(IMAGE CREDIT: Marco Michelini via FREEIMAGES.COM)
At a red light, once upon an icy evening, Mom and I watched as a woman on a motorcycle tipped over. The immediate fear, of course, was that she was hurt – if not from the bike falling on her leg, then from her head hitting the pavement.
“Call 9-1-1,” Mom said, throwing the car into park and handing me her cell phone, before running to help.
But I couldn’t see the street names on the corner, to tell the police where we were, so I followed her out. My eyes were on the signs, so I didn’t see the patch of ice in front of me. I slipped and fell, as I often do.
“Oh, Briana,” Mom said, rushing back to me, “what are you doing?”
“I felt I wasn’t getting enough attention,” I replied.
The woman was, miraculously, unhurt. So was I. I tell this story because it’s representative of a lifetime of people asking me questions I don’t know how to answer – because I am frustrated, and embarrassed, and just as confused as they are – and me settling on a joke.
In her memoir, Trapped, Fran MacIlvey also reports relying on humor, and for the same reasons. When her cerebral palsy trips her up, sending on-lookers running to ask if she’s okay, she answers: “I just fancied a rest.”
The sass means we’ve got a sporting attitude about the challenges we face, or so it seems.
The stories that most media tell about disability are inspirational ones: tragic character faces difficulties, improves with hard work, and goes on to surpass all societal expectations. There are bullies and obstacles along the path, but there are also helpers, believers – sources of support.
MacIlvey tells the story from inside a body afflicted with cerebral palsy. She explores the unhappiness in being disabled: how things that concern her body, and her future, happen without her consent or full understanding. Surgeries are planned to make her “better,” disrupting her life, scarring her legs, and sending the message that something is wrong with her. Meanwhile, she tells her legs that she loves them, as I used to do. I loved them more for carrying me, when I knew how hard it was for them to do. They were not worse than others’, but better. Not weaker. Stronger.
This is the value of MacIlvey’s work: the excavation of a space usually overlooked, where disabled people are often stuck – between needing help, yet being annoyed when it is assumed we cannot accomplish something by ourselves.
The memoir weakens when MacIlvey makes assumptions about other characters in her story. She writes that her mother sent her to a boarding school because she was not wanted at home, and that her family wanted her to use a wheelchair because they were embarrassed by the way she walked. There is no evidence that her family feels this way, though – only that McIlvey thinks they do. This is not to say she isn’t right, but without a scene to interpret, and only MacIlvey’s reflection, the narrative reads more like an angry letter home than memoir.
IMAGE CREDIT: Edouard Diver via FREEIMAGES.COM
She writes that, post-op, a “sadistic bitch” of a nurse shuts her curtains before removing her stitches “so that no one could see how much she was going to enjoy this.” This accusation shifts my sympathy away from MacIlvey, who has every right to be angry about her pain but has only shown me a medical professional following protocol.
The biggest assumption MacIlvey makes is about her reader. In a late chapter, she says that “…when I was a child I believed that one glorious day I would get to do most of the ordinary things that you do,” and reports that it’s hard to admit her faults “in among all the fun you are having.” In addressing her reader this way, she assumes that she is the one worse off, and that her reader is “normal.” But I am her reader, and I am not normal. I grew up believing what she believed, and I have been largely let down, too. And I’m not the only one.
Here, MacIlvey’s bitterness seeps directly onto the reader. I understand her feelings, but resent the erasure of my own struggle as I read. I am sure it was not her intention, but it’s an important observation for me as I work on my own memoir: my struggle may be an integral part of my story, but just because I am the one speaking out doesn’t mean I am the only one suffering.
I think that, for memoir to be fair, we as writers can only do two things: say what happened, and how it felt to us. The only other tool we have is to, perhaps, interject others’ perspectives where they have been given to us by those people. Conjecture of anything more puts us on thin ice, and anyway – when what happened is a deviation from the norm, what happened and how it felt is plenty.