Review: A Body Undone: Living on After Great Pain, Christina Crosby
Christina Crosby’s 2016 memoir A Body Undone: Living on After Great Pain (NYU Press) delves into the ideological chasm between those who argue that disability is something to be treated and those who maintain that it offers up a cache of valuable epistemological resources. In truth, however, living with an impairment proves far more complicated than either of these formulas would have us believe, and Crosby isn’t afraid of saying so. Throughout her book, she combats the “happy idea that disability leads to profound insight or higher understanding,” which informs the “narrative arc that organizes so many stories about living with an incapacitated bodymind” (116). “Don’t believe it,” this memoirist exhorts us, because much of what she lives is “simply beyond belief.”
Shortly after her fiftieth birthday, the athletic Crosby—already a tenured professor of English and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut—embarked upon a bicycle ride that came to a sudden conclusion when a twig caught in the spokes of her front wheel. She was thrown to the ground, and her chin collided with the pavement. As a result, the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in Crosby’s neck were broken. Quadriplegia ensued. And it soon “became clear that [she] had lost the use not only of [her] leg muscles, but also the muscles of [her] torso, arms, and hands” (3). What’s more, Crosby also “lost control of [her] bladder and bowels.” The struggle then became how to “put into words a body that seemed beyond the reach of language.”
A Body Undone is Crosby’s attempt to do just that—with, as you might imagine, a considerable focus on the “chronic pain and grief over loss” that become “unavoidable facts of lives shaped by catastrophic accident, chronic and progressive illness, or genetic predisposition” (7). Hers is a story that can even sound nihilistic, when, at one point for instance, Crosby admits that “[y]ears after [her] discharge” from the hospital, “there’s no discernible pattern that [she] can account for the good nights and bad nights” (28). Either way, she has to at least attempt to fall asleep, which involves an intricate evening routine: first, Crosby “lie[s] on [her] side, having positioned [her] legs so that the top one is drawn up, bent at the knee with [her] foot resting on a pillow so that the bony protrusion of [her] bunion, where thin skin stretches tightly over bone, does not touch the sheet and begin to throb” (28). “After arranging [her] foot,” Crosby continues, “she lie[s] down and put[s] one hand under the pillow, palm up and fingers spread, so the weight of [her] head will stretch it open.” And it’s only then when she occasionally realizes that “the electricity has been turned off and” she’s no longer in pain. “Unless I consciously try to move my legs,” Crosby concludes,” “they’re just there.” Passages such as these, admittedly, may seem exhausting with their labyrinthine descriptions of how exactly this memoirist navigates her daily life. The sentences get long and knotty, clauses piling atop one another with sinuous periodicity, and it becomes increasingly possible to forget, even, how or why we became entangled in the minutia of these moments in the first place. Then again, this is not just exhausting for us—but for Crosby too as she works through something so ostensibly simple as getting into bed. Certainly, in this light, disability doesn’t seem to beget some greater truth. No, on the contrary, just more pain.
In other sections, too, Crosby doubles down on the pointlessness of physical impairment with strings of staccato laments that balance out their thematically similar but far more circuitous counterparts. In a chapter dedicated to lovemaking after the accident, she admits that “fucking is so changed from what it was that, try as [she] may, [she] cannot reconcile [her]self to [her] losses” (118-9). Then come the questions: “How can I settle for a life with deadened sensation that decrees I’ll never again have an orgasm? How can I live on with profoundly compromised strength and tactile perception, especially in my hands?” And soon, as is wont to happen, interrogation capitulates to lament: “How I miss the way sex used to feel! My hands used to be strong and capable, and I used them to good purpose in sex. No more. Nor can I move my body with ease or pleasure. I can’t even roll over in bed!” Crosby exclaims. Most significant is the diction of “decree”—or the way in which the author’s forced to sacrifice her life to a ruthless tyrant under whose rule existence, and one’s wellbeing, becomes increasingly precarious. Cue Crosby’s queries which effectively underscore the uncertainty of such a life: the unknowns that leave you with little else to do at times but question and bemoan. There’s plenty of both, although the latter can be harder to pull off without sounding querulous. Still, Crosby succeeds, in part because she’s earned her right to declamation after the specific and evocative details we get of her transformed sex life.
