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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2013 - Vol. 10, Issue 3

"The Feminist Crip-tique"

written by

Erika Jahneke

Unlike Harilyn Rousso, I never had a choice whether to claim and name my cerebral palsy. It’s been twined around my life for over thirty years like a plant around a trellis. (I haven’t decided which is the plant and which is the trellis—maybe that will take another thirty-something years) My level of mobility impairment, though far from the most severe with this kind of disability, has always made the thing that is “wrong” with me front-and-center, in-your-face obvious. I guess like many people in my situation, I assumed both rightly and wrongly, that mobility meant freedom, that any standing position, no matter how shaky, was better than facing life from a chair. I would have guessed, before I read this book (which has the best title in the world, by the way) that it felt better to be the people who stumble, hobble, or hop. But we all have an unattainable, airbrushed image to compare ourselves to, and apparently only very slight deviations can exist in an American, especially an American woman, before she longs to punish herself and her parents who wonder what went wrong. I suppose that makes me very different than able-bodied readers who delve into Don’t Call Me Inspirational, because it tells the tale of ugliness and awkwardness, not in an ordinary but in an imperfect body. This was the most surprising.


My “disabled self” as Rousso puts it, was never really confined to one collection of body parts, although the urge to deny and separate myself from people I probably thought of as “retarded” was probably responsible for my childhood vanity about my quick thinking processes, comparatively fluent speech, and so forth. It is a measure of disability’s universal themes that I could find anything, as a shy desert-dwelling wheelchair user in Phoenix that remotely intersected with the concerns of a Jewish woman in New York’s West Village.


Another thing I’d noticed, but had never seen written about in any book before, was the ways in which disability provides a sort of freedom from gender roles, mostly, of course, domestic responsibilities and caretaking. I know I’ve gotten to develop my brain and my sense of myself as a separate entity, at least on an intellectual and political basis, more than my cousins have.


Maybe, since I’m in a different generation from Harilyn Rousso, and my mother is a feminist, this is not solely the result or consequence of CP. But I had never really considered it as a side benefit. Although, yes, sometimes I still feel that I haven’t developed fully the nurturing aspects of my personality that “real women” have, so sometimes this freedom isn’t a gift, but an absence.


I find this author’s willingness to connect disability bias and sexism, as well as the non-linear essay format refreshing. The lives of people with disabilities rarely fit into a conventional timeline, so the non-chronological approach is a good choice overall.


The title is a special gift to women like myself who feel that we get far more credit for continuing to exist than we do for anything we accomplish. While, personally, I’d love to know that something I’d said or written inspired someone to do something great, I have heard it enough about my just doing the minimum to see why Ms. Rousso views it as an empty compliment handed out to poster children , along with “Such a pretty face,” and “It really makes you think. Anyone who’s done any coalition-type political activism will empathize with the essay about the feminist allies who don’t get it, although I’m still trying in a small way to bridge the gap.


Even though this is a good book, there are definitely segments of it that are going to appeal more to a non-disabled audience than to someone like me. Because, quite frankly, I am so much more impaired than she is that a shaking gait and dropping things don’t really seem like causes for so much shame and denial. And for a book with “staring back” in one of the title segments, you can forgive me for being a little disappointed that there are so many instances where the younger Ms. Rousso goes back to her apartment with her “cheeks burning” because of some idiot on the street. If she had to do that, what hope is there for the rest of us? I can’t help wishing for at least one blistering confrontation, although I know they can be hard to come by in real life, and maybe if more disabled women’s books came out, I could stop reading each one looking for my own private Barbara Gordon to be my hero. And, even though feminism today is very much concerned with the people left out and things left unsaid, I really wish that could lead to far less writing about silence, which I personally consider one of the duller topics in the world to give page space to. And this is strictly a matter of taste, but it makes me incredibly uncomfortable when writers start personifying their body parts, although I do understand not feeling connected to all of it at all times, and I have often found myself muttering to some resistant body part, but I guess I would consider that not strictly for public consumption.


Overall, this is a clear and thoughtful set of essays that made me want to read more about Harilyn Rousso’s adventures in the practice of psychotherapy as well as her mentoring work that paired disabled women and girls, as I had very rare encounters with disabled adults until I became one myself. In fact, I think I was eight before I realized there could be grown disabled people, and I wonder what kind of effect that might have had on me. Maybe seeing the right woman in a chair might have been… dare I say it, “inspiring.”


Sometimes I wondered, while writing this review, if I’d been too hard on this book—if I shouldn’t have just focused on the parts I liked, you know, try to be a supportive sister more than a nagging critic. But then, I thought it was great that there were enough mainstream examples of disability narrative out there that I could have an opinion about what makes a successful one, instead of just heaping on blanket praise.


It really makes you think.


Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back by Harilyn Rousso Temple University Press, 224 pages

Erika Jahneke is a feminist writer, blogger, and occasional critic and journalist with cerebral palsy who feels caught sometimes between Laura in the Glass Menagerie and those crazysexycool curb-jumping Push Girls. She lives in Phoenix, where she is writing a novel.

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