A few weeks ago I was speaking at Grinnell College in Iowa and I read aloud from two books of my own creative nonfiction. When I was through with the dramatic part of the presentation I encouraged the students and faculty in the audience to pepper me with questions. One young man asked me if I "minded" being identified as a "disability writer".
I had to admit that I’d never thought of myself in precisely those terms. I could add that I’ve never thought of myself as "a five foot seven inch tall writer" or "a thinning hair writer" though as identity groups these might not be so bad. (I should look up the respective heights and pate conditions of the great nonfictionists throughout history. How tall exactly was Montaigne? What kind of hair did Samuel Pepys have?)
I told the student that in all honesty I don’t think there’s a distinction to be made between literary writing and what he was calling "disability" writing since in point of fact all novels for instance are essentially in some way about the body. I mentioned Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" and Melville’s "Moby Dick" as two major examples of novels that are about deformity and illness. "Can you name a novel that isn’t in some way about the life of the body?" I asked him.
Nonfiction about living with or navigating with a disability is in
my own view simply a branch of all narrative: namely, we are working
against some physical force or circumstance in the telling of the tale.
One could argue that the obstacles of geography or gravity are in no
small measure "disabling" circumstances that are necessarily a
component of all narrative strategies. Jan Krakauer’s memoir "Into
Thin Air" is about his experience climbing Mt. Everest, but in turn
it’s also about physical deprivation and the struggle to accommodate
the human body under physical duress. It’s not the mountain that makes
the story, its the body and the mind working desperately to overcome
the terrors of atmosphere and gravity. In the broadest sense this story
is no different from my own narration in "Eavesdropping" of how I
nearly lost my life on a Manhattan street corner when owing to
conditions of high wind I couldn’t hear the traffic and I stepped out
into the path of a bus and I was saved by my guide dog. I suspect that
Jan Krakauer would agree. My "Everest" was simply the corner of Fifth
Avenue and Eight Street.
Creative nonfiction is of course the latest term for
autobiographical or personal narrative that employs the artistic
devices of fiction, drama, and poetry. I might have broadened my
challenge to the student at Grinnell by asking if he could think of a
poem or a play that didn’t in some way involve the body.
I have come to see that there cannot by definition be a category of
literary writing that is exclusive to disability since in turn all
writers must contend with the surprises, struggles, the sad occasions
of the bodily life . In turn I have seen how no useful distinction can
be drawn between "body narratives" that tell of racial or gender
discrimination or those that describe life in a wheelchair or a life of
deafness. In all these cases "the body" is a centrality, a centrifuge
for the political and spiritual psyche, and therefore it is
Although it is common within the field of disability studies to
speak of "the disability memoir" I am not convinced that this sub-genre
is in any way exclusive of the human condition that informs all
narrative or lyric writing. The Greeks called this "condition" "agon"
and it means struggle. Agon is the democratizing ingredient in all
I occasionally teach a graduate seminar on disability and memoir.
One of the things we examine in that course is the phenomenon I like to
call "the new Jerusalem" principle. In essence, a commonplace of all
literary memoirs (and of the disability memoir in particular) is the
socially imposed demand on the writer to demonstrate how his or her
life has been improved by means of having lived through the story and
having written about it. This is not necessarily an American
invention–Freud wrote about "the incitement premium" of art and
allowed as to how literary writing was in no small degree related to
the process of psychoanalysis. Freud of course didn’t invent this noble
idea about narrative: Plato argued that the purpose of drama was to
"delight and instruct" the public. So although the idea isn’t new that
the reader or viewer should feel a gift or psychological compensation
for following a story, I think that the Americanization of life writing
and the culturally formulated Hollywood simplicities of plot have
contributed to the commonplace matter that I’m calling "the new
Jerusalem"and I think the pressure to write a spiritually or
psychologically rewarding story is especially felt by those writers who
hail from historically marginalized groups.
One can see this pressure at work in the late writer Lucy Grealy’s
memoir, "Autobiography of a Face"–a book by a young woman poet who
lived with a facial deformity caused by cancer of the jaw. She survived
the perils of childhood with a disfigurement and passed through
adolescence and into womanhood with endless promises ringing in her
ears from surgeons that they could in effect make her look normal with
additional surgeries. "Autobiography of a Face" is a beautiful book.
Lucy Grealy received a graduate degree in poetry writing from the
University of Iowa. She was a substantive literary writer. Still,
reading that book, one feels how Lucy herself goes to considerable
length to reassure her readers that she has made peace with her
physical difference. The last few pages of the book are as uplifting
and lyrical and assuring as any prose in English. Yet for Lucy the
position wasn’t true: she remained keenly desirous of a "cure" for her
facial deformity and ultimately her life was cut short by the effects
of pain and depression.
The "new Jerusalem" impulse is essentially a "performative" demand
that nonfiction writers in America, disabled or not, are susceptible
to. I suggested above that this pressure may come from Hollywood. One
thinks of the very end of the film "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy
declares to her Kansas farm family that she has learned to never look
for happiness beyond her own backyard, or something to that effect. We
know instinctively that this is the wrong lesson both for Dorothy and
for anyone else who plans to grow up. Again, the "new Jerusalem"
impulse requires that the personal narrative must have a compensatory
"gift" for both the narrator and the reader, and that gift must somehow
convey the attributes of self-acceptance and even a form of gratitude.
In my first memoir "Planet of the Blind" I went out of my way to
suggest that although I had written a book in which I came to terms
with the fact that I was blind, and had even learned how to celebrate
some aspects of that fact, that it will remain a daily reality that my
disability will evoke unpredictable and even unwanted reactions from
some people. I ended the book in Grand Central station where I am being
accosted by a holy fanatic. The point I was striving to make is that
the daily realities of simply being alive will defy the artificially
enacted legislations of the happy ending.
I have always loved Truffault’s film "The 400Blows" which ends with
the stunning image of a sad and abused runaway boy glimpsing the ocean
for the first time in his life.
I hate to say it, but the American appetite for happy endings is a
serious problem for "the memoir" as a literary form. Emotional
ambiguity is more often the material of fiction and I believe that
literary nonfictionists need to take this matter seriously. As for our
publishing industry: stop insisting that the memoir be a kind of
"self-help" book. I won’t discuss Oprah in this instance except to say
that the truth doesn’t always set you free. Truth can lead to freedom
and it can also, necessarily create more complex social and political
demands on the individual or society. Those demands are in turn both
emotional and ethical problems that will often defy easy endings.