The true strength of passages like these is that they extend beyond identifying what spinal cord injuries change biologically to instead home in upon how these changes impact certain facets of one’s life that prove far more invisible than moving around in a wheelchair. Take the example of Crosby falling asleep during a seminar—because OxyContin “slows down [her] whole system”—and then, to make matters worse, not attending a subsequent dinner that she had organized since “[t]he battery to the van was dead, which happens all too often because the adaptive technology continually draws down energy” (182). I doubt many people ever stop to consider the impact of drugs or the challenges of driving a modified vehicle. It’s another time when we’re left wondering whether there will be some silver lining to this otherwise bleak cloud.
There doesn’t need to be, clearly, because part of what Crosby attempts—and accomplishes—is to relay radical metamorphoses in a life that now precludes sex, drinking, walking, teaching, and writing as she once knew them with the goal of engaging our awareness and empathy. Still, I think such a lining exists.
Towards the end of the book, Crosby cites Otto Kernberg’s psychoanalytic account of the mourning process which includes the assessment that “daily reality militates against the full appreciation of loving relationships” (193). She disagrees: “No. Damn it, no! I appreciated every moment of the life that Janet and I made together and fully appreciated her. I knew what I had” (193).
But A Body, Undone complicates this knee-jerk response. It’s a book that, in the end, reminds us of how it’s possible to appreciate someone—and their presence in your life—without appreciating everything they do or everything they’re willing to do should something go awry. Crosby herself admits that “the life [she] lives now depends on her day-by-day relations with others, as it did before, but to an incalculably greater extent” (20). This is an important lesson for us all, especially in a country that mythologizes rugged individualism and undertaking most tasks solo. More often than not, the futility of this approach will become apparent. Since, as Crosby puts it, “living in extremis can clarify what is often obscure, in this case the fragility of our beautiful bodies and the dependencies of all human beings” (10).
Her memoir, first and foremost then, testifies to the possibility of unconditional love even in an age when these dependencies are masked by screens and smartphones and inexorable stimuli. This is one of the messages she’s gleaned from enduring a spinal cord injury with her partner, caretaker, and lover, Janet Jakobsen. At one point, when Crosby was still in the hospital, she explains that Janet “climbed into bed with me, right there in room 120. She closed the door, walked around to the side of the bed, put down the rail, climbed in, and lay down behind me. … She put her arm around me, her hand on my breast, and pressed her body along the length of mine. And there we lay” (121). These kinds of paragraphs—when Crosby begins to discuss the integral role that reaffirming intimacy plays in her recovery—tend to be more streamlined than the aforementioned excerpts while still including plenty of details, like the body parts listed above. But most importantly, here, the anaphoric repetition of “she” with the epistrophic reiteration of “me” stresses the burgeoning of a new connection. These lovers become one another’s alpha and omegas, if you will.
According to stereotype, disabled individuals often slip into morose self-pity. Crosby, on the contrary, reminds us that the opposite is just as possible: after fearing that she’s experienced a bone chip one night, the memoirist recounts how she “cried out, ‘I am so fucking fucked, I can’t believe how fucked I am,’ thinking of [her] broken face pinned together by the surgeons and wondering what else would emerge” (196). Janet, in turn, replies that when Crosby says such things, she undermines all the work her partner has done, “as if it were for nothing,” ignoring Janet’s “love for her.” Although Crosby may not appreciate her body any longer, Janet still does, and to say “you’re completely fucked is saying that my desire for you and my love is of no consequence.” What makes this passage work is the author’s honesty—curse words and all: the intimate rapport Crosby’s willing to cultivate with an audience whose knowledge of the fights she wages with her lover doesn’t seem to be intimidating. Perhaps because we emerge believing, like Crosby, that hers is a “life sustained by [Janet’s] considerable and absolutely necessary labor and even more by her loving regard” (196). The memoirist shows how, by foregrounding one’s dependence, disability can undermine narcissism and remind us, in powerful, imminent ways, that our existence indelibly affects and relies upon others.
This includes Crosby’s university community too: she recounts in one chapter that Doug and Midge Bennet, the president of Wesleyan and his wife, “were in the waiting room, keeping vigil” right after the accident, even before Janet could get there (17). “We’ve been able to see her,” Midge explains to Crosby’s frantic lover. A hospital staff member asked, “Are you her parents?” and they “just lied,” which sends Janet’s tears cascading down her cheeks as she admits that she “was so afraid, so afraid, no one was here, she was alone.” Midge assures, “No, no, we’ve been by her bed.” It’s one of the triumphant, and most heartening, moments of the memoir to be sure.
