|Title:||The One-Legged Wonder and Other Names|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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The One-Legged Wonder and Other Names
vol. 3, no. 2, Winter 2002
The One-Legged Wonder and Other Names
Let me describe for you, in the clearest way I can, my body. It is something that needs to be described, something that requires a fluttering of words that can capture and define it. These words, used by others as well as myself, are usually either medical and very technical in nature, or they are vulgar words that conjure up images that are generally not considered polite or public. My body is a fluid combination of advertisement and obscenity, something that is in a profound sense a very public marketing tool or device for postmodern science (a nephralogist I had three years ago once called my body the product of modern medicine"). At the same time it is something that is like a bad word or a naughty picture needing to be repressed for the sake of good taste, or hidden for shame, if possible. My body is 31 years old; it stands at 5'10 and weighs a slim 150 pounds. It has brown hair on its head, green eyes, and is covered with a good skin. The rest of its anatomy is abnormal, strange. Its anomalies" read like a long catalog, an amazing hodgepodge of unique medical problems" and issues." That list, roughly from the top down, includes the following: the left arm is shorter than the right by about five inches; the left hand is cleft down the middle, and is missing a thumb; the left shoulder is slightly off center, and smaller than the right shoulder; the spine curves in and out, left and right as it goes down the back; several ribs are missing on the left side, as is the kidney; the right kidney is, again in the medical discourse, hydronephrotic," which means it is a big sluggish thing that performs its job of cleansing the blood poorly; at birth, a duplicated urethra" was discovered (which, in other words, meant that I had two pee holes in my penis—one of the holes, the dorsal, was corrected" when I was four years old); there are other congenital urological problems—complicated things, that I know little about other than that my piping is like a nightmarish rollercoaster inside, with loops and spins, wide gaps and narrow tunnels; further down, the left leg was missing the left tibia at birth, leading to the initial amputation of a misshapen left foot; later, when it was discovered that the rehabilitation of a poorly shaped left knee had failed, and that the spine and hips were being systematically and dangerously contorted because of an awkward gait, the left leg was additionally amputated just above the knee in order to straighten out walking.
My body is unique. It is a strange picture that often disturbs its viewer. Other people have had similar bodies, with similar defects," but no other human on this whole gigantic, over-populated planet has had a body like mine, with the same complex combination of anomalies and with the same complicated history of medical intervention. No one. Amazingly, though, I can pass" as normal," and have passed as such when I have needed to. When I put on the right clothes, and stay sitting down, you would never know that my anatomical anomalies exist. When I teach my classes, talk to students individually in the office, gather research in the library, or do any other activity that has me still and sitting down, my body is able to obtain normalcy. It is when I move that I slip out of that normal region and into the blurred, unstable areas that my body in motion always invokes. In those quaking moments, moments where I am in flux, my body being simultaneously able and disabled, beautiful and strange, I have a kind of unique freedom, am able to play with identity, relationships, names, roles, and language.
When I was a child I often felt like a comic book superhero, or a Saturday morning cartoon character. My body possessed both normalcy" and abnormality," and I could transform myself into one form or the other. I lacked definition, stability. No one could figure out if I was this—a special needs case who required the support of such organizations as The Ronald McDonald House and Easter Seals—or that—a normal" child who needed no more assistance than anyone else. I often imagine what it must have been like for my parents' house guests or social acquaintances to see me for the first time. At first glance, I must have seemed to be a normal" looking boy. I had curly brown hair, a sweet smile; my mother says that I had a pretty voice as well, and that I always loved to sing. However, I would then get up and simply walk across the room, and then, at that moment, seemingly out of nowhere, I became abnormal" and amazing" because, despite my sudden transformation into a disfigured, obviously disabled creature, I was walking, and everyone knew that, just like other children, I actually could run, play soccer and tennis, and swim. I could do all of the things other children my age could do, yet I had only one leg and was all bent and crooked. I was, therefore, what one of my friends' father called me (a name that at first I found funny, and a name that these days seems to encapsulate my entire childhood): The One-Legged Wonder." A triumph and a tragedy all at once. The embodiment of wondrous courage and amazing heroism, and, likewise, the location of biological failure and every parent's nightmare. The fact was, though, I was neither wondrous nor, necessarily, a nightmare. And I knew it.
