The Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies has a new special issue dealing with “Disability and Life Writing” (Guest Editor: G. Thomas Couser, Hofstra University). It includes the following pieces:
“Introduction: Disability and Life Writing” (G. Thomas Couser)
The current cultural moment in the U. S. and the U. K. is particularly amenable to life writing. Indeed, it has been widely acknowledged by critics, reviewers, and writers that the last few decades in these two countries have witnessed a memoir boom. Granted, as Ben Yagoda has demonstrated in his recent book, Memoir: A History (2009), this is by no means the first memoir boom. But it is probably accurate to say that in the last two decades or so memoirs have been written, published (or self-published), reviewed, consumed, adapted into film, celebrated (and disparaged) as never before in literary history. In April 2002, in a Washington Monthly review-essay called “Almost Famous: The Rise of the ‘Nobody Memoir,’” Lorraine Adams distinguished between what she dubbed the somebody memoir and the nobody memoir. What determines the classification of a given narrative is simply whether its author was known before its publication or became known only through its publication. Thus, Hillary Clinton’s Living History is a somebody…
“On a Scale from 1 to 10: Life Writing and Lyrical Pain” (Susannah Mintz)
Given the notorious resistance of physical pain to textual representation, how does an author write the story of pain? Using Eula Biss’s 2005 essay “The Pain Scale” as its touchstone, the article considers lyric essay as pain’s most suitable autobiographical genre. A lyric essay, it is argued, can perform the kind of conceptual shift that many theorists of pain have called for, situating pain along the pathways not just of nerves but of subjectivity, of relationships between self and other, imagination and words. By turns elusive, imagistic, ecstatic, associative, and melodic, more often circling and symbolizing life events than narrating them in linear ways, the lyric essay has a unique capacity to represent the self-in-pain, giving pain a rich experiential dimensionality that it may lack in more conventional, particularly medical, accounts. In “The Pain Scale,” Biss does not render pain as an adjunct to other physical experiences, such as addiction or disease, but rather capitalizes on the distinctive fragmentation and emotional intensity of the lyrical essay to capture the movement of pain. In a form where pain becomes affirming rather than negating, an avowal of the self’s aliveness and of its impact on the world, new articulations can occur—of how we conceive of, and therefore live, with pain.
“Disability and Self Life Writing: Reports from the Nineteenth Century Asylum” (Sara Newman)
Historically, especially before the twentieth century, issues of access to accommodation and education have constrained all individuals with disabilities, preventing most from acquiring the means to self-express and thus to present a public voice. Nonetheless, individuals with disabilities in past centuries have found ways to present their own perspectives on creativity, difference, identity, politics, and other issues. The forms these earlier statements have taken, the individuals who succeeded in speaking, and the stories thereby told offer significant insights into lives otherwise lost. The article recovers the life writing of mid-to-late nineteenth-century individuals with mental and physical differences who were classed as insane and institutionalized on that basis. In their narratives, these individuals write about the misperceptions they face and advocate for themselves and others. In particular, the authors characterize their institutionalization in terms of medical and legal abuses, abuses manifested on social, emotional, and physical levels. By writing in these terms, these life writers turn the tables on their oppressors and portray the system as the cause of their legal, medical, and personal misfortune. Recovering these voices as life writing forms an initial corpus of pre-twentieth-century materials for further study and locates the genre within a long tradition that involves identifying assumptions and advocating for the disenfranchised.
“The Reclamation of Anna Agnew: Violence, Victimhood, and the Uses of Cure” (Kathleen Brian)
The article argues that Anna Agnew’s popular 1886 autobiography worked to increase public receptivity to ideas of selective death by co-opting the discursive strategies of hereditarianism to explain her attempts at both filicide and suicide. Prevailing eugenics rationale insisted that insane individuals, like other “defectives,” should either be cured or eliminated. In this threatening context, Anna evaded responsibility for her violence by emphasizing her victimization, miraculous cure, and responsible acts of citizenship. In its discursive reliance on psychiatry, evolution, and eugenics, Anna’s popular narrative—as well as her attempt to eliminate her children—contributed to the interarticulation of progressive humanitarianism and selective murder. In contemporary disability studies discourse, scholars and activists alike often suggest as solution the inclusion of persons with disabilities in debates over medical and scientific policy. While such a perspective is necessary, Anna’s narrative demonstrates that persons with disabilities do not stand beyond and outside of available discourse. The rhetorical tactics used to convey the perspective of members of the disability community deserve to be investigated with the same tenacity and critical eye as the rhetorical tactics used to convey those perspectives less often aligned with the disability studies project.
“Disabling Spectacles: Representations of Trig Palin and Cognitive Disability” (Reed Cooley)
The article examines the confounding contribution that Sarah Palin has made to the public discourse on disability in the United States. While she and her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, brought a great deal of attention to issues surrounding cognitive disability from the instant Palin emerged as the Republican Party’s 2008 vice-presidential candidate, it is unclear what utility this visibility actually had or has for real disabled individuals. Palin’s rhetoric focused exclusively on disabled children and their families, leaving us to imagine that conditions like Down syndrome are temporary afflictions dissipating into normalcy as the afflicted reach adulthood. The article makes use of Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive to show that the cognitively disabled, like queers, are often figured as having “no future” in both popular culture and national health and education policy.
“Plural Singularities: The Disability Community in Life Writing Texts” (Margaret Torrell)
The article explores the potential for the singular voice of the life-writing text to create an emancipatory disability group identity by featuring stories of disabled people and groups. While disabled others have been studied in the past for how they relate to the autobiographical subject, their depiction is itself a form of disability representation that can contribute to the positive construction of the disability community and amplify the autobiographer’s call to action by corroborating her experiences, thereby giving her voice greater social and political significance. Disability communities are identified in texts by Mary Grimley Mason, Eli Clare, and Nancy Mairs and are shown to be central to Simi Linton’s My Body Politic. Linton’s narrative of her entrance into the disability community functions as a metanarrative about autobiography that challenges notions about the singular, isolated voice often associated with the genre. The multifaceted and vibrant disability communities featured in Linton’s and other disability autobiographies reinforce the efficacy of disability life writing as a tool to shape social and political ideologies about the body and identity.
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