Book Review: A Disability History of the United States

twitterlogoBRReview by Heather E. Holcombe.

Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2012) is the second title in the ReVisioning American History series offered by Beacon Press. Building on her work as a scholar and biographer of Helen Keller, Nielsen recasts disability not as a peripheral movement or experience, but rather as central to the events and ideologies that inform national identity. Driving this concise and approachable recounting of American history is a fundamental tension between the stigma of disability as a condition of dependence and the defining creed of American exceptionalism, with its investment in autonomy and self-reliance as markers of national belonging. Or  to be more precise, Nielsen traces the development of this tension, documenting evolving concepts of disability as she moves from pre-colonial North America through the Civil and World Wars to industrialization and modern disability rights activism. 17262462

An able body, like a disabled one, can come in many forms, and belonging to one group or the other is largely a matter of time, place, and perspective. Nielsen reports that Huron Indians reacted with “disgust” to the bearded men who arrived from Europe, regarding their facial hair as a physical deformity that indicated low intelligence (13). From the stance of the colonial project, “the primary definition of disability was an inability to perform labor” (20). Given the general difficulties of life in the seventeenth century, bodily variation itself was neither uncommon nor a defining trait of disability. Yet the nature of the work to be done determined what kinds of physicality might qualify an individual to cross the Atlantic: the English commitment to settlement meant that women joined the ranks of the colonial able-bodied. This standing held true with regard to their capacity to rear children and perform domestic work; yet their perceived mental deficiencies earned them a place alongside “Children, Idiots, [and] Distracted persons” when it came to legal standing, a status that would both earn them special protections and deny them civic standing (21). Continue reading “Book Review: A Disability History of the United States”

Film Review: Hidden Figures

Review by Jamie McDaniel.

Editor’s Note: March 8, 2017 marks both the annual celebration of International Women’s Day and the #DayWithoutAWoman protest actions organized by the activists who brought us the Women’s March. In the spirit of these protests and celebrations, we have asked a guest reviewer to share his thoughts on the film Hidden Figures which recounts the experiences of female scientists of color at NASA during the mid-twentieth century.  

MV5BMjQxOTkxODUyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTU3NTM3OTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_At its heart, Theodore Melfi’s 2016 film Hidden Figures is a master study in good acting. Full of joy and grace under pressure, our three protagonists, played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, embody the physical and emotional acrobatics necessary to fight against and overcome the social and workplace obstacles encountered daily by women of color in the 1960s. At the same time, the actresses make the dreary whitewashed male-dominated mise-en-scène of NASA come alive with their physical humor and witty retorts. The film’s nominations and awards endorse the quality of the acting: nominations from the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Spencer) and Best Picture, the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Spencer), and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (won by Henson). The film also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Continue reading “Film Review: Hidden Figures”

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

BookReviewLogoReview by Tom Bragg.

At its most interesting, the late Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016) is a book about language. It is not, as many reviews would seem to indicate, an introduction to medical humanities, lacking both a primer’s organization of ideas and an author’s inclination to educate the reader. Rather, the book presents readers with the startling idea (to those uninitiated in the field) that science and humanities can be linked, can inform each other, can benefit both patient and practitioner in so applied and grimly pragmatic a field as neurosurgery. This it achieves through its harrowing narrative and by repeatedly contemplating the miraculous powers of language, “an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion” (39).

25899336Always interesting, at times gut-wrenching, When Breath Becomes Air is an account of a surgeon’s life and training bracketed by a diagnosis of his cancer and death, and ending with an epilogue by his wife, Lucy. The proximity of the two ideas—the healer stricken, the health-giver succumbing to illness—sets up the parameters for our reading of the life; we are constantly aware that this is a narrative race against time and, as though we were hearing a deathbed confession, that knowledge prepares us to read with sympathy and extra awareness. Without such expectations, Kalanithi’s early memories and even his tone might convey only a dully impressive catalog of achievements. He seems alternately to overlook and foreground a voice of privilege in his recounting of juvenile literary interests (“Hamlet bore me a thousand times through the usual adolescent crises” [27]), college preparatory experiences, acceptance into Stanford. The young student, sipping whiskey and chatting with authors, roaming the English countryside while part of a History and Philosophy of Science program at Cambridge, finds himself “increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them”; eager for such direct experience, he says, he was heading back to the States and “going to Yale for medical school” (43). It’s hard not to be aware of the irony: the young acolyte hungering for life-and-death reality, ensconced in systems and experiences that seem to shield him from those realities. Continue reading “Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air”

Book Review: This Mortal Coil

BookReviewLogoReview by Stephanie Hudson.

In her new book, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), Fay Bound Alberti writes that “our bodies are products of the stories we tell” (19). And this is the work Bound Alberti takes up, to explore stories of bodies and how these stories impact our embodied experience. She works to trace, and perhaps complicate, origins and potential futures of stories of bodies, with particular focus on women’s bodies.

26401367Bound Alberti is a cultural historian whose work is situated within histories of medicine and the body. Her previous work includes Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotions (Oxford University Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Longman History Today book of the year award. Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she is an honorary senior research fellow. Through a Western lens, This Mortal Coil is located in Britain, and in part, North America.

Bound Alberti’s work in This Mortal Coil was motivated by an interest “in looking at the body as an assemblage of parts, and why it was that some parts take on particular significance and meanings at certain points in history” (206). Each chapter focuses on a different body part—spine, breast, genitalia, heart, brain, skin, tongue, and gut—taking the reader on a journey “from inside out, from our very core to the surface of our body and the boundaries between self and other” (16). Continue reading “Book Review: This Mortal Coil”