JULY 31, 2016
MY LEATHER MINISKIRT. My lover’s leather pants. In the late 20th-century American dyke world, where my longtime lover and I fell in love, our sexy, and sex-positively, gendered clothes were our rebellion, our liberation, and our becoming. Queerness, in our lives back then, was an explosion of embodied joy, dancing hip to groin, our arms around each other’s necks, my exposed cleavage, her big metal belt buckle, sweat glistening on our new tattoos. The body, our bodies, in love and in sex, named themselves in this dance, these clothes, these moments. We did not stop to consider the ways accident, illness, or just time, might alter everything we took for granted then.
The advent of sex positive lesbian culture of the 1990s was not the first thing I expected to be thinking about when I began reading Christina Crosby’s book A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain. In fact, until I typed out these words — A Body, Undone — I did not notice the significance of the comma in Crosby’s title. This book — billed as a memoir on the cover but better described as an interlocking collection of personal essays — is not only a story of living on after spinal cord injury, but is foremost an examination of embodiment and the queer body, first made by sex, politics, leather pants, and love, and later irrevocably undone by calamity.
It opens with the story of the accident. The narrator, a professor of English and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, and chair of the faculty at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, is busy preparing for three days of contentious administration meetings on the subject of faculty governance when her beloved bicycle is unexpectedly released from the repair shop. The evening ride that is supposed to relieve her stress and ready her for the week ahead instead rips her from one life and hurls her into another. A branch lodged in the spokes sends her over the handlebars, smashing her face and breaking her neck. She survives, but loses the use of her legs, torso, bladder, bowels, as well as partial control of her arms and hands.
I give away nothing by sharing this information, all of which is revealed in the very first paragraph; but though A Body, Undone opens with the accident, its breadth is much wider than this terrible event. This is a book about the narrator’s body, but also the expressions, changes, limitations, and sagas of all our bodies. By page seven we read of Crosby’s beloved Janet leaning over her hospital bed to say, “I am your physical lover,” and begin to see how these pages will consider not just the broken body, but also the relation of livability to embodiment itself. Crosby writes:
The loss of the life I was leading with Janet before I broke my neck is of another kind. Its most important element is wholly intact, for we continue to love each other as richly as we did before October 1, 2003. Our sex life is fun and profound, sometimes both at once. All the same, sex is very different, because my body has lost its abilities to register its exquisite pleasures. Life no longer feels radiant. […] I don’t want to forget how those pleasures felt in my body, and I fear the erosion of embodied memory.
Readers familiar with Maggie Nelson’s oeuvre will recognize some of this material: Crosby is the friend in a wheelchair Nelson helps care for in several of her poems, and in Bluets, where she wrote: “A membrane can simply rip off your life like the skin of congealed paint torn off the top of a can.”
Some of this same sense of devastation comes through in Crosby’s own account; the difference is that she brings a full life, and a fully developed feminist analysis of pleasure and queer liberation, to her telling. Of course, no life is contained in the moment of telling — bodies are layered landscapes of time, memory, and location; what is and what was exist at once. Crosby even writes about the ways her friend’s version of her changed body is clarifying; when a friend is a writer, and the injured body is that of a literary critic, the acute attention of language is a talisman of great love. Still, a friend’s narrative sympathy can’t help but constrict, no matter the depth of her compassion or the brilliance of her prose. This is the value of memoir and personal essay. Crosby’s self-rendering reveals the far boundaries of her story, making connections and adding contour others can’t see, and her reach reverberates — from the sexual self-naming to the accident that took away the body she’d come to know. One end of the spectrum bounces back from the other, immersing the reader in both the rapture of formative intellectual and erotic discovery and the profound experience of the body in pain. Still, even the most compassionate witness, no matter the brilliance of her prose, cannot contain the point-of-view of that life lived from the inside. This is the value of memoir and personal essay. Crosby’s self-rendering reveals the far boundaries of her story, and her reach — from the sexual self-naming to the experience of the accident that took away the body she’d come to know — reverberates. One end of the spectrum bounces back from the other, immersing the reader in both the rapture of formative intellectual and erotic discovery and the profound experience of the body in pain.
The forms and value of exquisite pleasure, in particular the link between this pleasure and the queer body, forms the foundation of many of these essays. Much of the late 20th-century queer story is about the reformation of identity around remade, and sometimes ironic, notions of gender, and much of that collective narrative is built around queer notions of pleasure. So far the 21st-century queer liberation movement has been overly contained into the joyfully concrete, yet unavoidably assimilationist, struggle for marriage equality. Lost in the contemporary civil rights context of mainstream LGBTQ politics is the greatest gift queers bring to human discourse, which is primary attention to the personal and political urgency of embodied desire. Our stories, over and over again, illustrate the ways we humans require access to the joys of the body if we are to enjoy a livable and liberated life. What then does a feminist and queer theorist, committed to reading and living through understanding formed by felt pleasures, do with the story of the broken self? Crosby’s choice is to pummel directly into the ambiguity of her present condition.
If the “felt sense” of my body is unreliable, how am I to think about the “bodily ego” that psychoanalysis theorizes is necessary to all of us, an image of the body that emerges internally through the differentiation of bodily parts and zones, and externally through relations with others? What becomes of my “self”?
