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Reviewed by:
  • Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure by Eli Clare
  • Julie Passanante Elman (bio)
Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure by Eli Clare. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017, 240 pp., $84.95 hardcover, $22.95 paper.

Given how much cure masquerades as an apolitical good ("cure rides on the back of normal and natural" [14]), disability activists, artists and scholars have had to work overtime to show how cure overshadows—economically, morally, and culturally—other access needs that would materially benefit disabled people. Meanwhile, cure-or-kill narratives (i.e., the idea that anyone is "better dead than disabled") contribute to body-mind shame. Disabled people manage this ableist stigma with crip pride, refusal, snark, pain, art, and anger, and, alongside critical disability studies scholars, they have offered a multifaceted critique of cure. However, at times, when disabled or chronically ill people express a desire for cure within disability communities, this desire is met with ambivalence. Is it internalized ableism? What about disability pride? Of course, disabled and chronically ill people are only caught in this double bind when they express feelings of sadness or loss, because an ableist culture is all too willing to use their feelings to bolster its cure narrative: that disability is a tragedy for which cure is The Only Panacea.

In his most recent work, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, Eli Clare maps, mourns, and reimagines cure, eschewing easy answers in favor of posing discomfiting questions. Acknowledging the vital importance of crip pride, Clare pushes us to work harder to hold space for ambiguity and discomfort: "Holding it all—sickness and human vulnerability, health and disability, the need for and the rejection of cure—is much harder work than writing anti-cure diatribes. And much more necessary" (62). Brilliant Imperfection is a provocation—one that spotlights how crucial disability studies continues to be, particularly as scholars, activists, and artists make room for more nuanced conversations about rehabilitation, cure, and diagnosis. Clare embraces the messiness—that our real lives rarely line up seamlessly with our politics—and uses "mosaic" as a methodology to hold space for productive tensions rather than too-neat resolutions. Clare deftly weaves historical data, poetry, and personal vignettes with feminist, queer, crip, antiracist, and animal studies scholarship to produce a deeply intersectional account of the medical and nonmedical structures of [End Page 233] cure, from pharmaceuticals, to acupuncture, to the DSM, to skin lightening cosmetics, to ecological restoration efforts.

Many disability activists and scholars have argued that disability is a meta-identity that supersedes other differences, because it is the one category that every human will eventually inhabit as they age. Despite its claim to universality, this common-sense version of secular humanism has helped inadvertently to maintain what Chris Bell (2006) aptly named "White Disability Studies." Vital and richly diverse histories of pain, pleasure, and survival have long been subsumed under a universal aging process that remains stolidly white, middle class, and neurotypical. A book about a topic as sensitive and as complex as the politics of cure would certainly risk contributing further to such erasure. However, Clare is a capacious thinker, and Brilliant Imperfection manages to show how cure differentially impacts a variety of communities without collapsing important differences among them, building alliances without requiring ideological purity. Clare poses his own difficult questions about the relationship among medical technology, trans embodiment, and crip pride: "How can I reconcile my lifelong struggle to love my disabled self exactly as it is with my use of medical technology to reshape my gendered and sexed body-mind?" (175). Rather than vilifying diagnosis as only-ever pathologizing, Clare argues that "diagnosis is a tool rather than a fact, an action rather than a state of being, one story among many," and the stakes of diagnosis are at once personal and communal, both life and death (45).

The question of cure has always been somewhat of fault line between studies of chronic illness, on the one side, and disability, on the other. While some people with chronic illnesses or disabilities "resist the notion of body-mind trouble as it is repeatedly foisted on them," still others strive for diagnosis, "to have their body-mind trouble...