One of the foundational gestures of the disability rights movement was the rejection of the common description of people who live with physical or mental impairments as "eternal children." This paper argues that the contradictions inherent in applying this trope to adults amplify the contradictions inherent in applying it to children themselves. From its heyday in in the 19th-century "Golden Age" of children's literature to its afterlife in 20th-century disabling rhetoric, the fantasy of childhood as stasis requires denying the fact of growth.

In 2004, a special issue of DSQ focused on disability in children's literature, promoting discussion and research into this topic. There has been progress in this direction: critics have insightfully examined how children's literature represents characters who live with physical and mental impairments, the genre's hopes for empowering young readers who live with such impairments, and its strategies for encouraging appreciation of human differences in general. 1 We would like to consider here a still understudied but important point of intersection between the study of children's literature and the study of disability: the idea of growth itself. Contradictory feelings about growth and stasis animate much children's literature. While the genre offers to help children grow out of childhood, it often idealizes that very state. Canonical or "Golden Age" children's literature has a particularly strong tendency to channel J.M. Barrie's Mrs. Darling, who, on seeing her two-year old Wendy picking flowers, "put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!'" 2 Growth and stasis are also important to thinking about disability. Alison Kafer has identified an "ableist" sense of time, a way of thinking in which "disability is seen as the sign of no future [… ] a future with disability is a future no one wants." 3 This way of thinking isolates disability from the rest of human experience, and disabled people from the common process of change and growth over the course of a human life.

Michael Bérubé suggests that literary critics interested in disability should not limit ourselves to diagnosing fictional characters or demanding positive role models for readers. Instead, we should try to "recognize intellectual disability not only as the expression of somatic/neurological conditions but as a trope, a critical and underacknowledged thread in the social fabric, a device for exploring the phenomenon of human sociality as such." 4 Berube argues that ideas about disability – and intellectual disability in particular — shape both experience and representation in complex ways that reward careful examination. The history of children's literature calls attention to one such trope: the eternal child. This expansive figure can subsume any number of individuals with very different minds and bodies. The history of children's literature brings into focus the full strangeness of representing someone with a physical or mental impairment as a child—and an impossible sort of child, a child who does not grow or adapt but who instead "remains like this forever." Paternalist politics of all sorts imagine their wished-for subordinates as children. The history of the disability rights movement is in significant part a war on this particular metaphor and its work as a rhetorical strategy of disempowerment. In the analysis that follows, we will argue that the contradictions inherent in applying the trope of the eternal child to adults living with an impairment amplify contradictions that are inherent in this trope itself.

I. "A Sound Mind in a Sound Body"

As a field, Disability Studies rejects the notion that people with a physical or mental impairment have no future – or, to be more precise, the notion that such people have only three possible futures: unrelenting tragedy, cure, or death. Disability Studies assumes, instead, that a life that includes impairment can also include positive change over time. It can include growth. People who identify as disabled often describe their lives in terms of change and growth. In "This Is What We Think," a group of people with learning disabilities reject the characterization of them as "forever children" as disempowerment wrapped in a very thin veil of sentiment: "It's like Wolfensberger (1998) said, people think that we're 'forever children' because we don't have the intelligence of a 'normal' adult. To us it's a put down, they put us down." 5 Harriet McBryde Johnson recognizes nothing of her own experience of living with muscular dystrophy in the abelist trinity of stasis, cure, or death: "For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them." 6 As Kafer notes, child development theory tends to rely on a straightforward idea of growth, outlining "a defined sequence of stages toward adulthood, a one-way and linear march "upward."" 7 Disability activists often describe a kind of growth that is a bit less direct. Polio turned the course of Tobin Seibers's life towards some very remote and distant places, for example, but it did not stop its movement: "My withered limb is who I am. It is right for me. This is no idle pun but flesh of my being," he writes. "The meaning of rightness would not be the same for me if God had not taken my right leg from me. My leg is right because it is everything I am and everything I could not be." 8 McBryde and Siebers, of course, are gifted creative writers. In an ethnographic study of amputees from a wide range of walks of life, none of whom are professional writers, Steven Kurzman discovers "an amazing diversity to how people responded to their loss." Overall, however, he notes striking differences between "new amputees" and "experienced amputees," differences that reflect growth. Larger studies find the same thing:

Amputation is a profound loss and new amputees experience both initial shock as part of the grieving process and more lasting disruptions to their body image and self-image (Wallace 1995, Winchell 1995). Partly in collaboration with their prosthetists[ . . ]. experienced amputees eventually remake some meaning and understanding of their bodies and prostheses. 9

While the limb remains lost, the "experienced amputees" Kurzman describes grow in ways that positively change the meaning of this loss.