My friend's father could not understand what I was. He was a decent person, a person who was involved with his children and his children's friends, and so he needed to understand me, one of his kids' playmates, to name me, to define me, to put me into some kind of manageable, identifiable space. Naming is an act of cultural management. Our bodies are managed in such a way: when we are labeled disfigured or disabled" we are fit into certain cultural criteria, and when we are labeled normal or able-bodied" we are fit into a different set of parameters. Everyone knows it, knows how to recognize a body, read its surface, how to use words to put it into the appropriate set of categories and meanings to which it belongs.  When individuals are given a name, especially when it is a nickname pertaining specifically to their body, they are being given a manufactured identity; they are, in part, being controlled by their cultural circumstances. As the preeminent disability studies scholar, Lennard Davis, has described: Disability . . . is a disruption in the visual, auditory, or perceptual field as it relates to the power of the gaze. As such, the disruption, the rebellion of the visual, must be regulated, rationalized, contained" (Nude Venuses" 53). So it is like this: you see something and you can not understand it because it is so suddenly different; you name it and then you can control it, explain it, distance it from all of the danger it threatens in its impenetrability; and then, you are able to include it and its deviance within the circle of predictability that is required of a sane, normal" world.
As a child, I was a swirling mass of danger, an unpredictable agent in my cultural environment. I was a disabled body doing able-bodied activities as well as or even better than many of the other normal" children who were my friends. I was, therefore, a threat to my friends' and their parents' understanding of how the world was supposed to be. I was wrong. My body was both abnormal and normal, and it was dangerous because it lacked any clear stability, any obvious and binding chains to either one of those roles. My body was, indeed, a kind of discursive free agent, sliding from one set of discourses to the next, depending on the immediate situation. My body transgressed all of the boundaries, then, and resisted all of the stereotypes: no wheelchair there to secure in absolute terms disability" and therefore pity; and yet there was this unavoidable abnormality and disfigurement there, too, and plenty of it. This disruption demanded a solution. The solution (although, as I will demonstrate in the end it did not work) was to invent a name for me. And thus, The One-Legged Wonder was born.
What I was born into was a role as a freak." Disabled bodies are deviant bodies in a culture where an able-bodied norm is in effect (Davis, "Constructing Normalcy" 13). But again, bodily difference as deviance can be maintained, rationalized, and controlled. Roles are made, invented; names are given and identities then constructed. Bodies are regulated by culture: those that read as normal" are understood and interacted with in one way while those that are read as abnormal" or disfigured are understood and interacted with in another way. What was so frightening about my body, though, was its slickness, its resistance to those seemingly absolute roles set up for abnormal bodies like mine. Indeed, my body possessed a kind of super-deviance in that it could, in some ways, fit into every discursive category out there available to it, while simultaneously being unable to really fit into any definable space at all. I existed at both ends of the spectrum: again, disabled and able at once. My body, then, especially when I was younger and very present in the active, able-bodied sports-life of the small town in which I lived, was freakish in its absolute singularity and its resistance to explanation and definition. My body became a constantly interpreted and re-interpreted text, something that everyone, every reader, was always trying to figure out and name. My body became a text that demanded elaborate reading, a kind of modernist poem that was full of heavy ambiguity and resisted any easy, more conventional reading strategy.
