Biography 24.3 (2001) 589-591
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Gelya Frank's Venus on Wheels, a fascinating account of her two decades of dialogue as an ethnographer with Diane DeVries, is an example of the remarkable broadening of the literature of disability that has occurred in the last three decades. Once characterized primarily by published personal accounts of disability and a few studies of "difference," such as Erving Goffman's Stigma (1963), "disability studies" now includes many disciplines and has not only changed the way we look at disability but also how we interact with and understand each other as human beings.
Gelya Frank first met Diane DeVries, a twenty-six-year-old woman whose physical impairment from birth was the absence of arms and legs, in a cultural anthropology course where Frank, then twenty-eight, was a teaching assistant and DeVries a student. Frank opens the book with a description of her first encounter with DeVries in 1976:
From my vantage at the back of the lecture hall I watched a blond woman enter the classroom in an electric wheelchair. She looked to be in the fullness of womanhood, wearing a sleeveless white top with narrow straps. Her tapered arm stumps seemed daringly exposed, and the mysterious configuration of her hips was encased in tight blue jeans that ended where her legs should have begun. She maneuvered her wheelchair with a lever control mounted on one side to face the lectern. (1-2)
Frank was immediately intrigued with Diane DeVries, so when DeVries visited her office and challenged the young instructor to learn about disabled women and the disability culture, she was eager to connect. Over the next two decades their interviews, meetings, and friendship became the basis for Frank's professional career: her dissertation subject, many journal articles, and finally this book. Venus on Wheels is primarily about their twenty year relationship that has structured, the author claims, both of their lives. Frank calls her work a cultural biography, which combines the genres of ethnography and life history. It presents the inspiring life story of DeVries, who "conceived of herself as lovely," and led a life that challenged all the barriers that [End Page 589] obstructed her pursuit of education, a career, and a personal life including marriage. DeVries insisted on a full expression of herself as a woman sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. Frank comes to understand that Diane DeVries does not see herself "as inherently limited and flawed." In choosing the title of the book, Frank evoked the statue of Venus de Milo, acknowledging that DeVries's body, like the famous armless statue, was "intended that way" and was "beautiful in its own right."
Frank emphasizes the reflexive role she took in her research as ethnographer, and how working with DeVries transformed her understanding of her own life. She traces the progressive nature of the relationship, documenting her own change from voyeur, to observer, to observing participant, to friend and fellow professional. Several of her chapters include discussions of her own radical practices of self-examination and how they fit into current ethnographical theories and cultural studies. The book has been criticized for emphasizing this story rather than the unique life story of Diane DeVries, but although we might wish for less lengthy discussions of anthropological, psychological, and philosophical theorists, we would not want to miss the way the book brings together the concept of difference with an understanding of a common humanity, "an embodiment of humanity," as Frank calls it. She helps us reflect on sameness and difference--on the interaction between cultural context and individuality and how we must experience both.
Frank argues that Diane DeVries's life history is an "exemplar of changes" in American culture in the second half of the twentieth century, especially regarding people with disabilities. She...