Children's literature has a long, complex, and often troubling history with regard to impairment and the possibility— or the impossibility — of growth. For example, one of the genre's foundational texts has often been pilloried for celebrating children who die instead of children who grow up. The Puritan James Janeway's A Token for Children, Being An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths, of Several Young Children (1671) is one of the earliest and most influential collections of stories in English specifically written for young readers. It subjects its child heroes and heroines to long and painful illnesses, then kills them off. From the perspective of Disability Studies, the protagonists of these deathbed stories can look like the original saccharine sufferers, 17th-century poster-children for the fantasy of impaired people as naturally angelic, a dehumanizing dream that is the flip side of the no less dehumanizing nightmare of impaired people as demonic. The text, however, is not so simple. Janeway's children are not naturally angelic, but rather struggle mightily to make their way from a conviction of sin to the acceptance of grace. Through suffering, they grow. And as Ann Dowker points out, whatever else one may say about the Christian ideal of spiritual growth through suffering, it was not designed to isolate one category of persons, those with physical or mental impairments, from all other persons and define them as less than fully human. Rather, growth through suffering unites all believers. Dowker describes how this process works for Janeway's 19th-century Evangelical heirs:

This emphasis on submission to the will of God applies to all characters, and applies to a whole range of circumstances: not only disability. The need for such submission is certainly a strong feature of the treatment of disabled characters, but it does not set them apart from others: Their non-disabled friends and siblings must also submit to the will of God. 10

To this way of thinking, rather than freezing a person in a single tragic moment, impairment offers an excellent opportunity to get on with the central business of any human life, achieving eternal salvation through spiritual growth.

In terms of disability, the original sin of children's literature does not lie in James Janeway and his dying young saints, but rather in two figures contemporary liberal educational theorists tend to find much more sympathetic, Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. The vast and complex system of state-sponsored education, developmental psychology, and age-graded reading prominent today has many origins. Among them are two educational treatises. John Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education (1692) and Rousseau's Emile (1762) re-defined the proper goal of growing up as success and happiness in this world, not salvation in the next. They created the intellectual framework for the 18th-century rise of children's literature as a commercially viable genre that catered to ambitious middle-class parents, a template for the multitude of books such parents have been buying ever since. And the first thing both Locke and Rousseau do is eliminate all physically and mentally impaired children from the category of those who should be educated – those who can grow.

These treatises are fascinated by growth, and especially interested in the subtle and far-reaching effects that external forces have on personal development. Locke is particularly eloquent on the way "almost insensible impressions" can turn an individual's future to a new direction:

The little, or almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies, have very important and lasting consequences: and there 'tis, as in the fountains of some rivers, where a gentle application of the hand turns the flexible waters in channels, that make them take quite contrary courses; and by this direction given them at first in the source, they receive different tendencies, and arrive at last at very remote and distant places. 11

Although rivers and children can be directed to unexpected courses and reveal different tendencies than one might expect, there is one category of person that is incapable of such change: the physically or mentally impaired. The well-known opening of Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education echoes Juvenal:

A sound mind in a sound body, is a short, but full description of a happy state in this world… He, whose mind directs not wisely, will never take the right way; and he, whose body is crazy and feeble, will never be able to advance in it… . The consideration I shall here have of health, shall be, not what a physician ought to do with a sick and crazy child; but what the parents, without the help of physick, should do for the preservation and improvement of an healthy, or at least not sickly constitution in their children. 12

Similarly, Rousseau notes that some children are born "sickly and ill-constituted" and he declares that he will not educate these children. This refusal to teach the sickly is not based on a fear of wasting resources on those marked for an early death. It is a question of principle: "I would not take on a sickly and ill-constituted child, were he to live until eighty. I want no pupil useless to himself and others […] Let another in my stead take charge of this invalid. I consent to it and approve his charity." 13 No matter how many years such children may live, Rousseau has already seen their future. As Kafer would remark, there are in fact two principles at stake here: first, the claim that Rousseau is omniscient, and second, the claim that his own life and those of his presumed readers are superior to any life that includes impairment.

