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Interview With Jama Bennett
In 1993, Jama Bennett founded ASCOT, the Amputee Support Coalition of Texas, after attending a Fascination conference in Chicago. It became ASCOT-World when Jama moved to California. ASCOT is an organisation for women who are amputees or have any other kind of disability, and for their admirers. The goals of ASCOT is to make it easy for such women to meet potential partners, many of whom will be drawn from the devotee community, as well as support and fellowship for them and also for their admirers, many of whom have spent years believing they were alone in their feelings and unable to talk about it to anyone.
ASCOT has had a presence on-line with the ASCOT-World Web Site that includes personal ads, many amputee and disability links, any new information of interest to amputees and those with other disabilities, as well as one of the largest and most frequently updated (weekly) image sites on the Internet at http://www.ascotworld.com . There is also an ASCOT-World Yahoo Group with over 1000 members at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ascot-world .
It was on-line that I first made Jama's acquaintance and invited her to tell her story to OverGround.
Q: I'll start by asking you to tell me something about yourself.
A: I'm 50 now, 5'10", 175 pounds. I am divorced with an 18 year old daughter who is having a baby now, due April 4, 2001.
I lost my leg in 1984 after being hit by a drunk driver while standing between 2 cars. I was married at the time I lost my leg, but I left my husband about 18 months later, went back to school, got my bachelor's degree and then a master's degree. Until 1995, I worked as a research assistant for Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Research on Women with Disablities. My job ended when the grant that funded it ran out. I moved to California for a job at a center on parenting with a disability in Berkeley, CA. But I was injured in an accident on the trip out here resulting in a broken shoulder ribs so I worked there for a few months and had to quit. Now ASCOT-World is my full-time job. I now live with my daughter in Sunnyvale, CA. I love to swim, entertain friends, cook, read, travel, and paint, crochet, and do other handcrafts.
Q: Tell me about ASCOT. When did you get the idea of founding the group?
A: My nickname is 'Camp Director', which is why I enjoy setting up the conferences. I first attended a Fascination meeting In June of '93, and the group asked why there were not conferences more than once a year. I offered to set one up in Houston for Bette, I did it, and ASCOT was born. Then I had another one in Houston the following year. Then in '95 we had one in Las Vegas in February, and we had one in October 95 in Houston. I left for California after that conference and since then have had several a year in Vallejo, Sunnyvale, Anaheim, Houston, and Reno, as the group likes to go to more than one conference a year, and some people can't always go at the same time. I plan to continue to have 1-3 a year from now on.
Q: I know that you used to be a member of the Fascination group based in Chicago. How were you introduced to that group?
A: My job at Baylor was working on a study of sexuality issues among women with physical disabilities, and a woman called in to participate in the study. She was an amputee, and told me about the meeting in Chicago that June. That is how I found about the Fascination meeting and the men who are attracted to amputees.
Q: Have you been involved with any other support organisations for amputees?
A: I attended one amputee support group meeting many years ago, and didn't feel the need to continue. I was going to school, raising my daughter and getting along fine at the time. I started ASCOT as a support group for local amputees I had met since becoming an amputee.
Q: You told me that you found out about the existence of devotees when the amputee lady called at your office regarding the study you were working on. How did you feel when you found out about them? Positive or negative?
A: I prefer to call them admirers. After several years of being rejected by some men because I was an amputee, I thought it was great that some men not only didn't mind, but considered it an asset. I don't mind being an amputee, and I would certainly never give up all I have achieved since becoming an amputee to get my leg back (if that were possible). Being an amputee is inconvenient sometimes, but there are many inconveniences we have to deal with throughout our lives.
Q: Let's go back in time. Tell me about what happened that led you to become an amputee.
A: In 1984, my husband had car trouble and called me to come and help him start his car. I was standing between the two cars when a drunk driver hit one of them from behind. My right leg was crushed below the knee and the left leg was severely injured. I was very lucky not to have lost them both. My leg was amputated at the knee that night, and two days later, above the knee due to gangrene.
Q: How did your immediate circle of family and friends react to this?
A: My family was of course shocked and saddened by what had happened to me, but like me, relieved that I had not lost both legs or my life.
My husband was not very supportive being used to me taking care of him all the time rather than the other way around. My daughter was only 15 months old at the time, so has no memory of the events or of me any other way than with one leg.
Q: You mentioned that recently you lost 100 lbs of weight. That's a lot of body mass. Were you fat before you became an amputee or did your weight gain take place afterwards?
A: I was always overweight, but using the wheelchair and sitting all the time caused me to gain more weight so I couldn't use a prosthesis. I lost the weight so I could use crutches and/or a leg.
Q: Can you remember what stimulated you to make this decision?
