email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
Stories are told to make sense of things. Some stories are told specifically to make political or moral sense, taking stock of a situation and locating it in a framework of meaningful ethical and political concepts. According to narrative theories of identity, stories provide a sense of self as well. Sometimes they are overtly about the formation of a moral or political identity. What can be problematic is that societies don't have an infinite number of identity-forming stories: the repertoire is generally limited, and what's available doesn't always fit well with the reality of people's lives. This is why some theorists today argue that providing alternative narratives, or counterstories, can be a radical political move, challenging social conventions of identity while offering a means for those whose experiences run counter to the norm to make good sense of them.
Simi Linton is a psychologist and activist whose My Body Politic tells the story of her life after becoming paraplegic in 1971. While hitchhiking to a Viet Nam war protest in Washington, a car accident killed her husband and another friend, and broke her spine. A self-described college dropout and hippie beforehand, she spent months in rehabilitation centers, eventually returning to live and go to college in New York, before moving to Berkeley, California. It's while there that she first encountered the political disability movement, finding liberation and a welcoming if argumentative community in the Center for Independent Living. Returning to New York to attend Columbia University, she qualified in psychology and married David, continuing her life along its new trajectory as academic and disability activist.
An accident that leaves you widowed and paralyzed is, by any standards, a catastrophe, and there are available catastrophe narrative frameworks into which to fit it. These focus by and large on the tragedy of the normal life that has been lost, and the individual's struggle to retrieve normality in the face of new, apparently insurmountable barriers. (In accounts that make it to publication the barriers are never finally insurmountable, because most of us don't want to read stories about failure, however common it really is.) Linton's account is important because of the ways in which it subverts, rather than flouts, the conventions. Although it follows a traditional narrative structure, beginning with the traumatic event separating pre-disabled from disabled life, and tracking her physical restoration and re-entry to the "normal" world, she actually deals rather briskly with her pre-accident life. She mourns her husband and her friend, but one has a sense that the Simi she writes about is irrelevant to her writing 35 years later. Other things stick in her memory, and her aim is to call our attention to them.
One is the need for information: both purely factual information about things like symptoms and legal rights, and the kind of data that can be woven into a new life story. This is crucial because, unlike many other categories of social organization (such as gender, ethnicity and so on), disability is anomalous in that disabled people only rarely grow up having their experience validated as a normal way of life, surrounded by others like themselves. As a result, those like Linton, whose impairment has suddenly come upon them through accident, illness or just plain age, have to learn how to be disabled. She says, "In that first year after the accident, there was so much to learn...there was another curriculum we needed access to -- we needed the tools and knowledge that experienced disabled people have. We were novices...(p.109)..I remember in my early years with disability, I was flying by the seat of my pants, and so many [still] say they did the same." (p. 159)
She and the others at her rehabilitation center were abruptly faced, not just with a new situation but with a new way of being themselves, one that was radically unfamiliar ("None of us knew anyone else like us out there" p. 18). Her account reveals the experience to combine, paradoxically, both abrupt, one minute to the next disjunction between the former identity and the new one, and lengthy processes of learning how to be the new identity. Although "[t]he new shape and formation of my body were set on that April day…the meaning this new body would have for me took years to know." (p.3) Much of the early part of the book demonstrates how making sense of the new situation demanded an intense and particular kind of engagement, for which there were no real models out there: "I had gotten to this place not by denying my disability or, implausibly, 'overcoming' it, but by sailing headlong into it…it had become the most meaningful thing I could do." (p 120). I'm highlighting this first because it is a point echoed in many other published first-hand accounts of late onset impairment (see for example, John Hockenberry's Moving Violations), and because it's an aspect that most nondisabled people fail to acknowledge, in their drive to slot the impairment experience into a familiar (to them) frame of meaning. Indeed, Linton describes how she is often "faced with intrusive inquiries from strangers that began, 'what happened to you?'.." and on telling them, "[they] act as if [they] now know what is important to know about disability -- its genesis.." (p 110)
As the title suggests, there is a parallel narrative running about the politicization of disability in the 1970s and 80s. Linton was an anti-war activist before her accident, and political activity as a disabled person seems to come relatively naturally to her. She is adamant that it was by identifying with disabled people in political activism that she acquired the skills needed for her new life: "it was bonding together with other disabled people for good purpose that taught me what I needed to know..." (p 3) Through this focus she is not only able to recognize the connection between disablement and other forms of social exclusion and marginalization, notably of women and sexual minorities. Equally importantly, she is able to incorporate a theory of disability into her assembly of a new way of being in the world: it shapes how she understands and claims her place as a disabled woman, and as a politically active disabled academic, so providing one narrative of disabled identity that was previously missing.
Linton also manages the tricky task, which sometimes seems to defeat theorists, of scrupulously identifying the social and cultural barriers against disabled people while not losing sight of the impairment and impairment effects and on the individual and others around them. The book is an easy read, not theoretically heavy, and not particularly poetic (though the story on the last page has a lovely, dreamlike flourish). And it needs to be read with an awareness of what it knowingly offers and what it choose to leave out. There's much about Linton's emotional and private life that is only sketched in or skipped over entirely. She talks about undertaking therapy for years, for example, but no details are given and there is no real sense of the effort and pain involved here, unlike the effort of becoming a disabled person. I think that is deliberate: therapy deals with problems from the individual outwards, and that is not the kind of book Linton wanted to write. My Body Politic is a certain kind of political narrative. As Tobin Siebers comments, "Narratives about disability identity …are political because they offer a basis for identity politics, allowing people with different disabilities to tell a story about their common cause." (Tobin Siebers, Disability as masquerade. In Metzl and Poirier, Difference and Identity, p. 8) But narratives like Linton's are also political in claiming that identities can be found -- or found meaningful -- within the context of political life. We may well want to challenge whether that is universally true, but it certainly worked for her.
© 2007 Jackie Leach Scully
Jackie Leach Scully, Ph.D., School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, United Kingdom