This book is important to me for several reasons. First, it is a beautiful piece of writing, yet seems effortlessly and unpretentiously beautiful, which I think is rare. A mix of theory and personal narrative that often reads like poetry, Eli Clare’s writing is gorgeous, heartwrenching, and disconcertingly insightful.
Its subtitle, “Disability, Queerness, and Liberation,” announces only a fraction of the story that Clare tells. He examines the events, emotions, and abuses that shaped his upbringing in a logging town in rural Oregon, honors the complexity of his relationship to both the land and the logging industry, and reflects on how an urban queer community offered new forms of acceptance, but failed to understand the persistence and value of his rural roots. Throughout the book, Clare reflects on how disability, in his case cerebral palsy, can shape and be shaped by these experiences.
In addition to its sheer beauty, I love this book because it was my first introduction, and an excellent one, to disability studies. Clare’s telling of his own experience, along with an incisive theorization of the literal and symbolic function of the freak show in capitalist society, are executed with vivid clarity, raw passion, and an often unsettling thoroughness. As a reader with no personal experience of disability, I was drawn in by Clare’s concise and intentional language, which paints a clear and haunting picture of his contemporary experience of disability and the historical underpinnings of that experience. Clare’s writing is forward, sometimes addressing the reader directly, even confrontationally. At times it seems deliberately crafted to cause discomfort for an ableist reader. I usually find this kind of writing to be gimmicky and ineffective, but in most instances Clare does it well, making readers aware of their own discomfort and of how this discomfort itself makes us complicit in certain forms of ableist oppression.
This book is important to me furthermore, because of how Clare writes about the effects of sexual trauma. He beautifully describes how trauma lives and flows in the body, and how it becomes present in one’s relationships to gender, nature, other humans, and even economics. On every page, I was moved by the clarity with which Clare explains feelings that have always seemed to me to be too murky or painful for words.
The book and the story it tells feel seamless, because they are seamless. Clare, who has lived disability, queerness, transness, ruralness, and sexual trauma, does not allow readers to be wooed by reductive, though tempting, comparisons. He does not allow us, for instance, to compare disability to queerness, to label recent gay rights work the “new Civil Rights Movement,” or to describe logging as the raping of forests. Such comparisons, he reveals, erase the uniqueness, complexity, and mutually constructive relationships between each of these things:
[I could n]ever grow comfortable with the metaphor of clearcutting as rape, the specificity of both acts too vivid for me to ever compare or conflate them (26).
This book, perhaps more than any other that I’ve read, cogently examines how disability, queerness, race, gender, ecology, and class inform and define each other, and it does so with language that is crisp, precise, and beautiful. I recommend it to anyone who is ready for a bit of self-questioning and a whole lot of feelings.