essay canon dispatch no. 8 — “On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs (80’s)

image found here

[CN: ableism, objectification, depression, suicide]

If you only got time for one of the essays in the CNF Canon, make it this one.

One cant predict link rot, and the only place where i can find the 1983 essay is this tumblr blog post. Much thanks to them! The only other location i found was a pdf scan of an excerpt for an AP english exam. Like the canon article says, these essays are among other things really teachable. It’s wild to go to Nancy Mairs’s writing voice after WCW — this is decidedly un-experimental; the writing is tight, clear, emotionally mature and well organized. It is this direct and confident quality that struck me the most, and provoked an intensely personal response.

The paragraphing is so impeccable. Take a look at the second one:

First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.” I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People–crippled or not–wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or “disabled.” Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates /gods /viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.

It goes from short sentences to ones that stack on more clauses, then right back to a declaration that clinches the thought and also makes a good sound byte. She claims the identity of cripple, and the next sentence emphasizes her agency in doing so. The piece uses paragraphs as its base unit, exploring so many different dimensions of her reality with multiple sclerosis, and so to begin first with a bathroom anecdote and then with the issues of language is a maneuver i really like.

i also like the notion of the able-bodied people “wincing” at unsanitized vocabulary. ive listened in a little bit on these conversations — where does the language, which is so flexible in the realms of gender and sexuality, stop retaining the humanity of its subjects and start dehumanizing under the guise of feel-good liberal sentiment? Mairs interrogates “handicap,” which implies that her disabilities are deliberate by some force, and that the act of living is some kind of competition. And im grateful for her emphasis on how “disability” is not constrained to physiological limitations. And it means a lot to me in her context that she describes her own struggle with depression as “immobilizing.”

Indeed, the category “disabled,” should include depressed people and addicts. ive listened to disabled folx skeptical about “person first” language. Maybe some people dont necessarily want to be separated from their condition when people talk about them, when their reality is that the self and the condition are inextricable. There are pernicious things going on in certain areas of inclusive language, especially if notions of liberal individualism and the ideal body of labor power disseminated by capitalist ideology go unchallenged.

Unfortunately when you hear influential folx going off about “PC” language it’s never about, say, PoC being used to erase blackness, and more about blatant and contemptible misogyny and white supremacy apparently becoming unacceptable overnight. Or whining about singular they. The elegists for the language of Shakespeare and Milton hold many bigots in their ranks.

Mairs takes you through the everydayness of her life. There are funny anecdotes, the anxieties that your loved ones are faking their care, games of Scrabble, teaching. While each paragraph shows you a different slice of existence, the main theme is that humor and misery, optimism and despair, are inseparable. She leads an active lifestyle as one half of her body no longer functions fully, and the other side is going. She writes on the things she used to be able to do, running, swimming, that are now impossible except in dreams.

Like i was saying above Maris’s address is so direct, and it reflects to me a confident and mature personality.

For almost a week, until the negative results of the tests were in, I thought that I was going to die right away. Every day for the past nearly ten years, then, has been a kind of gift. I accept all gifts.

Yeah, it’s that kind of well made essay that you can teach to high schoolers. But it’s an essay of a woman seizing her own narrative, taking the word cripple and refusing those slovenly attempts at linguistic accommodation. And she also refuses society’s attempts to constrain her as a woman and as a cripple; the ubiquitous hypersexual images, always able-bodied; the consumerist doctrines that equate “happiness with performance.”

That is, she refuses to be the object of others’ expectations. Many able-bodied people seem to see no problem with chastising or even assault disabled people who aren’t in a wheelchair. Folx are more likely to ridicule a wheelchair bound person who can occasionally stand or walk short distances as a faker, rather than recognize that they probably dont know everything about how disabilities work. Liberals will show compassion and take you seriously, but only after you measure up to the narratives they’ve swallowed. The cripple must be a perfect cripple, the college assault survivor must be a perfect victim. “How can you still be suicidal if you’re on medication now?” “How can you have a learning disability if you have a college degree?”

Scoff at how well-behaved the style is here, but it is in part an essay on revolt against liberal discipline.

So bc of my depression and the selfishness and solipsism that this illness impels, Mairs’s resolve and fortitude were pretty inspiring. i was also interested in the way she writes on suicide as making decisions for your future self — ive never thought of it that way before, and ive spent a lot of time thinking about suicide by now.

The part im excerpting i hope demonstrates the kind of balance she achieves in this essay. Perhaps she is more balanced in her voice than in her actual life as it was in the 80s — she does write that no one never adjusts to life. But one of the things writing offers is a way to represent a kind of balance, whichever kind it is you need.

“On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system, in which the myelin that sheathes the nerves is somehow eaten away and sear tissue forms in its place, interrupting the nerves’ signals. During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control of bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration, and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements– the list of possibilities is lengthy and, yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without.