A: I always wanted to be able to walk on a leg, but the weight made it impossible. I like being tall, and I like being able to walk, so I decided to do it.
Q: Can you describe how you felt when you took your first steps?
A: I a temporary leg now that we put a peg on and I am still working on using that to build up the stamina and strength i have lost after sitting in a wheelchair for so long. I had gotten quite good on the crutches before I left Houston, then after the broken shoulder, I was unable to use them for 6 months so lost some of what i had worked so hard to accomplish. Now I can use them when I have to but not to do anything really productive - like cooking, cleaning, etc. I can walk around with them, but that is about all.
Q: What was the most difficult thing about learning to walk again?
A: The most difficult thing about learning to use the crutches is the fear of falling for me. Also, in the wheelchair I can carry things, cook, shop, do laundry, and more. On the crutches I am limited in what I can carry and do.
Q: When you went out walking for the first time, were you aware of being stared at?
A: When I go out on the crutches, I am very aware of being stared at, and always wonder if they are 'admirers', or staring at me be cause I am so tall, or just curious people.
Q: Did you feel that becoming an amputee made you physically unattractive?
A: At first, I wondered if my social/sexual life was over, if I would ever be desirable to a man again, but now I don't feel that being an amputee is any impediment to either; admirers or otherwise.
Q: When ASCOT was founded you plunged into what we might call the usual activities, publication of photographs and videos of women who are amputees. Why did you do this?
A: I didn't even know about the picture and video aspect of it until a year or more after I attended the first conference. It was after the Fascination conference of '94 that I got into the picture and video business. It was a way to supplement my income for me and two of my friends, then it took on a life of its own when ASCOT went online.
Q: Do you expect to make a profit from such publications?
A: The only profit I make is from the videos of myself that are sold. The other ladies receive 60% of any money from their videos and pictures. The remaining 40% covers the cost of advertising, production, shipping, and maintaining the web site.
Q: Suppose someone accused you of exploiting devotees, how would you respond?
A: Many admirers have no way to be with an amputee because they are married or live where there are none. The only way they can satisfy their interest is through videos and pictures. Others just enjoy the videos and pictures much like people enjoy other movies. I am simply meeting a market demand that existed long before I came into the picture. I don't think the admirers would say they felt exploited.
Q: Do you see your group as being a competitor of say, Fascination, or CD Productions?
A: I don't see myself as a competitor. There is room enough for everyone, I think. I hope they feel the same way.
Q: When you decided to make videos how did you go about it?
A: The first video of the Three Ladies was shot very much as a home video for fun. It was not going to be sold until we had so many requests for it, and the men who saw it said it was enjoyable because it was the three of us just being ourselves, talking about how we came to be amputees and about our lives. We decided to sell it for a lower price because it was unedited.
Q: Did you sample any of the other offerings currently available? I get the impression that you are impetuous and plunge right in and get things done ...
A: It was shot by a friend with a home video camera. We had seen a little of what was out there, but we had no professional advice at that time. Now we have a professional filmmaker shooting our videos and pictures. The quality has improved and will continue to do so.
Yes, I am somewhat impetuous. I have always said I have a tendency to 'leap before I look', which sometimes gets me into trouble. But I do get things done.
Q: Do you actively go looking for women to join your group?
A: Yes, I do. If I meet an amputee or am contacted by one online, I give her one of my ASCOT cards and get to know her and tell her about the conferences and the men.
Q: Have you ever introduced another woman who is an amputee to the concept of the devotee?
A: I have introduced many women to the concept. I explain that it is an interest much like many men's attraction to large breasts or a certain hair color, and that the 'stump' is not the focus of the relationship. I also tell them that, for the most part, the men are educated, intelligent, respectable men that any woman would like to know. I have never had a woman refuse to listen or learn more about the subject. I have brought many women into the group since '93.
Q: You must know why devotees are so interested in visual materials. Do you have any misgivings at all about appearing in them yourself, or about your friends appearing in them?
A: No misgivings. I know why the men like the videos and pictures. The material we produce is G-Rated, in other words, there is nothing in our videos that I would not want my mother to see. My daughter has seen every one of our videos.
Q: I understand that you annoyed the moderator of the St John's University mailing list for amputees by posting information that he took exception to. Would you be willing to tell us about this, and about your side of the story?