To this way of thinking, attention to the needs of "sickly and ill-constituted" children lacks the orientation to future benefit that distinguishes education. Because these children must always be "useless" to both themselves and others, such attention is charity rather than an investment designed to yield a future good. Rousseau therefore claims that a teacher who becomes interested in such a young person also switches and debases his own gender and professional identities: "He who takes charge of an infirm and valetudinary pupil changes his function from governor to male nurse." 14 The opening gesture of both these foundational educational texts, then, is to weed out every child not "sound" in mind and body from their pool of potential pupils, which is also the pool of potential readers imagined by the genre of children's literature written under the aegis of Locke and Rousseau. Analyzing 20th-century science fiction rather than 18th-century educational treatises, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson identifies the principle at work here: "eugenic world building." Potential students are not only potential readers, she points out, but also potential citizens: "The promise of a newborn is that it will become a normate – that it will carry out an expected future enabled by normate embodiment." 15 Like Kafer, Garland-Thomson argues that this particular idea of growth is a fantasy that depends on a willful denial of life's unpredictability: "The figure of the normate hovers behind the newborn citizen as an imagined potentiality […] What is suppressed in the fictional future of the normate newborn is the inherent contingency of human embodiment as it moves through time and space in the journey we call life." 16

The perilous social consequences of an ideal of spiritual growth that culminates in death in childhood now seem obvious, as do those of an educational ideal unable to recognize a potential for growth in any child who is not entirely "sound" in mind and body. The perils of this third figure from children's literature are a bit more subtle. This figure is also central to the way of thinking about disability that we aim to examine here. This is the Romantic Child of Joy, the "Mighty Prophet! Seer Blest!" who erupts in full nostalgic splendor in William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" and proceeds to dominate the Victorian and Edwardian "Golden Age" of children's literature. 17 Trailing clouds of glory from heaven, this young person is at best unchanged by life on the planet of human adults, and at worst, corrupted by it. This is the figure of the child that obsessed J.M. Barrie, and the figure that certain ways of imagining disability still find irresistible today. Unlike both Janeway's spiritual virtuoso and Locke and Rousseau's healthy student, this is an ideal child who does not grow.

II. "Oh, Why Can't You Remain Like This Forever?"

As the influential critic Perry Nodelman has noted, even as it is defined by the need to help children grow up, children's literature tends to idealize the state of childhood. The famously slippery but self-aware narrator of J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy, for example, starts his story by announcing that the growth charted by children's literature is actually decline and fall. When she hears her mother cry "Oh, why can't you remain like this forever," the two-year-old Wendy Darling "knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end." 18 Nodelman identifies this sense of the beginning of growth as the beginning of the end as the "central … ambivalence in the thinking about childhood that led to and still sustains the production of children's literature." 19 It is not a superficial slip, but rather an energizing paradox: "This thinking celebrates childhood innocence and also wishes to disperse it; […] wants to admire childhood wisdom and to replace it with something different and better […] and so on and so on. The literature could not exist without these ambivalences." 20 Nodelman observes that the most canonical examples of children's literature, particularly those dating from the Victorian "Golden Age" of children's literature, tend to "present this division in its most irresolvable terms." Although they preach development, such stories also offer the "subversive" pleasure of stasis:

As didactic fables, they want to urge children to stop being childish and learn to be better and different. As subversive wish-fulfillment fantasies, they want children to stay exactly as they already are and offer depictions of what Maria Nikolajeva identifies as 'resisting growing up—the eternal 'Peter Pan complex' of children's fiction, in which adulthood is presented as undesirable and threatening' 21

As Nodelmen himself acknowledges, however, "subversive wish-fulfillment fantasies" of eternal childhood are generally adult fantasies. The idea of children staying exactly as they are serves the emotional needs of adults more often and more deeply than it serves the emotional needs of children.

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is the most famous embodiment of the adult's dream of the child frozen in time. Barrie thought a good deal about what it meant to be—or not to be—normal. "Peter Pan was not quite like the other boys," he famously wrote. Since first appearing on stage in the Christmas season in 1904, Peter Pan has appealed to adults as well as children, and been adapted in many forms. The long-running popularity of this trope and its variations reveals some of the key ways that eternal childhood has been used in the 20th and 21st centuries to equate living with an impairment with life-long stasis. This ideal of the eternal child is the foundation of the trope that represents a person with a physical or mental impairments as a child, a child who does not grow.