In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses. Characteristic of MS are sudden attacks, called exacerbations, followed by remissions, and these I have not had. Instead, my disease has been slowly progressive. My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane; and for distances I use an Amigo, a variation on the electric wheelchair that looks rather like an electrified kiddie car. I no longer have much use of my left hand. Now my right side is weakening as well. I still have the blurred spot in my right eye. Overall, though, I’ve been lucky so far. My world has, of necessity, been circumscribed by my losses, but the terrain left me has been ample enough for me to continue many of the activities that absorb me: writing, teaching, raising children and cats and plants and snakes, reading, speaking publicly about MS and depression, even playing bridge with people patient and honorable enough to let me scatter cards every which way without sneaking a peek.

Lest I begin to sound like Pollyanna, however, let me say that I don’t like having MS. I hate it. My life holds realities–harsh ones, some of them–that no right-minded human being ought to accept without grumbling. One of them is fatigue. I know of no one with MS who does not complain of bone-weariness; in a disease that presents an astonishing variety of symptoms, fatigue seems to be a common factor. I wake up in the morning feeling the way most people do at the end of a bad day, and I take it from there. As a result, I spend a lot of time in extremis and,impatient with limitation, I tend to ignore my fatigue until my body breaks down in some way and forces rest. Then I miss picnics, dinner parties, poetry readings, the brief visits of old friends from out of town. The offspring of a puritanical tradition of exceptional venerability, I cannot view these lapses without shame. My life often seems a series of small failures to do as I ought.

I lead, on the whole, an ordinary life, probably rather like the one I would have led had I not had MS. I am lucky that my predilections were already solitary, sedentary, and bookish–unlike the world-famous French cellist I have read about, or the young woman I talked with one long afternoon who wanted only to be a jockey. I had just begun graduate school when I found out something was wrong with me, and I have remained, interminably, a graduate student. Perhaps I would not have if I’d thought I had the stamina to return to a full-time job as a technical editor; but I’ve enjoyed my studies.

In addition to studying, I teach writing courses. I also teach medical students how to give neurological examinations. I pick up freelance editing jobs here and there. I have raised a foster son and sent him into the world, where he has made me two grand babies, and I am still escorting my daughter and son through adolescence. I go to Mass every Saturday. I am a superb, if messy, cook. I am also an enthusiastic laundress, capable of sorting a hamper full of clothes into five subtly differentiated piles, but a terrible housekeeper. I can do italic writing and, in an emergency, bathe an oil-soaked cat. I play a fiendish game of Scrabble. When I have the time and the money, I like to sit on my front steps with my husband, drinking Amaretto and smoking a cigar, as we imagine our counterparts in Leningrad and make sure that the sun gets down once more behind the sharp childish scrawl of the Tucson Mountains.

This lively plenty has its bleak complement, of course, in all the things I can no longer do. I will never run again, except in dreams, and one day I may have to write that I will never walk again. I like to go camping, but I can’t follow George and the children along the trails that wander out of a campsite through the desert or into the mountains. In fact, even on the level I’ve learned never to check the weather or try to hold a coherent conversation: I need all my attention for my wayward feet. Of late, I have begun to catch myself wondering how people can propel themselves without canes. With only one usable hand, I have to select my clothing with care not so much for style as for ease of ingress and egress, and even so, dressing can be laborious. I can no longer do fine stitchery, pick up babies, play the piano, braid my hair. I am immobilized by acute attacks of depression, which may or may not be physiologically related to MS but are certainly its logical concomitant.

These two elements, the plenty and the privation, are never pure, nor are the delight and wretchedness that accompany them. Almost every pickle that I get into as a result of my weakness and clumsiness–and I get into plenty–is funny as well as maddening and sometimes painful. I recall one May afternoon when a friend and I were going out for a drink after finishing up at school. As we were climbing into opposite sides of my car, chatting, I tripped and fell, flat and hard, onto the asphalt parking lot, my abrupt departure interrupting him in mid-sentence. “Where’d you go?” he called as he came around the back of the car to find me hauling myself up by the door frame. “Are you all right?” Yes, I told him, I was fine, just a bit rattly, and we drove off to find a shady patio and some beer. When I got home an hour or so later, my daughter greeted me with “What have you done to yourself?” I looked down. One elbow of my white turtleneck with the green froggies, one knee of my white trousers, one white kneesock were blood-soaked. We peeled off the clothes and inspected the damage, which was nasty enough but not alarming. That part wasn’t funny: The abrasions took a long time to heal, and one got a little infected. Even so, when I think of my friend talking earnestly, suddenly, to the hot thin air while I dropped from his view as though through a trap door, I find the image as silly as something from a Marx Brothers movie.


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