In The Secret Life of Stories, Michael Bérubé challenges readers to rethink their understanding of both intellectual disability and narrative storytelling. Building off the work of disability scholars such as Tobin Siebers and Joseph N. Strauss, who push the boundaries of disability studies beyond the realm of bodies, Bérubé argues for a new understanding of disability in literature—one [End Page 240] that applies not to characters, but to narrative itself. Although the text addresses itself primarily to disability studies scholars, Bérubé lays bare the claims of his colleagues in disability studies in such a way as to make his arguments transparent to all literary studies scholars. In addition, since he frequently uses children’s and young adult novels such as the Harry Potter series, A Wrinkle in Time, The Golden Compass, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time to illustrate his arguments, the implications of his work for children’s literature scholars become evident quite quickly.
The Secret Life of Stories acts as a kind of intervention, demonstrating to both disability studies scholars and literary theorists more broadly the potential for reading social identities through a narrative lens, and it does so, more often than not, using children’s texts as the crux of the argument. Bérubé’s central argument is relatively simple: “narrative deployments of disability do not confine themselves to representation” (2). Rather, when disability is introduced into the narrative, it has a controlling interest in how the story is told. He divides his book into three extended chapters—Motive, Time, and Self-Awareness—each of which focuses on a specific way that disability affects narrative. Bérubé’s argument speaks directly to the work of well-known disability scholars, such as David T. Mitchell, Sharon L. Snyder, and Ato Quayson, whose theories focus on how characters with disability are represented on the page. Rather than continuing in this tradition, Bérubé seeks to “cure disability studies of its habit of diagnosing fictional characters,” so that it can instead start analyzing how disability affects the way the story is told (20). Part of what makes Bérubé’s argument groundbreaking is his choice to frame intellectual disability as the heart of narrative. Previously, his colleagues have been reluctant to address intellectual disability, choosing instead to focus on visible, physical difference alone.
In addition, whereas the above authors make only passing mentions of children’s texts in their work, Bérubé chooses to make them a focus. Most disabilities are diagnosed in childhood, with texts such as the DSM-V, which the American Psychiatric Association uses to diagnose intellectual and cognitive disabilities, focusing primarily on children. As such, children’s literature remains at risk of labelling characters at the expense of telling meaningful stories. As Bérubé himself points out, we see this happening over and over with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, where the question of whether the novel is a realistic portrayal of a person with autism overrides the novel’s literary qualities, such as they are.
The possibilities for Bérubé’s narrative theory begin to open up in chapter 1, which deals with motive. In his opening move, Bérubé makes the claim that disability is at the heart of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but not for the reasons I would expect. I was prepared to hear about St. Mungo’s [End Page 241] Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, or about Squibs—who are in fact magically disabled. However, Bérubé instead makes the claim that Albus Dumbledore’s intellectually disabled sister, Ariana, who never actually appears in the text, can be viewed as the key to unlocking the entire series. It is the attack on Ariana that motivates Dumbledore’s initial hatred of muggles, his gravitation toward the dark wizard Grindelwald, who desires to start a wizard ruling class, and—after Dumbledore’s sister’s death—his repentance and...