In these 18 intimate essays we learn a great deal about the exquisite pleasures of Crosby’s first 50 years of self; throwing a ball in childhood with a brother who, ironically, also comes to live much of his adult live in a wheelchair; learning to love riding a bike, a memory troubled by our readerly knowledge that a bike accident will later change everything; loving and training dogs she will later have to relearn how to pet. The memory she returns to most frequently is that of showing off the soft butch-and-femme sexual style of her primary relationship — Janet in her minis and red pumps, Crosby in leather pants so famous in her university community they earned a mention in the annual National Coming Out Day student chalking of campus sidewalks — her self-defining wardrobe also lost with the accident. Much of Crosby’s comprehension of her life and self comes of this gendering of Janet’s and her erotic connection. In the essay entitled “Masculine, Feminine, or Fourth of July” she writes of the syntax of lesbian butch-femme style:
We dressed for our own pleasure, certainly, but also as a way of being quickly legible as lesbians. […] I was in a white silk shirt with French cuffs, gold and silver cufflinks (Janet’s gift, from Tiffany’s no less!), black velvet jacket, red leather boot-cut pants, and black cowboy boots. Janet wore a long-sleeved white shirt that you could see right through, a sleeveless shirt with an icon of the Virgin Mary on its front, a short gray skirt, and gorgeous red pumps with four-inch heels. […] We were dressed up and on our way to a restaurant for a celebratory meal when a guy sitting on the porch set back from the street hollered out, “You sexy things!” Who’s to argue? We both loved making it clear that we were sexual partners, and that we were, as the phrase is, “sex-positive” and queer.
This passage resonates literally with my own queer life and times, the sort of moment I still see so little of in any kind of literature anywhere. Crosby’s loss of an upright body is ever more poignant when she goes on to speak to that erasure. “I no longer have a gender,” she writes. “I have a wheelchair.” Her unflinching directness in these moments is at once a gut-punch and a relief. This is not a book that will manipulate us toward cheap sentiment or vague, proclamations of human spirit. This straightforwardness is exactly what lesbian political culture brings to human social and intellectual history; the clear-eyed voice of a lesbian intellectual who will, whatever else changes, always speak truth to power. Reading this I understand better both the fragility and resilience of the queer body, in my own life as well as in the life of this narrator.
Crosby brings this same intellectual and emotional frankness to her treatment of all aspects of living, from the necessary adjustments to her sexual practice, to the twinning of her post-accident body with that of her brother’s slow demise from MS, to the economic burdens of the health-care workers whose hours in her home make possible her day-to-day existence. She even writes, beautifully, about the profound difficulty of bowel movements and the paraplegic body. This precision and lack of sentimentality prevents us from hiding behind condescending shields of sympathy, transporting us instead to a sharper and more accurate immersion in her bodily experience.
In fact, as revealing and present as she is in each essay, I’m sorry Crosby’s book has been categorized on the jacket as memoir. As a collection of related but distinctly individual pieces, it’s not even what I’d call a memoir-in-essays; the focus and tone of each one is too different from the others — some of them distinctly narrative, some of them narrative literary criticism with a personal voice, some accessible sexuality and gender theory treatments of personal experience. The editors would have served the work better had they consistently edited out the repetitions of plain information from one essay to the next, but that missing attention is a minor flaw — and even that fix would not have made the book move like a memoir. But that it doesn’t unfold with the arc of a redemption or even as a tale of reckoning is one of the book’s great qualities. I hope readers expecting memoir won’t turn away when they find that rather than progress, or accumulate, the narration turns continually on the spokes of ideas. This book essays — in the verb sense of the word, meaning to try for understanding — in a manner both sharp and transformative. Crosby says it best when she writes, “I started writing this book to create something from an otherwise confounded life. Only through writing have I arrived at the life I now lead, the body I now am.”
I will admit I was at first afraid to read A Body, Undone, not because of its nonlinear form but due to a more elemental response. I, too, find relief from work stress on a bicycle. I, too, depend on all the ways love of work makes my life livable. The upright and sexy expressions of desire have long been the center through which I understand myself as a lesbian and a vital living human. In short, I’m afraid of losing everything this narrator has lost. And despite plenty of experience (albeit lesser) of debilitating pain and unforeseen life-threatening illness, my first impulse is to deny the precariousness of the life I’ve made. Reading this book has in many ways released me from my fears, in part because Crosby’s prose so aptly demonstrates the grounding and liberation of truth-telling, but also because these essays remind me that none of us will indefinitely retain our bodies. A Body, Undone is about a calamitous accident, yes, but it’s also about the accident of all our lives, and the inevitable mortality that informs every one of our days. Crosby writes:
Spinal cord injury has undone my body, bewildering me and thwarting my understanding. Yet I am certain about one thing — whatever chance I have at a good life, in all senses of that phrase, depends on my openness to the undoing wrought by spinal cord injury, because there is no return to an earlier life. […] If I can show you, perhaps I’ll be able to see, too. The intricacies of bodymind interactions defy certainties and confound representation, but I see no other way to go on — how else will I understand? How will you?