his friend had structured the situation in a way that made such
awkward but, for a disabled person, obvious mechanisms of unwanted attention
as staring from a safe distance and furtive glances from nearby irrelevant. He
forced those among whom he crawled to be engaged with him directly and on
his own terms, invading their space aggressively, even angrily, and establishing
his domination over a situation (the beach, with its half-naked visitors) that is
normally controlled by the most conventional aesthetic criteria for evaluating
the body.47
In making the bedroom scene, therefore, Russell's thoughts were less on love
and sexuality than on oppression. He used Sherwood's melodrama, and more
generally the movies, our most conventionalized entertainment form (which,
like a public beach, is a culturally symbolic location, usually consecrated to illusive images of beauty and desire), to make an extraordinary statement demanding
acceptance on his own terms. Once having been forced to see the bedroom scene
from Russell's own existential perspective, rather than that of the melodrama,
I had to shed the perspective created by the captivating inspirational narrative
frame, and reinterpret elements of the movie that I now realized I had not understood on first viewing. Guided by the movie's inspirational message, I had
seen certain sequences not as having to do with anger and bitterness, but rather
with "confusion" that Homer was destined to "overcome" as he surmounted his
difficulties. Homer's target-shooting, as Russell plays it, now appears to me to
suggest menace and aggression. The sequence in which Homer encounters the
able-bodied, prying stranger, who insensitively expresses interest in his injury
(and then tells him he lost his hands for nothing because, as the radical Right
view of the war then had it, the United States fought on the wrong side), also
now appears significantly different to me. The stranger's remarks eventuate in a
fight. I had been prone to see Homer as the one attacked, the result, I believe, of
an unthinking sympathy for someone I conceived to be weak and incapable of
aggression, and completely worthy of my unreflective sympathy for his efforts to
overcome a terrible difficulty. After watching the sequence again and reading the
script, I found I was quite wrong. Homer is the aggressor, menacing the obnoxious stranger with his hooks and precipitating the man's defensive reaction.t''
Russell's acting now seems nowhere stronger to me than in these angry sequences
that I was previously only able to assimilate into the movie by interpreting them
from Homer's perspective, not Russell's, as I have come to understand him.
That it proved so difficult to penetrate the surface of The Best Years of Our
Lives, is less a tribute to William Wyler's art than to the insidiousness of the
culture of oppression that surrounds disability. Disability is a last frontier of
human fear, casting up before us the wilderness of our vulnerability in the face of

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those chaotic forces that would invade and occupy or destroy us, and render us
powerless and dependenr.t" Until we are able to address our fears more directly
than our conventional cultural products enable us to, we will be hostage to them.

Department of History
Park Hall
Amherst, NY 14260

ENDNOTES

2.

A convenient description of the origins and conception of the project that became

The BestYears of Our Lives is, Martin A. Jackson, "The Uncertain Peace: The Best Years of
Our Lives (1946 )," in AmericanHistory/American Film: Interpreting The Hollywood Image,
John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson, editors (New York, 1979), pp. 147-66. But a
fuller understanding can only be gained by consulting Russell, Victory in My Hands, and
idem, The Best Years of My Life; Arthur Marx, Goldwyn: A Biography Of The Man Behind
The Myth (New York, 1976); A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn: A Biography (New York, 1973);
and Michael A. Anderegg, William Wyler (Boston, 1979).
3. Russell, Victory inMy Hands, pp. 221, 222-25; n.a., "New Picture," Time 48 (Novernber 25, 1946): 103-04; Howard Rusk, "Rehabilitation-New Film on Broadway Called
'Significant Portrayal of The Emotional and Physical Problems Facing Veterans,'" New
York TImes, November 24,1946; n.a., "Film of the Week, The Best Years of Our Lives,"
Life 21 (December 16, 1946): 71; Richard Griffith, [review], Films in Review, (January,
1947): 4-5; "Harold Russell's 'Oscar,'" [editorial], New York TImes, March 15, 1947; Spe~
cial Advertising Bulletin! [for The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946], Film Library, Museum of
Modern Art. (hereafter cited as: FL/MOMA.) The studio accomplished mystifying Russell's relationship to the role he played largely by giving him as little publicity as possible
before the movie's premiere and never doing anything to correct mistaken impressions.
Goldwyn wanted the reviewers to believe they had discovered Russell and to identify
closely with Russell.
4.
R. Gilden, et al., "Amputations, Body Image, and Perceptual Distortion: A Prelim,
inary Study," U.S. Navy Medical Research Institute Report, n. 12 (1954), 587-600; Fred
Davis, "Deviance Disavowal: The Management of Strained Interaction by The Visibly
Handicapped," Social Problems, 9, n. 1 (1961): 120-32; Leonard Kriegel, "Uncle Tom
and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on The Cripple as Negro," American Scholar 38, n. 3
(1969): 412-30; Joan Ablon, LivingWith Difference: Families with Dwarf Children (New
York, 1988), pp. 50-2, 151; C. S. Goldin, "The Community of The Blind: Social Organi-

