Charles William Esam-Carter: Illness, Health and Disability Part Two – Writing Lives

Charles William Esam-Carter: Illness, Health and Disability Part Two

‘In 1871, there were 11,518 persons who were described as either deaf and dumb or simply dumb, about one in 1,972 of the population.’ Despite quite a large group of people affected by such a disability, there did not seem to be any real understanding of it in the Esam-Carter household. In fact he notes, ‘I did not see or hear much of Muriel, she had a strange, stifled, whimpered cry.’ (73) Charles recalls ‘deaf mutes were already beginning to take over my thinking, strange as it may seem as a child of four.’ (73)

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Deaf and dumb children in an asylum around the time Muriel would have been there.

As a child, Charles believed his sisters illness to be a punishment from God for being a sinner and the idea terrified him. He said ‘the idea of double isolation from other people and from a whole category of experiences was terrifying…’ (74) Being four years old, he thought they same might happen to him if he did not do his best to please God. ‘Muriel could not speak because she was too young; it didn’t mean she was dumb.’ He did not understand why his family were so concerned about her ability to speak when she was so little.

He found sharing a room with her to be a difficult experience. He could not get to sleep at night with her constant ‘whimpering’ (75). He started to resent her in different ways because he did not understand why was the way she was. His aunt confusing the situation further by insisting it was his fathers fault from having syphilis as a young man. Telling Charles, “they ought to stop him from marrying.’ (72)

Charles explains that under the doctors recommendation, Muriel underwent surgery to remove part of her tongue in an attempt to fix her the fact she was ‘tongue-tied’. This was obviously unsuccessful and most-likely a traumatising experience for the child to go through. Charles did not understand why this occurred and was determined to find out as much information as he could about it. As a child, he stood by her cot and called his sisters name in the hopes that she would give a response. She did not and this made him angry and upset. He didn’t understand his parents explanations either, finding them false. He wanted her to go away.

Charles offers insight to his opinion, looking back on the situation as an adult. He recalls a boy he knew of from school who died alone and nobody attended his funeral after he developed a disease. He believed that the organisations that looked after these children should ‘devote its efforts to the prevention of cruelty’ (78) It is obvious that there is some guilt in how he reacted initially to his sister, however he was a small child with limited understanding of disability.

Muriel died when she was eighteen years old, after being in the care of a christian organisation. Charles has bitter thoughts about this experience, he did not have any contact with her in the last ten years of her life. His mother died a few days after, both of their funerals happened on the same day. He recalls, ‘the door girl was free from misery and pain at last.’ (80)


Esam-Carter, Charles William. Autobiography of Charles William Esam-Carter, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiorgaphies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, vol. 4

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