In G. Thomas Couser’s chapter, “Rhetoric and Self-Representation in Disability Memoir” in Signifying Bodies, he argues that autobiographies from marginalised groups such as disabled people have the power to remove the social, economic and political domination in their lives. This is because they are given the power to represent themselves. In the chapter, Couser focuses on “rhetoric” (i.e. the way the narrator tells their story), illustrating with real disability memoirs how the various types of rhetoric – “triumph, horror, spiritual compensation, and nostalgia”, enforce the stigma and marginalisation of disabled people (33). In the end, Couser introduces the rhetoric of emancipation in the memoir I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes by Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan. Couser explains that Sienkiewicz-Mercer illustrates disability as something that can be accommodated if society removes the ‘physical, social and cultural obstacles’ (44) that it has created, as opposed to something that requires fixing. These types of social accommodations contribute to the positive representation of disabled people.
One rhetoric that was present in the disability memoir Cockeyed by Ryan Knighton was “rhetoric of nostalgia” (Couser 38). Couser exemplifies with the memoir The Driving Bell and the Butterfly by Dominque Bauby that this rhetoric is when the narrator tells his story reminiscing when they were not disabled. The consequence of the rhetoric is it enforces the perception that disability makes someone less of a person. In Cockeyed, this rhetoric was present in Ryan denying his blindness by refusing to get a cane and enduring relentless injuries from bumping into things. This created great sympathy for Ryan, especially when he fell into “oncoming traffic” (Knighton 60) because it emphasised that his deteriorating vision puts him in constant danger. This subconsciously created the impression that he was less of a person than before losing his sight, which is in line with the consequence of “rhetoric of nostalgia” (Couser 38).
However, in Cockeyed, “rhetoric of nostalgia” (38) was then replaced with “rhetoric of emancipation” (44), as Ryan learned to accept his disability and that it does not define him. Couser illustrates with the memoir I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes that this rhetoric is when the narrator reveals that what causes the discrimination of disabled people in society’s perception of disability and not the actual physical or mental disability. This was present in Knighton’s memoir when he had a “shift in perspective” (71). Ryan realised that people have multiple reactions to him using a cane because of their perception of disability and feelings towards those with disabilities (72).
In conclusion, Couser’s chapter has highlighted the lost potential of some disability memoirs for challenging stigmas because of their rhetoric. In addition, Cockeyed has illustrated that different types of rhetoric can be present in a single disability memoir. This could have been because, like understanding disability, for those who are disabled, accepting it can also be a process. Hence, it is crucial that when people read memoirs from marginalised groups, they understand that it represents the individual first and foremost but are critical about how those personal narratives represent the collective.
Couser, G. T. Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing. University of Michigan Press, 2009.
Knighton, Ryan. Cockeyed: a Memoir. PublicAffairs, 2006.