A: When I posted the news letter and brochure to the list, I had no idea of the reaction I would get (Leaping before I looked again). The first reaction was someone's question about what we were all about. The moderator explained using expressions like 'I guess there is a buck to be made on every street corner'. I took exception to this comment, the inference being that we were 'prostituting' ourselves. I responded to his comments, and the flames took off from there. He apologized, but later again referred to me as 'a madam of some amputee cat-house down on the bayou'. I once again responded to his comment with a letter saying that I didn't care for his inferences, that they were uncalled for and hurtful, and that I would refrain from calling him names if he didn't call me names. He apologized again. The flames continued. I was castigated for selling something on the internet and for what I was selling. Many people are quick to condemn and vilify things they know nothing about because they simply don't like the idea of what they think they know. (I find it very ironic that after I was told in no uncertain terms that selling on the internet was taboo, two other list members began to advertise a book and a video for sale ... maybe it is okay to sell whatever the moderator might be interested in, but not anything he doesn't want to buy?)
Q: Have you ever been criticised by other amputees for founding ASCOT and for being prepared to welcome devotees?
A: Not by any female amputees. It is the male amputees who seem to object most strongly to the concept. Even if a female amputee didn't wish to participate, she was usually understanding and accepting of our right to participate. My response to any criticism is that the issue should be between the amputee and her admirer. It is really no one else's business.
Unfortunately, there are too many people in the world who feel that their opinions and views take precedence over those of anyone who doesn't feel the same way.
I have had the same experience from the perspective of OverGround. I subscribed to the same list but left it when it was clear that a minority of male amputees were adamantly opposed to devotees being allowed to participate. I wonder why this might be? Perhaps it is to do with rehabilitation and acceptance.
Q: When you were in rehabilitation did you ever have the feeling that others felt that you ought to disguise your limb loss?
A: Yes, the professionals and many other people seemed to believe that the best thing is for the amputee to get right onto a leg. In my case, due to the damage to my other leg and the length of time I spent in bed because of it, I was far too weak for prosthetic training and I believe that contributed to my failure to keep using it. I was also too weak to use crutches and refused to try them any more when I nearly fell several times.
Q: If you cope with being an amputee by doing your best to disguise the fact, the existence of devotees is likely to be a permanent reminder of your amputation. Do you think that this is likely to be more upsetting for a woman than for a man?
A: If you try to hide the fact that you are an amputee, I believe it is because you are not comfortable being different, and the devotees may make some women amputees more uncomfortable. Some women amputees on the list reacted to the devotee issue by saying thay didn't want a man who only wanted them for their stump, or their disability. This reaction clearly indicates they know nothing about devotees, or they would not jump to the conclusion that that is all the man wants them for. In my personal opinion, women amputees who are so adamantly opposed to learning about devotees are not comfortable with themselves as amputees.
Not being a man, I can't say how I think a man might react, but it does seem that the ones objecting most vociferously to devotees on the list were male amputees, as well as some closet devotees who feared being exposed as devotees.
Q: Have you approached other support groups for amputees to give them information about ASCOT?
A: Not at this time, because of the fear and misunderstanding about the issue. I did suggest an open forum discussion at the next Amputee Coalition of America Confer ence and offered to moderate it or serve on a panel, but have received no response. ACA is beginning to accept the concept of admirers which is good since so many of the men involved in the ACA are known by our community to be admirers (but are in the closet so to speak). I guess they have realized that admirers are here to stay and are a phenomenom that needs to be openly explored. Hopefully things will progress more in the future.
Q: If you look through the pages of ACA-in-Motion (the quarterly newsletter of the Amputee Coalition of America) you find all the articles have the tone 'Look what we can do despite being amputees'. Perhaps people with this attitude will be antagonistic to others whose attitude is 'Look what we can do, accepting the fact that we are amputees'. This second attitude seems to me to sum up ASCOT's. Do you agree?
A: Yes, most definitely. I detest the media hype of amputees who do superhuman things to show what they can do. The amputee that ran across the United States to show what he was capable of was to me, a pointless effort, because the strain he put himself through caused his death sooner than it might have come.
Q: In the exchanges you have had with others on-line you come across as a fairly formidable person who responds vigorously to criticism, are you like that in real life?
A: I respond vigorously to unfair criticism of myself or anyone, especially if the criticism is based on ignorance or narrow-mindedness. I don't see myself as formidable in any sense. I just stand up for what I believe in and try to educate those who don't understand what I am all about.
Q: Would you agree that this makes you seem like a feminist?
A: I might, but I am not a feminist. I feel women have the right to do what they wish as far as careers and family, and that they should have the same rights as men. But there are inherent differences between men and women, and I like those differences. I like men, and I like to do feminine things for them like cooking or sewing. I also enjoy masculine things they do for me, like carrying my packages or opening doors. I think people should be and do the things they want without societal expectations constricting them.
An Introduction To ASCOT World by Jama.
Amputee Support Coalition of the World
1275 Mirassou Place
San Jose, CA 95124
web site: http://www.ascotworld.com