In The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read, using "tools of close reading,"(3) Michael Bérubé charts how "narrative deployments of disability do not confine themselves to representation" (2, emphasis in original) but can "also be narrative strategies, devices for exploring vast domains of human thought, experience, and action" (2). The text has 3 chapters, titled Motive, Time, and Self-awareness. Giving examples from both of his children, Nick and Jamie, Bérubé traces how each were able to articulate the function and parameters of narrative (4-12). As an example, Bérubé discusses how he reads the Harry Potter series with Jamie. Bérubé writes of this experience, "It was astonishing to me that the vast legions of Rowling's readers now included my intellectually disabled child, a child who wasn't expected to be capable of following a plot more complicated than that of Chicken Little" (8). Through reading the books together, Jamie makes connections between narrative to interrogate concepts like autonomy and happiness. Connected, Bérubé argues how "disability in relation between text and reader need not involve any character with disabilities at all. It can involve ideas about disability, and ideas about the stigma associated with disability, regardless of whether any specific character can be pegged with a specific diagnosis" (19, emphasis in original). Bérubé's timely and significant contributions in The Secret Life of Stories emboldens scholars of the humanities to study more deeply intellectual disability and its function in narrative.
The Secret Life of Stories offers a helpful redirection to "pay closer attention to the textuality of texts" (193-94), yet, Bérubé acknowledges issues of justice need to also be considered, especially when practices such as the State of Texas's Briseño factors, which explicitly invite a comparison between an inmate's assumed "mental capacity" and that of Lennie in Of Mice and Men (190-192). In 2012, Marvin Wilson was executed in Texas, despite the 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkin v. Virginia that ruled executing individuals with intellectual disabilities violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment (8th amendment). Part of the consideration for the execution was "a simple and utterly reprehensible one: the understanding of intellectual disability in fiction can be used as a device for exempting some people with intellectual disabilities from the Supreme Court decision in Atkin v. Virginia – and killing them" (192).
One of the tensions for Critical Disability Studies, perhaps especially in the humanities, is a questioning of why scholars do not largely engage with intellectual disability? Is it perhaps a lack of identification with an experience of intellectual disability; a version of "nothing about us without us"? Or, perhaps some internalized cognitive ableism, to use Licia Carlson's term, which she defines as, "prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of individuals who possess certain cognitive abilities (or the potential for them) against those who are believed not to actually or potentially possess them" (140).1 And yet, when scholars attempt to analyze intellectual disability, these efforts are falsely assumed to be set in opposition to more qualitative engagements with "real" disabled people, where an analysis of film representation or literary texts, for example, might be seen as less pressing or even important. I have received these types of responses to my own work theorizing the sexual and reproductive lives of people with labels of intellectual disabilities. Yet, Bérubé's refreshing insistence of the importance of intellectual disability strikes me as the type of work necessary to ensure deep engagement with the function of intellectual disability.
In 2005, as a doctoral student contemplating a potential dissertation topic, I briefly considered writing a Disability Studies literary analysis on the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) was just published, and I was instantly making connections between eugenics and the discourse of "pure" vs "half-blood" that emerges in the text. Without consulting my advisor, I wrote an abstract entitled, "Muggles and Monsters: Disability Studies at Hogwarts" for, "The Witching Hour," a Harry Potter themed symposium in Salem, Massachusetts. To my delight, my abstract was accepted and the following October, I was presenting on how Dumbledore's Army is a perfect case study of the complexity of disability identity. My underdeveloped analysis largely traced how various characters, such as Professor Remus Lupin recall experiences of violence and forced isolation, "My transformations in those days were – were terrible. It is very painful to turn into a werewolf. I was separated from humans to bite, so I bit and scratched myself instead. The villagers heard the noise and the screaming and thought they were hearing particularly violent spirits (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban, 353)." In my presentation, I made a statement that children can feel attachment to these characters of "difference" that narrate (and experience) exclusion at Hogwarts.
In The Secret Life of Stories, Michael Bérubé opens up chapter 1 on motive with a close reading of a moment between Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which readers learn how central intellectual disability was to his "youthful indiscretion that constituted his early (and long-unacknowledged) fascist phase" to rule over Muggles (33). Dumbledore tells Harry:
I was gifted. I was brilliant. I wanted escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory…. So, that when my mother died, I was left the responsibility of a damaged sister and a wayward brother, I returned to my village in anger and bitterness. Trapped and wasted, I thought! And then, of course, he came…Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. Muggles forced into subservience. We wizards triumphant. Grindelwald and I, the glorious young leaders of the revolution (715-16).
