- Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure by Eli Clare
Since the 1999 publication of Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, the transgender crip writer Eli Clare has become a fixture on scholarly and activist reading lists supporting LGBTQ, disability, anti-racist, and environmental justice work. In that book, he courageously and movingly explores his early life as a white, working-class, disabled butch in rural Oregon and his commitment to radical politics. Clare's latest book, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, both extends and expands that earlier project through a deep, sustained analysis of cure—a deceptively simple concept that encompasses healing, rehabilitation, restoration, treatment, and medical technology as well as the interpersonal attitudes and sociopolitical ideologies that surround these terms.
In the introduction, Clare describes the book as a mosaic, "fragments and slivers" (xv) of the many movements in which he has participated over the past three decades. The fundamental promise of cure—that nonstandard bodies and minds can and will be "fixed" or made to comply with social norms—lurks within discourses of disability, race, sexuality, gender, and environmental preservation. It is a concept that often works destructively, naming certain people as defective and thereby invalidating them, but it can also be liberatory, such as when it releases people from pain and distress. Clare's objective in the book, then, is not to defend a singular position for or against cure but to examine its conflicted and contradictory work.
Like all of Clare's writing, Brilliant Imperfection is deeply rooted in disability activism and disability theory, both of which have advanced the necessary idea that human variation is a fundamentally good thing and that anomalous bodies and minds should be accommodated by the social world that surrounds them, not changed to fit that world—a staunch resistance to "the unending assertions that disability equals damage, lack of health, defect" (60). And yet, the insistence on accommodation over cure can result in the privileging of some disabilities over others, even within disability communities. Clare confesses: "But in [End Page 148] actuality, my anti-cure politics have all too often shut out chronically ill people" (61). Thus, he critiques a society that takes the benefits of cure for granted, even as he refuses to reject it absolutely; his first chapter begins: "I am alive today because of medical technology" (6).
This ambivalence is never resolved but is instead explored with intensifying complexity as Clare considers and reconsiders his own beliefs about cure in conversation with insights from environmental, LGBTQ, and anti-racist movements. His chapter titles—a few of which are "Ideology of Cure," "Violence of Cure," "Nuances of Cure," "Impacts of Cure," and "Promises of Cure"—underscore his decision to privilege deep engagement over defined argument. For instance, he reminds us that environmentalists often employ the language of restoration, which "can be a powerful force," even if we ultimately "may not be able to fix what has been broken" (59). He concludes with a powerful exploration of his own "slow turn from butch dyke to genderqueer to living as a white man in the world" (177), an exploration that requires him to ask: "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). Because the book begins with a chapter critiquing the idea that human variation should be corrected ("Ideology of Cure") and ends with one that directly addresses the medical technology of gender reassignment ("Promise of Cure"), an inattentive reader might surmise that the book chronicles a movement from rejecting to embracing cure, but such an interpretation would be inaccurate. Every time Clare seems to arrive at a conclusion, he complicates it, finally asserting: "I so need that messier story that allows our body-minds and desires to be inexplicable" (177).
To get to this "messier story," Clare deploys a range of genres, offering a book that is part memoir, part history, part prose poetry, part critical theory, part...