Rachel flashes back to her childhood. Beth wants her to keep putting the Donny Osmond song “One Bad Apple” on the record player, and to help her with a puzzle. She tries to teach Beth to put the needle on the record herself, but Beth sticks it into the record hard, nearly breaking it. However, after a few seconds, the record starts playing normally.
Beth’s unnecessary force with the record player shows how her disability makes many ordinary activities challenging. But contrary to Rachel’s expectations, this doesn’t break the record player, which represents how Rachel often overestimates the obstacles that Beth’s disability poses—and underestimates how well the world can adapt to her.
Rachel also likes listening to Beth sing, helping her decorate her room in their new house, and getting books from the library with her. But Rachel doesn’t like how Beth ruins her school books, makes her help with puzzles, and forces her to listen to the same music. She can’t stand to be associated with Beth at school—all the other students stare at the special ed kids, who walk through the halls in an uncomfortable silence. When Rachel and Beth see each other, Rachel wants to call out to her, but she says nothing.
Rachel begins to recognize the contradiction that will go on to define her relationship with Beth for decades. On the one hand, she can help Beth learn and overcome obstacles, but on the other, she feels that Beth is an obstacle to her and her family’s own progress. Rachel and Beth’s experience at school shows how social stigma further isolates people with disabilities—including from their loved ones. This stigma also demonstrates how remarkable it is that, as an adult, Beth manages to build a vibrant, loving community despite this stigma.
Rachel loves words: at night, she makes lists of synonyms in her notebook. But she also notices the words people use to talk about Beth—most of all, “retard.” Whenever other kids use that word, Rachel tells them about Beth. It’s a slur like any other.
Language might seem like an insignificant area for social activists to focus their energies. However, Rachel shows that changing language can actually be incredibly important, because language deeply shapes the way that mainstream culture perceives marginalized groups—and, by extension, those marginalized groups’ chances to safely participate in mainstream culture. Indeed, the scientific term “mental retardation” fell out of favor in the late 1990s and early 2000s largely because the increasingly popular slur “retard” was making life more and more difficult for people labeled “retarded” (who are now identified as having developmental, intellectual, or cognitive disabilities).
As a teenager, Rachel makes plenty of her own friends, and she stops playing with Beth. Sometimes, she acts bossy on purpose, making Beth do chores for her. One day, Rachel turns on the news to see her favorite anchor, Geraldo Rivera, but he’s reporting on the horrifying conditions in an institutional school.
Rachel succumbs to the social pressure to stigmatize and marginalize Beth despite knowing and loving her, which shows how strong that pressure is and how powerfully it can isolate people with disabilities. Indeed, the report on the institutional school (where the students likely had mental or physical disabilities) provides clear evidence of how this stigma has forced people like Beth to live in horrific, abusive conditions for centuries. Yet this also provides important context for understanding why Beth’s relatively free, autonomous lifestyle (and the public support system that makes it possible) is so remarkable and inspirational.
Beth can’t easily hang out with her own friends, since they live far away and have disabilities. Since Rachel doesn’t want to spend time with Beth, she doesn’t have anyone to play with. So instead, Beth decides to start publicly waiting for Rachel right when she gets off the school bus. One day, she even shoots Rachel with water pistols. Everyone on the bus laughs at her. That night, Rachel tells her mother, crying, and asks her to tell Beth to stop. But her mother refuses—she says Rachel shouldn’t be ashamed of Beth. Rachel knows that her mom is right, but she still thinks that it’s especially unfair that she has to deal with Beth.
After Rachel tries to hide her relationship with Beth because she fears the stigma associated with disability, Beth strikes back: she shows off their sisterhood as publicly as she possibly can. In retrospect, Rachel recognizes that this was a good thing, because it led her to recognize the destructive, unjust power of stigma (with her mother’s help). Again, Rachel suggests that her parents’ steadfast belief in Beth’s right to live as well as any other person is one of the main reasons that Beth has managed to build such a joyful, autonomous life as an adult.