Guest Review: ‘A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain’
New memoir by Christina Crosby, a Wesleyan University professor, is a meditation on disability, gender, love.
A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain. Christina Crosby. NYU Press. March 2016. $22.95 (cloth).
Review by Renée E. D’Aoust
Christina Crosby wakes in the hospital a few days after a life-changing bicycle accident. The roof of her mouth is wired; her mouth feels like metal. The hospital ceiling is white, the machines buzz. Suspended in a state of shock, disoriented, she is yet to realize how dramatically, drastically her body has changed. Her lover and life partner Janet sits vigilantly waiting. Janet and the physicians know that Crosby has been paralyzed and is now a quadriplegic. An accomplished athlete her entire life, at fifty years old a freak bicycle accident has leveled Crosby. During a routine ride, a stick catches between the spokes of her bicycle, throwing Crosby flat to the pavement. Her face and skull served as wrecking ball, and her spinal cord has severed at the fifth and sixth vertebrae. Yet early on, during the many months of her hospital stay, Janet leans in close to Crosby and whispers, “I’m your physical lover.”
Crosby’s memoir A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain focuses on this affirmation of herself as a physical woman; it is part of how she stays in this world after such devastating physical changes. It will take years, but she reimagines her consciousness in this different body: “Janet, whose life was intertwined with mine before the accident, made it clear from the beginning that she desires me and desires my touch.” Crosby’s body is not just differently-abled; it is profoundly unable. Crosby requires help to perform the most basic tasks:
Janet needed so much help helping me. Who’s to know what might have become of us had not Donna, Shannon [both are CNAs], and a network of caring friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and others assisted us at every turn, and remained steadfast for the two years that I worked my way through outpatient physical and occupational therapies. So here I am, alive.
Crosby wrote her book using voice-recognition technology, which might be part of why she sounds plainspoken. She struggles to answer her question: “What does it take to make a life livable?” In part the answer is hard to find because she no longer recognizes herself: “My skepticism about my ‘self’ is not only that of the intellectual taught to be suspicious of such a clearly bounded rationality, but also an inability to recognize who I have become.” But this is not a journey of self-discovery; if anything, this memoir is an attempt at redefinition of the self. She does not exalt the lessons one learns from human pain and tragedy. Crosby writes:
To focus on intractable pain, then, or grief at the loss of able-bodiedness, as I do here, may be thought to play into a pathologizing narrative that would return disability to ‘misshapen’ bodies and ‘abnormal’ minds. When I presented some of this work to a study group, one guy in a wheelchair more or less told me to ‘man up’ and get on with my life—after all, that’s what he had done decades ago, before the ADA, even.
But Crosby is very much living her life, and we see her unflinching look at that life: “Spinal cord injury has cast me into a surreal neurological wasteland that I traverse day and night. This account is an effort to describe the terrain.” She is keenly aware of “a great dependency on others, without whose help my life would be quite literally unlivable.” She makes the point that we are all interconnected whether we realize it or not.
After the accident, the first book she asks Janet to read to her is George Eliot’s Middlemarch; it’s a favorite, and the realism comforts her torn mind. She loses herself in the story, listening to the audio of that book during months of rehab, but still later realizes that “because the accident and its aftermath were so horrific, horror stories suddenly make sense… in a way they didn’t before.” When she returns home her beloved big dog is scared of the wheelchair—and of her. They used to wrestle daily, but Shameless Hussy—her dog’s name “is the name of a small feminist press that was one of the first”—cannot adjust to the changes and Crosby cannot wrestle or throw balls. Over a decade after the accident, Janet and Crosby have a lapdog named Moxie Doxie who has always known the wheelchair and so jumps up to sit on Crosby’s lap.
Crosby is a Professor of English and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University. She can no longer wave her arms around while lecturing, as she liked to do, but she suggests she is very lucky. She has health insurance, a good job, which welcomes her back to teach a reduced load, she has friends and family, and she and Janet have the means to hire someone to help them.
In an uncanny twinning, her brother has led the way with the use of voice recognition technology because of paralysis. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in his late twenties, Crosby’s brother shows the same fortitude in facing his illness, but she affords him far more credit than she affords herself. As a kid, she was a perpetual tomboy, following her big brother around, wanting to be his twin. As adults, her paralysis is sudden; her brother’s, gradual. About her brother, Crosby writes:
I have a blurred half-memory of his wheelchair at the foot of the hospital bed. It was an enormous effort on his part, and I love him for it. Then, as I began to comprehend all I had lost, I was increasingly horrified at the apparent symmetry of my embodiment to Jeff’s. I remembered the first time I heard him call himself a ‘quadriplegic,’ a word that signified to me a frightening degree of helplessness, and one that came slowly to him.
She writes: “Suddenly I was a quadriplegic, too, just like my brother. The odds against that doubling just beggared my imagination.” By the time Crosby is fifty-six, all her family is gone, “as was the body I had delighted in all my active, athletic life.”
Crosby is emotionally numb, but she has also been rendered neurologically numb. The sensation of hot and cold will never be the same; for a long time, they will be reversed or scalding or nonexistent, because her brain cannot read the neurological signs it used to know. “Now, representing bodily sensations is no longer a matter of finding words for the ever renewable resource of shared sexual pleasures, but of finding words for the beyond, the nowhere of pain that I suffer alone.”
Crosby used to play with her dog, go on long bicycle rides, dress up for fun, and delight in undressing for her partner. Sexual activity was a joy, an affirmation and exploration of connection. Sometimes visualized motion stimulates muscle memory, but in the case of severe paraplegia, such visualizations denote nostalgia. The muscles will never regain their former motor function. How her lover Janet knew to affirm Crosby as a sexual, embodied woman makes this memoir a love story, but it is also a record of what it means to live in a body that contains consciousness, almost as if the body were a shipping container and Crosby’s wheelchair the vehicle that moves it around. Crosby writes, “I no longer have a gender. Rather, I have a wheelchair. I’m entirely absorbed into its gestalt.”
Our sense of ourselves cannot exist outside our bodies. As such, Crosby’s act of writing the body is a powerful act of self-preservation: “Only through writing have I arrived at the life I now lead, the body I now am.”
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