Over the past few weeks I’ve read a series of books and articles about the human body, more specifically the disabled body, and it’s apparent that “life writing” or “memoir” or “personal essays” claiming fidelity to disablement have a commonality beyond brokenness. While it’s been customary to speak of autobiographical narratives about disability as falling into two camps: the “overcoming” story or within a smaller range, a “refusenik” approach to the former, (which one can think of as “woke” writing) I’m now finding an insistence on the body as escutcheon—your body and mine, queer or trans or blind, on wheels, is now a shield or emblem. We may usefully say we’re in the age of body bucklers.
There’s power when writing about personal experience. I’ve been doing it for years. The crippled human has had very sad circumstances. Annie Sullivan in the Massachusetts institute for crippled children; polio kids; incarcerated children defined as “feeble”—their histories are still fresh and their stories haunt and educate. Anne Finger’s “Elegy for a Disease” is about her formative years as a polio patient and it tells the story of a generation of polio-citizens. Molly McCully Brown’s poetry casts backward to revision stories of lives lost in hospitals. The power in their books resides in bringing other lives forward.
The body buckler story has nothing to do with this broader view—a political understanding that no one is a representative of a particular disability. In the escutcheoned narration the author claims her body and her body alone, which is to say, she proceeds with singularity, minus irony, without seeing a body reduced to its ailments is a medicalized thing.
I won’t say which books and articles I’ve read are buckling. Not today anyway. But you can see them too: hero cripple narrators, more than faintly inspirational, but not interested in the cripples around them.