Barrie returned to the idea of the unchanging child in 1920 in a play intended for adult audiences: the ghost story Mary Rose. Although successful in its day, Mary Rose never achieved the iconic status of Peter Pan. Both plays have mysterious islands, supernatural occurrences, and eternal children. Mary Rose also reflects, however, the difference between 1904 and 1920. Like Virginia Woolf's modernist tour de force To the Lighthouse, which begins in 1910 and concludes in 1920, Mary Rose is a family story with a void in the middle, an emptiness created by the passage of time and the massive disruptive force of the Great War. Barrie's life and work were indeed changed by World War I. As mounting casualties made the celebrated line unbearably painful to wartime audiences, Barrie cut from performances Peter Pan's blithe declaration that "To die will be an awfully big adventure." The war's legacy also provides the most immediate context for Mary Rose's treatment of disability. C. Wixson notes that contemporary playwrights tried to represent the impact of World War I through "mutilated veteran characters [with][… ]for example, missing limbs, blindness (Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered), and outright shellshock (Miles Malleson's Black 'ell)." 22 In Mary Rose's original London production, Robert Lorraine, a decorated veteran known for playing a "soldier roles," doubled the parts of the two lead male characters, the heroine's fiancé and her son Henry, a young veteran of the war. Combat injuries had left Lorraine with a shattered kneecap and a pronounced limp: as Wixson explains in his study of the play's aural effects, "the sound of his offstage 'clumping' footsteps which begins the play [ …] suggests physical disability." 23

If Peter Pan makes the trope of the eternal child seem natural, then Mary Rose reveals this trope to be very disturbing indeed. In it, Barrie points to the disabling consequences of understanding life with an impairment as a state of eternal childhood. In this play, a body grows towards adulthood while a mind does not. Peter flawlessly embodies the contradictory ideal of the unchanging child. There is nothing uneven about his development. He simply stops growing both mentally and physically. In contrast, Mary Rose's body grows into that of a young woman, but her mind remains eleven years old —the age at which she first disappeared on "The Island that Likes to be Visited." As Kafer would say, Mary Rose is an example of "embodied asynchrony." 24 When she first appears on stage, she is eighteen years old, tree-climbing and playful. She speaks in complete sentences, but her language and choice of activities are strikingly "girlish." She is hiding in an apple tree when the audience is first introduced to her. When her father asks why, she replies, "I'm not sure who I'm hiding from. From myself, I think. Daddy, I'm frightened." 25 Being able to articulate that one fears oneself is a sign of maturity, but hiding from this fear in a tree is not. Of course, the audience already knows that there is something strange about Mary Rose. Immediately prior, her parents have discussed a mysterious secret that threatens her engagement to marry: "She can't marry, James, without your first telling the man. We agreed," Mary Rose's mother reminds her father. 26

In addition to reflecting the passage of historical time, the differences between Peter Pan and Mary Rose reflect the importance of gender to the way Barrie imagines childhood, stasis, and disability. Because Peter is an eternal little boy, he can never be a husband or a father. In contrast, the fact that Mary Rose is an eternal little girl makes her a perfect wife and mother. Although Mary Rose cannot know her own dark secret, her fiancé has a right to it. When Simon, Mary Rose's would-be betrothed, shows up to ask her father for her hand in marriage in standard patriarchal fashion, Mr. Morland tells him that Mary Rose disappeared on "The Island that Likes to be Visited" seven years ago—and that when she reappeared, there was something strange about her. This something strange grew stranger and stranger each year as she grew up — and as she failed to grow up. Simon is accepting, but asks her parents why they never told Mary Rose herself. They explain that they "were afraid to alarm her, take the bloom off her." 27 This is one of many instances in which Barrie uses flower diction to characterize Mary Rose's lack of agency as a traditionally feminine quality, virtuous and beautiful. His stage-directions call her "a rare and lovely flower," and Mrs. Morland compares her daughter's incomplete agelessness to the way "a touch of frost can stop a plant from growing and yet leave it blooming." 28

In creating this partially frozen, partially "blooming" character, Barrie reflects the messiness of social change over time. When Mary Rose was first staged, of course, women had been eligible to be elected to Parliament for two years; they would win full suffrage eight years later. Nevertheless, the 19th-century ideal of the childlike domestic woman, forever sheltered in the private space of the home, lived on in many forms, among them the curiously ghostly Mary Rose. Mary Rose is clear that becoming Simon's wife means, in many ways, becoming his daughter. She asks her fiancé, "Simon, once we're married, you will still let me play, won't you?" 29 She means this request literally: she wants to go out and play in her apple tree, just as she has always done. Her childlike mind does not bother Simon. In fact, he finds it delightful. When Mary Rose refuses to put a on a jacket before leaving the house, Simon demands, "My child, you are in my care now; I am responsible for you, and I order you to put on a jacket." 30

