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NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002) 206-210

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Life Prints: A Memoir of Healing and Discovery by Mary Grimley Mason. New York: Feminist Press, 2000, 223 pp., $19.95 hardcover.
Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography and Being Female in America by Gelya Frank. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 284 pp., $19.95 paper.
Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation by Eli Clare. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999, 147 pp., $14.00 paper.

While recent studies in social history and anthropology have challenged our notions of race, class, and gender, scholars have not yet fully addressed one component of our identity: physical ability and the concept of normality. Each of the biographies reviewed here inspect the intersections and overlays among disabilities, gender, and sexuality. Both Gelya Frank and Eli Clare also focus on class as an essential component [End Page 206] of understanding the world as a social and economic entity. Race as a category for analysis only appears tangentially in any of these works. For an historian, it is easy to organize this essay chronologically; each life story—autobiography, in the cases of Mary Grimley Mason and Eli Clare, or life history, as in Gelya Frank's telling of Diane DeVries's biography—is circumscribed by a distinct cultural, social, economic, and political era. While biography tells only a single life story, the context, issues, and struggles provide a snapshot of an epoch. Good biographies reveal a series of images that capture motion and change over time; the best biographies capture an era and illuminate universal motifs.

Mary Grimly Mason's Life Prints: A Memoir of Healing and Discovery is the account of a white, upper middle-class, disabled women's odyssey from "passing"—as much as she could—as able-bodied and trying to fit into her social milieu, to evolving into a feminist writer and disability rights activist. Mary Grimly contracted polio at the age of four, and by 1934 had become a reluctant, at times recalcitrant, poster child for President Roosevelt's Warm Springs Foundation. According to her recollection, and with a photo to prove it, she was a sour-faced child, manifestly ill at ease posing with the president's Thanksgiving turkey on a tether. Her greatest challenges would come from her family's none too subtle message that she should overcome her physical impairment by minimizing it and emulating her siblings' aspirations to marriage, education, and class status. Her attendance at women's colleges in Massachusetts during the 1950s would give her early glimpses at what would later be an epiphany—that her dissonance about her body and its limitations was equally the result of her treatment as a woman and as a person with a disability. After her marriage in graduate school, and their sojourn to Paris, she began to unravel the social, cultural, and religious assumptions about gender and normality that had held her hostage. Before she successfully overcame the expectation that she must either get better or act as if she had—not the burden of physical disability—she suffered the departure of many of the significant men in her life. She lost her father from a heart attack, her brother to suicide, and her husband to dalliances with other women, finally leading to divorce. Perhaps the most solid anchors of her married years were her long career teaching literature at Emmanuel College and her deepening relationships with her three children. As she grasped the ways in which gender expectations shaped her life, she also understood the role her mobility impairment played. Dependency was expected of women of her class as well as physically disabled people. Only when she reached the full maturity of her sixth and seventh decades could she become a disability rights activist.

The greatest strength of this book, perhaps, is that it is a fresh and vibrant life story, beautifully written and engaging. It is neither a...


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