A Review of Simi Linton’s My Body Politic
by Kate Grisim
Simi Linton’s My Body Politic takes readers through the aftermath of a road trip as a young adult to join a protest demonstration against the then-current war in Vietnam. The setting is a spring day in 1971; three youngsters (the protagonist, her husband, and her best friend) innocently stick their thumbs out to hitch a ride. They were en route to support a cause all three of them believed in, but by the end of the day, Linton’s life was derailed in a way she hadn’t conceived possible. Her story, however, only starts here.
The deaths of John (Linton’s first husband) and Carol (her best friend), seemingly the most traumatic situation that a person could imagine, take a back seat in Linton’s story to the trauma she endured in becoming a woman disabled by society and circumstance. This transition from loss to gain is the essential arc of Linton’s story. She does not soften her situation with flowery epithets of hope but instead mourns the life she once had as she “reconstructs […] the life I grew into.” Linton does not do this arrogantly, portraying herself as a rather naive, passive shell of a person in the first half of her memoir. For example, Linton is forced to take on the role of the “good patient” in the hospital, where ironically “[i]t wasn’t until the third or fourth week that a doctor came to tell me that my legs were paralyzed [….] I must have known it on some level, but kept the thought at bay.” Her further encounters with both medical professionals and friends and family members only add to this affect, even to the extent of having her sister travel to Linton’s late husband’s funeral to absorb the shock for her.
This is not merely circumstantial; it is clear that Linton sets up her dependency on people within the pages of her memoir in order to achieve a harsh portrayal of herself and the state of her body both before and after the accident. Perhaps the most harrowing image, one that has stayed with me well after finishing Linton’s story, is the description of a flashback to a photo shoot for a New York underground newspaper, in which Linton is posed under the headline “SLUM GODDESS:”
…had it been just a couple of years before [the accident] that I had stood tall on the roof of my apartment building in the East Village, with the New York City skyline rising up behind me? [I was] dressed in John’s black v-neck sweater and tattered jeans, [….] costumed as an ethereal symbol of the counterculture. I stood in profile, my face tilted upward, my long wavy hair blowing out behind me.
Although Linton describes instances in which she attempts to distance herself from the passivity her condition seems to require by demanding her newly disabled body be taken seriously (especially by an “unassuming” salesman trying to take advantage of fitting her for a prosthesis), it is not until one hundred pages in that readers might begin to get the feeling Linton is finally approaching the real crux of her story. This is not to say that the text before this point is trite or inconsequential; on the contrary, as after her hospital stay she writes about exposing herself to a new world where she is a curious entity, moving to California to attend college only to find they have already discovered “the disability movement” and she does not quite fit into their image of it just yet, and situating the disabled body against “normative” notions such as travel, dance, sex, intimacy, and celebrity. It is precisely in this section’s substantiality that Linton is at last able to reach a crucial narrative point, revealing a poignant and pivotal moment in her life’s bumpy journey.
At the beginning of chapter nine, Linton writes, “I have become a disabled woman over time.” In that one sentence, she recognizes the importance of not being “made invisible by the label [of disability]” but instead by embracing it not only as an individual but also through forcing herself to recognize her position within a community. This is where the title of her memoir, My Body Politic, really hits the mark, as readers are let into the realization that her story is not just a personal one but is also a political one as well. Linton describes this argument in a circumstance where she relates her experiences to someone who “doesn’t seem so much rude as misinformed [….] the man will nod and commiserate and act as if now he knows what is important about disability – its genesis.” She continues, describing how she found the act of writing a political “release” as well:
I did not have the precise language to describe the other parts of the disability experience – the kinds of obstacles or the intrusive people I encountered every day – nor had I found a way to talk about my new situation as a natural state, my wheelchair as a convenience, or my experiences in ways that would be interesting to anyone besides myself and a few like-minded people.
Linton uses her memoir’s final pages to further describe situations in which she and others take a political stance by using their personal lives as impetus for change or response. For example, there is little room to argue with a political statement describing how friends of Linton’s were denied the ability to get married because it would drastically decrease their allowances for life-saving medical equipment, only to then have a mere two years together once their request was finally approved. Writes Linton of this tragedy: “That this nation made it so hard for them to marry and live comfortably in the time they had is the shame of this nation.” At this point, readers should truly appreciate how Linton’s narrative and personal stance have changed and evolved in order to use such circumstances to point out damning political paradigms that prevent disabled persons from living the lives they clearly deserve.
However, such a reading within a disability framework is not necessary for Linton’s story to effectively reach her audience, and perhaps this is where the true beauty of her story lies. Linton’s talent on the page enables her to have written a compelling narrative evoking important questions about humanity, including whether and why one deserves to undergo such emotional turmoil at the same time they must experience intense physical turmoil as well.
Simi Linton, My Body Politic. The University of Michigan Press, 2006: $30.95 (hardcover), $21.95 (paperback)
Kate Grisim is currently a second-year Master’s student in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. She is a recent convert to the blogosphere at mylittlecrippledheart.wordpress.com and is currently halfway through a writer-in-residency position at a not-for-profit arts organization.