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, another prominent scholar working in disability studies, explains that, When the body becomes a pure text, a freak has been produced from a physically disabled human being" (59). This is exactly what happened to my body. I could not fit into any particular category; instead I disturbed them all. And so my body became a disputed event, a kind of show or entertainment. I was The One-Legged Wonder. When I played soccer, for example, every season it was a sure bet that I would get a write-up in the local paper on my story"; the same was true with tennis, and every other sport I played. I was newsworthy-amazing, incredible, the boy with one leg and one kidney who could accomplish so many things. I was a known persona in my town, and again, my body was a text constantly being written up and read about in the local papers, presented and understood in a certain way. In this way a specific kind of discursive category was assigned to my problematic body, and that category or role entailed the values of amazement and wonder.
The discursive strategy fit, to a point, often worked in holding my body still and allowing it to be explained. I embraced the name The One-Legged Wonder, for example, let it hold me. I allowed it to define—again, to a point—who I was, in my own mind. As a child I often understood myself as a hero, a wonder." But really, I now know that, in some sense, I always understood that it was an elaborate game, a game that I could play to my advantage if I wanted to. Again, it was all about names, roles. I could often pick and choose, wear one mask or another, depending on the situation. I just did what all freaks learn to do: I tried to avoid circumstances that would leave me powerless, and create situations that would instead give me a measure of power and control; I put on the appropriate mask by myself, literally becoming the name, embodying it, or I manipulated the situation so that I could wear the mask I wanted to. I played the game with myself, configuring myself as each different situation demanded. On certain levels, then, I could feel sorry for myself when I needed to feel better, use my physical deviance to explain some failure or other. In other moments, I could also push myself, yell at myself to be heroic," to never feel self-pity"; this move was just another door to go through, another viable explanation of a frustrating failure, a way out of some mental jam, or some deep doubt or insecurity. More importantly, I could play the game with other people: I could make them feel sorry for me when I wanted to; I knew I could use my disfigurement to gain an advantage over any norm," and I often did.
What this meant was that I had and still have a very complicated status as a person in our constructed society. I perform socially; I also perform for myself in my own mind, building up certain self-images, certain versions of me for me. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler, addressing this very issue of an inscribed interiority upon the body and the body's resulting social performance, writes that, The figure of the interior soul understood as 'within' the body is signified through its inscription on the body, even though its primary mode of signification is through its absence, its potent invisibility" (135). The tension that Butler describes here, and elsewhere in her work, the notion that, in my own case, the often visible disfigurement and disability of my body determines a tautological link to the invisible interiority of it, has been significant in my sense of social performativity: I have always been to an extreme extent aware of that performance, and my life has therefore been the complicated drama of a freak show. My understanding of things, my perception of and reaction to the world, is driven by motives that are sometimes contrary, and that are always working on a complicated matrix of socialized levels. Names determine what I hear and how I hear it; names, the appropriate masks, determine what I say and how I say it. When I was a child, when I was the embodiment of The One-Legged Wonder, I was a performer at a show, and the show was on all of the time: the spotlights followed me wherever I went; I was always in focus, and my act was what everyone was watching. My body was an event and, as I will narrate later, I even learned how to charge those who wanted to view it. I was physically different, and I knew that all the eyes were on me and my wondrous" body.
Within the fabric of this experience I came into being. I," however, was (and is) never simple, never necessarily stable. It all depends on my audience, the other viewing the show. Madonne Minor has written that, Striving to create ourselves in stories, we simultaneously are created by stories: this curious tension speaks to and of the postmodern human condition—and reminds us of the importance of attending to stories" (283). Postmodernity, especially in the context of the visibly disabled or disfigured body, articulates fragmentation and contradiction, different, often competing points or stories of subjectivity. My body, as I have already demonstrated, was and is emblematic of a postmodernism in its absolute discursive fluidity, its ability both to claim and to cloak normalcy and abnormalcy, its basic flexibility and freakish performativity. My body could and still can embody disability and undermine it at the exact same time: in this way my body itself was and still is a complex demonstration of the potentially radical workings of a postmodern culture. This is demonstrated most tellingly, I think, in the religious experiences of my childhood.
