WARNING: Major spoilers for the movie Orphan, including the twist.
Let’s play a game:
A little girl–five years old, maybe six–rushes out of a building. The sign above it says: “School for the Deaf.” She hugs her mother, who greets her in American Sign Language (“Hello, Max!”) They sign cheerfully about Max’s day; at bedtime, Max wants her mother to read her a story. It’s a picture book about a child whose baby sister “went to Heaven” before coming home from the hospital. (Max’s baby sister, Jessica, also went to Heaven before coming home from the hospital; her mother doesn’t want to read this story, but Max insists). Story finished, Max removes her hearing aid, turns off the light, and goes to sleep.
Max’s sister, Esther, is nine years old; the family adopted her just recently. Esther says she is “different.” She’s from Russia, but speaks perfect English with a slight accent. She cuts her food perfectly–so perfectly that brother Danny thinks it is “weird.” At school she wears gorgeous, old-fashioned dresses when other girls are wearing jeans and tee-shirts. She paints like a gifted adult. While taking baths, she sings a song that’s way before her time: “That’s the story of, that’s the glory of looooove!” She understands the word “fuck” as more than just a naughty word that adults say sometimes (“That’s what grownups do. They fuck.”), expertly loads a gun, puts on a black dress and make-up and tries to seduce her adoptive father. (“What are you doing, Esther!?”)
What is Max’s disability impairment? What is Esther’s? And why can we recognize Max’s within five seconds of meeting her, while it takes us nearly two hours to learn–pardon the phrase–what is “wrong with” Esther?
It would be easy to pin this problem on some difference between “visible” and “invisible” disabilities. And it does involve that, I guess…if one considers who is doing the looking.
But, in the case of the new movie Orphan, it’s especially important who’s doing the showing; what stories the filmmakers are using Max’s and Esther’s disabilities to tell.
Orphan stars Vera Farmiga (Joshua, a film with a lot of similar themes) and Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan, Rendition) as Kate and John Coleman, whose third child died before she was born. They decide to adopt, to “give the love we had for Jessica to someone who needs it,” as Kate says.
But shortly after Esther comes to live with them, weird things start to happen: the girl who made fun of Esther at school slips off the slide at the playground and breaks her ankle, the orphanage’s Sister Abigail disappears after visiting the Colemans, John and Kate find themselves increasingly at each other’s throats and, eventually, Kate is busy Googling antisocial personality disorder. “I think there’s something wrong with Esther,” she says throughout the film, in one form or another.
Eventually, Kate contacts the orphanage that Esther originally came from, and learns that it’s not an orphanage: It’s a mental hospital.
Was Esther born there? Kate wants to know. She has no idea how a little girl could end up in such a place. The doctor says: What little girl?
Esther, you see, is not a little girl at all. Aside from being a serial killer, she has a form of hypopituitarism–panhypopituitarism is my guess–and is thirty-three years old. Her name’s not Esther, either.
Thus, the filmmakers set up Esther’s biology as a deception in itself. The doctor at the mental hospital tells Kate that Esther’s been “passing herself off as a little girl” for years. She is as marked by her impairment as Captain Ahab is by his, or Bond villains by theirs. But Esther’s crime is not just having things “wrong” with her–it’s that everyone had to work so hard to spot those things.
Max is marked by her condition just as much as Esther is; her mark means the same exact thing, though in a different way. Max is everything that Esther isn’t: an American native, the biological daughter, the child who really is a child, the disabled girl who the audience reads as disabled clearly, right away: the Deaf school, signing, Kate saying that “she can hear just enough to lip-read.” By the same token, the filmmakers choose to hide Esther’s condition, to make her seem one thing when she is really something else.
The division between Max and Esther is a division between “visible” and “invisible” disabilities; a division between good cripple and bad, Madonna and whore. And it doesn’t matter who is which.
Let’s play another game:
Esther–thirty-three-year-old Esther, who is often read as a nine-year-old girl, but isn’t one–is going to be a nanny for the Coleman family. (In honor of Peter Sarsgaard, let’s steal a bit from my favorite movie of his. It’s okay: this is a horror movie, after all). Perhaps her condition helps her work; maybe kids find her easy to like and open up to. Esther meets her new charges: son Daniel is nice enough, but his sister Maxine doesn’t talk and sometimes makes strange noises Esther doesn’t understand. Even creepier, when Esther talks to people she can sometimes see Maxine watching her intently from the other side of the room.
In the kitchen, Esther accidentally cuts herself chopping vegetables; Daniel comes running when she screams, but Maxine is drawing in the living room, as if nothing happened. Esther thinks that perhaps she didn’t cut herself at all, but was manipulated by some strange spiritual, mind-controlly force, and Maxine had something to do with it. (Let’s steal from The Omen and Village of the Damned while we’re at it).
Requisite weird stuff happens–I like flying furniture, personally–and Esther decides to high-tail it out of there. Nervously she plans her escape: whispering to herself, she decides to climb out the back window at midnight. But when she gets there, Maxine is there already! As if she read her mind! Then, because we are mean-spirited and really tired of this game, Maxine’s powers implode the house Carrie-style and everyone dies. The end.
Orphan constructs its disability narratives, but the film did not pluck these narratives out of thin air. The “disabled people are deceivers” meme is everywhere. If we’re not conning Social Security or abusing handicapped parking, we’re busy being either “addicted” to pain medicine or “not really autistic,” and sometimes we’re magically creating an “illusion of competency.” If we can do something today, but not tomorrow, we are lazy. If we see, hear, feel things other cannot–or just don’t take our meds–we are scary.
And people with disabilities, who are constantly told what we “really” are or aren’t, come to believe it. We hesitate to identify ourselves as disabled, because our problems are nothing like “real” disabled people’s. Or we are afraid of getting read as currently able by other disabled people. This way, society has a handy tool to oppress us and divide us at the same time.
 Even I’m constructing the girls’ disabilities in my own way, leaving little word bread crumbs so that, perhaps, you might figure out just what’s “wrong” with Esther much faster than I did.