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1. The story of Harold Russell's rehabilitation as well as of his life prior to and since
his injury is told in his two popularly-oriented memoirs, both of which cover much of
the same ground, but contain different details. The first volume emphasizes his spiritual
rehabilitation; the second, his physical rehabilitation. The second is also much more
irreverent and forthcoming about some sensitive personal matters, a point I discuss in
this essay. See, Harold Russell, with Victor Rosen, Victory in My Hands (New York, 1949);
and Harold Russell, with Dan Ferullo, The Best Years of My Life (Middlebury, 1981). I
conducted an extensive oral history interview with Russell on June 27, 1990 at his home
in Hyannis, Massachusetts (hereafter cited as HR, 6/27/1990), and a telephone interview
on November 20, 1990 (hereafter, HR, 11/20/1990). The tapes of the former and notes
of the latter are in the possession of the author. Harold Russell went on to become National Commander of AMVETS (1950-51, 1960), vice-president of the World Veterans
Federation (1960-67), and chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of
the Handicapped (1964-1989), while simultaneously operating a consulting firm which
advised industry and commercial business on disability issues.

ANGER AND AFFABILITY

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zation, Advocacy, and Cultural Redefinition," Human Organization 43 (Summer, 1984):
121-31; and note 8, infra, for all titles by Gelva Frank and Marilynn Phillips.
5. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on The Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood
Cliffs, NJ, 1963) is the principal text, but see, also, idem, "The Moral Career of The
Mental Patient," Psychiatry: Journal for The Study of Interpersonal Processes 22 (May,
1959): 123-42. Of assistance to me in a critical understanding of Goffman have been,
Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (New York, 1970), pp. 378-90;
and Richard Sennett, "Two on The Aisle," New York Review of Books, November 1,1973,
29-32.

7. Richard Scotch, From Goodwill to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy
(Philadelphia, 1984); Gerben De [ong, The Movement for Independent Living: Origins,
Ideology, and Implications for Disability Research (East Lansing, MI, 1979); Renee Anspach,
"From Stigma to Identity Politics: Political Activism Among Physically Disabled and
Former Mental Patients," Social Science and Medicine 13, n. 5 (1979): 765-73; Frank
Bowe, Handicapping America (New York, 1978); Allan T. Sutherland, Disabled We Stand
(Bloomington, 1985); Oliver Sacks, "The Revolution of The Deaf," New York Review of
Books,June 2, 1988,23-8; Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch, eds. Women with Disabilities:
Essays in Psychology, Culture and Politics (Philadelphia, 1988); Jane R. Mercer, Labeling The
Mentally Retarded: Clinical and Social System Perspectives on Mental Retardation (Berkeley,
1973).
8. Gelya Frank, "Venus on Wheels: The Life History of A Congenital Amputee,"
Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1981, and idem, "Life History Model
of Adaptation to Disability: The Case of A 'Congenital Amputee,'" Social Science and
Medicine 19, n. 6 (1984): 639-45, '''Becoming The Other': Empathy and Biographical
Interpretation," Biography 8, n. 3 (1985): 189-210; "Beyond Stigma: Visibility and SelfEmpowerment of Persons with Congenital Limb Deficiencies," Journal of Social Issues 44,
n.l (1988): 95-115. Marilynn Phillips, "Try Harder: The Experiences of Disability and
The Dilemma of Normalization," Social Science Journal 22, n. 4 (1985): 45-57, and idem,
"Damaged Goods: Oral Narratives of The Experience of Disability in American Culture,"
Social Science Medicine 30, n. 8 (1990): 849-57.
For the critique of Goffman on disability, see Fred Davis, "Deviance Disavowal: The
Management of Strained Interaction by The Visibly Handicapped"; R. Kleck, "Phvsical Stigma and Task Interaction," Human Relations 22, n. 1 (1969): 53-9; Joan Ablon,
"Stigmatized Health Conditions," Social Science Medicine 15B, n. 1 (1981): 5-9; Myron
Eisenberg, "Disability as Stigma," in Disabled People as Second Class Citizens, Myron G.
Eisenberg, C. Griggins, and R. J. Duval, eds. (New York, 1982). For a contrary view,
see, Irving K. Zola, "Classics Revisited: Goffman's Stigma," Disability and Chronic Illness
Newsletter 3 (July, 1983): 16-17.
9. Frank, "Venus on Wheels: The Life History of A Congenital Amputee," pp. 62-3
and idem, "Beyond Stigma: Visibility and Self-Empowerment of Persons with Congenital
Limb Deficiencies," 95, 97-8, 102--03, 111-13, 106, 108; Phillips, "Damaged Goods: Oral
Narratives of The Experience of Disability in American Culture," 852, 855. Also, see,
Ablon, Livingwith Difference: Families with DwarfChildren, pp. 50-2,141.
10. Phillips, "Try Harder: The Experiences of Disability and The Dilemma of Normalization," and idem, "Damaged Goods: Oral Narratives of The Experience of Disability in
American Culture," 854-55; Frank, "Beyond Stigma: Visibility and Self-Empowerment
of Persons with Congenital Limb Deficiencies," 108-14. Concerning contemporary at-