When I was a child I talked to God constantly. I would tell God my problems, ask God for guidance, pray to God for help. Every night I made it a habit basically to fall asleep talking things over with the Lord." I was Catholic, and an alter boy, and I had thoughts of someday being a priest. I was very faithful, and believed absolutely in God: He was a real person to me, a friend who knew everything about me. I used to seriously think about whether or not I was hearing a call" from my savior, whether or not He was asking me to serve Him. The two priests I had at St. Francis Xavier grade school and parish both made me think about joining the clergy. They were my first great role models, the first great men that I wanted to imitate and be like. They were good, and kind, and powerful in their own way. I remember vividly how every spring, when the warm weather bathed our town and the trees came out green and flowers bloomed pink and yellow and bright white at every turn on the way to school, there would be a special homily and a special mass where the priest would try to convince us—the kids enrolled in St. Francis and the congregation in general—to hear the call. My generation was one of the first in the Springfield diocese to really feel the pressure of a shortage of priests. And so the talk was always urgent, a little desperate, a little dark. Both Father Shea, an old white haired fellow with a big booming voice who even came over to my house for supper once on a Saturday, and Father Shea's replacement, Father Morrow, who was a smaller man with a good golf game and an aristocratic air, would practically plead and beg to the large congregation on those mornings, desperately asking for enrollment into the Church as either a priest or a nun.
I know that when I sat there, listening intently, I was awe-struck, afraid, and certain that I was being given a mission, a vocation, a call. I knew God was calling me, talking to me inside my own head, beckoning me through the words of the blessed priest, and I knew that I would probably never accept that call" because in the end I did not want to hear it; I did not want to sacrifice my life for such a belief. Like any good Catholic, then, by the time I was twelve I felt a heavy load of guilt and nagging uncertainty simply because I could never be sure if I was listening to myself or to this other voice that was supposedly not mine, a voice that the priest told me was God's. I realize now that, in reality, at twelve I was simply, though seriously, exploring identity itself, learning how to make mental distinctions, how to understand difficult emotions, how to distinguish and develop those different elements of my personhood, and how to articulate the critical voice or identity that I now most often embody, the voice of this work, for example. I was learning how to hear myself as critic and how to construct the world through that particular critical persona: through God, through the deep critical analysis that God" required, I could negotiate the discourses of God or Catholicism, as well as the discourses of disability or abnormalcy.
For it was all the same, you see: when I talked to God I talked to me; I never, really, listened, but instead learned how to speak. Indeed, specifically at 11 or 12, I was learning how to be one thing and the other at the exact same time. In one circumstance I could be The One-Legged Wonder, the future priest in my mother's eyes, the good little Catholic in everyone else's minds. In another circumstance I could take off those masks, distance them from something else also present about me, something that was concerned mostly with the understanding and knowing of things, and in this light, something that could reject the stereotypes of disfigurement and disability, and the character of The One-Legged Wonder. Again, as a child I named that thing, that voice in my head, God." I managed it and learned to understand it by giving it a name. I now know that it" was a version of me."
In those pre-adolescent years I loved this thing called God, and I believed that God loved me. I would talk to Him, try to understand things through Him. I would wonder with Him too. I remember how it felt, how it still feels, to be thinking deeply and well. I would lie in bed at night, and all would be still and quiet in the house. All of my younger brothers and sisters were asleep, and in different rooms, the parents downstairs, the little Midwestern town dark and solitary on the wide sweeping fields of corn and beans. I get out of bed and get down to the side of it, kneel down on my good right knee, bow my head of wild brown curls, and rip off about thirty prayers. I always say more than is necessary, as many as I can; I tell myself that I am building up the store, saving the extra prayers for any future occasions when I will not say any at night. Then I jump back into the covers and am safe and ready to have a nice talk with Him or You" as I called God. I explore, then. I believe that the darkness shields me. I am faithful that no light shines down upon me, that no performance is in session. And so I think, explore, play, make meaning. When I was a child, those explorations, those hard workings of the brain, were done in tandem with this invisible presence I absolutely believed in and that I called God.
