Thomas Muething


Review: The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked, eds. Sheila Black, Annabelle Hayse, and Michael Northen

Too often, consumers of art can feel an uncomfortable feeling of intimacy where there ought to be none. Indeed, one of art’s chief purposes is forcing us to deeply introspect about our own experiences, the attitudes borne from them, interact with the characters on the page, the stage, or screen, and reconcile the differences between the two, weeding out prejudices belied by the art’s unfaltering commitment to its perception of truth. Indeed, as a physically disabled gay man, I frequently resent feeling as though I sit on a microscopic slide for careful clinical eyes: is that not itself a form of objectification? But a daring team of writers and editors endeavors to examine disability holistically that in the provocatively-titled collection The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked. In it, works are featured across the disability and sexuality spectrum , and it is remarkably chaste and free of explicit depictions of sexuality in its works. However, the collaborators do strive to challenge the common myth of the docile and childlike disabled person, forever innocent. Rather than describe intimacies, its writers focus on relationships between the disabled and the able-bodied, and the relationship that disabled people ourselves have with each other and our bodies.

Narratives around relationships offer the richest and most ready opportunity for readers to glean personal lessons for themselves. In this respect, two works are especially strong: Christopher Jon Heuer’s “Trauma” and Floyd Skloot’s “Alzheimer’s Noir”. As pieces of fiction, they do not have a singular focus on disability, nor do they have clichés that become wearying in the modern world. Heuer concocts a story with Chekhovian qualities with his pleasantly winding narrative about a young deaf boy in Wisconsin. The narrator describes the social ritual of note-writing as a “delicate system of avoidance” between him and hearing people, an experience a majority of deaf people can relate to. The story’s heavy dialogue allow readers to gain an intimate understanding of the characters, their baggage, and what they bring to the dynamics: the narrator and his family are referred to with no specific names. Heuer’s recounting of an alcoholic father being removed instantly piqued my attention as the story progressed and the narrator united his deaf identity with the titular trauma: his father had broken a picture-frame on his head. My reading this caused me to grapple with the reality that many deaf and disabled children deal with regularly. The story’s strength is in its empowerment of the narrator—adequate empowerment and self-direction of one’s life is in my opinion the most potent treatment for ongoing trauma. Although this may be triggering for survivors and witnesses to domestic violence, Heuer’s masterful writing does not blitz the trauma in detail by stating in the final page what was done, matter-of-fact, devoid of imagery; thus, it may not be re-traumatizing for all readers. 

Lest one think this anthology is wholly comprised of stories from a disabled point-of-view, Skloot’s “Alzheimer’s Noir” recounts the emotions and experience of narrator Charles, husband of Dorothy, who has Alzheimer’s. Skloot handles the disintegration of reality that is common in Alzheimer’s with great compassion. Charles mourns for his wife’s forgetting their son’s dying: “It broke my heart. Filled me with despair, all of it: Jimmy gone too soon, then Dorothy slowing leaving me, now Jimmy somehow back because of her confusion so I have to lose them both again, night after night.” Yet Skloot’s characters are not printed from stock: each is animated, relatable, and lasting beyond the story’s several pages. As a reader, it is easy to empathize with Charles’s worry about his wife when she appears to have walked off. The story ends with a note on the equalizing force of death, relating the images of the mausoleum with their son’s ashes, and the narrator’s future ashes, with the ashes of Dorothy.  Indeed, I would refer others to this story who are in need of literary therapy who are dealing with Alzheimer’s in any capacity. It—and the anthology it is found in—are examples of how art can do more than distract or entertain, but heal and teach. Of course, no anthology with this provocative of a title would be an honest one without a glimpse into disabled intimacy in both the physical and inter-relational senses.