Crosby’s spinal cord injury likewise brings her closer to her brother Jeff but in a far more heartbreaking way: having suffered with multiple sclerosis for years before his sister’s accident, Jeff is an old pro at administering a bowel program—or, in other words, a daily routine of manually stimulating your anal muscles. Crosby once felt that his experience was inaccessible; she could not imagine the life he was living. Though even before his illness, they had gone their separate ways: Jeff’s “life flowed into familiar religious and familial channels,” Crosby explains, while hers didn’t (9). She never felt “alienated” from her family, per se, but ever since college, she felt that she “needed to love at a distance,” in case she was “conscripted through [her] affections into obligations” she’d “quietly resent.” Crosby thus kept her own company and became something of an outsider. It wasn’t until the memoirist’s own accident—and her own bowel program—that she “came to understand what Jeff faced” (104). In Crosby’s post-accident world, then, her brother is able to ask how his sister’s bowel program is going, and they have a “talk over the terrible fact that, unlike [Crosby], he [can] no longer push at all to move stool through the anal canal” (111). Although her injury is devastating, Crosby’s disability lubricates pathways of conversation that seemed frustratingly clogged before.
It was right after her injury, in fact, that she began thinking about Jeff—and the “strangeness of being on the other side of the looking glass. Suddenly [she] was quadriplegic, too, just like [her] brother,” with the operative word being “suddenly” (9). Too often, we consider disability to be an aberration, a departure from the wholly integrated, enlightenment view of the body, but nothing’s farther from the truth: most people will become disabled at some point in their lives. Crosby, moreover, accentuates that rather than mark a deviation from the norm, disability elucidates certain fundamentals of the human condition—dependence, fragility—in such a way that tends to deconstruct our difference and bring us, in turn, closer together.
The real point, however, is that even as we’re sobered by Crosby’s revelation of living in “a dark realm overshadowed by the life-threatening accident that didn’t kill [her], but obliterated the life [she] had been living” (192)—and the meaningless realities of a spinal cord injury—we rejoice at the lives Crosby and Jakobsen live together. We celebrate, and learn from, the memoirist’s accounts of relationships fully realized, all the while being called to task on whether we’ve made our own peace with the precarity of human existence.
Because of these many relationships, and ideas, the scope of A Body Undone is astounding: interwoven into the fabric of this text are many ostensibly unrelated threads of Crosby’s life, from gender and sexuality to a number of various childhood experiences, from the dogs she once owned to recondite literary theory to insightful close-readings, and from her relationship with the Christian faith to the interactions she and Janet navigated with a plethora of healthcare workers. Sometimes, even, the scope becomes so capacious that we lose track of the intimate intensity Crosby marshals at her best, though her wide-ranging citations and anecdotes are suggestive of a brilliant mind wielding an arsenal of experiences and knowledge she continues to share with her students to this day.
These concerns are, at any rate, paltry when considering that A Body Undone brought tears to my eyes.
Maybe this is because Crosby and I have both undergone spinal cord injuries. So when she admits that, in the beginning, “she knew very little about the present and nothing about the future,” I remember the overwhelming uncertainty of those first days of living with a severely compromised nervous system (3). When she confesses that “the weight of a sudden spinal cord injury is crushing, and can at first be sustained only if spread out, as a suspension bridge spans great distances by hanging the roadway from cables that multiply as it reaches further across the void,” I realize someone else understands the emotional travails of learning to self-catheterize, to administer a bowel program, to modify one’s life, dreams, and hopes for the future while all the time grappling with excruciating pain (4). Like Crosby, I too “needed so much help” (5). Because disability often leaves people feeling utterly helpless, totally reliant, and truly terrified.
Even so, A Body Undone ultimately moved me in surprisingly intimate, even visceral, ways not because my spinal cord is injured, but because Crosby’s unmitigated candor tells the story of change and difference—of how those of us “who live on are not what we are, but are becoming, always becoming” (202). Perhaps, admittedly, Crosby’s becoming is more drastic; perhaps it’s marked by a dramatic turn of events beyond the pale of most peoples’ comprehension. But her efforts to find a new way forward through language and intimacy and community stand as a testament to living on in an everchanging world amidst everchanging circumstances from which all of us readers, disabled and able-bodied alike, can find the strength to capitalize upon the lives we’re living—alongside the people living them with us.