What I was really doing here, as a young child, was again developing another mask or structure that could be used to resist the roles invoked by the cultural practice flowing around and through me. It was much akin to what I am doing right now, in the basement of a big quiet house, late at night, thinking and writing while my family is upstairs asleep, thinking and writing my memories and my thoughts of my own body into existence and into a new kind of material certainty. Writing me. Me," in my own case and as I am trying to demonstrate in this text, involves an entanglement with bodily difference and abnormality, and as a result a constant pressure of discrimination and cultural stereotype. Negotiation and resistance, embodiment and escape, form the fabric within which I was made. My conversations with the great You" constituted the beginnings of a process of recognition and understanding, an attempt at self-management and limited control of the hot," highly-contested discursive site that was and is my body. Those conversations with that voice I initially called God" allowed me eventually to escape, to get away from that name The One-Legged Wonder and all of the not-quite-human characteristics it held for me.
In other words, when I talked to God, when I thought deeply at God and explored my circumstances with Him, I was simply facilitating the cultural and discursive activity that was already being located upon my body. I was thinking myself into yet another framework of being, laying down the tracks that would later allow me to reach the perhaps surprising identity-point I am at presently, within the context of this work. I was cultivating a voice, one of the many voices within the larger structure of me," that could be used to resist. That thinking and that particular cultivation were driven by both my material and discursive environment: my disfigured body and my indoctrination into Catholicism, which guaranteed both a need to think and understand and also a God" or a You" to help, to talk with and listen to. In the end, then, hearing God and His call meant creating a kind of practical understanding of my relationship with the world, a negotiation of two aggressive discourses structuring my experience, an enactment of my ability to unhinge myself from one particular discourse through the embodiment of another.
My ability to embody different discourses, the profound plasticity of my body, is best demonstrated by yet another story from my childhood. When I was about 11 years old, at about the same time I became The One-Legged Wonder, I learned a great trick. I would go up to IGA, in 1981 one of five grocery stores in our town of 7,000, and I would sell papers—Grit magazine. Now, as far as I know, no one would ever really want to buy and read a Grit magazine. I do not recall even what kind of publication it was. I remember I saw an ad for Grit, like those ads for the solution that grew sea-monkeys, in the back of a comic book. My brother and I ordered a specific number of the Grit magazines and they would come, along with a payment sheet and a return envelop, once every week. We would then head out and try to sell them, though I am sure they were worthless.
But people, mostly women and the elderly, the people who most often frequented the store," bought them from me. It was a great scam, a perfect and easy way to make money. All I did was to make sure I wore shorts every time I sold the papers. Even in the coldest of weather, I would put on a pair of shorts, get on my bike or get a ride from a parent, and head up to the IGA and sit for two or three hours, basically begging. I made a lot of money for an 11 year old. People would walk by, in and out of the store, and I would call out in the most cheerful, sing-song voice I could come up with, Wanna but a Grit?" It always worked. Each paper cost 35 cents, but people usually gave me a dollar and told me to keep the change. Old people, women, they felt sorry for me, for they all must have understood on some level what disability" and disfigurement" meant, and they responded with kindness, by giving me money. They read my body exactly how I presented it to them: disabled, disfigured, victimized.
I knew what I was doing, and I was proud of it. I was using my disfigurement, the feelings it invoked, to push the worthless product and make some easy cash. I was playing the social situation to my advantage. I knew I could get people to feel sorry for me, again especially women and the elderly, people who like me were on the margins of cultural experience because of physical difference, and I also knew that the next step was to get them to put out the cash for the magazine, which usually included a tip. I did not care or feel bad about it. I remember my parents praising me, the way I could make money quickly and seemingly out of the air; my mom, the nurse, would smile as she helped me with the paysheet, and my father, a teacher, would laugh and claim that ol' Mark could sell anything and do anything if he wanted."
