As Disability Studies expands as a field, the types of bodymind "trouble" that might be understood to be part of the "disability" umbrella has also expanded.1 Wheelies and walkies, those who are blind, lame, and tremoring, have been joined by the mad, sick, stimming, and wheezy, clamoring together for a collective politics. Yet the promise of these disabled affinities is, as Alison Kafer writes, "often more hope than reality" (15). For such collective affinities to achieve their potential, we must pay "more attention to how different bodies/minds are treated differently, not less" (13).
This is where Eli Clare enters the conversation with his third book, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure (Duke University Press, 2017). Brilliant Imperfection traces political fractures among "disabled people" and our varied orientations to cure, refusing to suture over our differences with an impossible promise of easy healing. Centered around the idea of cure, the book delves into necessary conversations about experiential and ideological differences within and among the category of "disabled people," rather than focusing solely on the divide between disability and ability.
In "grappling with cure," Clare does not condemn medical interventions outright. He does, however, demonstrate the violence of cure as a white Western ideology. Writing about cure in the context of medicine related to gender, weight, and hair, as well as subjects more traditionally associated with disability, Clare insists that we not "mistake individual body-mind pleasure and comfort for collective liberation" (177). To distill Brilliant Imperfections into a one- or two-sentence statement on cure does a disservice to the book, however. The politics of cure are messy and labyrinthine, and Clare's writing illustrates the advantages of patiently stumbling through that maze rather than forcing a simplistic linear narrative onto a subject that defies it (183).
Brilliant Imperfection consists of ten essays that gather around the idea of cure in white Western medical contexts. Interspersed between the chapters are brief vignettes meditating on subjects from white pines to drag queens. Within each essay, after several pages plumbing the depth of a story or idea, Clare typically concludes with a deceptively simple statement set off from the others, making it easy to skim or to dip in and out; the detailed table of contents and frequent subheadings also support such reading methods. The book includes an introduction in which Clare explains his writing process and use of terms such as "bodymind," as well as a note on trigger warnings. Clare's remarks on triggers and trauma are brief but profound, piercing in their emotional wisdom.
This book will quickly become a classic, cited for Clare's careful analogies that examine cure through the notion of ecosystem restoration; his harsh critique of "case files" and the work that scholars and artists do with them; and his deeply-nuanced exploration of the shame, grief, loss, and yearning in relation to bodymind difference. Brilliant Imperfection is beautifully written, with the insight and poetic clarity that readers have come to expect from Clare. Clare writes conversation, listening, stillness, and interdependence into the text, not as a superficial gesture, but as a conscious testament to the communities and collectivities that have shaped his thoughts.
Yet what really stays with me is more visceral: the searing honesty, vulnerability, and self-reflection that Clare brings to the later chapters, in particular. In the last half of the book, Clare brings readers with him through experiential insights into the "notion of a biologically-based disease called schizophrenia" (119), the complex interactions between disability self-hatred and queer self-love, and how he might understand his gendered desire for "technologically reshaped flesh" as something other than a desire to fix some kind of brokenness—without rejecting that in other ways, he may, indeed, be "broken." Unlike many disability memoirists, Clare plumbs these depths not to illuminate his own experiences, but in a focused effort to both critique and understand desires for cure. Clare reminds us that when Disability Studies expands, for example, by way of a "mad turn," or by way of an effort to examine transgender and disability experiences together, we must not simply compare bodymind experiences but must understand them intersectionally—an effort that is easier to claim than to truly do.
With that said, Clare's focus on cure leads him to engage directly with medical diagnoses like "mental retardation, cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, and gender identity disorder (GID)," and at times, he seems to adheres too strictly to the commas that demarcate these different medical diagnoses—rather than braiding his gendered and visceral experiences together, as he typically does. As Clare has pointed out, such commas are used by diagnostic technologies to set us apart from one another and to divide our sense of self. This is not to say that Clare does not address, for example, the extent to which he kept his "queerness hidden" during a psychiatric hospitalization (121), but that there are opportunities where this kind of analysis could be expanded. For example, how might psychiatric practitioners have interpreted tremors? Was his queerness really "hidden," and how would he know for sure? How might psychotropic drugs affect the mobility, speech, or senses of a person, like Clare, who has another, "non-psychiatric" disability? Did his diagnoses of "mental retardation" and "cerebral palsy" travel with him to the psychiatric hospital, and how might knowledge of those diagnoses have affected his treatment?
I raise these questions less for Clare to consider than for DSQ readers to consider. Clare is extraordinarily careful about refusing to tell a single story about an experience. Still, as someone who is also trans and disabled, I am acutely aware of the pressure that Disability Studies, trans studies, and queer studies puts on Clare to tell the bulk of the stories we encounter about trans and disabled intersections. This burden does a tremendous disservice to Clare, and even more so to disabled trans women and/or disabled trans people of color whose experiences differ substantially from Clare's.
Further, although Clare is straightforward about the fact that he is writing against a white, Western medical notion of cure, I still yearned for him to more deeply address other relationships to cure that are non-white, non-Western, and/or non-medical. Scholars like Susan Burch have urged disability studies scholars to consider a multiplicity of "medical models" in indigenous contexts, and anthropologists like Karen Nakamura and Julie Livingston examine subjects like psychiatry and mental health in Japan or the concept of "debility" in Botswana. Nonetheless, the extent to which much of Western Disability Studies orbits and engages primarily with white, Western institutions—medicine, education, social services, charity, and so on—is a problem that the field must continue to grapple with.
In the final pages of Brilliant Imperfection, Clare invites his mother to, "Come join us—a multitude of mad, sick, disabled, and deaf people" (186). His mother's experiences with asthma and stroke would seem to place her among those whom Mia Mingus describes as "descriptively disabled" but not "politically disabled": someone who has experienced ableism but does not necessarily have an "analysis about ableism, power, privilege" or feel "connected to and…in solidarity with other disabled people."2 As Clare makes clear, a disability politics that is inclusive of people who are "descriptively disabled" is a messy, complicated endeavor that asks those of us who are "politically disabled" to rethink our assumptions about what disability politics mean—and, for some of us, to confront the whiteness of our politics and movements.
Clare on "troubled" and "troubling" bodyminds
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