What is a Disability Memoir? Defining Disability and Understanding Representation

Marya Hornbacher wrote Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, her first memoir, in 1998, receiving international attention and becoming a New York Times Bestselling Author. Wasted received much attention for, as Dorothy Allison's laudatory note on the cover of the 1999 paperback says, its "unflinching candor and ironic wit. Wasted is a book that can save lives." Ten years passed before Hornbacher wrote a second memoir in 2008, which also hit the New York Times bestseller list. It may come as no surprise, given the reception of Wasted, that there has been an eager audience for Madness: A Bipolar Life. I argue in the following paper that, through examining Hornbacher's intentional rhetorical intertextuality, we can provide a feminist reading of Disability Life Writing that resists essentializing assumptions about illness and leaves room for intersectional understandings of disability key for feminist analysis.

Disability Studies theorist G. Thomas Couser writes of an "upsurge" during the late 20th century of life writing (including, but not limited to, the published memoir genre) about bodily experience, what he calls auto/somatography (Couser, 164). Hornbacher's work could certainly be said to fall into this writing and publishing trend. For Couser, what makes this new upsurge unique is the memoir's "disability consciousness;" in other words, the rhetorical move itself of focusing on disability vs. the impairment (165). Central to Disability Studies has been the political distinction made between a body's individual special needs and the lack of individual accessibility created by a culture's unwillingness to adapt (165). This distinction has been critical in emphasizing how individual bodies negotiate with socially-constructed spaces (ibid). For Couser, then, this upsurge in Disability Life Writing puts a distinct emphasis on the social, providing space to compare disability life writing to other kinds of activist autobiographies (ibid). Despite these rhetorical developments in the new disability memoir, Couser laments that an intersectional analysis of disability (one that I might expect to see in a feminist reading of the disability memoir) is unusual (176); disability life writing still represents a primarily white, middle-class authorship. I would add, disability life writing often still fails, as a whole, to represent a combination of physical and mental impairments and, as such, lacks a serious intersectional critique of disability as identity.

While I theorize that there are ways in which both of Hornbacher's memoirs individually have components of this new disability memoir, I want to argue that a combination of Couser's theorizing of the new disability life writing rhetoric, feminist disability theory, and feminist trauma theory can, together, help us understand how Hornbacher provides a serious critique of mental disability lacking in disability studies generally because she implements intentional intertextual rhetorical moves. Using feminist theorists Mary Margaret Fonow and Judith Cook's identification of intertextuality as a methodological tool for deconstructing representation (2221), my reading of Hornbacher's texts recognizes the moments where both Madness and Wasted present an incomplete rhetorical meaning, one that relies on the reader to draw on knowledge from both texts for a more complete symbolic recognition. Susannah Mintz's interrogation of women and disability life writing provides useful insight for understanding why intertextuality is important, suggesting that women writing about disability often present "open-ended histories of embodiment," as seen in the serial autobiographies of writers like Nancy Mairs. "These book-length, though not always continuous or linear, texts present disability as a kind of work-in-progress, a process of becoming rather than an immutable fact of physicality located beyond the scope of words to liberate and define" (4). Hornbacher's texts can be read in this tradition of serial life writing; Mintz, however, does not look at how this seriality changes with not only a focus on mental illness as opposed to physical impairment, but also multiple mental illnesses at play in and between texts. How does the comorbidity of mental illness challenge our understandings of the self in Disability Life Writing? What does Disability Life Writing, when mental illness is taken into account, do for Couser's understanding of Disability as Identity?

Understanding Mental Illness as Disability

If we understand, as the DSM does, eating disorders as mental illness, then to consider Hornbacher's work within a disability theory framework, we have to understand how mental illness itself works as a form of disability. Feminist disability theorist Susan Wendell recognizes both the biomedical and cultural aspects of disability, understanding the distinction between disability and impairment that has been central to the development of Disability Studies. Wendell, however, draws attention to the significance of social arrangements in identifying and labeling disability (Wendell, 36). Cultural factors create standards of normality that exclude those who do not meet those standards. Wendell encourages us to think of expectations around performance of self as arbitrarily created and reflected in the social organization of society (39). This social organization others people with disability. A central distinction for feminist Disability theorists like Wendell suggests that disability is created out of little or no biological impairment. The environment becomes central for both the source of disability and the solution for disability (46). Most recently Lennard Davis, in his 2008 book Obsession: A History, questions this distinction between cultural disability and biological impairment by writing a Foucauldian genealogy of obsession in Western Culture (1-29). For Davis, how we recognize the biological impairment in the first place, particularly when it comes to mental illness, is reliant on culture (ibid). This most recent theorizing draws on the work of feminist theorists like Wendell, who have emphasized the importance of the cultural environment, even arguing that disability itself can be disconnected from individual biology; this is because of the emphasis on culture in creating the parameters for recognizable impairment. Not only is disability social and environmental, but impairment is as well; impairment cannot be located outside of a social and environmental understanding.

