Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America

Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America

Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America

Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America

Synopsis

In 1976 Gelya Frank began writing about the life of Diane DeVries, a woman born with all the physical and mental equipment she would need to live in our society--except arms and legs. Frank was 28 years old, DeVries 26. This remarkable book--by turns moving, funny, and revelatory--records the relationship that developed between the women over the next twenty years. An empathic listener and participant in DeVries's life, and a scholar of the feminist and disability rights movements, Frank argues that Diane DeVries is a perfect example of an American woman coming of age in the second half of the twentieth century. By addressing the dynamics of power in ethnographic representation, Frank--anthropology's leading expert on life history and life story methods--lays the critical groundwork for a new genre, "cultural biography."

Challenged to examine the cultural sources of her initial image of DeVries as limited and flawed, Frank discovers that DeVries is gutsy, buoyant, sexy--and definitely not a victim. While she analyzes the portrayal of women with disabilities in popular culture--from limbless circus performers to suicidal heroines on the TV news--Frank's encounters with DeVries lead her to come to terms with her own "invisible disabilities" motivating the study. Drawing on anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, narrative theory, law, and the history of medicine, "Venus on Wheels" is an intellectual tour de force.

Excerpt

In 1976 I began writing about the life of Diane DeVries, a woman born with all the physical and mental equipment she would need to live in our society—except arms and legs. I was then twenty-eight years old and a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Diane was twenty-six and an undergraduate major in sociology. It was the spring quarter, and Diane was enrolled in the large introductory lecture course on cultural anthropology, for which I was a teaching assistant. From my vantage in the back of the lecture hall I watched a blond woman enter the classroom in an electric wheelchair. She looked to be in the fullness of womanhood, wearing a sleeveless white top with narrow straps. Her tapered arm stumps seemed daringly exposed, and the mysterious configuration of her hips was encased in tight blue jeans that ended where her legs should have begun. She maneuvered her . . .

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