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6. Paul Hunt, Stigma: The Experience of Disability (London, 1966); B. Lawrence, "SelfConcept Formation and Physical Handicap: Some Educational Implications of Integration," Disability, Handicap, and Society 6, n. 2 (1991): 139-46; Constantina SafiliosRothschild, The Sociology and Social Psychology of Disability and Rehabilitation (New York,
1970); Robert F. Murphy, The Body Silent (New York, 1987) pp. 85-111.

24

journal of social history

fall 1993

tacks on telethons and on "supercrips" (athletes and other people with disabilities who
perform feats of strength and endurance to inspire others and to test themselves, and are
uncritically lauded in the popular press), see these theme issues of the principal radical organ of the Disability Rights Movement, "The Athletes," The Disability Rag, July/August,
1986; "And The Greatest of These is Charity," ibid. September/October, 1987; "The
Revolt of The Easter Seal Kids," ibid., March/April, 1989; and "We Wish We Wouldn't
See ... ," ibid., November/December, 1990.

12. Russell, Victory inMy Hands, pp. 92-3,110,118-19; Russell, The BestYears of My Life,
pp. 13-24; HR, 6/27/1990; Susan M. Hartman, "Prescriptions for Penelope: Literature
on Women's Obligations to Returning World War II Veterans," Women's Studies 5, no.
2 (1978): 223-29; Donald R. B. Ross, Preparing for Ulysses: Politics and Veterans During
World War II (New York, 1969); Robert Klein, Wounded Men, Broken Promises (New
York, 1981), pp. 30,46-9.
13. Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in The Second World War (New
York, 1989), pp. 52-65, 79-114, 129-95, 228-51; Murphy, The Body Silent, pp. 26-9;
Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 141, 154-55; Russell, The Best Years of My Life, pp.
16-18, 23-42. Recent historical research on the development of American emotional
standards does not systematically or directly address the effects of military service on
standards for emotional management among men of Russell's generation, let alone among
men in the unique situation of Russell and other disabled veterans. Nonetheless, some
suggestive possibilities for further inquiry do emerge out of such research. On the basis of a
reading of prescriptive literature, social surveys, works of popular psychology, and fiction,
two pioneering recent works posit a gradual decline of the acceptability of personal,
public anger, especially male anger, by 1940, and the increasing effort to extend this
control of anger in broader realms of life. See, Peter N. Stearns, "Men, Boys, and Anger
in American Society, 1860-1914," in Manliness and Morality: Middle Class Masculinity
in Britain and America, 1800-1940, J. A. Mangan and James Walvin, eds., (New York,
1987), pp. 75-91; and Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter N. Stearns, Anger: The Struggle
for EmotionalControl in America's History (Chicago, 1986), pp. 95-96, 116-17, 122, 124,
190, 194-95, 199,216. Wittingly or not, disabled veterans such as Russell may have been
among the pioneers in the application of these prescriptions against anger in their own
lives. They were especially vulnerable to such prescriptions, and were in a position to
receive them from exactly the sort of experts (doctors, psychologists, counselors, etc.)
then promulgating them, whom these men saw routinely during rehabilitation. Their
vulnerability was a consequence, in the aftermath of their injuries, of the necessity of
reconstructing so much of their personalities and modes of public self-presentation in
order to return to the world with their impairments.
14. Russell attributes the inspirational tone of his 1949 memoir to the desire "to pro~
mote rehabilitation and tolerance." The less inspirational, more irreverent 1981 memoir,
however, is said to be motivated by the desire "to tell the truth," which in this case
consists of: a use of more vivid and colloquial language, a willingness to discuss sexuality,
descriptions of the ways in which the. men he lived with at Walter Reed Army Hospital
subverted the hospital's rules, mild criticisms of the inadequate aspects of the rehabilitation process, and descriptions-in a humorous and self-mocking tone-of particular
frustrations he experienced during rehabilitation. HR, 6/27/1990. Both books have in
common, however, a reluctance to address directly or at length problems of oppression or

