Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Linton, Simi. (2006). My Body Politic: A Memoir. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 245 pp. $25.95. ISBN 0-472-11539-1.

Reviewed by James Emmett Ryan, Auburn University

After so many years of being understood as a youth movement, the American "baby boom" generation born between 1945 and 1960 has finally grown up and asserted itself politically, and there is no more obvious sign of this maturation and expression of generational will than the presidential elections that brought Bill Clinton (born 1946) and George W. Bush (born 1946) to power in the United States. The political consequences of these elections are obvious to even the most casual observer of the American scene, but these elected officials are only the most visible members of a generation that has lived through and participated in enormous changes in the national debates concerning human rights, sexuality and gender identity, women's rights, and racial equality. Baby boomers have been active on the national political scene, but they have also been key agents for change at the state, local, and community level; even the politics of the human body have been marked by activists born into the prosperous circumstances of American life in the years just after World War II. Simi Linton's lively and passionate memoir recounts a life of political activism and personal growth from the perspective of a woman born in 1947, just in time to come of age during the Summer of Love and to experience vividly the turbulent protests over the ongoing American misadventure in Vietnam. The crucial phase of Linton's life, however, would not begin until the traumatic and disabling experience of a fateful motoring accident in April 1971, which took the lives of her husband and her closest friend while depriving her of the ability to walk. Decades after the accident, Linton's stated aim, which she accomplishes with great style and heart, is "to reconstruct . . . the life I grew into" (3). It is a complex task, for as she notes, "The new shape and formation of my body were set on that April day; the meaning this new body would have for me took years to know" (3).

Her political awareness and idealism, which inspired Linton to be hitchhiking to Washington, D.C., in order to attend a protest against the Vietnam war on the very day of her disabling and life-altering accident, eventually lead her to embrace the cause of other disabled persons, to work for their full access to and inclusion in American life, and to assist in laying the foundation for the vibrant intellectual and artistic community associated with disability studies. Writing as a woman who had used a wheelchair in the years before American building codes had begun to require such now-familiar (if not ubiquitous) accommodations as accessible restrooms, wheelchair curb cuts, and other necessities for persons unable to walk, Linton's description of the humiliations and practical frustrations she endured in the decades before passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act serve as a stark reminder of just how essential it was to pass such legislation on behalf of disabled persons. Her experience with disability reflects both grave difficulty and heartening renewal. Although she had dropped out of college in the years before her injury, Linton took inspiration from her long and challenging rehabilitation period to return to the academy and eventually to receive a doctorate in psychology from New York University. Thus armed, Linton entered a career teaching psychology, first at Baruch College and later at Hunter College, during which she became increasingly interested in the psychology of disability and later the emerging field of disability studies, which became the primary focus of her work in the 1990s.

Linton provides a useful definition of disability studies as "a social, political, cultural inquiry into disability" that "functions much like women's studies does to reframe the whole idea of 'disability'" (117), and she offers a unique perspective on the birth of disability studies as a discursive community, describing in warm, personal terms the friends and colleagues who influenced her own work during the early years of the disability studies movement. But her memoir is anything but a narrowly conceived academic book. To the contrary, hers is an engaging, honest, and inspirational story that shows the spirit and accomplishments of disabled Americans who are marked not only with bodily differences but with a rock and roll-inflected political ethos formed in the crucible of the Sixties. One after another, Linton voices the concerns and values of progressive baby boomers: unabashed enthusiasm for dance, art, and music (she brags of having been kissed by both Jimi Hendrix and James Brown), a positive attitude and lusty openness about her own relationships and sexual feelings, and a willingness to engage with the great national issues of her time (the book opens with her opposition to the war in Vietnam and closes with her opposition to the war in Iraq). If, as Linton claims, "taking disability public has become [her] work" (232), this memoir itself contributes substantially to the labor of giving voice and dignity to persons who had long been relegated to the margins of American society, and it does so at the hands of an activist who moves to the infectious backbeat of a generation.

Copyright (c) 2006 James Emmett Ryan

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