- Life Prints: A Memoir of Healing and Discovery
"I am a disabled person, but until I was a child of four when I contracted polio in 1932, I was not disabled. I think some part of my mind always remained able-bodied and functioned as an observer, creating a double consciousness," writes Mary Grimley Mason in her elegantly written and uncompromisingly honest memoir Life Prints (xi). A woman who has long been interested as a scholar and professor of English in autobiographical writings by women, Mason describes in Life Prints the consequences of her double awareness of herself as both able-bodied and disabled. Recalling her use of the "journey" metaphor to describe autobiographical narratives in the 1979 book she co-edited with Carol Green, Journeys: Autobiographical Writings by Women, Mason plots her own life story as a journey of self-discovery and ultimately self-healing as she revisits her life from the vantage point of the 1990s and sets her own personal and intellectual odysseys against the social and political concerns of the women's and disability rights movements.
"I look at myself in a photo taken at Ocean City before I had polio," Mason remarks at the beginning of her memoir (xi). In what might be for others mundane experiences of early childhood captured in old family photographs, the snapshots of Mason taken "Before and After Polio" serve as a [End Page 963] catalyst for her recollection of her double life. As Mason examines the photos of the little Wasp girl with short bobbed hair who did not use crutches and who could pedal on her tricycle and run freely in the sand, she longs for that lost able-bodied identity. She also recalls the terror she experienced after she lost the use of both legs. "Even after I had gained a lot of agility," Mason recalls, "I would have nightmares and wake up and be terrified to find that I could not move my legs, as if I were discovering it for the first time. . . . The nightmares persisted for years and also became translated into general fears of the dark" (6). Side by side with Mason's nighttime fears of bodily confinement were her persistent daytime fantasies "of dancing, floating as light as a feather, as graceful as a butterfly" (7).
As Mason examines the newspaper clippings and photographs that record her stay at the Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Georgia, where she was sent when she was six, she recalls her defiant rejection of the accommodatingly cheerful "poster child" role when she had Thanksgiving dinner with President Franklin Roosevelt at Warm Springs. Refusing to "turn on the rays of happiness" for the photographers, Mason is shown in the photos with a "sour expression" on her face (8). But if Mason asserted her independence by declining to smile for the cameras, she learned, over time, to perform the various roles society demanded of her. Succumbing to the will of her father, who could not accept Mason's disability and urged her to try to improve her condition through intensive physical therapy, Mason learned to "fake normalcy" by managing to do "just about everything that everyone else did" despite her crutches (12).
Internalizing a conception of herself as both an able-bodied and disabled person, Mason developed in her girlhood the double-consciousness that plagued her throughout most of her life. While Mason identified in part with her Aunt Edith, who, despite her limp, became dean of a women's college, she felt uncomfortable in the presence of the dejected-looking people in the waiting room of the bracemakers, and she responded to Bobby, a severely disabled boy suffering from cerebral palsy, with a mixture of fear, revulsion, and shame. "I was unaware of the hierarchal context of disabilities--how some are more socially acceptable than others, even among the disabled, depending on physical or mental characteristics," Mason comments. "I didn't identify with other disabled people. Yet I knew I did not belong...