Barrie's idea of marriage is all about motherhood, but it is not about sexual agency or sexual pleasure. Mary Rose's bond with her son Harry is far stronger than her bond with her husband Simon. When they unwisely re-visit her magic island, she declares her priorities, joyfully informing the place that "I have a much more wonderful secret than that [having a husband] … I—have—got—a—baby!" 31 After disappearing on the island for a second time, she returns to the human world for a second time, now as a ghost rather than as a frost-bitten flower. Her first question is, "Where is my baby?" 32 Mary Rose's husband mourns for her to his death, but she soon forgets him. Even after the ghostly Mary Rose meets her own grown-up son, her quest remains the same. When her son asks her why she threatened him with his knife, she replies, "I thought you were the one…The one who stole [my baby] from me…Give him back to me." 33

On their ill-fated second visit to "The Island that Likes to be Visited," Mary Rose and Simon are told a spooky story about a girl who disappeared there years ago, a girl who is obviously herself. Simon comments, "If she ever comes back, let us hope it is with an able-bodied husband to protect her." 34 This statement uses that most interesting adjective, "able-bodied." Always climbing apple trees or scrambling about rocky islands, Mary Rose seems conspicuously able-bodied. However, by using the term "able-bodied," Simon indicates that she is, in fact, disabled and in need of someone completely abled (like him) to keep her from harm. In this sense, all women, or at least all good wives, are disabled. In describing the wife's need for an able-bodied protector, Simon implies that all good wives are "disabled" in the sense of being dependent on their able-bodied husbands to look after them, as well as that Mary Rose in particular is dependent on him because of her strange history.

In Mary Rose, Barrie takes seriously the metaphor of the perfect wife as a child, then re-imagines this ideal childhood as disability. Mary Rose is a deeply uncanny figure. Supernaturally childish and supernaturally motherly, she is at once ideal and unnatural, familiar and strange. Once he created Mary Rose, however, Barrie himself may have been alarmed at what this figure implies about "normal" ideals of motherhood. In any case, he finally opts for presenting her as abnormal rather than ideal, and kills her off. His play solves the "problem" of Mary Rose's disability, of the difference between her body and her mind, in a particularly chilling way. Mary Rose's language regresses after meeting her grown-up son. Mentally and emotionally, she becomes younger and younger. At first, she continues to make her 11-year-old demands in grammatically complete sentences: "I'm so tired; please can I go away and play now?" By the time she sits on Harry's lap, she speaks only a few words or repeats the same word over and over: "Lovely, lovely, lovely," and "Harry, Harry, Harry, Harry." 35 Ultimately, she regresses completely. Stage directions describe Mary Rose as "an unhappy child." In her final scene, she is totally "innocent." 36 She ascends to heaven, where she can be happy, free, and childlike forever, unburdened by a mature or sexual human body. By first reducing all of Mary Rose's abilities to the level of a little child, then sending her to heaven, the play "fixes" the problem of asynchronous or uneven development.

Peter Pan's sheer familiarity may seem to lessen the strangeness of the paradoxical idea of a child who does not grow, while Mary Rose calls our attention to this strangeness. Even more striking, however, is Harlan Ellison's 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story, "Jeffty is Five," which turns the Peter Pan dream into a nightmare by energetically exploiting fears about disability. This story makes lurid use of the fiction that being disabled, or being the family of a disabled person, means being caught in an unhappy state of absolute stasis. Jeffty is a Romantic Child of Joy, a five-year-old whose "world is infinite and colorful and filled with mysteries. Five is a special time before they take the questing, unquenchable, quixotic soul of the young dreamer and thrust it into dreary schoolroom boxes […] A time of delight, of wonder, of innocence." 37 For reasons no one can understand, Jeffty remains five years old, mentally and physically, for seventeen more years. He remains perfectly delightful, wonderful, and innocent, but his inexplicable stasis enrages a mob, which attacks him, and depresses his mother, who drowns him in a bathtub.

