Me, Thyself and I: Dependency and the Issues of Authenticity and Authority in Christy Brown's My Left Foot and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes
Coogan, Tom, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies
Autobiography has been characterised by literary disability scholars as an unsatisfactory vehicle for documenting the disability experience, both on account of its format's tendency to individualise disability, and its broader ideological association with a model of liberal humanism that increasingly appears incompatible with the values of disability rights. This is further complicated by the issue of dependency, when a disabled subject's impairment is such that he or she is reliant on an (often able-bodied) collaborator to write an autobiography. This essay examines two such autobiographies from different historical periods, Christy Brown's My Left Foot and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, in order to explore the issues of authority and authenticity that arise from such collaborations, and to assess the interaction of the problematic genre of autobiography and the problematic concept of dependence.
An exploration of dependency relations in social justice, public policy, and personal social identity, such as Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice, raises questions regarding the capacity of liberal models of independence and equality to address claims for access to both public spaces and social justice, and the extent to which dependent and interdependent relations must also be included. Similar questions can be raised in the field of literary disability. There, the capacity of genres exemplifying liberal models of independence, such as autobiography, to address claims for access to a literary space might be examined, and the need for dependent and interdependent relations might also be considered. Although dependency in disability autobiography is only one facet of dependency as a broader issue, this aspect nevertheless illuminates the subject in new ways. This can be seen in the apparently fundamental paradox of the genre: that, to produce an autobiography-the acme of independent, liberal, individual self-expression in literature-a disabled person may be almost entirely dependent on the assistance of somebody else. Furthermore, that assistant is likely to be able-bodied, which further complicates issues of dependency. With these considerations in mind, I will examine the issue of dependency in relation to two pieces of life-writing by disabled authors: Christy Brown's My Left Foot (1954), and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes (1989).
Disability Studies and Autobiography
Largely because of its popularity among a mainstream, nondisabled readership, disability autobiography has been viewed with suspicion by some critics. The genre typifies the "bourgeois sensibility of individualism" that Lennard Davis attacks for perpetuating the myth of disability as individual deviance rather than a group identity (1995, 3-4). David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have argued that, for its overwhelmingly nondisabled readership, disability autobiography simply functions to assure the reader of her or his "comparative good fortunes." They also note that the genre's convention of progression through a life disposes it to "stereotypical scenarios" such as "triumph over tragedy," which reinforce the idea of disability as a solely negative experience. Mitchell and Snyder do however recognise the strength of autobiography in allowing the expression of the "unique subjectivity" of disability "as a physical, cognitive, and social phenomenon" (9-13).
G. Thomas Couser offers a more positive appraisal of disability autobiography in Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (1997). He argues that the formal simplicity of autobiography has made it one of the few literary genres "historically accessible to minorities of various sorts" and that it thus offers "significant potential for challenging the hegemonic discourse of disability" (181). Yet the factors that Couser highlights as the strengths of autobiography as a vehicle for an alternative expression of the disability experience present problems. …