[SPOILER ALERT!] where it’s revealed that Isaac Knott (as some read, “‘I Sick Not”), through the discovery of some sturdy shoes, really isn’t paralyzed after all, just a victim of an hysterical paralysis, and that Fiona caused the wreck 15 years before that killed his parents, thus explaining her need to seem paralyzed. She doesn’t abandon her quest, though; she just rolls off into the sunset, perhaps making good on her darker wannabe urges and orchestrating a broken back or something.
Vera Farmiga’s performance as a pretender does not make you think of people feigning cancer or injecting themselves with toxins. She’s got a good job, a fetching personality, and a lust for life that doesn’t seem the least bit mental. If the medical view is that pretending is a sickness to be cured, much as most solid citizens used to think of homosexuality, Fiona belies the diagnosis. She sees it more as a deep-seated urge, neither a lifestyle choice nor a perversion. Maybe it’s a bit of both. I don’t know, but only by making contact with an actual, flesh-and-blood pretender, I decided, would I get beyond either simplistic explanation.
So I put out a blast on those Internet sites mentioned above and got incredibly lucky. A veteran pretender with her own blog, www.paracathy.com, wrote back and offered to answer all my questions, anonymously, of course. I asked away and she didn’t pull back. [What follows is a self-portrait of a pretender and a frank and articulate one at that.]
Paracathy, aka Cathy, describes herself as “middle-class, urban,” and gay. “I live in a modest-sized apartment with my girlfriend in a not-too-awful part of town,” she says, and she holds down “a pretty run-of-the-mill customer service job.” The next time you call Best Buy to complain about that GPS that doesn’t work, the young lady listening to your whining could be Cathy.
With the complete complicity of her companion, Cathy has lived in her wheelchair full-time for the last three years. Her earliest attraction to what she calls a fetish came while watching the Jerry Lewis telethon with her grandmother. She saw a girl her own age, 8 or 9, “wearing a pretty, frilly dress and full metal leg braces,” and she was mesmerized to the point that “I just wanted to be her, or be like her.” A couple of years later, she was alone in a basement playing with an old push wheelchair out of earshot of Granny, and something happened. Sparing us the details, she “ended up having my first orgasm sitting in a wheelchair in my grandmother’s basement.” And her course was set.
Moving out on her own at 20, she saved up for two years to purchase a rigid-framed basic institutional chair. Although her girlfriend-to-be wasn’t necessarily into chicks in chairs, she quickly accepted Cathy’s fetish, having a few of her own, and they set up house. Then the two of them were in a serious car wreck, one that turned the car into a pretzel but left both women relatively unscathed. But, as fate would have it, says Cathy, “it gave me a vehicle to allow me to live this way full time.” The “official story” is that she suffered a back injury so painful that she can’t stand or walk more than a few seconds. She had the perfect cover and everyone bought it — the folks back home, her co-workers in customer service, and the nice guy at the coffee shop who rearranges the tables so she can slide right in.
One of the greatest surprises, she says, is that “nobody questions me about my wheelchair. It’s like they don’t even want to know.” Afraid she’d blow her cover and get caught, “what I really found out was that able-bodied people just don’t bother, don’t pay attention, and even avoid the topic all together.”
Back to the big question: really, why would you want to live your life in a wheelchair? Cathy ably sums it up, at least from her perspective:
“As for me, being in my wheelchair, it’s far deeper than sexual — I only feel ‘complete’ or ‘right’ when I’m in my chair. It’s completely psychological; when I’m in my wheelchair, I am more self-confident, more outgoing, more able to focus, and I feel much more attractive. I’m much more open to meeting new people, much more fun in public settings like parties or clubs. I’m simply happier.”
Cathy knows she’s not alone in her deception. Her website gets an average of 12,000-15,000 page views a month, she says, indicative of a decent population that is at least interested. Other pretenders, she says, run the gamut from “a very happy family man” to “a couple of pretenders who are alone and looking for a partner” to “a wannabe who is a little out there and can be disturbing to chat with.” It’s such a social abnormality, she figures, most practitioners stay deep in hiding, even with the anonymity of the Internet. “The pretender/wannabe subculture,” she says, “is the most secretive group I’ve ever known.”
She agrees that real wheelchair users are often timid, shy and self-conscious. “For me,” she says, “it’s a little ironic because I’m timid and shy until I get in my wheelchair, then I’m very open and friendly and outspoken.” Which is why she liked Quid Pro Quo so much. Vera/Fiona was the same way. Or in Cathy’s words, “I thought Vera was really hot in her wheelchair!”
This particular pretender is a case study of one and shouldn’t be held up as indicative of all pretenders and their brethren in fakery. Still, her life and attitude beg the inevitable question: Is this sick? Is such a condition only a gateway to clearly off-the-chart behavior like asking a doctor to whack off your left arm? Is Cathy, like most drug takers and closet alcoholics, simply in denial of her “disease”? Should we stout-hearted real cripples be exposing these people who live in this perverted dream world where they never experience a problem wound or a staph infection or the irreversible, all-too-real experience of being genuinely impaired? “Hey, Cathy, try a UTI. That’s when the fun really starts!”
Think what you wish — however far outside the culture of “normal” they may be, pretenders are out there, and we all might as well try to learn something from them. Lesson number 1, at least for me: Learn to love yourself, no matter how wounded you might think you are, mentally or physically. “Embrace it!” as Cathy suggests, “it’s you! It’s who you are!” In a reversal of Cathy the pretend para, pretend you are not paralyzed and maybe the bad feelings you associate with it will not keep cropping up in conversation.
As for her own situation, I’ll let my anonymous pen pal have the last word. After all, it’s her life. I’m just the rubbernecker staring in from the outside:
“Pretenders don’t hurt anyone, as long as they’re not trying to scam government benefits or taking services away from people who actually need them. We have a ‘fetish,’ an ‘interest,’ or even a ‘disorder’ — call it what you will, we’re just living our lives in the only way we really can, for the most part. For me, I could bury this deep in my subconscious and live a miserable life on two legs, or I can embrace my soul and live happy and content, and in a wheelchair. That doesn’t make a real wheelchair user any less ‘legitimate.’ It doesn’t diminish you in any way. It’s just me, sitting in a wheelchair, living my life.”