The Women Weigh In: Memoirs from the Distaff Side of the Disability Movement
Exchange outside a supermarket:
“What happened to your leg,” he asks me as he’s loading the groceries into the trunk of my Volvo.
“I had polio.”
I feel like an aging movie star who’s been asked her name by a restaurant maitre’d. Polio was as famous as AIDS. Those of us who had it were figures. We limped around under its metaphoric weight.”
This is one of the most quoted passages in reviews of the well-established writer Anne Finger’s new memoir, Elegy for a Disease: a Personal and Cultural History of Polio, published in November 2006 by St. Martin’s Press (www.stmartins.com).
This book joins a colorful and celebratory parade of recent memoirs by women disability activists, who thread the personal with the political to capture the formative era in the U.S. that brought us the disability rights movement.
Other well-received contributions include: Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life, by the South’s favorite activist, Harriet McBryde Johnson, issued in 2005 by Henry Holt and Co., New York; and My Body Politic: a Memoir, by one of the leading lights of the East Coast literati, Simi Linton, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Recalling the forging of her new identity at the rehab unit, Simi Linton writes:
“A woman now, although no longer a married woman and no longer a walking woman, I was mercifully no longer a girl. Even in this forest of overseers, where every move I made was scheduled…I had opinions. I was cowed by the outside world, the walking world, but here inside I had a point of view. I was on leave from the anti-war movement and left the skewering of the big guys at the Pentagon to others…they were beyond my reach, but doctors were all around me and I saw the mischief in their brand of power-wielding and the hierarchies they imposed on others. They had saved me and saved all my new friends, but I was outraged when they spoke for me or spoke down to a nurse I liked.”
With vivid recollection of time and place, Harriet McBryde Johnson, born with a disability, takes us back to her early childhood:
“I’m three or four years old. I’m sitting on the living room floor, playing with dolls. I look up at the tv and see a little boy. He’s sitting on the floor playing with toy soldiers. Then he’s in Little League; he stumbles on his way to first base. He visits a doctor. His parents are sad. He’s in a wheelchair. Then a bed. Then I see the toy soldiers. No boy. An unseen narrator says, ‘Little Billy’s toy soldiers have lost their general.’ It’s a commercial for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. As the narrator makes the pitch, a realization comes to me: I will die…I’m a little girl who knows she will die; but I don’t say anything; I don’t want to distress my parents.”
Last week at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Oakland, Georgina Kleege read aloud to a responsive crowd from her just published Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, issued by Gallaudet University Press, Washington, D.C. The opening paragraph starts:
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am a writer and a part-time English professor…American, married, middle-class. Like you, I am blind though not deaf.”
Kleege then explains why she has grown up hating Helen, as the adults around her invariably remonstrated:
“Why can’t you be more like Helen Keller? Count your blessings, poor little Helen Keller was blind and deaf and no one ever heard her complain.”
Kleege’s book is equal parts memoir of growing up amongst that confusing mixture of absurdly high and low expectations of children with disabilities and an empathetic, if sardonic, exploration of some of the mysteries of Helen Keller’s life. For example, there is a shrouded chapter in Keller’s childhood where at age 11 she was accused of plagiarizing a short story and because she was already famous, subjected to a “jury” of blindness professionals. Kleege works through layers to reveal how the young child might have felt, deluged by finger-spelled accusations from a room full of strangers about her truthfulness, her reading and writing habits.
All four of these strong, impassioned writers employ humor, self-reflection, failsafe memories and an outsider’s view of American society to –in very distinct and different voices—convey a social history of a specific era. In retrospect, and only in retrospect, the forces they identify and describe so well can be seen as overlapping waves forwarding the civil and human rights movements that washed over the country, beginning in the late 1950’s.
These are marvelous books, full of the rage and perseverance, insistence on the authority to reinvent and redefine one’s life, the demand to be seen as individuals rather than symbols and the parallel attention to nuance and the big picture, all components that became the strengths of the disability rights movement.