Book Review - Don't Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back

How I came across Harilyn Rousso and her latest work really deserves its own blog entry. So unless you are one of those select few who already know about that story, I guess you'll have to wait for that epic interaction to be told another time.

When I first read the title Don't Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back, it simultaneously brought a smile and questioning eyebrow to my face. The smile was for the first half of the title, and the arced eyebrow for the other. While I have long been uncomfortable with being considered "inspirational," the combination of my social awkwardness and general cluelessness as a young person never revealed to me how I might address it. I smiled because the "Me" in her title was something I, until that point of hearing about the memoir, wasn't sure "I am allowed" to dissociate myself from. My smile was like when two friends secretly break a rule, and only they know about it.
But the second half of the title threw me for a loop. Sure in school I had taken history, sociology, and psychology classes about women and gender studies..if you were really interested I could talk your ear off about feminist theories. Having gone to a predominantly female college it was difficult to avoid the culture of women who had a heightened awareness of their gender. Sure, I thought and still do think of myself as a feminist. Being fortunate to have powerful female role models both at home, in school, and among my friends - it never crossed my mind to think of myself as anything other than a feminist. But "Disabled Feminist" ? Say Whaaa??

I looked forward to reading the book because I knew that I would learn a thing or two. My knowledge of Harilyn's background after doing Google searches made me all the more curious about who is this gimp of a woman with cerebral palsy talking back to people? And what is she talking back to people about? Why is she giving me yet another label to think about? When all was said and done I did more than just learn a thing or two while reading the book: I was comforted. 
Most of the time when we read memoirs it's about how that individual came to achieve what s/he is best known for. Be it political figure, civil rights leader, Hollywood stars, musicians etc. - we are reading to follow the trail to their spotlight. Those are all spotlights that we probably fantasize about in dreams, or we share them while naked with the steam from hot showers as our audience. Harilyn's memoir, a collage-structured literary work, allowed me to follow her trail to being human. As a young woman with a disability who has only recently been okay with thinking about herself as disabled, and only recently began working with other young people with disabilities - Harilyn's collection of stories didn't just make me feel 'normal,' it made the concept of 'normal' accessible to me in a way it never has.

"The pleasure of self-recognition overpowered any feelings of abnormality and self-disgust...I wish I could say that this painting "cured me" of my negative attitude toward my right hand, but it did not...There is no quick-fix for a lifetime of self-hatred, only slow healing" (104). There is a young child in me that still waits for mom to tell me these words, and I didn't even know that child was there until I read Harilyn's story. Whether it was about buying her wedding dress, going on dates, falling in love, claiming her disabled body, being "the only one" - Harilyn let me know what was to come in my future (or what could come). This was comforting because I hadn't experienced someone telling me okay look, these problems you're just now coming to grips with aren't going away any time soon. But you can still kick-ass doing your thing while telling people to piss-off. You can still pay rent, eat McDonald's french fries, and enjoy a margarita. You reading these words might think "well d'uh obviously" but when have you told those words to someone else? And then explained to them how you do all those things? Did you talk to them about all the things everyone thinks they're not *really* supposed to talk about?

There are frequently moments in Harilyn's memoir where she writes about experiences that I had cataloged in my mind as oh that's just me being a freak. Don't talk about it with your friends because they won't have a clue, and won't know what to say in response. Her humanizing language and clarity with which she writes put an exchange between a beggar and a cripple in a socially aware context. It gave me some insight into why I prefer being alone with myself. It told me that my sensitivity I sense around power and dependency in a relationship are not me being paranoid, or me being just another annoying girl. It revealed to me my own nerdy ego: "The prevalence of disability stereotypes when I was growing up convinced me that I would never find a partner or have children, so achievement in the classroom and the workplace became central to my identity" (39). It gave me hope that right now I am not just going through some 'disability-loving-phase': "Longing is a powerful motivator, and my shame about so much I had learned to dislike about myself has diminished with both age and my involvement in the disability rights movement" (33). Harilyn is talking back to the silence of issues unspoken, to the young people who are hesitant about being loud; she is talking back to let readers know they can talk back too.

If you are looking for a book that takes you on a journey and forces you to question yourself, the way you interact with others, and most compellingly your own flaws - read this book. During a book group discussion, I decided that this isn't a book that should be read just among young girls or women with disabilities. It needs to be read by those without a readable disability, men with disabilities, able-bodied people, the parents of girls with a disability, feminist scholars, civil rights activists... it needs to be read because Harilyn is talking back to all of us, and damn is it high time that we listen up close.

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