A Review of Pamela Porter’s The Crazy Man (2005)
Pamela Porter’s 2005 novel-in-verse, The Crazy Man, opens as its twelve-year-old protagonist is disabled by a farming accident. Emaline Bitterman’s father disfigures her leg while “discing [tilling] [their family’s] field.” Overcome by guilt and shame for having disabled his daughter, Mr. Bitterman kills Emaline’s beloved dog (whom she had followed into the discer’s path) and leaves Emaline and her mother to struggle alone on the Saskatchewan prairie. This ruptures not only the connection between Emaline’s leg and her body, but also her father's own connection to his family. This process of losing her temporarily able-bodied status does not, however, foreclose Emaline's future, but rather triggers a series of events which aid in her own growth and that of her loved ones. The Crazy Man documents the recovery not of an individual body, but of a community and the connections therein.
Surrounded by people who simultaneously focus on and refuse to speak directly about her disability, and overcome by guilt for believing her father’s abandonment was her fault, she rests for the beginning of the narrative inside of her memory-house. In the wake of the accident, Emaline “built a room inside [her] head / where we [she and her family] all live.” This house, initially, is a closed one: Emaline’s internal retreat exposes the isolating nature of trauma and the disconnection it produces between subject and community. The memory-house serves as a barrier between Emaline and others; outsiders are only able to see Emaline in terms of her newly disabled body (through the memory house’s “windows”) but never attempt to enter. Emaline’s mother, in a misguided attempt at protection, stops her from forming friendships with “outsiders.” First, she refuses to let Emaline go to classmate Mei Wang’s house, a decision fueled by racist, unfounded distrust. Then, she initially fears letting Angus –– the “crazy man” –– into their literal house. When she finally does let Angus in, he opens his own memory-house to she and Emaline: he reveals the abuse he faces at the psychiatric institution and a history of abuse by his mother. The supposed “burden” of disability is not one located in individual bodyminds, but is instead socially imposed and thus can be socially relieved.
Porter also takes care to depict the psychosocial burdens that weigh on Emaline and her mother. The traumatic memories and lingering fears pose a threat to their growth as a family and their connections with members of their community. Mrs. Bitterman, whose marital issues began long before her husband left, also sinks into a deep depression following the accident. In her anger toward her husband, she says, “He left me / with a critically injured child, no money / no crop, and bins full of wheat / not worth a hill of beans.” Outside of her husband and child, Mrs. Bitterman had little access to the world beyond her home—metaphorically severed. The supposed normalcy of the father’s sole responsibility to till the land (founded in patriarchal ideals) and of Mrs. Bitterman’s confinement to her home and distrust of outsiders exponentially increases the isolation they face after Emaline is disabled –– it is Emaline’s disability that takes all of the blame. Emaline’s disability becomes the barren crops, the worthless wheat. Via metaphor, Emaline’s disability becomes the supposed reason for their abjection. As long as the two of them are isolated, there is no possibility of relief –– Mrs. Bitterman and Emaline cannot change their bodies nor their present skill sets. They can, however, acknowledge their interdependence with others and accept help from them.
It is this centering of interdependence that makes The Crazy Man such a brilliant examination of healing, growth, and self-actualization outside of individualistic “recovery” culture. Instead of placing the onus on our heroine to “get her life back” after the accident, Porter depicts the prairie town and especially Emaline’s family as the fractured entity that requires rediscovery. Even if, by some impossible circumstance, Emaline was magically cured, that would not erase her father’s departure and it would not by itself fertilize their farmland. In order to retain their family's livelihood, Emaline’s mother has no choice but to hire Angus, a psychosocial “Other,” to work their land. Angus is initially presented as “a gorilla from over at the Mental [institution],” and Porter suggests residents of the area frequently exploit the labor of such disabled patients to work their land. Emaline and her mother initially treat him with aversion and fear. Later, they recognize not only his humanity, but his ability to save them from starvation. Again, the Bittermans’ well-being is jeopardized by the isolating and prejudiced attitudes Mrs. Bitterman has internalized. She recovers her relationship to the outside not only by using Angus as a laborer, but also by eventually integrating him into the family –– also opening a nontraditional, and indeed “queer" form of kinship. This mode of family-building is not tied down by the heteronormative family, but is instead chosen and forged by necessity, survival, and eventually love.