The narrator introduces Jeffty by invoking the idea of intellectual disability. Jeffty is a fantasy character whose mysterious state of eternal childhood cannot be explained, but he is built out of familiar stereotypes of intellectual disability. That is, the story describes Jeffty's impossible nature by comparing him to disabled people. Jeffty is a "nice, normal-looking five-year-old kid," the narrator insists. The problem is "not that Jefty was retarded":

What I mean by five years old is not that Jeffty was retarded. I don't think that's what it was. Smart as a whip for five years old; very bright, quick, cute, a funny kid. But he was three feet tall, small for his age, and perfectly formed: no big head, no strange jaw, none of that. A nice, normal-looking five-year old kid. Except that he was the same age as I was: twenty-two [ …] At twenty-two, he was five." 38

In Garland-Thomson's terms, the normal-looking Jeffty is in full possession of the "expected future enabled by normate embodiment" – but his inexplicable stasis reveals this future to be a fantasy. Jeffty's parents are "slavishly grateful" to the narrator for spending time with their son, temporarily relieving them from the pain of "having to pretend before the world that they were loving parents with a perfectly normal, happy, attractive child." 39 They are completely isolated from their community, entombed in a living nightmare with the "alien thing in their home." 40 Although we are told that Jeffty is not a disabled child, his family does what Ellison seems to expect the family of a disabled child to do: fruitlessly consult medical and educational professionals, lose all their friends, and sink into lasting depression:

for his parents it was an ongoing nightmare from which no one – not social workers, not priests, not child psychologists, not teachers, not friends, not medical wizards, not psychiatrists, no one – could slap or shake them awake. For seventeen years their sorrow had grown … to naked hatred, and finally, from deepest loathing and revulsion to a stolid, depressive acceptance. 41

While these parents feel "deepest loathing and revulsion" for their son, the narrator feels the same for them. He finds both parents "Hideous, every moment of their depression, hideous." 42

The trope of the eternal child serves various emotional and political ends for people who identify as able-bodied. Ellison's narrator, for example, is puzzled by the depth of his own feelings about Jeffty: "I liked him; more than I can say. And never knew exactly why. But I did, without reserve." 43 Paul Kincaid suggests one answer to this puzzle by noting that the story as a whole is "a wonder of sustained nostalgia coupled with despair at the modern world." 44 That is, the narrator loves not only Jeffty's innocence, but also the fact that this magical child still lives in a c.1930-1950 United States, although the rest of the country has moved on to the 1970s. If Peter Pan and the other eternal boys of canonical Victorian children's stories represent the Golden Age of the British Empire, then Jeffty represents for Ellison the United States' own Golden Age. Serials from the Golden Age of Radio play when Jeffty touches a radio, and new issues of Golden Age comics faithfully arrive in his mailbox. For the narrator, and for Ellison himself, Jefty's stasis gives access to a lost, better, mid-century world.

For paternalist political programs about impairment, the trope of the eternal child is equally valuable. The trope's disabling effects on people with impairments can perhaps be observed most clearly when ableist medical intervention tries to make it not merely a rhetorical keystone of paternalist policies, but the literal truth. In eliminating all growth, the figure of the eternal child also rules out the possibility of uneven development. That is, rather than recognizing that a given person possesses different levels of mental and physical ability in different areas at a given moment, differences that may or may not change over time, this way of thinking rounds down all discrepancies. In a chapter of Feminist, Queer, Crip entitled, "At the Same Time Out of Time: Ashley X," Kafer analyzes the case of Ashley X. Diagnosed with static encephalopathy, Ashley could not sit up, walk, or speak at the age of six, and her doctors had "no hope that her cognitive or neurological baseline would improve." 45 Barrie's Peter Pan and Ellison's Jeffty are eternal children in body as well as in mind. Because Ashley X was a human being rather than a character in a Golden Age fantasy, however, she grew. Like Mary Rose, her body changed although her mind did not. Kafer describes Ashley X as representing to her parents "embodied asynchrony," a body and a mind working according to different time schemes. Her parents made sense of her condition by deciding that she would always be a child — an eternal child or "pillow angel." To "align her rapidly growing body with her mental self" Ashley X's parents subjected her to high doses of estrogen that would inhibit her growth, a hysterectomy, and a mastectomy. 46 This set of medical procedures is now called the "Ashley Treatment" or—eerily—the "Peter Pan Treatment." Although the rhetorical reduction of impaired persons to the trope of eternal child may seem so familiar as to be unremarkable, Kafer defamiliarizes the trope by examining how it was made literal through this set of medical procedures. The fact that these procedures have been recommended for other children who are perceived by their caregivers and doctors to have various levels of mental and physical impairment suggests, as Kafer notes, "the slippery expansiveness of categories like 'pillow angel' and 'severely disabled'." 47 Finally, the only way to create eternal children is to excise from them, in language or in person, all signs of growth that do not fit this trope. The "Ashley Treatment" eliminates a discrepancy between physical and mental development, aiming to turn a Mary Rose into a Peter Pan.

