Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

The Basic Ingredient
Candor and Compassion in Nancy Mairs’s
“On Being a Cripple”

Desmond MacCarthy … observes that Montaigne “had the gift of
natural candour….” It is the basic ingredient.

―E. B. White, foreword, Essays

Intuition tells me that our patients had fewer wound infections and
made speedier recoveries than those operated upon in the airless sealed
boxes where now we strive. Certainly the surgeons were of a gentler
stripe…. To work in windowless rooms is to live in a jungle where
you cannot see the sky. Because there is no sky to see, there is no grand
vision of God…. [A] man is entitled to the temple of his preference.
Mine lies out on a prairie, wondering up at Heaven. Or in a many
windowed operating room where, just outside the panes of glass, cows
graze, and the stars shine down upon my carpentry.

―Richard Selzer, “An Absence of Windows”

NANCY MAIRS IS A GIFTED AND remarkable writer, none of her considerable body of work more remarkable than her first collection of essays, Plaintext (1986). Of the twelve, divided into three groups with the designations “Self,” “Life,” and “Writing,” none is stronger, or more moving, than “On Being a Cripple.” Mairs appears incapable of indulging in either conceit or in concealment, “one thing the essayist cannot do,” according to E. B. White.

Early in “On Being a Cripple,” Mairs addresses her decidedly “un-pc” choice of language to describe her condition, the result of multiple sclerosis. “To be fair to myself,” she writes, immediately following the first essay in Plaintext, “On Having Adventures,” “a certain amount of honesty underlies my choice.”

“Cripple” seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise. It has
an honorable history, having made its first appearance in the Lindisfarne

-227-

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