Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Too Late to Die Young. Harriet McBryde Johnson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. 261 pages.

Accidents of Nature. Harriet McBryde Johnson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006. 229 pages.

Reviewed by Carrie Griffin Basas, Saint Joseph's College of Maine

Harriet McBryde Johnson's writing draws the reader in, encouraging her to experience a richness of emotions and experiences. She elicits a response-- the creeping blush that comes when Johnson relays details so intimate and familiar, or the "Yes!" that rushes to the lips when her stories depict vulnerability and awkwardness. Her voice is familiar, comforting, even provocative, rallying the reader to draw upon the strength of self and community, to be true and at ease where normative values encourage adaptation or an overcoming of disabilities. Her two latest works, Too Late to Die Young and Accidents of Nature are poignant and stirring. In a matter of chapters, the stories, patchworked together from personal experiences and artful storytelling, take the reader on journeys of growth and discovery, colorfully and lastingly rendered.

At first glance, the two books seem to have distinct audiences. Accidents of Nature targets young adult readers, while Too Late to Die Young feeds Johnson's familiar audience of The New York Times Magazine readers and colleagues in the activism community. However, teenagers could enjoy Too Late, just as adults might be touched by Accidents. The books hang together well and draw upon Johnson's craft as a Southern storyteller, attorney and Democratic organizer. Too Late to Die Young is described as "nearly true tales from a life" and Accidents is billed as fiction. A few pages into either book, the reader realizes that these stories are as much infused with Johnson's personal experiences growing up as a young person with a disability, and later excelling as a lawyer, Democratic party chair and writer, as her own journal might be. Seeing the author in the books is not uncomfortable or bothersome; rather, it comes with a sense of privilege and trust.

Accidents is set at a camp for young people with disabilities, where it seems to be no coincidence that activities are dumbed down, campers are serenaded with songs calling upon their heroism and kids with disabilities manage to form their own counterculture and community. The liminality experienced outside of Camp Courage is broken down in a space where kids may receive services and assistance from non-disabled staff members, but are the most critical observers and reformers. The main characters of Accidents are Jean, a seventeen-year-old woman with cerebral palsy and Sara, a fellow camper that Jean describes as looking like a "crippled hippie." (15) Jean attends a "normal" school, and in her first few days of camp, feels segregated and isolated from the other campers. She refuses to see herself as being like them, even though Sara has already dubbed her "Spazzo."

Sara is not new to Camp Courage and has assumed the role as the leader of subversion. With her assistance, Jean moves from seeing herself to be "like eve-ry-one else," to envisioning a new future - one in which her disability is not a source of shame and embarrassment (18). Sara leads her through this personal change in the most unconventional of ways, not by holding hands or becoming saccharine bosom buddies, but by quoting Marx, Lenin and Goffman to her. She upends Jean's assumptions that she has to accept a stigmatized position in society because of her disability.

In both works, Johnson does not shrink from conveying how difficult it is sometimes to be disabled even among other people with disabilities. Through the voice of Jean, she describes a world where people with disabilities are often measuring one another to assess how close to normalcy they come. People are gauged according to a scale of difference or freakiness, and given nicknames that reduce them to a disability - "aussies" (people with autism), "M.R.s."(people with cognitive disabilities), "walkie-talkies" ("campers who can walk and talk and look like norms") and of course, the "spazzos," like Jean. (21) When the campers mock telethons in front of their benefactors from the Jaycees and a state senator, it takes some will not to burst into a cheer. Imagine Johnson as a teenager, and you have Sara, the main instigator and advocate for disability pride at the camp.

Though the character of Sara never formally appears in Too Late to Die Young, her vim is present. Many readers with disabilities may identify with the title essay of the book. From the images of frail and tragically presented children on telethons, Johnson deduces that she will not live to adulthood. She recounts a sense of relief when she makes it into kindergarten. By the time she has become a young adult, she begins to see that death is not simply for her, but inevitable for everyone. She recounts deciding to be more vague when asked about her disability. As she puts it, telling people that she has muscular dystrophy makes her into "one of the undead" or a "pity object," a distraction for the inquirers who refuse to confront their own mortality. (11)

The remainder of Too Late intersperses everyday reflections with adventures to Cuba, telethon protests, the Democratic national convention and philosophical debates. Johnson uses each essay to take the reader inside her thoughts and experiences, from observations on wheelchair repair, to preferred filming positions for The New York Times. She details the intricacies of human relationships, with her assistants, family, compatriots and colleagues. There is something so opening and upward about the way she grows throughout the book and takes the reader along to the final sentence. This is a book about beauty and resilience, as much as it is about struggle and survival.

In Johnson's last chapter, she reflects on the pleasures that she has in life - pushing herself hard through a city she loves, connecting with her social network, living in her whole self - mind and body - however strong or rebellious in their particulars. She takes on changing perceptions more gently here:

For decades, little noticed by the larger world, the disability rights movement has been mobilizing people from the back rooms and back wards, along with more privileged people like me, to speak plainly about our needs . . . But we need to do something else besides, something that may be difficult but is, I think, vital. We need to confront the life-killing stereotype that says we're all about suffering. We need to bear witness to our pleasures. (253)

Johnson starts each reader on that path.

Copyright (c) 2006 Carrie Griffin Basas

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