Even if my parents did not get it, I did; I understood what was happening, and why I could sell anything." It was just part of the show. In its purest terms, what happened was simple: people saw my body, became uncomfortable, and then gave me money to feel better. Selling papers was a screen for the money exchange; what was at root was my body and my readers' reaction to it. And again, I was very proud of my great ability" to sell things through the use of my body. Like a circus freak show, my body was an event, a happening, a thing I could make money off of, and that made me, my body, viable, special, and better than others. It made me especially better than my brother, who was a norm" in every possible way—he was athletic, smart, physically normal and attractive, great at every sport or intellectual endeavor he tried, my father's pride and joy (while I was usually my loving father's bane and nagging problem), and at nine years old more comfortable and easy with people than I would ever be. My brother also tried the great scam, as I called it. We would have contests as to who could make the most money, and I always won. Brad would go up to IGA, and he would sit there for hours, for almost the entire day, and he would sell only a handful of papers. I would go up the next day, with both his stack and mine, a can of Vess cream-flavored soda, and a red canvas bag given to me by the Jersey State Bank, and within two hours I would be done and on the payphone with my mom telling her to pick up me and my red bag now swelling with coins and dollars.
Again, I knew it was my body that made the difference; I was special, and could accomplish things by using my body, my material self. I knew I could make money with it, that it was a vehicle to those coins, which obviously raised my parents' esteem for me, and made them think that I had a talent." I understood by the time I was 11 years old, that something crucial happened when a stranger looked at me for the first time, and my talent" was that I could play it into something advantageous—like money. My body was powerful in that it was abnormal on its surface, and sparked a prescribed set of feelings in its reader. My body invoked a process that I knew I could turn to my own favor. My body had to be named. It had to be understood. What I discovered was that I could often determine how it would be named and, therefore, understood. I could be wondrous, inspirational, or someone people just wanted to help out.
What this meant, and still means now, is that my body is a seat of tremendous social power and activity. It is a social agent, a cultural event, and an advantage in many social circumstances. Disability studies scholars often argue that the disabled, disfigured body is a powerless entity in cultural practice—according to Lennard Davis, for example, the normal body possesses real biopower" while the disabled body claims only an individual will" (Davis, Nude Venuses" 52). From what I have experienced, though, I believe that it is more accurate to say that the disabled, disfigured body is simply a location of significant power in culture: the different" body is a focus point in the practice of culture; it is a space where the processes of creating meaning can be observed. This power can be either used against the disabled person in the form of stereotype and discrimination, or by the disabled person in terms of the emotional manipulation of others. In my own case, my body is especially powerful because it assumes more than a singular able" or disabled" function. Remember, dear reader, I can pass as a norm; I am both able-bodied and disabled, depending on the social circumstance. I cannot do hard labor, or heavy lifting, but I can do any kind of desk job, and in that arena I can often appear normal. I straddle the line and surf the great cultural gap between the poles of normalcy and abnormality. My disability is, when it is in play, disfigurement, the uncomfortable feelings attached to the social interaction I will experience tonight, for example, at a swimming party. I will go to the party, and I will certainly get into the pool because I love to swim, and I will have to take off my artificial limb to do so. As I take it off, which is a moment where my body will publicly transform and perform a rare, unusual action, I will get the stares, the curiosity from children, and all of that; I will have to do some explaining, and I will have to tell some parents that it is ok, that their children did not make me uncomfortable, that it is, really, good to ask questions. I know, of course, that I am the one who caused the discomfort and uncertainty; my body, its act of literally coming apart before their eyes, is the forceful agent in the environment, the thing that causes all of the anxiety and strangeness and, for the children, the questions. I am very powerful, and I know it. Indeed, if I was really wicked, and a little more courageous, I could take these people for lots of money; I am certain of it. I could take their pity, and their sense that their children have behaved inappropriately, and I could use that against them.