This connection to the environment is central when thinking about mental illness as disability. Andrea Nicki, in her essay "The Abused Mind: Feminist Theory, Psychiatric Disability and Trauma," connects psychiatric disability with the more commonly-theorized ideas of physical disability (80-82). For Nicki, without social adaptation, mental illness can be seriously disabling (82). Since the norms for mental health are different for men and women, women are more often socially-constructed as mentally-ill. Yet mental illness has not received attention within feminist disability rhetoric. This is Nicki's intervention: just as Wendell advocates for a cultural transcendence of the body with disability theory, Nicki advocates for a transcendence of the mind (82). In her theorizing, however, Nicki is careful not to conflate elements of the cultural construction of mental illness with the idea that all mental illness is simply cultural, not biomedical. For Nicki, the physical body must still be considered alongside cultural and environmental constructions (83).

Elizabeth Donaldson argues a similar position, questioning what she calls the "impairment-disability system" for its false separation between physical and cultural constructions of the body (111). Donaldson's theoretical intervention argues that bodies are made (always social) and that disability actually produces impairment (112). Therefore, focusing on the physical, or individual, or biomedical, is never neglectful of social construction but is a piece of that social construction.

In Wasted, Hornbacher consistently draws attention to her physical body, as eating disorders often insist that we do (as social observers, as medical practitioners), and the ways in which her consistent decision-making is negotiating between her physical body and her mental/emotional state. In Hornbacher's final pages of Wasted, for instance, it is not just her mental but physical health that comes into question.

Some nights, many nights, I crawl back into bed and curve tight against Julian, who sleeps like a smooth, beating heart, hot, skin steaming, mouth just open as if in awe of his dreams, hands making the small, abstract gestures of sleep. I fit myself into his chest and listen to his heart. I speak severely to my heart: Listen, I say. Like that. Steady. Strong (289).

It is this ending that is centered in critical reviews of Wasted, where her reliability as a narrator is questioned because she doesn't provide a triumphal ending, a physical reconciliation with her body. In fact, she frames her eating disorder as a chronic illness, no "triumph" possible. What I'm interested in is not just how this ending makes room for a second memoir, but how it provides room for the second memoir to insist on an intertextual reading, one that keeps the physical body central while examining mental illness. Additionally, it is in providing room for an intertextual reading of Hornbacher's co-morbidity (as eating disordered and bi-polar) that we, as readers, can keep from essentializing Hornbacher through her narrative position as eating disordered. I argue that it is this inability to essentialize our narrator's identities and disability experience that is central to a feminist reading of the disability memoir.

Rhetorical Intertextual Technique in Madness: How This Relates To and Transforms Couser's Understandings of Identity in the New Disability Memoir

There are several techniques that both Hornbacher and her publishers use to necessitate an intertextual reading between Madness and Wasted, which may work to explain the Amazon reviews of Madness that consistently reference Wasted. The first intertextual rhetorical technique is one employed by the publishers with their cover illustration. In both the hardcover and paperback editions of Wasted, there is a grey and white photograph of Hornbacher's physical body, facial expression ambiguous, the title "wasted" scrolling across her stomach in the approximate middle of the cover. The hardcover edition of Madness employs a photograph of Hornbacher in a similar stance, this time older, hair shorter, and the photograph off-center so that only the left half of her body is visible from the binding to about a third of the page. The title, "MADNESS" begins its scroll next to Hornbacher's cheek and runs the two-thirds length of the cover. The use of similar photography is an immediate cross-reference, while its change in placement lets the buyer/reader know that the two books are, in fact, different (Madness is not just simply a ten-year anniversary re-issue of Wasted). It is this cover-design of Madness that propels Hornbacher into a recognizable readership.