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11. Ablon, Living with Difference: Families with Dwarf Children, pp. 50-2,141; Frank,
"Beyond Stigma: Visibility and Self-Empowerment of Persons with Congenital Limb De,
ficiencies," 102-12, 114; Phillips, "Damaged Goods: Oral Narratives of True Experience
of Disability in American Culture," 852; Michell Fine and Adrienne Asch, "Disabled
Women: Sexism without the Pedestal," Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 8, no. 2
( 1981): 233-48. For a broader, and less sanguine, conception of the formative experiences of disabled infants and children, see, David J. Thomas, The Experience of Handicap
(London, 1982),pp.96, 105, 107-08, 115-16, 119-36, 151.

ANGER AND AFFABILITY

25

acceptance, which are largely conceived of in terms of Russell's emerging attitude toward
himself rather than of social prejudices.

1946)
16. "U.S. at War-The Nation: The Way Home," Time 44 (August 7, 1944): 15-16;
Marx, Goldwyn, p. 305; Berg, Goldwyn, pp. 392-93.
17. MacKinlay Kantor, Glory ForMe (New York, 1945).
18. Marx, Goldwyn, pp. 305-07; Berg, Goldwyn, pp. 395-96; Clayton R. Koppes and
Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped
World War II Movies (New York, 1987), p. 162; Richard Griffith, Samuel Goldwyn: The
Producer and His Films (New York, 1956), p. 38.
19. Madsen, William Wyler, pp. 257-59; Marx, Goldwyn, p. 308; Koppes and Black,
Hollywood Goes to War, pp. 22-3, 33, 54-5, 192, 198; Walter J. Meserve, Robert E.
Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist (New York, 1970).
20. Kantor, Glory For Me, p. 13.
21. Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 153-60; Marx, Goldwyn, pp. 309-11; Madsen,
William Wyler, pp. 262-63; Anderegg, William Wyler, pp. 126-28.
22. Madsen, William Wyler, pp. 257-59, 266-68; Marx, Goldwyn, p. 307 (quote); Berg,
Goldwyn, 405-06; The Best Years of Our Lives, Press Kit, FL/MOMA.
23. Joseph Goulden, The Best Years, 1945-50 (New York, 1976), p, 4.
24. Madsen, William Wyler, pp. 266-74; Koppes and Black, Hollywood Goes to War, pp.
54-5; Marx, Goldwyn, p. 308.
25. Anderegg, William Wyler, pp. 143-44, contains a survey of the movie's reputation,
which has declined over time, as the recognition of its evasions has increased. Three
reviewers, one generally positive and the other two negative, made the same point at the
time of the premiere, however; see, Abraham Polonsky, "The Best Years of Our Lives: A
Review," Hollywood Quarterly 2 (April, 1947): 257-60; James Agee, "What Hollywood
Can Do," The Nation (December 7, 14, 1946); in Agee on Film, idem, editor (New York,
1958), pp. 229-33; Robert Warshaw, The Immediate Experience (New York, 1970), pp.
156-57. The movie is analyzed incisively in the context of genre formulas in Peter
Roffman and James Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and
Politics from the Depression to the Fifties (Bloomington, 1981), pp. 227-34.
26. Marx, Goldwyn, pp. 308, 311.
27. Thomas Pryor, "William Wyler and His Screen Philosophy," New YorkTimes, Novem-

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15. Franklin Fearing, "Warriors Return: Normal and Neurotic," Hollywood Quarterly
(October 1945): 91-109; Michael T. Isenberg, "The Great War Viewed From The Twen,
ties: The Big Parade," in American History, American Film: Interpreting The Hollywood Image, O'Connor and Jackson, eds., pp. 17-37; Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New
York, 1926); Erich Marie Remarque, The RoadBack (Boston, 1931); D. H. Lawrence, Lady
Chatterley's Lover (New York, 1959); John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers (New York, 1921);
Laurence Stallings, Plumes (New York, 1924). On the recognition of the problems of rein,
tegrating demobilized veterans, among the significant World War II texts are, Willard
Waller, The Veteran Comes Home (New York, 1944); Charles Bolte, The New Veteran
(New York, 1945); John Mariano, The Veteranand His Marriage (New York, 1945); Alan,
son Edgerton, Readjustment or Revolution: A Guide to Economic, Educational, and Social
Readjustment of Our War Veterans, Ex,War Workers, and Oncoming Youth (New York,

