Coping and Overcoming Illness

The Truth About Albinos

UPDATED 05/29/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/29/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

In the book The Da Vinci Code, the bloodthirsty villain is an albino with ghostly pale skin and red eyes who drives across Europe in pursuit of the hero. In a short spoof titled The Albino Code, actor Dennis Hurley shows why the notion is ridiculous. "You know I can't drive a car. I don't have a license," he says in the 10-minute online movie. Why? Because like many people with albinism (as they prefer to be known), Hurley, 28, is legally blind. "It's absurd choosing someone with albinism to be an assassin," he says. Mythbuster No. 2: Most albinos don't have red eyes.

Yet the evil albino has become a staple of Hollywood fare—even though real-life albinos say the stereotypes have nothing to do with their normal lives. "It's so unfair," says Michael McGowan, president of the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), which unsuccessfully lobbied Code's producers not to make Silas an albino. Other recent films like Cold Mountain, The Matrix: Reloaded and The Firm have portrayed people with albinism—a genetic condition shared by one in 17,000 Americans that inhibits production of pigmentation—as freaks and killers. With the May 19 release of Code, activists fear misconceptions will become worse: "It seems to me these supposedly creative people are just copying each other," says McGowan.

What is life really like for people with albinism? Other than poor vision and a need to be especially careful in the sun, they typically have few physical problems—although their striking appearance can lead to taunts. Kate Farrington, 26, recalls being harassed in high school by a group of older boys. "When I was 14, I was kneeling in front of my locker and someone leaned down, put a mirror in my face and screamed in my ear," says Farrington, a Fort Worth native. "People have certainly said crueler things, but being confronted with your own image as something horrible is something I've never quite gotten over." Dating, too, was an issue. "No one in high school wants to date the girl who looks different," she says. "There wasn't too much going on in that area."

But overall, Farrington says she had a good experience growing up. As a high school freshman, she won a role in the fall play "and was hooked," she says. Legally blind and unable to drive, she moved to New York City to attend Brooklyn College, where she received a masters in dramaturgy. In the city's public transportation system, she found "an unbelievable feeling of independence," she says. "I knew for the first time what my friends felt when they got their driver's licenses." She carries magnifying glasses to decipher street signs and the many books she reads as part of her work. Although it hardly bothers her when friends joke about her albinism ("One calls blind dates 'Kate dates,'" she says), Farrington does worry how younger albinos will cope with the prejudice Code may generate. "I keep thinking of these high school kids who [will] start hearing, 'Hey, Silas!'" she says. "It's really just a cruel stereotype."

'WE'RE NOT MYSTERIOUS'
New York City photographer Rick Guidotti has photographed albinos all over the world. More of his photographs can be viewed at www.rickguidotti.com.

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