Such intertextual reference, however, is not just the work of Hornbacher's publisher. Hornbacher herself employs several rhetorical techniques in Madness that insist upon readers' being familiar with her previous memoir. At several points in her memoir, Hornbacher references the publication of Wasted and her publicity tour, which corresponds with the second section of Madness (82). The first section of Madness, the shortest section of the book, spans Hornbacher's life up until her book tour, spending a short fifty pages recapping the years of Wasted, while highlighting the moments that seem particularly manic or depressive (as opposed to the physical ups and downs and hospitalizations that dominate her first eating disordered memoir). In fact, leading up to the book tour, we have very little idea about Hornbacher's early life, not to mention the process in which her first memoir gets written, which calls for readers to reference not only the text of Wasted, but the ten years of epitext in between; this includes Hornbacher's various prologues and epilogues in Wasted (hardcover and paperback editions and the "P.S." reissue of Wasted) and countless publicity interviews, to flush out the scenes in the first section of Madness.

In Part II of Madness, Hornbacher calls upon the readers' knowledge of Wasted explicitly by referencing her identity as a writer (93). In the following bar scene, during one of Hornbacher's moments of mania, Hornbacher gets spotted:

You're Marya, he says. He looks at me intensely, as if he means to communicate some important piece of information that I urgently need to know. The bit of information is that he is a player, and that he wants to play. The bit of information is the bait. I always bite.

As far as I know, I say.

I've read your work, he says. (My work? I think, raising an eyebrow. He means Wasted. Work seems a little grand.)

Really, I say, and look away. I glance around the bar, through a haze of bluish smoke. We are very young and very hip. We are arrogant beyond belief. We never stop performing. Someone climbs up on the table and does an impression of someone we don't like. We live to be liked. We will absolutely die if we aren't adored.

I love it, he says (93).

Hornbacher's disbelief in her encounter makes sense when the reader understands that her work is a single memoir about a young woman with an eating disorder; the marketed audience is not the man at the bar. Why would he "know her work"? Yet this irony goes unexplained as Hornbacher, in the following pages, engages in a sexual relationship with her bar encounter. Similarly, in moments when Hornbacher is on her book tour, the readers are called to understand not only what her book is about, but its bestselling and controversial reception (82-88). "I sit in coffee shops with reporters and recite correct answers (What are correct answers?), still feeling it [confusion due to depression]. And then, at night, the switch trips and I am on, in front of a crowd, questions, more questions! Bring it on! I'm on top of the world!" (82, italics in the original). We are supposed to recognize Hornbacher as a New York Times bestselling author, though we get no rhetorical moments when Hornbacher explicitly references where or how she gets that writerly status or her reaction to it — only that she is. Thus, key moments of intertextual reference are repeated throughout the memoir: when Hornbacher engages in the act of writing, with the identity of writer, and even with the mundane details of how her monetary success is dwindling away while she is incapable of finishing her second book (a contracted novel). In order for all of this character development to make sense, the reader must know about Wasted and its reception.

There is another kind of intertextuality that operates much more subtly as Hornbacher moves in and out of hospitalizations and psychiatric lock-down facilities with a formulated ease. This ease first becomes evident in the recounting of her appointment when she first receives her bi-polar diagnosis (59-63). Hornbacher's ability to recount entire volumes of her own psychiatric history and insights, as well as the doctor's surprise that no one has ever mentioned the possibility of Hornbacher being "manic" makes sense to the readers of Wasted, who have followed Hornbacher in and out of eating disorder facilities. These readers can recognize that, up to this point, Hornbacher's physical body has taken precedence over another psychiatric diagnosis. In this section of Madness, the eating disorder is glossed.

"You say you had an eating disorder? How long ago?"

"Started when I was nine. I finally started getting a handle on it a couple of years ago, when I was about twenty."

"What about cutting? Any history of cutting?" (63).

Here, the eating disorder is included in the list of other in-take questions — there is no mention of Hornbacher's bestselling memoir (which, at the time of this appointment, she is on a book tour publicizing) or the extent of her hospitalizations. While in the actual appointment, Hornbacher may have gone into quite a bit more detail; her choice not to do so in Madness emphasizes Hornbacher's careful rhetorical moves to no longer be solely an "eating disordered" identity but a bi-polar one. This shifting identity of Hornbacher's narration is key to the feminist disability memoir, and it relies on intertextual readings between Madness and Wasted so that readers don't essentialize either the bi-polar identity or the eating disordered identity. Hornbacher is never either/or in her disability but complicatedly both. Perhaps the most explicit example of this is in the final part of Madness, when Hornbacher's eating disordered behaviors re-emerge. "Soon the hypomania morphs into something darker. The eating disorder has taken hold for real. It's no longer just a few symptoms I was using to try to control the moods. It's taken on a life of its own" (233). Here, Hornbacher is careful to locate the eating disorder within the porous borders of her bi-polar disorder, though both illnesses have had consistent separate identities throughout the text.

