Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure by Eli Clare. Duke University Press. 218 pp., $22.95
Very recently I was able to hear the author an activist Eli Clare give a talk titled “Notes on Cure, Disability, and Natural Worlds” at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. Clare delivered a lucid and clear argument, seamlessly entwining his own personal narrative with seemingly dense theory and critique. At the time, I did not realize that this was simply an extension of his style of writing. Laced with beautiful moments of personal narrative and reflection, his most recent publication, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, ultimately argues that the only way to disband “the ideology of cure” is to create and deploy broad-based disability access. He describes his book as “a mosaic” that weaves together prose poetry, disability theory, and snapshots of his own personal experience living as both disabled and genderqueer.
According to Clare, “the ideology of cure” is a belief that the only way for a disabled person to become a productive member of society is for their body-mind to be restored to a state of “normalcy.” He explains:
Sometimes disabled people overcome specific moments of ableism—we exceed low expectations, problem-solve lack of access, avoid nursing homes or long-term psych facilities, narrowly escape police brutality and prison. However, I’m not sure that overcoming disability itself is an actual possibility for most of us. Yet in a world that places extraordinary value in cure, the belief that we can defeat or transcend body-mind conditions through individual hard work is convenient. Overcoming is cure’s backup plan.
He argues that the solution to disability is not to return disabled people to an original state of ability but rather to reconfigure society in a way that the widest variety of access needs are met. For Clare, diagnosis names trouble, but does not change it. However, cure seeks to eradicate trouble entirely. He continues to problematize this throughout the book, arguing that disability offers an alternative way of viewing the world. Without difference, we would be bereft of that experience and, as a result, we would lose access to the brilliant imperfection of everyday life.
Throughout chapter seven, arguably the most powerful chapter in the book, Clare tells the story of a impoverished young woman, Carrie Buck, and her mother, Emma. In 1910, Emma was arrested, declared feebleminded, and institutionalized. As a result, Carrie was sent into foster care where she was raped and impregnated by her foster parents’ nephew. In 1924 Carrie was also judged feebleminded and sent to the same institution as her mother. Before releasing Carrie, the State of Virginia sterilized her on October 19, 1927, in order to prevent her from producing any more “degenerate offspring” Clare notes that Carrie’s story is just one example of the ways in which eugenicists believed they could “cure” the United States by eradicating defectiveness and thus restoring the nation’s health. This story transitions into an exploration of the history of the term “monkey,” and how it has been employed as a method of dehumanizing men and women. When a person is deemed non-human all kinds of violence become acceptable, Clare argues.
There is a history of disabled people in white Western culture being marked as disposable and expendable body-minds. In his eighth chapter, Clare traces the history of eradication all the way back to 1870s to the agribusiness of corn, soybean, and wheat fields. He explains how colonial settlers claimed land as their own, creating a monoculture that relied on the eradication and removal of the Native peoples and the wild buffalo. Clare argues that the desire for eradication and erasure is threatening to create a monoculture of white, heterosexual, able-bodiedness——thus eliminating difference entirely. This, he argues, is a result of the insidious and pervasive “ideology of cure” that insists disabled people or people that are different can only be successful by “overcoming” disability or difference through hard work, hope, faith, cure, etc.
For Clare, cure is justified through the notion of defect. He exemplifies being labeled as “special” throughout various points in his life——“special education,” “special needs,” “special spiritual abilities.” Special, he argues, drips condescension and justifies a radical removal from the normative sphere. He goes on to examine how the labeling of body-minds as defective, special, etc., has been historically deployed to justify violence against African-Americans—for example, slavery, institutionalization, and police brutality. He argues that at the center of cure lies a desire for eradication, elimination, and erasure of difference, and he stresses that cure always operates in relation to violence. At best, diagnosis orients an individual to what is happening in their body-mind, but along with diagnosis comes pathologization. In other words, diagnosis shapes how the world treats disabled people.
This “the ideology of cure” also focuses on the future of the disabled individual rather than on their present. Clare points out how various forms of activism often promote cure as the only response to body-mind difference and loss. For example, charity walks and runs exclude disabled individuals from participation and focus on the fear of becoming different or acquiring disability through a disease like cancer or cerebral palsy, rather than strive toward health and longevity of life for those that are suffering.
In his final two chapters, Clare prompts his readers to turn away from the “normal.” He challenges us to stop attempting to locate the body-minds of strangers on maps—diagnostic maps, racial and ethnic maps, gender maps. The book challenges preconceived notions of disability and difference, as Clare explores the meanings of cure, the connections between disability and social/environmental injustices, and the violence done by categorizing body-minds as “abnormal” and “unnatural.” He argues that there is nothing inherently wrong with disabled body-minds, even as they differ from the norm.
Ultimately, Brilliant Imperfection urges readers to accept and love their own body-minds and to welcome difference and the individual narrative it writes for each of us. Disability is a matter of social injustice that does not occur in paralysis but rather in the building of a staircase without an accompanying ramp, Clare explains. The solution to disability is not to return the disabled to an original state of ability, but rather to reconfigure society in a way that all access needs are met. Through this book, Clare offers a space to contemplate alternative readings of disability and cure, and to consider the violence embedded in tropes of the “normal” and the “natural.”
Ashley Miller is a recent graduate from the George Washington University with a Master’s in English Literature with a focus in Disability Studies. Ashley has worked closely with disability scholars Robert McRuer and David Mitchell and plans to pursue her interest in a doctoral program next fall. She feels that it is imperative to bring forward disability access, inclusion and identiy into the varying facets of the education system and would ultimately like to teach Disability Studies at a collegiate level upon finishing her doctorate.
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