- Living On
New York: New York University Press, 2016. xi + 208 pp.
Christina Crosby's beautifully constructed memoir spirals outward from a 2003 bicycle accident that left her largely paralyzed below the neck at the age of fifty-one. Crosby's account of the "violent and unceasing neurological storm" (18) set off by her spinal cord injury draws on insights from phenomenology and psychoanalysis, Victorian fiction and lyric poetry, and feminist and queer thinking about embodiment, pain, and the ethics of care. Composed of eighteen short, thematically organized chapters, the book intersperses vivid descriptions of the terrifying days and weeks that followed the accident (hospitalizations, surgeries, rehab, and physical therapy) with potent reflections on the arc of her life "before," from her tomboyish childhood in rural Pennsylvania to her entry into political consciousness by way of lesbian feminism as a college student, her fulfilling academic career as a professor of English and feminist studies at Wesleyan, and the rich domestic and intimate life she was in the midst of building with her partner, Janet, at the moment of the accident. Yet Crosby pushes back against the genre conventions of popular narratives about life-altering injury, disability, and illness; she insists on her need to mourn the loss of her previously able-bodied status and the kind of life that it allowed her to sustain. She equally departs from what she calls the "strategic elision" (7) of pain, loss, and grief that has sometimes accompanied disability studies' efforts to redescribe disability in social or political terms. Crosby takes exception to the way such accounts "almost always move toward a satisfying conclusion of lessons learned and life recalibrated to accommodate, even celebrate, a new way of being in the world" (189). Refusing catharsis, she gives voice to the [End Page 557] depression and despair that she continues to experience in the face of such an utterly transformed and constrained mode of corporeal existence. "How could I be this body?" she recalls asking herself after the accident. "How could I bear what I had become?" (120). Yet if Crosby rejects sentimental self-heroizing and easy resolutions, neither is she fatally resigned or pessimistic. Her frank and brutal (at times wry) reflections on the realities of living in such a radically transformed body are accompanied by profound insights into the new forms of relationality and intimacy that have become necessary to sustain her daily existence, and she is especially attuned to the labor of others (both paid and unpaid) that she now relies on in order to move through the world.
Along with much else, the accident forced Crosby to confront the inadequacies of language in the face of traumatic injury—a particularly wrenching dilemma for a scholar and teacher of literature. She describes the "unassuageable loneliness" that comes from the realization that "I will never be able to adequately describe the pain I suffer" (31). All the same, she writes earlier in the book, "I begin in that leaden place where pain seems on the other side of language, and work toward living on" (12). For Crosby, the work of living on is inextricable from her resolve to find ways of accounting for her experience of pain and injury in writing, and A Body, Undone is the record of that hard-earned pursuit. Crosby's decades spent reading and teaching George Eliot and Jane Austen have sharpened her writerly sensibilities, and her impressively modulated prose is spiked with flashes of rage and bursts of deep sorrow. After the accident, she writes, "neurological destruction made a wilderness of my body. I was in an agony of grief" (117). The impress of Crosby's career as a literary scholar is also evident in her piercing insights into the ways that the lived experience of traumatic injury can become easily conventionalized according to a specific set of literary tropes and cultural genres. At one point, she notes that her embodied life after the accident seems to continuously exceed the "realist consensus" that governs the Victorian novels she teaches, and more closely resembles the reality-warping conventions of horror. (Yet as she also...