What does it mean to create an "eating disordered" identity or a "bi-polar" identity? How does the establishment of two, simultaneous yet inseparable identities contribute to our understanding of the disability memoir? For Couser, while the new disability memoir recognizes the social in conjunction with the biological, the relationship between the mental, physical, and cultural self, as well as the resulting complex negotiations of these multiple selves, is often left unexamined (176). My argument is that it is the existence of these multiple selves, selves that can often be derived through intertextual readings of multiple publications, creative mediums or discourses, that is central to a feminist reading of the new disability memoir. In other words, a feminist reading of the new disability memoir is never purely textual; it relies on both the literal and figurative space between texts for the audience to interact with the creator (singular and multiple) and circulation of the texts as a way to resist essentializing illness, gender, and the various limitations of the body. Hornbacher doesn't just present one "right" diagnosis, revising her original eating disorder; nor does Hornbacher present an essentializing experience of co-morbidity itself. Co-morbidity by its very definition implies being able to draw a line between different diagnosis; for Hornbacher her bi-polar diagnosis and eating disorder live in tension with one another, causing that line between these diagnoses to be in constant movement. Adding to this movement is Hornbacher's latest life writing, a twelve-step reflection on her experience with mental illness and alcoholism. This space between Hornbacher's textual productions becomes key when we begin to think about the ways in which the subject of disability memoir is also the subject of trauma.

Disabled Subject as Traumatized Subject: Understanding Trauma for the Feminist Reading of the New Disability Memoir

Disability theorist Tobin Siebers considers the disabled subject as a kind of colonized subject in his consideration of Disability Rights as Human Rights (Siebers 176-186). Siebers examines the ways in which disability as a metaphor is consistently used to create outsider status for politically unwanted subjects. For Siebers, we can imagine the disabled narrator as a colonized narrator because both kinds of bodies symbolize the absence of human rights. If we think, as Siebers does, that ability is "the ideology about examining the potential of a person, making it known, then granting access or acceptance based on what is known" (184), then we can see the ways in which centering the colonized or subaltern subject in postcolonial studies is fundamentally similar to Siebers's conclusion about the disabled subject, "that it might be a good idea for us to treat humans as if we don't know their potential" (Siebers, quoting memoirist Michael Bérubé 184). But how can we formulate a human rights discourse based on what we don't know? And how would this discourse help us read the feminist disability memoir?

In her essay on reading the archives for historical information about colonized subjects, Gayatri Spivak maintains that what we don't know is as much a part of the story as what we do (247-272). Spivak's key argument is that we should read the archives not as a simplistic representation of a linear narrative story but as an interrupted narrative much more about the creator of the archive than the purported subject (251). For our disabled narrators, then, memoirs about an individual body's negotiations with culture actually become memoirs about that culture, disjointed and incomplete as that representation may be. Spivak argues that it is exactly these gaps, these incongruencies, in historical record that can provide us with an understanding of the colonized subject (268-271). For a feminist reading of the new disability memoir, it is the ways in which representations of culture are incomplete that provides an ever-shifting insight into disability.

Doing a post-colonial reading of Hornbacher as a disabled subject provides us, as readers, space to look at not just Hornbacher's construction of these mental illnesses as identity, but also the space between the two texts that leaves unanswered questions of Reality and the ever-shifting identity of the author-narrator conflation. This ever-shifting, partial identity is central for reading the experience of the colonized subject as a site of trauma.

Spivak argues that reading archives to create the illusion of a whole story is an act of epistemic violence (268-271). If we think of reading the disability memoir for the means of understanding disability as an essential, congruent experience, then we can see ourselves, as readers of the disability memoir, as colonizers — unless, as Spivak argues, we pay attention to incongruencies. Contemporary trauma theorist Patricia Yaegar theorizes that for readers to engage with testimony, they must pay attention to these moments of distancing intervention, engaging without appropriating or essentializing the trauma experience (420-422). Similar to Spivak's argument for reading the colonized subject, Yaegar advocates for paying attention to moments we aren't allowed to know, reconstructing narratives that honor this unknown. Intertextual readings of disability provide literal and metaphorical space for recognizing what is unknowable, honoring, as readers, our shifting relationships with the texts of disability representation.

In writing about how we can teach representations of trauma in the college classroom, Wendy Hesford advocates for moments of self-reflexivity (193). Allowing these moments for self-reflexivity is exactly what doing an ethical, intertextual reading of the feminist disability memoir requires. For Hesford, concerned with the traumatizing of secondary witnesses (in her case, students; in our case, the broader audience of the new disability memoir), self-reflexivity works to provide space to recognize agency (209-211). In order to think about the cultural scripts that shape the trauma testimony, readers must move beyond a voyeuristic kind of identification with the trauma survivor and "reflect on their own assumptions and cultural scripts that structure their responses" (210). This kind of self-reflection is necessary when doing a feminist reading of the disability memoir; the intertextual production of Hornbacher's disability memoir requires this reflection from the reader by providing literal and metaphorical space between readings.

