In Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (2009), G. Thomas Couser argues that the recent popularity of the memoir has included a related boom in the sub-genre of disability life writing, a trend that has largely gone unnoticed yet has the revolutionary potential to explore marginalized experiences. In this review, I draw attention to an under-examined form of the disability memoir: the infertility memoir. Over 50 such books have been published in the past five years—many through small presses, self-publishers, or religious presses. Most are authored by women, although men are increasingly adding their voices to the field. The popularity of infertility memoirs dovetails with the attention infertility has recently received in the media, especially as more people are becoming vocal about their struggles with infertility and as assisted reproduction has become a profitable business. Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos' Silent Sorority and Phoebe Potts' Good Eggs are two notable examples of popular infertility memoirs. Tsigdinos' memoir won the 2010 RESOLVE award for Best Book (RESOLVE is the nation's most prominent nonprofit infertility awareness organization), while Good Eggs is the first graphic-novel-style infertility memoir. Yet, despite the boom in infertility memoirs, these stories are rarely contextualized within the field of disability studies. In this essay, I review these two memoirs as representatives of their type to consider what we can learn—both about infertility and about disability—if we think about infertility as a form of disability.
Like most authors of infertility memoirs, Tsigdinos and Potts are educated, white, middle-class women. However, their life stories are very different. Tsigdinos grew up Catholic in the Midwest in the seventies before moving to California and joining the dotcom boom; Potts, a freelance artist, is a Northeastern Jew with a Smith degree and a background in union organizing. Their styles are different as well: Tsigdinos' memoir is a frank, chronological narrative of how the author deals with her infertility, starting in isolated despair and ending in social activism, while Potts' black-humor graphic memoir takes meandering detours through her troubled past, mixing general identity-searching with infertility angst.
Even so, these stories are remarkably similar. Both women undergo multiple unsuccessful surgeries and interventions, and no one among their teams of doctors can explain why nothing works. Neither book has a conventional happy ending: no babies get born here. There are no miracles to redeem the suffering Potts and Tsigdinos endure. More important than these similarities, however, are the deep challenges to her identity that each woman faces as she learns about the ways in which the seemingly most natural of biological functions is beyond her control. Their stories, like most infertility narratives, begin with a fraught moment when the subject realizes that she has neither a "normal" body nor recourse to the traditional narrative of family building. For Tsigdinos, this destabilizing moment comes after a few months of failed attempts at getting pregnant: "Why was it I kept failing the pregnancy tests? What could it possibly be? My eggs were grade A. I was in great shape. I ate green leafy vegetables. I exercised. I drank lots of water. I paid my taxes on time. And this had to be good for bonus points: I had led an effort to raise money for the March of Dimes" (24). In a similar moment of disorientation, Potts depicts herself sitting lotus-style on an exercise ball, her nine Shiva-like arms each pointing to a virtue in her life: "I married a nice (partially) Jewish boy! I recycle! I vote! I eat my greens! I go to yoga! I went to Smith! I untangled my issues in therapy! I worked for the poor!" The next frame shows Potts standing atop a dwarfed planet earth, screaming "WHERE'S MY BABY?" (xvii-xix).
These moments are characterized by a sense of outraged entitlement: I have kept my body and soul in order per the dictates of middle-class customs; hence, I deserve to be rewarded by uncomplicated biological function. What these women are suffering is the realization that there is no moral basis for health, nor is biological function subject to the will. Neither Potts nor Tsigdinos use this language, but their crises can be read as moments of recognition of one of the ableist myths that undergirds normative understandings of disability: disabled bodies metaphorically signify moral failure; people "deserve" the bodies they have. Potts' and Tsigdinos' gradual recognition that this line of thinking is flawed—and the eventual new relationship with their bodies and life stories that come to replace it—structures the rest of each memoir. Both authors grapple with the ways in which their bodies and their lives slip slowly and without outward sign from "normal" to "abnormal," forcing them to recognize normalcy as a construct. As each devises strategies for coping with the fact that she is suddenly on the "wrong" side of a cultural and medical split she hadn't even realized existed, these memoirs sound increasingly like disability stories.
