I roll my eyes at what I call “celebrity-endorsed illnesses,” where Some Bad Disease suddenly becomes more serious, more threatening, more legitimate just because an A-lister happened to come down with it. But we need artists to speak to their troubles — physical, spiritual, or otherwise — because they have the words. We need them to speak to their mysteries so we can understand our own.
This brings me to Kevin Kling, of Minnesota, who has earned a regional and national reputation as a humorist, author and playwright. His work — and the disability that informs it — is highlighted in a Twin Cities PBS documentary called Kevin Kling: Lost & Found, airing on select public television stations around the country beginning April 15 and available online here.
Kling can crank up the “o-as-in-boot” Midwestern accent with the best of them, and his storytelling can be wildly entertaining.
But Kling’s always been different. He was born with an underdeveloped left arm, with no thumb and no radius — the largest of the two forearm bones. With support from his close family, what might have become a disability became a unique identifier, his brand. “I knew something separated me from the world, and I really liked that,” Kling recalls in the documentary.
I think one of the main roles of storytelling is to get through a loss. As soon as you can tell it, you've already taken a step away from it.
— Kevin Kling
After earning a degree in theater at Gustavus Adolphus College in southern Minnesota, Kling came back to Minneapolis and penned 21A, a very successful one-man play that he took all the way to off-Broadway.
And then in August 2001, Kling T-boned a car on his motorcycle and was hurtled into a new life. He saw the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” and walked away from it, but woke up with a traumatic brain injury and a useless right arm.
His bad arm was now his good arm, and the doctors warned him that the pain from the torn nerves in his right arm would be “intermittent and ever present.” Kling found out over time, he notes, that what the doctors meant to say was, “It will always hurt, unless it really hurts.”
Healing Through Stories
That’s the lost of Kevin Kling: Lost & Found. What he found was the power of stories, not to be cured of or delivered from his injury, but to be healed, to make sense of the new-but-not-so-improved Kevin Kling. He’s hardly the first to have been severely injured in an accident, and his local celebrity status doesn’t change the fact that the chronic pain he feels in his right arm is the same as any regular person would experience with that injury. But he has the words, and the stories, to guide the rest of us through.
“I think one of the main roles of storytelling is to get through a loss…. As soon as you can tell it, you’ve already taken a step away from it and are looking back at it, which means you’ve started to control something that used to control you,” he says.
A Parallel to Aging
Unfortunately, the physical process of aging is one of subtraction: things get taken away. As I sometimes tell my older patients, in a moment of inept contrition that any honest doctor must have, “We fall apart, not together.”
What I can’t write a prescription for is resiliency. But stories and storytellers like Kevin Kling can do that. They can help us maintain our shape, even as it is perpetually contorted by outside forces, by life.
So listen up, and listen for the story of you.
“Storytelling really is living in the moment. And that’s a lot about getting through, having a disability, living with pain,” Kling says. “Because if you drift to the past, you’re in regret; if you drift to the future, you’re in anxiety. So you try to maintain that center course. Living in the now, you get to experience the world as it is, and that’s what you do with storytelling, when it works.”