At first pass, Christina Crosby's memoir A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain (2015) bears many of the marks one might expect of a memoir centered around the sudden and traumatic acquisition of an impairment: injury, loss, grief, and descriptions of life prior to disability held against the unbearable pain of life with a disability. In this vein, Crosby begins with a discussion of a bicycle accident that lead to her spinal cord injury. She speaks of being suddenly confronted, in stark new ways, with the vulnerability of the body, and she expresses her hope that the reader never has to experience the kind of sudden dependence on others with which she now lives. Readers familiar with the ubiquity of narratives that deploy disability as a painful tragedy from which others can learn to appreciate their able-bodiedness may be tempted, after reading the first few pages of A Body Undone, to dismiss the book as more of the same.
Such a dismissal, however, would be both premature and unfair to the complex picture of disability that unfolds within the memoir. Crosby takes great care to introduce, acknowledge, and make apparent the web of people that constitute her interdependent reality and, as she states, make her life possible. She brings to her memoir a commitment, as a feminist scholar, to detail the relationality of embodied experiences and the political economy of care labor, disability, and injury. To that end, Crosby masterfully weaves a discussion of her life experiences with a broader social critique of the impact of austerity practices on nursing staff and care workers, the disabling nature of care work itself, and the crushing weight of debt and expense that disability can bring with it, particularly within the current U.S. economic systems and structures. Further, she situates her ability to navigate these systems in relation to her racial and class privilege, all marking her memoir with a level of critical analysis one might expect of a feminist scholar of Crosby's reputation but can, nonetheless, be lacking within the genre.
On multiple levels, Crosby's memoir is a pleasure to read; its prose is simultaneously lyrical and unflinchingly blunt. She pivots seamlessly between discussions of disability's relationship to time, value, rhetoricity, and language and the raw description of daily practices of bowel movements, medication schedules, and the frustration, loss, and labor of navigating the world in a body suddenly and radically changed. The text also moves between the past and present, which both provides the narrative propulsion of the story and, simultaneously, disrupts the standard disability narrative that depicts a linear trajectory from injury to acceptance, often through a revaluing or resignification of disability. These past reflections detail, in part, Crosby's prior experience with disability through her brother's MS, which effectively centers disability's relationality throughout the text. As such, A Body Undone will, undoubtedly, open up generative conversations within feminist and Disability Studies classrooms and contribute to our collective effort to theorize relationality, embodiment, and interdependence.
At the same time, Disability Studies readers (and/or readers with/in varying relations to disability) may find parts of the book less pleasurable to read. One might expect as much from a memoir that promises to discuss pain at length. On that point, however, Crosby provides far more nuance than can be found in most pain narratives—a nuance refreshing for both its elaboration on the difficulties of pain and its presentation of the banality of daily discomfort. In doing so, Crosby provides an alternative to dominant depictions of pain as a totalizing experience (as always, only, and totally life destroying). Further, Crosby insists that readers recognize the ways that she loves life and is loved in her life. This narrative insistence notably frustrates dominant depictions of pain as evidence of an unlivable life, which is often marked (in distinctly gendered ways) by pain's devastation of romantic possibilities (as seen in pain narratives such as Melanie Thernstrom's The Pain Chronicles (2010), Lous Heshusius' Inside Chronic Pain (2009), and Marni Jackson's Pain: The Culture and Science of Why We Hurt (2002).
Despite Crosby's discussion of the physical intimacy she shares with her partner, Janet, A Body Undone does present an undeniably distinct line between the pleasure of the past and the pain of the present. Crosby discusses with great pride the investment and pleasure she took in her physical fitness prior to her injury. This contrasts, starkly, with the anger and loss she feels as a result of disability and pain. Crosby discusses the pleasures of performing gender as a sex-positive queer woman, which stands against what she narrates as disability's erasure of gender (and, implicitly, the pleasures of gender play). As such, though Crosby's depiction of pain is not as totalizing as other pain narratives, A Body Undone still risks reiterating a divide between pleasure and pain constitutive of many disability discourses where the past emerges as the location of pleasure. The present, in turn, emerges as the location of pain that, if it does not make pleasure impossible, it irrevocably compromises it.
Feelings of loss, grief, and pain have an important place within Disability Studies, and our field can certainly be (and has been) accused of too readily glossing over these experiences. As such, texts that seek to centralize the loss associated with disability offer important contributions to our collective understandings of disability as a complex and, perhaps, far more ambivalent experience for which some models of disability can account. Yet, Tobin Siebers (2008) articulates the stakes of such discussions when he calls for ways to theorize pain without blunting the political effectiveness of work that seeks to move beyond individualized and medicalized views of disability (60). Though Crosby situates herself within a network of care and interdependence, she still narrates pain as an isolating experience that compromises her future—positioning pain as the limit to this interdependence.
Many Disability Studies readers may find themselves fatigued (and I use this metaphor quite deliberately) by reading such depictions of disability and pain. The point of critique, however, rests not even necessarily in her depictions of disability, pain, and futurity. Rather, it lies in how she frames her experience as the true experience of pain and disability. When she writes, "Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone, and living one part of her life in another dimension" (Crosby 189), Crosby asks readers to extrapolate understandings of disability from her experience. Such a move, though arguably a passing comment in the larger text, serves to authorize the kind of universalizing of pain that many readers are already inclined to do with disability and pain narratives. Further, Crosby takes great care to situate her discussions of gender and sexuality within a broader (and politicized) landscape of heterogeneous experiences and expressions, making her lack of a similar move in relationship to disability all the more striking.
Ultimately, however, A Body Undone offers an important contribution to Disability Studies perhaps precisely because it forces us to ask what, exactly, pain undoes (for whom and in what contexts). For readers willing to read through or around sections of the narrative that seem to resonate with more than challenge dominant discourses of disability, Crosby's memoir provides the grounds from which to launch such inquiries.
- Crosby, Christina. A Body Undone: Living on After Great Pain. New York: New York UP, 2016. Print.
- Heshusius, Lous. Inside Chronic Pain: An Intimate and Critical Account. Ithaca: ILR Press, 2009. Print.
- Jackson, Marni. Pain: The Science and Culture of Why We Hurt. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print.
- Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.309723
- Thernstrom, Melanie. The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing and the Science of Suffering. New York: Picador, 2010. Print.