The Oldest Grom: A Crip Time for Surfers
In recent years, there has been a great number of narratives concerning characters with autism (Murray 1). There is a case being made for the practice of surfing as a way of alleviating the complications of autism. The short documentary, Curt, filmed by Brendan Hearne, shines a light on this intersection between sport and disability. Hearne follows Curt Harper, a fifty-year-old surfer living in California, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Curt suggests that surfing helps the protagonist, and those around him, to come to terms with his disability. The subtitle of Curt reads: “The Story of Surfing’s Oldest Grom”. A grom is a term used to describe a young surfer. Therefore, the subtitle already signals that a notion of linear time is rejected in this narrative, since the fifty-year-old surfer is not allowed to depart from childhood. He is stuck being a grom. To come to a better understanding of the narrative, I use the concept of crip time, as developed by Alison Kafer in Feminist, Queer, Crip. In order to “crip” time, Kafer departs from a notion of linear development. I will consider how the narrative casts Curt in and out of time, allowing him to seemingly inhabit multiple ages. How is Curt’s surfing practice framed through his disability, and how is the representation of disability affected by Curt’s identity as a surfer?
Hearne plays with different manifestations of age. The first two personal details that the audience learns about Curt are the autism diagnosis that he received at the age of two, and his introduction to surfing at the age of ten. These two details seem to go hand in hand in the narrative. Curt’s parents explain that, as a child, their son used to “identify with families that went surfing”, and if he accompanied them to the beach, those families would temporarily “shelter and nurture him”. The surfing community is idealised as being one big family in which the children are interchangeable. Sport is also celebrated here as a way of socialising a subject into a community. Individuals with autism are deemed by the medical society to have “communication deficits” (DSM-V). In other words, they are framed as typically anti-social subjects, that could benefit from being socialised. With its emphasis on community-building, surfing emerges as a shining beacon in this narrative.
The audience is told that, as Curt grew older, he started driving younger children to the beach if their parents were unable to take them. At this point, Curt becomes a temporary parent figure. The fluidity of the surfing family is emphasised. Hearne highlights a particular set of parents who enlist Curt’s help. These parents discuss the reputation that Curt has in the local community. They describe how Curt first approached their children and offered to take them surfing. The mother refused for a long time, and eventually, the father followed Curt in order to assess his child-minding abilities. Until the father did so, he felt unable to trust Curt. They explain that they took the time to “understand” Curt, but many other parents have remained suspicious of him, refusing to hand over the parental role. Do these parents restrict Curt from forming his own surfing family because of his disability?
Although the parents that are interviewed, do trust Curt to, temporarily, take care of their children, the mother further states that “he’s [Curt’s] a fourteen-year-old in a man’s body, and he’s perfectly harmless.” As evidence for his harmlessness, she alludes to his cognitive abilities. From her perspective, Curt’s autism fixes him at the innocent age of fourteen. Just like the subtitle of the film, these parents can only see Curt as a grom, a young surfer. They are “cripping” his age for him. His disability denies him an adult status, yet, parents rely on him to temporarily inhabit their position. He is simultaneously stuck being a child and expected to be an adult.
In theorising what she calls “crip time”, Kafer describes futurity as “a time frame that casts disabled people (as) out of time, or as obstacles to the arc of progress” (28). Curt is thrown in and out of time throughout the documentary. Although he is not allowed to progress fully past being a “grom”, many parents still rely on him to, in fact, enable the arc of progress for their own children. The interviewed parents comment on the generations of children that Curt has taken surfing. Dane Reynolds, one of these children, grew up to become a professional surfer. Dane is filmed telling the audience that Curt enabled him to progress beyond the small wave outside his house and surf bigger, more challenging waves. Perhaps we can posit Dane as “the sovereign prince of futurity”, a figure which Kafer borrows from Lee Edelman (34). The figure of the child is so important to American politics, according to Edelman, that the future of the child is always at stake in every situation (Kafer 28). For Curt, his ability to enable local children to go surfing, is responsible for shaping him into an important figure for the community. In Hearne’s description of the film, it is claimed that Curt "played an unlikely, yet vital rol in the growth and development of multiple generations of groms. Curt is of value because he drove these children to various waves. If it was not for him, Dane Reynolds might never have become a professional surfer.
