- Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing
G. Thomas Couser is indisputably the world's leading expert on disability life writing. His Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability and Life Writing, published in 1997, was the first study to group together a diverse range of autobiographical texts under the category of disability memoir. His next book, Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life-Writing (2004), focuses on ethical issues particularly relevant to the lives and deaths of disabled people, such as genetic screening and euthanasia. Couser's new book, Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing, does considerably more than simply add new texts to the cannon of this subgenre. In this new volume, he argues persuasively that disability in life writing illuminates a host of provocative questions for anyone interested in biographical and autobiographical literature. And beyond this, these texts raise issues for public policy, law, civil rights, and bioethics that should be vitally significant to any reader. If life writing poses questions about what constitutes a life worth writing down, disabled autobiographers intensify the question to ask what kind of life is worth living. Indeed, as Couser points out, people with disabilities are natural autobiographers. One of the social burdens shared by this diverse set of individuals is to be called upon to answer some version of the questions: "What happened to you? How did you get that way?" Certainly, many disabled memoirists frame their texts as an answer to these questions composed according to their own terms.
Contrary to what one might expect, this third volume seems pitched more directly to the general reader of autobiography, rather than to a few specialists in disability memoir. The first two chapters offer an introduction to some of the main tenants of disability studies, as they survey literary and cultural depictions of disability to reveal the ways that autobiographers conform to or resist cultural scripts. The most pervasive of these scripts is the "triumph over adversity" scenario, where the individual with the impairment struggles with and eventually overcomes the loss of limb, sense, or ability, through the combined effort of her own courage, energy, and pluck, and the self-sacrifice of devoted parents, teachers, spouses, employers, and/or guide dogs. Other popular plots include the horror story and the conversion narrative. The problem with these scripts, as Couser and many others have argued, is that they [End Page 543] focus all the attention on the individual with the impairment, and ignore the cultural practices which stigmatize, exclude, and oppress great numbers of individuals with the same and different impairments. For this reason, many disability rights activists have criticized the practice of life writing as contributing to stereotypes and oppression. In fact, many activists refrain from naming or revealing the origins of their own impairments. It should make no difference whether a person uses a wheelchair because she had polio or was in a car accident. The point is that the law requires that public facilities must have ramps and elevators to accommodate everyone who uses a wheelchair, crutches, or other mobility devices—not to mention anyone pushing a baby stroller, or pulling a roller suitcase. While Couser critiques some texts for their exclusive focus on a singular subject, and praises others for a more expansive perspective defining disability as a cultural construct affecting everyone, his primary goal is not to police these texts for the strict adherence to a particular ideology. Rather, he uses disability as a tool to analyze a wide range of contemporary life writing practices.
In the central chapters of this book, Couser is particularly interested in ethical issues around biographical treatments of disabled subjects. In effect, he takes up one of the slogans of the disability rights movement, "Nothing about us without us," to explore ideas about voyeurism and consent. For example, one chapter discusses Face to Face: The Schappell Twins, a documentary film directed by Ellen Weissbrod, about the conjoined twins Lori and Reba Schappell. He describes the ways the film deviates from, even subverts, the conventions of medical documentary...