26

journal of social history

fall 1993

ber 17, 1946, sec. 2, 5; Hermine Rich Isaacs, "William Wyler: Director with A Passion
and Craft," Theater Arts 31 (February, 1947): 22-3; William Wyler, "No Magic Wand,"
The Screen Writer (February, 1947), reprinted in Hollywood Directors, 1941-1976, Richard
Koszarski, ed. (New York, 1977), pp. 102-116; Berg, Goldwyn, pp. 410-12.
28. Kantor, Glory For Me, p. 268; Polonsky, "The Best Years of Our Lives: A Review;"
James Agee, "What Hollywood Can Do;" Warshow, The Immediate Experience, pp. 15657; John McCarten, "Goldwyn's Longest," The New Yorker 22 (November 23,1946): pp.
70-1; Andrew Sarris, "The Best Years of Our Lives," Village Voice, July 15, 1965, p. 11;
Michael Wood, America in The Movies (New York, 1975), pp. 38, 119; Adam Garbicz
and Jacek Klinowski, Cinema, The Magic Vehicle: A Guide to Its Achievement, vol. 1, The
Cinema Through 1949 (Metuchen, NJ, 1975), pp. 422-23.

30. HR, 6/27/1990; Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 187-88, 197.
31. HR, 6/27/1990; Hugh Gallagher, FDR's Splendid Deception (New York, 1985); Geoffrey C. Ward, A Firsr-Cicss Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (New York,
1989),pp. 18,606-08,630,750.

32. The Best Years of Our Lives, April 19, 1946, p. 195.
33. This is the issue I take up in my essay, "Heroes and Misfits: Conflicting Representations of Disabled Veterans of World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives," presented at
"Women, Work, and Family in World War II" Symposium, State University College at
Brockport, Brockport, New York, April 11, 1992.
34. Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 120-24, 136-43, 208. There seem to be ironies
without end in Wyler's effort to put Russell in a V.A. hospital to assist him in his acting, but
it is not clear Russell was in a position to be anything but confused by it. After all, Wyler
"frequently" guided him through various scenes during filming with the instructions, "If
it feels right, do it!"; ibid., p. 189; and also, Anderegg, William Wyler, p. 136.
35. Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 41-3, 95-6, 99-100, 108-09; idem, The Best Years
of My Life, pp. 11-18.
36. Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 105-06, 104-10, 141, 166-67; idem, The BestYears
of My Life, pp. 16-17. There is a brief sketch of Charles McGonegal's life and work with
veterans in Time 43 (February 14,1944): p. 21.
37. Russell, The BestYears of My Life, p. 39. Russell recognized at the time that McGone~
gal manipulated his hooks in public, "as if it were some sort of theatrical performance;"
Russell, Victory in My Hands, p. 112.
.
38. Russell, Victory in My Hands, p. 74.

39. Ibid., pp. 124-62; Harold Frizell, "Handless Veteran," Life 21 (December 16,1946):
p.75.
40. Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 147-52 (quote, p. 149); HR, 6/27/1990.
41. Russell, The Best Years of My Life, pp. 21-2; HR, 6/27/1990.
42. Russell, Victory in My Hands, pp. 17-18,21,43-5,47-8, 112-17, 135-36, 140-41,
199-200.

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29. Cf., Kantor, Glory For Me and The Best Years of Our Lives, April 9, 1946, [script,
available from Script City, Hollywood, California], the latter being as close to the movie
as any script I have been able to locate.

ANGER AND AFFABILITY

27

43. HR, 6/27/1990; Russell, The Best Years of My Life, pp. 21-2.
44. Russell, Victory in My Hands, p. 197.
45. Ibid.; and HR, 6/27/1990. As Russell replied to me, when I said that disability rights
advocates may feel that the scene doesn't do their cause any benefit, "Well, it did the
picture a lot of good!"

46. HR,

~/27/1990. I again pursued the meaning of the anecdote in

HR, 11/20/1990.

48. The Best Years of Our Lives, April 9, 1946 [script], p. 186.

49. An insight articulately developed from a number of perspectives by Murphy in The
Body Silent, e.g., pp. 116-17, 131-32.

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47. In the contemporary analytical literature one finds strikingly similar parallels to this
strategy of intentional, aggressive display in both Frank, "Beyond Stigma: Visibility and
Self-Empowerment of Persons with Congenital Limb Deficiencies," 102-03, 106, 108,
113; and Phillips, "Damaged Goods: Oral Narratives of The Experience of Disability in
American Culture," 855.

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