Kenny Fries, the author of Body, Remember, a memoir of disability and Jewishness and all things human, offers up a short list of fiction and non-fiction that will provide interested readers an entree into the worlds of the disabled.
I say “worlds” because disabilities are so varied that each man or woman who deals with one deals with it sui generis, even if many other men and women share the same condition.
The worlds of the disabled have been so deeply hidden for so long that those involved in uncovering those worlds have, over the last three decades, spent a great deal of time quarreling–politely and impolitely–over the very language we ought to use to discuss what we find in those worlds. For example, many object to the term “disabled”; others object to the word “cripple.” Still others object to neither term. Even today, the basic vocabulary pertaining to disability has not been worked out.
Nor have we come to terms with the consequences of writing about disability, especially the disability of others. It is permissible for a man like Kenny Fries to write about his own life, if he wishes. Objections have been raised, however, over books like Michael Berube’s Life as We Know It, a sensitive study of the life of his own disabled son, Jamie, which, despite the excellence of its prose and the nuance of its voice, seems to many readers to cross over a line into exploitation of its subject. The late Oliver Sacks faced the same criticism many times over the case studies we find in Awakenings, Migraines, and Seeing Voices.
If writers are to do history at all, however–if some sense of the past and its hidden peoples are to be conveyed to those who know nothing about them–then “exploitation” in the sense of collecting information about and passing written judgments on people we’ve scarcely met is inevitable. History is dotted here and there with studies of migrant laborers in various fields from all over the world, yet the authors of those studies have seldom been accused of exploitation. On the contrary, they have been praised for throwing light on one of the many hidden corners of history. If that praise is worthy, then so might be the work of those who write about the lives of the children they have raised, and the patients they have tried to help. They often speak for those who cannot yet speak, believing that the day will come when their children and their patients will speak for themselves, and tell those same stories in their own words. Perhaps by the time that day comes, we will have arrived at a common language to use in discussing what we know about all those who bear striking conditions of the body and the mind.
In any event, Fries’ list, although it is a start, is too short. I would add to it works like Robert Garland’s The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World, which shows us, by its examination of classical literature and statuary just how hidden and yet how present in the world the disabled have always been; Leslie Fiedler’s Freaks, a now-classic study of the piteously-different in nineteenth-century America, whether they were born here or imported from abroad; Katherine Butler Hathaway’s The Little Locksmith, a memoir of her life as a disabled woman in New England, about as far away from the circus shows of Fiedler as is possible to get; and Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which is a brutally-honest account of one woman’s attempt to come to terms with her own beauty which had been damaged by cancer.
I would add these books, and recommend them to you, because they round out and fill in the picture Fries is trying to give you. There are other books, of course; many others. But start with these, and you will find the others in due course.
Why this post, on this day? you might ask. My answer is, why not? It happens to be the birthday of the author of Paradise Lost, arguably the finest extended poem in the English language. I remind you, he was blind when he wrote it. Everything in it came from what Milton could hear and remember and imagine. I daresay you’re thinking to yourself, I knew that. But on some level, you didn’t. There’s a world of people out there you’ve never seen, living lives you’ve never dreamed of. They’ve always been here, and they always will be. These books will help you see them.