Consider, finally, the disabling effects of one of Peter Pan's most melodramatic and most widely-viewed descendants, the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon, which ran from 1966 to 2010, drawing at its height over 85 million viewers. Displaying "Jerry's kids" to elicit charitable donations, the telethon was a massive collective exercise in the kind of eugenic world-building fantasy analyzed by Garland-Thomson. It devalued the lives and the futures of actual people living with impairments in the name of promoting a cure that would create a future free of such imperfect people. Laura Hersey's foundational critique of the MDA Telethon, "From Poster-Child to Protestor," analyzes these disabling effects: "Images of people with disabilities sink into the public mind every Labor Day, images of helplessness and eternal childhood.[ …] Pity paves the way for paternalism, for the attempt to control people on the basis of disability." 48 Like Peter Pan, Mary Rose, and Jeffty, the telethon's "cute cripples" are frozen in eternal childhood and so cannot be sexual: "The telethon presents even spouses as caretakers, not lovers. The denigration of our potential for relationships is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing and negative aspects of the telethon." Hershey had first encountered the telethon in the 1970s, when she herself appeared as an eleven year-old poster child. In 1993, the telethon seemed to Hershey as eerily frozen in time as Neverland or Mary Rose's island: "In the two decades since [the 1970s], the telethon doesn't seem to have changed much. I watch it every year, just to make sure. It's still chillingly familiar. The sappy music, the camera close-ups of wistful faces, […] it was all just the same as I remember it." Unlike Peter Pan, Mary Rose, or Jeffty, however, Laura Hershey did not remain frozen in time as an eternal child. She grew into a disability rights activist:

But some things have changed; I have changed. I don't know what my politics were as an eleven-year-old, if I had any. But my politics now — which are not merely political but also personal, spiritual, and practical — have led me to question and ultimately reject most of the values which the telethon represents. 49

Although the telethon excluded Hershey from the category of children who are sound in body and mind, the children who from Locke and Rousseau onwards have been imagined to possess a future as citizens, such public citizenship is exactly what she claimed for herself.

In early drafts, Mary Rose itself ends by transporting its heroine back to Peter Pan's Neverland, where she is seen "frolicking together with [Barrie's] most famous creation in a fantasy forest space like "two inordinately gay children." 50 Wixson claims that this original ending turns the play into yet another Barrie allegory of "sacred childhood," offering a reassuring conclusion that rewarded the audience for its patience with an otherwise inconclusive play. 51 Instead of returning audiences to the eternal child in Neverland, however, the final version of Mary Rose substitutes a more Spirtualist and open-ended finale of mysterious lights and sounds. The creator of our most enduring image of the eternal child had at last outgrown the trope. Encouraged by the work of activists such as Hershey who have also broken free of it, we hope that other writers who try to tell children and adults stories about the possibilities of human lives that include impairment are now outgrowing this trope as well.


  • Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan and Other Plays: The Admirable Crichton; Peter Pan; When Wendy Grew Up; What Every Woman Knows; Mary Rose. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • ---------, Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.
  • Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. NYU Press, 2016.
  • Davis, Lennard J. The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Dowker, Ann. "The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children's Literature." Disability Studies Quarterly 24, no. 1 (December 15, 2004). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v24i1.843
  • Ellison, Harlan. Shatterday. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
  • Garlitz, Barbara. "The Immortality Ode: Its Cultural Progeny." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6, no. 4 (Autumn 1966): 639–49.
  • Garland-Thomson, "Eugenic World Building and Disability: The Strange World of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go." Journal of Medical Humanities (2017) 38: 133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10912-015-9368-y
  • Haller, Beth, and Corinne Kirchner. "Editor's Preface." Disability Studies Quarterly 24, no. 1 (December 15, 2004). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v24i1.838
  • Hershey, Laura. "From Poster Child to Protestor" (1993). Independent Living Institute. https://www.independentliving.org/docs4/hershey93.html
  • Johnson, Harriet McBryde. Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005.
  • Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013.
  • Kincaid, Paul. What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction. Harold Wood: Beccon Publications, 2008.
  • Kurzman, Steven. Performing Able-Bodiness: Amputees and Prosthetics in America. University of California, Santa Cruz 2003.
  • Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education: And, Of the Conduct of the Understanding. Edited by Ruth Weissbourd Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996.
  • Nikolajeva, Maria. "Recent Trends in Children's Literature Research: Return to the Body." International Research in Children's Literature, The Quarterly Review, 9, no. 2 (November 23, 2016): 132–45. https://doi.org/10.3366/ircl.2016.0198
  • Nodelman, Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
  • Pollard, Scott. "Introduction: The Art of Our Art, the Quirkiness of Our Forms." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 38, no. 3 (August 9, 2013): 263–66. https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.2013.0032
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile: Or, On Education. New York: Basic Books, 1979.
  • Siebers, Tobin. "My Withered Limb." Michigan Quarterly Review XXXVII, no. 2 (Spring 1998).
  • Wixson, Christopher. "Media Matters in J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose." English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 56, no. 2 (December 22, 2012): 205–30.