In the act of waiting for the future, Kafer pinpoints a feeling of stagnation (29). It follows that disabled figures such as Curt are left suspended in time because there is no future for them. Curt will always be “a fourteen-year-old in a man’s body”. The parents who reject him, cast Curt out of the future of their child. Kafer demonstrates the positioning of “people with disabilities in a temporality that cannot exist fully in the present, one where one’s life is always on hold, in limbo, waiting for the cure to arrive” (44). Rather than waiting for a cure, Curt appears to be always waiting for adulthood to arrive.
In outlining "crip time", Kafer suggests that narratives of disability can be triggers for “thinking time differently or queerly” (34). In her project, Kafer outlines the closely linked concepts of falling and failing. These concepts are productive lenses through which to view the footage of Curt surfing. Might Curt’s practice also be read as a performance? The documentary shows that falling and failing are intricately integrated into the surfing process. Perhaps this emphasis placed on falling, could help to take apart ableism, or the privileging of comparatively abled bodies and minds.
Falling is an inevitable outcome when one surfs. Even if one manages to stay standing on the surfboard whilst the wave breaks, as soon as the wave has run its course, the surfer must return to the water and restart the process. The term “wiping out” emerged within surf culture to describe an unintentional fall, caused either by the unpredictability of the sea or the incompetence of the surfer (or a combination of the two). When the audience watches Curt surf, they witness him wiping out over and over again. His stance on the board is awkward and aloof. Kafer relies on concepts from queer theory. She selects failure as a key aspect and takes from Judith Halberstam that many queers are queer “because they do too much of the wrong thing at the wrong time” (Kafer 35). Perhaps, by not reaching a certain level of skill after forty years of surfing, Curt is read as surfing in the wrong way. In this case, he is not only trapped in childhood but also in amateurism. Kafer employs the rich images of falling and failing for a better understanding of what crip time would involve. The term “falling”, invokes a distinct bodily motion. Yet autism is a condition that affects the mind. Cognitive conditions are sometimes regarded as invisible disabilities or “hidden impairments” (Samuels 237). How then, are these disabilities supposedly made visible? Is it a matter of choice for the individual to hide or announce their supposedly invisible condition?
Autism is usually considered to be a disability of the mind, but Stuart Murray points out that “the way the autistic body functions in space is part and parcel of what autism is and how it works – autism is a condition with a strong physical component” (9). How does Curt play with this link between the mind and the body? I believe that the camera suggests that Curt’s autism causes his bodily aloofness, and therefore, excuses him from the need to conform to normative sporting expectations. That is, specifically, the expectation that one will progress in a sport over time. Kafer finds that the act of falling can indicate one’s disability to others. She suggests that the disabled body “falls into, exceeds, and fails expectations all at the same time” (Kafer 36). Curt is filmed in such a way that, when the character falls off of the surfboard, his disability is indicated to the audience.
Curt is captured by the camera whilst committing acts of excess and failure. These acts are perhaps most clearly demonstrated during the final moments of the film. Curt enters a surf competition, and this event offers the denouement of the narrative. At the competition, the audience witnesses him embracing failure and refusing to take his surfing practice seriously. He places third and last, but he is the only participant who stays until the award ceremony. As he is welcomed on stage, the judge tells the crowd that the other two senior competitors had to return home already. Curt simultaneously takes his sport very seriously, by outlasting the event, and not seriously at all, because he starts to thank his non-existent sponsors in an acceptance speech. He mocks his own practice. In this sense, he can be read as a performer. By highlighting his own incompetence, Curt can be seen to do too much of the wrong thing at the wrong time.
The footage of Curt is framed through his disabilty, but, his performance also works to loosen the fear of failure that is deeply embedded in the practice of sport. Curt can be seen to alter normative perceptions of age and pace. His autism and his passion for surfing are interconnected details which allow his character to challenge these perceptions. When surfing, Curt's playfullness has the transgressive potential to rewrite narratives of progression and development.
Elinor Gittins recently graduated from the research Master's in Cultural Analysis at the UVA. In her research she looks at intersections between surf culture and disability in the moving image. She will continue her engagement with the concept of disability by working with Disability Studies in The Netherlands.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V. Washington: 2013. Print.
Curt. Dir. Brendan Hearne. Westward Productions, 2015. Film.
Halberstam, Judith. “Queer Temporalities and Post-Modern Geographies”. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.
Hearne, Brendan. ‘Curt’. Vimeo, June 2015. Web. 6 June 2016.
Kafer, Alison. “Time for Disability Studies and a Future for Crips”. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013. Print.
Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008. Print.
Samuels, Ellen. “My Body, My Closet. Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 233-55. Print.