In the context of a prairie farming community, disability is exposed as socially and culturally contingent, constructed by whichever social and spatial norms afflict a certain area. Angus, and others who are institutionalized, are both dehumanized and understood as “productive" farm laborers to enslave: they are called “gorillas" by townspeople. But the context of the farm reveals the extent of Angus’s farming expertise. Via the acknowledgement of his abilities, both readers and characters gain insight into Angus’s personhood: the lens of farming skill opens to reveal a history, a personality, a person. Emaline, a fellow disabled person, sees through Angus’s dehumanization immediately, remarking after he noticed and remedied her untied shoelaces: “Far as I know, / there’s never been a gorilla / that can tie a shoelace.” That act of mutual recognition initiates Angus’s relationship with the Bittermans as more than just a laborer, but instead someone with whom they can empathize, a fellow victim of social isolation.
While even the most sympathetic “traditional" depictions of psychosocial disability define said disability by the things it supposedly lacks, it is impossible to see in this narrative that Angus is lacking. If anything, it is the “sane” and “abled" Mrs. Bitterman (and her husband, whose agreement with her ableism is evidenced by his reaction to disabling his daughter) who is lacking both in skill and in compassion. Dis/ability functions in ways unique to its context: Angus is enabled through his farm work. A smaller, but still significant, example of this is in Jamie, Emaline’s classmate. She had "never noticed before [becoming disabled] / how fidgety Jamie gets / when he’s been inside too long.” In this narrative’s tradition of demedicalizing difference, this is not marked as “AD(H)D.” Instead, Jamie is aware of the benefits of his neurodivergence: “'My mum says I’m a born farmer,’ says Jamie, all the while his foot and knee / are bouncing under his desk.” Jamie's invocation of his mother when describing the advantages of his neurodivergence stands in stark contrast to Emaline’s mother’s own reaction to Emaline’s disability. This contrast reveals the impact parental influence can have on self-conception for children of diverse bodyminds. Jamie has not thought to understand himself as somehow “lacking" as what would otherwise be considered hyperactivity makes it difficult to him to sit still. Instead, his bodymind is one of hope and possibility.
Porter’s novel shares an essential message for all, not just children: we can only grow and heal alongside one another. Porter makes a powerful case that no one should be marked as inferior or unworthy of support based on a socially-constructed category like disability. This is impossible to ignore as the story moves forward: Emaline’s father, a representation of ableist messages of tragedy surrounding disability, never returns home. He is the quintessentially stunted character in the book: he buys into the ableist rhetoric wherein he left his daughter with a fate worse than death. In doing this, he leaves out of grief a wife and child whose fields are literally and figuratively dry. But nothing about those fields is pathologically infertile, and both the characters and the land (which is itself a character and prone to disablement, infestation, heartiness, and change) and under Angus’s tender hand—all can grow. Meanwhile, Angus and the Bittermans find joy and peace in each other, which portrays healing not as a return to bodymind “normalcy" but instead as a shared culture of mutual support. In the absence of their patriarch, Emaline and her mother can connect intimately with the world around them.
In simple verse spanning a scant 200 pages, Porter affirms the value of all members of a social sphere and their necessary interdependence, and correctly moves the “blame” for hardship and isolation from individual disabilities to the absence of social support and trust. Its use of poetry as a form invites the reader to witness the novel’s characters unmediated by lengthy descriptions. This makes it more difficult to uncritically “read" diagnoses onto the characters: instead, we understand them first by their lived experiences and not by medicalized definitions. Continuing to evade static definition, Emaline’s, Angus’s, and Mrs. Bitterman’s bodyminds prove both constant in their care for each other and able to grow open to others.
Just as dynamic, Porter suggests, is the definition of “disability” itself –– on the Canadian prairie, “hyperactivity” becomes the necessary energy for a physically demanding job and “psychosis” becomes just one more characteristic of a skilled farmer. Emaline's lost leg, then, is not a life sentence or tragedy. Instead it is simply another life event that, like any other, helps those impacted better understand themselves and each other. Her injury enables an ultimate experience of love and happiness between herself, her mother, and Angus; it exposes all three to the power of community support.
Sarah Cavar is a student, writer, and ungendered madperson. An undergraduate, they are currently studying the discourses of pathologization around gender-and-otherwise-noncompliant self-identification. They have written work in multiple genres, featured by Vulture Bones, Breath & Shadow, The Offing, The Establishment, and others. Find them at sarahcavar.wordpress.com.
[Image description: a young white person with a shaved head stands among green trees. They are have glasses, gauged ears, and several facial piercings. They are wearing a maroon mock-turtleneck shirt with a light-brown vest over it; on the vest is a brooch of an old-fashioned bicycle.]