Bobbi Lurie’s “The Protective Effects of Sex” focuses on a husband and wife and their sex life. The wife has been struggling with cancer and feels utterly devoid of sexual prowess, owing to her treatments. Yet the spouses did try lovemaking, and Lurie calls the husband “patient” about his wife’s illness. Owing to its extreme brevity—the story is only one page long—the action of the story is not the act of lovemaking but feeling, as it focuses on the emotional intimacies between the spouses and the body image and biological anxieties of the wife after her cancer treatments. “The night before they held each other in bed for over an hour. / It had been two years since they had had sex” is mated with a line about the wife being “embarrassed by her body, thinking of the chemo and the anti-depressants which took away the previous intimacy…” and finishes with a display of strength from the wife: “she lay still, unmoving, unmoved by the way he kissed her cheek, got up, and left.”

The titular work of the collection centers on a young gay man’s personal identity development in two contexts: a Jain monastery that requires total nudity, and earlier, at a bathhouse or sex-club. This makes for an interesting development of its protagonist, and eventually fuses the two in a resounding way. I’m impressed at this story for a great many reasons: religion and spirituality and homosexuality are often incorrectly seen as discrete social circles into which one may be one but not the other. The subtle way the author weaves in the two realities to form a single narrative is effective. Additionally, there is no moralizing in this story: the narrator makes no judgment as to the ethical superiority of both images. The closest the narrator comes to moralizing is in the following statement, “Crazy people can still make decisions. Crazy people have been making decisions for years.” How true this is! This is, in contrast to Lurie’s excellent work, longer by necessity, and some readers may find it a mentally draining read. Additionally, there are explicit descriptions of what goes on in a bathhouse. Thus, readers ought either temporarily arrest their shock or risk missing the larger point of the story: a harmonious unity of the self is difficult to attain. In the narrator’s case, the harmony between sex, religion, nudity, body image, and disability took many years. It would do readers well to take as much time to experience the character’s growth as necessary.

I would be neglectful if I did not also take the opportunity to extol this collection’s thoughtful inclusion of psychiatric and psychological disability. Although Heuer’s work obviously uses psychological trauma as a motif in developing his deaf narrator’s identity, stories with a sole focus on psychiatric diagnoses and treatment are good to see, too. With the semi-autobiographical work “Hospital Corners” by Alison Oatman, the anthology fills this void. The format is question-and-answer followed by longer narrative. I find this format ingeniously enterprising for no other reason than that psychiatric disabilities carry enormous stigma. The question-and-answer builds a rapport between the author and reader—in addition to mirroring a clinical interview—and then builds trust and understanding of a topic that, absent the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is considered third-rail by pop culture. Lastly, Oatman’s courage in being honest about her personal background with the topics give it unshakeable authority and authenticity. Oatman’s work, like all the works in this book, is fiction: nevertheless, when fiction is given the authority of real experiences, as art, it takes on a life of its own.

While this anthology’s principal strength is the variety of viewpoints of the story, the life stages and conditions the characters face, and personal authority the stories’ authors bring by way of real, personal experience , my one miniscule complaint—one that needn’t be taken as diminishing of my numerous raves—is one of its editor’s rushed afterword mention of accessibility. Michael Northen, one of the three editors of this collection, writes that accessibility is not merely “building ramps where there are stairs” and did not take the opportunity to make it known that so many places are simply not welcoming for disabled people where romances, friendships, and one-night-stands may start at: bars, informal get-togethers with friends and on online services such as Meetup, the majority of sex-clubs as in its title story, and other places are often explicitly exclusionary in whom can take part. In fact, without physical accessibility, it is all but impossible to foster attitudes around disability that are more in line with reality and would in turn foster actual relationships. Additionally, a design feature I appreciated about the anthology was its immediately following the work with the contributor’s biography provides greater understanding between reader and author than in the usual format of an anthology, with the author bio at the end. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that in the debate on why these places are not accessible has great deal to do with attitude—and it’s my fervent wish that this book will achieve its aim of contributing to a discourse of disability built around empowerment rather than stigma.