When I was a child selling newspapers if anyone would ask what had happened to my leg, I would explain that it was a birth defect." I understood my body as defective; the name I used to describe myself, to manage my body, was defect." But not really. It rings truer to say that, as a child, I simply saw my body as different," and that was all. The stereotypes were out there, as was the discrimination. It is not my wish here to discount that or any work that disability studies scholars, like Lennard Davis, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Marta Russell, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, and others, have done to draw attention to the blatant cultural and social discrimination often practiced in our country against persons with disabilities. But I always saw my own body's play in culture as being just that: play. I knew there was opportunity out there, and I knew I could take advantage of the hand I was dealt with (pardon the pun). Put simply, I was bold as a child. I knew that the phrase birth defect," for example, was the right way to explain myself: I could get pity because defect" was a good, seemingly objective (it wasn't) medical-sounding word, a word that just explained it all and accomplished the goal of getting that simple surface-level pity, and, if I was selling papers, that money, and that particular self" that was out there for me to grab. And I knew how to manipulate circumstances to my own favor. I knew the role well.
I want to end this discussion by talking about a portrait of an angel that hangs in my office and that is on the cover of this issue. It was sketched by a woman with muscular dystrophy. The woman, Barbara Byron, is confined to a wheelchair and is very limited in her motor functions; she can still paint and sketch, though, and always has. I love her work—although I have not seen it all—because it is so angry and violent and honest in its emotional intensity. And I loved this sketch the first time I saw it, a huge massive work, hanging in the living room of her parents' house. After more than a year of being fascinated by it every time I went to the house, I broke down and bought a framed facsimile print of it as a present for Genevieve, my spouse, who found it just too disturbing, and so promptly gave it back to me.
Genevieve is right. The sketch is disturbing. It is composed of varying shades of white and gray. The mood of the work is tense, angry, and at the same time resigned. The work seems silent, muted, and you can literally see the silence in it, the muted emotion and quiet intensity in every line. The angel is crouched down, almost on one knee. He is abject, his body thin, decimated, and weak; his eyes are closed, his head bent down, and his lank gray hair falls over his forehead. Out of his rounded shoulders, though, sprout these gigantic gray and dark-gray wings, immense wings that fill over a third of the rest of the canvas, that actually extend beyond it, wings that the canvas is unable to hold. The wings, those beautiful feathery ashen-colored wings, explode the reality of his body, turn it into something grand and wonderful, something the world cannot entirely grasp or even see.
The principle of the picture is uncertainty, then: you are not sure if the angel is bowing down to his Lord, or if he is about to leap up at his Oppressor. The figure just hovers there, tense, quiet, abject and resistant all at once. His body is both terrible and beautiful, victimized and the aggressive maker of victims. In the end, you are uncertain of what you are looking at exactly; whenever I look at the picture in detail, I always find myself frustrated, overwhelmed, and just uncertain as to how I should respond.
I now see myself there, in that great sketch. And I believe that is what Byron, an artist in a wheelchair who now breathes through a tracheotomy in her throat, meant with her work. When one is disabled or disfigured, one has to be abject and resistant at the same time. One has to let the doctors cut a hole in their throat, for example, so that they may breath, while at the same time, and in order to survive as an individual with some amount of volition, one must resist that disabling experience with all the fury of hell. It is survival, and it involves resistance and the fluidity of identity characteristic of postmodernism and the postmodern disabled body.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Davis, Lennard J. Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 1997. 9-28.
——. Nude Venuses, Medusa's Body, and Phantom Limbs." The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability. Eds. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. 51-70.
Miner, Madonne. 'Making Up the Stories as We Go Along': Men, Women, and Narratives of Disability." The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability. Eds. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. 283-95.
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
1. Indeed, like other civil rights movements, the disability studies movement seems most often concerned with making sure that persons located within the discursive realm of "disability" obtain the same rights and opportunties as those within the "able-bodied" realm.