  1. Haller and Kirchner, "Editor's Preface"; Nikolajeva, "Recent Trends in Children's Literature Research"; Pollard, "Introduction."
    Return to Text
  2. J. M. Barrie et al., Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 5.
    Return to Text
  3. Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 1 edition (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013), 2.
    Return to Text
  4. Bérubé, The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read (NYU Press: 2016), 21.
    Return to Text
  5. Davis, The Disability Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2010), 435.
    Return to Text
  6. Johnson, Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005), 208.
    Return to Text
  7. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 52.
    Return to Text
  8. Siebers, "My Withered Limb," 16.
    Return to Text
  9. Kurzman, Performing Able-Bodiness: Amputees and Prosthetics in America. (University of California: Santa Cruz 2003), 90.
    Return to Text
  10. Dowker, "The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children's Literature." No page number.
    Return to Text
  11. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education: And, Of the Conduct of the Understanding (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996), 10.
    Return to Text
  12. Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 10.
    Return to Text
  13. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, Or, On Education (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 53.
    Return to Text
  14. Rousseau, Emile, 53.
    Return to Text
  15. Garland-Thomson, "Eugenic World Building and Disability: The Strange World of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go." 145.
    Return to Text
  16. Garland-Thomson, "Eugenic World Building and Disability." She defines "normate" as "the form, function, behaviors, and appearances that conform to all of the culturally valued traits in the social systems of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability. The normate is medically and socially hypernormal, displaying the markers of that status and collecting resources and status from this embodied form of social capital" (135).
    Return to Text
  17. Garlitz, "The Immortality Ode."
    Return to Text
  18. Barrie et al., Peter Pan, 5.
    Return to Text
  19. Perry Nodelman, The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 185.
    Return to Text
  20. Nodelman, The Hidden Adult, 185.
    Return to Text
  21. Nodelman, The Hidden Adult, 186.
    Return to Text
  22. Wixson, "Media Matters in J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose," 208.
    Return to Text
  23. Wixson, "Media Matters," 208.
    Return to Text
  24. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 21.
    Return to Text
  25. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 252.
    Return to Text
  26. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 251.
    Return to Text
  27. Peter Pan and Other Plays: The Admirable Crichton; Peter Pan; When Wendy Grew Up; What Every Woman Knows; Mary Rose, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 259.
    Return to Text
  28. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 259, 252, 260.
    Return to Text
  29. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 262.
    Return to Text
  30. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 263.
    Return to Text
  31. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 266.
    Return to Text
  32. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 290.
    Return to Text
  33. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 295.
    Return to Text
  34. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 275.
    Return to Text
  35. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 295.
    Return to Text
  36. Peter Pan and Other Plays, 297.
    Return to Text
  37. Harlan Ellison, Shatterday (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 13.
    Return to Text
  38. Ellison, Shatterday, 12.
    Return to Text
  39. Ellison, Shatterday, 15.
    Return to Text
  40. Ellison, Shatterday, 15.
    Return to Text
  41. Ellison, Shatterday, 13.
    Return to Text
  42. Ellison, Shatterday, 15.
    Return to Text
  43. Ellison, Shatterday, 14.
    Return to Text
  44. Kincaid, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction.
    Return to Text
  45. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 47.
    Return to Text
  46. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 48.
    Return to Text
  47. Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 59.
    Return to Text
  48. Laura Hershey, "From Poster Child to Protester," 1993, no page number.
    Return to Text
  49. Hershey, "From Poster Child to Protester."
    Return to Text
  50. Christopher Wixson, "Media Matters in J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose," English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 56, no. 2 (December 22, 2012): 205.
    Return to Text
  51. Wixson, "Media Matters," 205.
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2018 Teresa Michals, Claire McTiernan

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Terri Fizer.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)