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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 311-315
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The Singular Subject of Disability Autobiography
David T. Mitchell
A Forum on Disability and Self-Representation
To sketch a quick contrast between disability in literature and disability in autobiography, I would begin by making two generalizations: in literature disability functions largely as a metaphor of social collapse, while in autobiography disability represents the coordinates of a singular subjectivity. The distinction is important because most literary critics in disability studies have argued that autobiography offers up a necessary antidote to the objectifying symbolism of artistic representation. For instance, in this forum Tom Couser argues for the importance of disability life writing as a form of auto-ethnography; Brenda Brueggemann and Georgina Kleege use first-person experiences to reflect upon their experiences as disabled teachers and writers; Leonard Cassuto argues that Oliver Sacks's identification with his "patients" inverts the traditional objectifications of the scientific case study; Rosemarie Garland Thomson theorizes the reappropriation of the stare through the first-person artistic performances of disabled women; and Michael Bérubé poses an intimate portrait of his disabled son while contemplating his precarious position as a parent-turned-lobbyist. Each of these examples seeks to mine the insights of a singular experience in order place the author in a complex relationship to a developing notion of contemporary disability culture.
Yet, despite recent efforts to use autobiography as a means of delimiting the coordinates of disability identity writ large, there are dangers in the autobiographical turn that also need to be critically [End Page 311] assessed. Unlike other disability scholars, those who tend to champion disability life writing as a corrective to the insubstantiality of literary portraits, I would argue that the singular pose of the autobiographer of disability derives from literary conventions that need to be queried more vigorously. Instead of serving as a corrective to impersonal symbolic literary representations, disability life writing tends toward the gratification of a personal story bereft of community with other disabled people. Even the most renowned disability autobiographers often fall prey to an ethos of rugged individualism that can further reify the longstanding association of disability with social isolation. I would like to take up a recent example of this dilemma in a discussion of Leonard Kriegel's autobiographical work, Flying Solo: Reimagining Manhood, Courage, and Loss (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998). The documentation of disability as a communal identity is largely unavailable in the "self-reliant," first-person literature of disability. Memoirs and autobiographical tales of physical hardship and public ostracism appeal to the singularity of experience that appeases a reader's desire for the intimacy of confession and the narrative demand for individual exclusivity. Leonard Kriegel's recent foray into the genre of disability life writing confirms the tradition's devotion to narcissistic self-revelation. Significantly, the work's title encompasses the formula: the experience of disability served up as an isolated affair of overcompensation and confessional self-reckoning with bodily limitation. Kriegel, the author of seven books and numerous articles, knows the formula well and manipulates its conventions with a good deal of skill. Yet, one would believe that a prolific history of publication would lead a writer to fly against the literary currents of the day. Kriegel's solo flight aims his story with the wind and therefore takes the easier route rather than flying toward the necessary turbulence of an original contribution.
In Flying Solo, a reader finds him/herself dealt into a game of bodily solitaire where interdependent experience is trussed into the rigid harness of solitary life. In a chapter brashly entitled, "Pursuing Women, Meeting Myself," Kriegel stakes out his philosophy about disabled life and masculinity in general with an ironic inversion of Freud's overquoted nineteenth-century query: "What is it that men want from women? No less a gift than being a singular man" (141). By "singular" Kriegel suggests a recognition of his independence and originality in spite of the polio that had "claimed my legs" (135). The author explains his disability as a static fact of fate--"[c]ripple I was...