Two themes emerge in both narratives as a result of the authors' deconstruction of their own beliefs about health. One is the breakdown of the perceived dichotomy between "nature" and "artifice." The other is the loss of a culturally-scripted narrative about how life is supposed to unfold, a script that turns out to be predicated on a "normative" female body defined by reproductive ability. Both Tsigdinos and Potts are initially hesitant to begin infertility treatments, but soon find themselves immersed in a world of hormone shots, drug regimens, and repeated surgeries. In one sequence, Potts imagines an intimate scene of her and her husband in bed together, at the beginning of their efforts to conceive. By the time they are finished, an entire team of turkey-baster-wielding medical specialists and ominous-looking machines are crammed between them in the bed. Similarly, Tsigdinos records that "what repulsed me to the core, was the idea of becoming a full-blown human science experiment—where conception occurred outside our bedroom" (30). Both women mourn the replacement of "natural" reproduction with "artificial" reproduction, initially perceiving the first as superior and the second as a surreal or nightmarish alternative.
In the terms of disability theory, this is Potts and Tsigdinos rubbing up against the medical paradigm of disability, which locates disability in the physical impairment of a patient and seeks to cure it. The limits of this model have been well-documented, and while neither of the authors use this language, both instinctively rebel against the medicalization of their bodies, a medicalization that is also their best hope at becoming biological mothers. Both suffer from the cognitive dissonance of placing their hope in the very system that defines them as deficient. To those versed in disability studies, the categories of "natural" and "artificial" biological processes are always already unstable, a perspective that might be useful for Tsigdinos or Potts, yet is unavailable to them as young women raised on the notion that childbearing is a "natural" right—and even a prerequisite for womanhood.
The diagnosis of infertility threatens a heteronormative life plan that is so deeply ingrained that neither Tsigdinos nor Potts, both self-proclaimed feminists, realize they subscribed to it until it is threatened: get married, have a baby, build the rest of your life around the associated milestones. After years of feeling broken, Tsigdinos recognizes that the problem is not her own deficiency, but the implicit social pressures that define non-childbearing women as deficient: "In order to truly come to terms with infertility, I had to stop using the fertile world as my measuring stick. I would forever be an alien if I had stayed in that mindset." (165). Tsigdinos begins to publically advocate for infertile women, sharing her story on her influential blog "coming2terms." Tsigdinos wants women to recognize that there are multiple valid life paths beyond the over-programmed motherhood route. "Look," she writes in the book's last chapter, "I'm so done with trying [to fit in] and feeling all conspicuous for not being like everybody else. This body may be barren but that doesn't mean it can't do other things" (193). Tsigdinos is less articulate about what those "other things" might be than she is about the grieving process that brought her to this realization, but that may well be the point: infertile women must do the hard work of imagining counter-narratives to the omnipresent maternity path. Disability studies might be a fruitful place for Tsigdinos and other women to turn in this quest, as one of the core struggles identified by this field is to imagine and articulate ways of being that are not structured by and for the able-bodied.
Where Tsigdinos advocates infertility awareness, Potts turns inward to art and religion. Her growing recognition of her desire to be an artist parallels her gradual awareness of her infertility: one kind of creative expression may ease the pain of the other's failure. The stylized drawings in her memoir serve to emphasize this point. By drawing the body infertile, Potts renders her invisible impediment visible. Her sketches of herself show that she looks like anybody else, but she also frequently deviates from realistic images to demonstrate the fantastic cast of her infertility-tainted worldview. The book is full of surreal images of hospital workers who turn into crows, fertility clinics as industrial machines, her own body regressing to childhood as she miscarries, her brain and reproductive organs in states of feral celebration or rebellion. Perhaps infertility memoirs are of particular interest to disability studies because they grapple with the problem of disabilities that are not immediately obvious. Potts seems to suggest that the emotional stress caused by the invisible disability of infertility must be addressed by symbolically materializing the hidden disability—in this case, through the medium of the graphic memoir—so that it can be recognized and explored. Like the field of disability studies itself, Potts draws attention to realities that are often elided or marginalized, suggesting that disability demands (and offers) a new way of configuring experience.