Towards a Queer Time and Place: The New Disability Memoir as Intertextual

I began my argument by looking at the ways in which disability theorist G. Thomas Couser understands the latest developments in the new disability memoir, highlighting the contemporary focus on the culture that creates disability. I note, as Couser does, how the new disability memoir continues to lack an intersectional analysis of identity construction. It is with this premise that I begin to theorize what a feminist reading of the disability memoir might look like and how it might contribute to our understandings of disability. Using the work of Marya Hornbacher, I argue that it is the intentional moves of intertextual referencing in Madness that produce a feminist intervention in reading Disability Life Writing. Central to a feminist reading of disability memoir, then, are the ways in which a text provides a means by which essentializing the narrator becomes an impossibility; for Hornbacher, intertextuality provides multiple narrator/author identities that leave the reader unsettled.

This intertextuality, however, does something even more than providing a kind of authorial dialogism: it provides room for absence in the construction of a linear story. It is these moments of absence that are essential for reading both the colonized subject and the producer of traumatic testimony — with which the disabled narrator can be identified. These spaces provide literal and metaphorical moments for the reader to ethically engage with the disability memoir. In addition to providing a means for self-reflection, I want to suggest that the attention to the space between narrative productions expands our concepts of time and our ethical engagement with disability.

In queer theorist Judith Halberstam's concept of "queer time," life gets rearranged — time sped up, slowed town, skipped over — when people fall outside of the heterosexual matrix (6). While Halberstam is talking specifically about queer sexuality, I can make the connection here in a very general way that anyone who doesn't follow the heteronormative and capitalist path of state-sanctioned marriage could be considered to be inhabiting a queer space. I could also make a much more specific connection, one that Tobin Siebers makes, about ability being a prerequisite for any kind of sexuality as we understand it. Therefore, disability itself is a form of queer sexuality (135-137). In either case, it seems that to create a linear life narrative out of disability, a narrative based on dominant middle-class heterosexual projections of sexuality, and to read disability life writing in such a way that upholds this linearity, would be unethical. Providing literal and metaphorical space through intertextual readings disrupts our ability as readers to create this narrative. When Hornbacher writes her narratives in such a way that time overlaps, moments are admittedly misremembered or not remembered at all, and her conclusions are not triumphant but stagnant, we, as readers, are called to reevaluate our concept of time and story. Through a feminist reading of the new disability memoir, we are called to reevaluate our expectations of individual bodily negotiations in culture, recognizing how reading the new disability memoir is about our own moments of reading and the cultural discourses that create those moments.

Works Cited

  • Couser, G. Thomas. Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. 2009.
  • Davis, Lennard J. Obsession: A History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2008.
  • Donaldson, Elizabeth. "The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies of Embodiment and Mental Illness." NWSA Journal: 14.3. Fall 2002. 99-118.
  • Fonow, Mary Margaret and Judith A Cook. "Feminist Methodology: New Applications in the Academy and Public Policy." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 30.4 (2005): 2211-2236.
  • Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press. 2005.
  • Hesford, Wendy. "Reading Rape Stories: Material Rhetoric and the Trauma of Representation." College English: 62:2. November 1999. 192-221.
  • Hornbacher, Marya. Madness: A Bipolar Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2008.
  • Hornbacher, Marya. Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction and the Twelve Steps. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing. 2010.
  • Hornbacher, Marya. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. New York: Harper Perennial. 1998.
  • Knapp, Carolyn. "Body Language." New York Times Online 4 June 1998: n. pag. Web. 12 Feb 2010. <http://www4.nytimes.com/books/98/01/04/reviews/980104.04knappt.html>.
  • "Madness: A Bipolar Life Other Reviews." goodreads. n.pag. Web. 12 Feb 2010. <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2177563.Madness_A_Bipolar_Life>.
  • Mintz, Susannah B. Unruly Bodies: Life Writing by Women with Disabilities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2007.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 2008.
  • Spivak, Gayatri. "The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives." History and Theory: 24:3. October 1985. 247-272.
  • Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge. 1996.
  • Yaeger, Patricia. "Testimony without Intimacy." Poetics Today. 27.2 (2006): 399-423. Print.
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