Bérubé brilliantly argues how Dumbledore's sexual attraction to Grindelwald is connected to his "desire to distinguish himself from his suddenly disreputable family, and most of all from his disabled sister" (35). He continues, "Indeed, the first desire cannot be disentangled from the second, because the disabled Ariana is the reason for the decline of the Dumbledore family" (35). And because of this, Bérubé avers that, "Rowling is installing intellectual disability at the heart of a narrative that includes no direct representation of a character with intellectual disabilities" (36). In tracing Dumbledore's character development, we learn that "Intellectual disability, then, serves as the ethical core of a narrative in which it never explicitly appears" (37). Bérubé writes that "at times my argument will have less to do with the representation of characters with intellectual disabilities as characters than with the question of these characters' relation(s) to narrative – the specific narrative they inhabit, and to narrative as such […] I will turn to a number of literary narratives in which, unlike Harry Potter (where Ariana's disability is a motive force in Dumbledore's life and in the narrative he creates for himself), intellectual disability warps the very fabric of the text itself, producing 'disabling' effects in readers' comprehension of narrative (37, emphasis in original).
This last insight comes from a conversation Bérubé has with a former elementary school classmate he reconnects with on social media and her response to the character Meg in A Wrinkle in Time. Much like Dumbledore and his disabled sister, for the classmate, Phyllis Eisenson's and her relationship with her disabled brother connected her to the plot and character of Madeline L'Engle's novel. This insight works against some dominant modes of representational analysis in Disability Studies in the humanities:
My argument throughout this book is that even as disability studies has established itself in the humanities in a way that was unthinkable twenty years ago, it has still limited itself to too narrow a range of options when it comes to literary criticism; and though I am (obviously) being facetious about the idea of 'curing' disability studies of anything, I am quite serious about the conviction that disability studies limits itself unnecessarily, as a new branch of criticism and theory, whenever it confines itself to determining the disability status of individual characters. Disability studies need not and should not predicate its existence as a practice of criticism by reading a literary text in one hand and the DSM-5 in the other, even when a text explicitly announces that one or more of its characters is (for example) on the autism spectrum. It is not that a character's condition is irrelevant to how we read him or her; rather, we should avoid the temptation to think that a diagnosis 'solves' the text somehow, in the manner of those 'psychological' interpretations of yesteryear that example Hamlet by surmising that the prince is, unbeknownst to himself, gay. (20)
Doing so, "we come to recognize intellectual disability not only as the expression of somatic/neurological conditions but as a trope, a critical and underacknowledged thread in the social fabric, a device for exploring the phenomenon of human sociality as such" (21). This might be perhaps one of Bérubé's bolder lines of argumentation, and maybe the one that scholars will critically engage with, not only because there still remains a desire for representations that appear more authentic, but also because of his insistence to engage less with diagnosis in favor of literary analysis of motive, time, and self-awareness. Julia Miele Rodas's 2013 essay in Social Text, "Pre-Occupied" eerily anticipates this argumentation. Rodas brilliantly reads the DSM as a literary text, writing that autism is a "slippery customer" within the diagnostic manual. Bringing Harry Potter and the DSM in conversation with autism, Rodas writes, "Sorting Hats, diagnostic categorization, listmaking, autistic expression: what looks from the outside like silent mechanistic determinism may turn out to have a surprisingly complex dialogic interiority, reasoned, dynamic, and sensitive to external stimuli."2
In The Secret Life of Stories, Bérubé discusses a wide variety of texts, from Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, where characters with and stigmas attached to intellectual disability are central to the text, to J.M. Coetzee's The Life and Times of Michael K, as "not merely as a representation of thematization of intellectual disability but rather as a virtuoso examination of intellectual disability as motive, a rendering of intellectual disability as the condition of possibility for the text and its apprehension by readers" (71-72). He also critically engages with Ato Quayson's Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation and David Mitchell's and Sharon Snyder Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse.
I appreciate Bérubé's insistance that intellectual disability in literature impacts and changes how readers interact (and value) characters with intellectual disability. Bérubé maintains that narratives about intellectual disability help in "imagining other ways of being human that expose and transcend the limitations of our own space and time" (116). Bérubé contends that an intellectually disabled narrative "opens a window onto a reimagining of the parameters of narrative," while "intellectually disabled self-consciousness opens a window onto self-consciousness as such" (160). The Secret Life of Stories is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work that will encourage continued engagement with intellectual disability.
Carlson, Licia (2001) "Cognitive Ableism and Disability Studies: Feminist Reflections on the History of Mental Retardation" Hypatia. 16(4): 124-146. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2001.tb00756.x
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Rodas, Julia Miele (2013) http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/preoccupied/
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