Like Tsigdinos, Potts ends her memoir by gesturing towards the possibilities inherent in a "deviant" life. Imagining the Jewish exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land, she writes "the trip should have been a six-day hike. It took them forty years" (245). Her gloss is that they spent that time learning new ways to live: "they suffered and they celebrated. And they accumulated material for stories to make it through the long haul" (247-248). Here Potts suggests that the experience of suffering and loss that comes with infertility, like being lost in the desert, can be redemptive to the extent that one pays attention to what one learns out there. Like Tsigdinos, she is not articulate about what those lessons may be, although both women make it clear that while forced deviation from social norms is painful, it can also provide the opportunity for other stories to be told.
While these memoirs are important gestures towards those other stories, both books also raise some troubling issues. In their insistence on optimism in their closing chapters, are Tsigdinos and Potts retelling that comforting old myth that the disabled can triumph over hardship and pain, either through spiritual redemption or heroic personal resourcefulness? That is, do these women challenge the ableist status quo (real women bear children) or simply compensate for personal defectiveness? The vagueness that characterizes each woman's eventual resolution belies a kind of hollowness to their claims of closure, especially when that vagueness is contrasted with the vivid specificity they use to describe their suffering and the harrowing medical interventions they undergo. On the other hand, when Potts and Tsigdinos locate their suffering in social contexts rather than strictly personal despair, they are beginning the critical project of questioning the privileged, even mandatory, role childbearing plays in cultural understandings of the fulfilled life. It might take some of the sting out of childlessness, they seem to suggest, if women weren't trained from birth to expect children of their own someday. They implicitly raise the possibility that part of the suffering comes from the fact that a woman (or a couple) without children is considered lacking, tragic. In this sense, their books not only probe the ways in which disability is socially constructed, but also suggest that the shift in perspective that comes with disability can be creative and sustaining as well as destabilizing.
By publishing their memoirs, Potts and Tsigdinos reject the ableist fantasy that only one type of body (here, the reproducing female body) is normal. The fact that neither women seems to have access to disability theory that might help her feel less isolated is itself an argument for seeing infertility as a type of disability. By the same token, these infertility narratives, which begin in secret shame and rage and end with a deconstruction of the very idea of normative biological experience, provide a blueprint for what happens when those who once perceived themselves as able-bodied people begin to question the assumptions on which the idea of biological normalcy rests. Yet reading these infertility memoirs as disability memoirs is to read them against their own grain. I suspect neither Tsigdinos nor Potts would define herself as disabled. However, the memoirs also partake of some of the central work of disability studies: they break down traditional categories of natural and artificial, normal and abnormal. They trouble the very definition of physical fitness and its implicit association with moral fitness and socially-enforced norms (i.e., to be a woman is to reproduce). Above all, they give the slip to the insidious notion that to be labeled "infertile" or "barren" or "sterile" is, literally, to be unproductive. Writing a book is a productive, creative, deeply "fertile" enterprise—indeed, one that many authors have metaphorically likened to giving birth. Exposing the bias implicit in the language we use to talk about bodies and their functions is one of disability studies' major contributions, and it is a project in which both Potts and Tsigdinos are deeply invested.
While those faced with infertility can benefit from situating their experiences in the larger realm of disability studies, infertility also poses some interesting questions for disability studies, questions that probe the anxious and shifting boundary between able and disable. Consider the people one might encounter in a fertility clinic waiting room. How do we define their (in)fertility? Is the fertile partner of an infertile spouse fertile or infertile? Is a lesbian or gay couple infertile? What about a woman past menopause? A couple that simply doesn't want children (whether or not they are capable of producing them)? Can any of these people be considered disabled? Is (in)fertility—or (dis)ability—located in persons or between them? Or in the heteronormative narratives that dictate marriage and child-rearing as the signs of healthy adulthood? All of the above? A union of disability studies and infertility studies (to the extent that such a thing exists) could help infertile people advocate for greater understanding, just as it could spark new directions for disability studies.