Elevate Difference

Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing

We live in an age in which the memoir has become the preeminent genre. Writers of the contemporary memoir are not required to be a “somebody” or famous personality before publication. This is the age of the “nobody” memoir—the writings of individuals who tell stories of lives that in previous ages would have remained untold. In his thought-provoking book, Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing, author and professor of English at Hofstra University, G. Thomas Couser, argues that with these modern memoirs we have seen an astonishing proliferation of personal narratives about disability—from personal stories about illnesses like HIV/AIDS, or breast cancer, to accounts of mental illness, narratives by people living with physical disabilities such as blindness or mobility impairments, and accounts of addiction.

These “some body” writings, as Couser somewhat ironically terms them, have arisen in the wake of the civil rights movements of the last several decades. They not only provide a previously unknown level of visibility to people with non-normative bodies in our society, but they also provide a means for self-representation in which “disabled people counter their historical objectification (or even abjection) by occupying the subject position.” At the same time, Couser observes, these writings are largely mediated by publishers, the marketplace, and our collective preconceived notions of what constitutes acceptable narratives of disability. As such, they may play into stereotypes and reinforce our culture’s ableism. Thus, one extremely common pattern of the disability memoir is that of an individual who triumphs over adversity (think the amputee mountain climber, or the blind runner). In these stories, disability is a “problem” that must be “overcome” by a single, exceptional individual. These books contain no collective action, no political awareness of how our society is structured to marginalize people with disabilities, and no questioning of the status quo.

In a later chapter, Couser contrasts this kind of narrative to the work of memoirists like Anne Finger whose Elegy for a Disease goes beyond an individual account of her disability to include interviews with other survivors of polio and quotes from other memoirists. Says Finger, “I do not want to give you just my story…I also want to write about the social experience of disability.” Couser identifies Finger’s book as belonging to a set of new post-ADA disability memoirs in which authors consciously attempt to avoid the clichés of triumph over adversity, or providing a voyeuristic experience of “the other.” He also notes that these new memoirs come from a privileged group within the disability community itself—white professionals whose access to resources such as education has provided them with the means to understand and tell their stories within a larger social context.

In another chapter, Couser provides thought provoking discussions of documentary filmmaking about people with disabilities, discussing one film in particular—Face To Face: The Schappell Twins—as an example of an exceptional documentary that avoids freak show exploitation while pushing the audience to question notions of normality, individuality and privacy by taking them into the world of Reba and Lori Schappell, conjoined twins. He also examines Marjorie Wallace’s extraordinary biography of June and Jennifer Gibbons, The Silent Twins, who were elective mutes convicted of arson and confined indefinitely to Britain’s Broadmoor Hospital in the 1980s. Another chapter makes an argument that people with disabilities warrant the attention of ethnography, and engages in a thoughtful examination of the memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon in which the author wrote about her sister Beth who has mild retardation.

Published by a university press, Couser’s book assumes a certain familiarity with the language of the academy. Yet it remains accessible and engaging, providing an intelligent examination of contemporary life writing within a framework that pushes readers to question basic assumptions about disability embedded in popular culture. Signifying Bodies offers a much needed contribution to discussion of the modern memoir by highlighting the contribution and representation of people with disabilities to the genre.

Written by: Elaine Beale, February 2nd 2010

Great review of interest to medical anthropologists studying, self-representation, subjectivity and disability. Thank you.

Maya N. Vaughan-Smith PhD student Anthropology Brown University