Waiting to be Dangerous: Confessionalism and Disability
by Sheila Black
followed by Q&A
I have XLH, commonly known as Vitamin D Resistant Rickets, because the symptoms mimic those of nutritional rickets—sharply bowed legs and an unusually short stature. “It is usually classed as a form of dwarfism,” stated a description of the illness posted online from the Merck Manual. I was over forty the first time I read this, and I was shocked. “Dwarf” was a word I had never used in reference to myself. But it made sense when I thought about it. Still, it was hard to say: “I am a dwarf.” “My children are dwarves.” “We suffer from a form of dwarfism.”
When I think about why I am drawn to confessional poetry—confessional poetry which M.L. Rosenthal first defined as consisting of “sexual guilt, alcoholism, repeated confinement in a mental hospital” among other subjects—I think of my disability(Rosenthal: p. 26). Rosenthal asserts that in “confessional poetry” such “difficult” subjects are “usually developed in the first person and intended without question to point to the author himself (herself?).” I do not like my automatic association of disability with shame, but there is no question that is there. The first time I read that my illness was “a form of dwarfism,” my cheeks reddened, my palms burned. I felt somehow ashamed of myself. Even though, as my disability is genetic, I bear no responsibility for it whatsoever.
When I was two months old, I caught the red measles. Growing up my mother used to say that this was the cause of my XLH—only she called it “my illness” or, more commonly, “my legs,” as in “the reason your legs happened to you.” She said my fever rose so high “it must have done something to your DNA.” In fact, this explanation makes no sense. Later, of course, I’d discover that no fever can change the coding of the DNA. My mother insisted this because she said “there is no other record of anything like this in our family.” Only years later, did I realize she kept repeating this story even as I, my father, and everyone else argued with her, because it was a way of saying what had happened was in fact accident, not her fault. Later, when she came to understand that XLH occurs often out of the blue—due to spontaneous and unexplained mutations in the genetic structure—she appeared to accept it, but I could tell she did not find this as soothing an explanation as the red measles, because it still implied some hidden weakness, some secret reason why this fault, this mutation occurred in her child. I could not understand her guilt until as an adult I reviewed my old medical charts. I discovered that for two years, when as a young toddler I began to exhibit radical bowing of the legs, the doctors believed the reason was that my mother was not feeding me properly. They ordered her to keep charts of every meal she fed me. They asked her if she was lying when she reported giving me milk many times a day. Shame and guilt, the rock-bed of the confessional.
In recent years, confessionalism has become a favorite target of a multitude of poetry critics, often employed as a symbol of all that is wrong with poetry. Among the accusations: confessionalism relies too much on the poet’s own experiences; it reflects a reality television aesthetic in which artistic power is predicated on revelation of lurid secret or personal trauma. Yet the silencing of or scorn for such so-called charged material is often itself a kind of corrective repression. Interestingly, as a few perceptive critics such as Cate Marvin have pointed out, dismay at the confessional is often specifically addressed at the more powerless (women, minorities) who seek to marshal its power. Furthermore, the direct association of confessional poetry with “true confession,” is naïve and problematic. In “Female Trouble: Women’s Transgressions in the Confessional Mode,” Marvin writes:
….confessional poets set up their camp smack in the middle of the dangerous border
that separates the poet’s lived experience from the poem he/she has created. However, what
makes the project exciting and dangerous is the poets’ refusal to remain faithful to the truth, as
opposed to offering strictly biographical revelations. Confessional poetry is never earnest;
rather, it is mercilessly manipulative of the reader…(Marvin: p.31).
Put simply, the confessional poem relies for its charge not simply on the presentation of problem material, but rather on the self-conscious presentation of it before a specific audience. In this sense, the confessional poem is much closer to the dramatic tradition of poetry—the dramatic monologue, the staged scene—than it is to a simple narrative of truth. As a result, confessional poetry, far from being dominated by the personal, often becomes a place where the personal and the political intersect in surprising, exciting, and potentially subversive ways.
As a person with a visible disability, I have often felt intruded upon, defined, and even circumscribed by the gaze of others. As a child, I don’t believe I truly conceived of myself as disabled or different (the word for what I was in my day was crippled) until I started school. In my first school, a catholic convent in Rio de Janeiro run by an order of mostly English and Irish nuns, my legs were immediately tagged as a sign of God’s will, God’s mystery, even God’s love. Yet for all the talk about how God loved everyone and how people like me were somehow special proof of this, I also attracted an uncanny amount of hostility. A boy named Gabriel in my class was beautiful in the most classical sense of the word. He had golden hair, he was tall, and he had a crooked and somehow endearing smile. Everyone appeared to turn to him as sunflowers turn to the sun. And he, from the very first, hated me. The mystery of his hatred grew as vast and immutable as the mystery of how day turns to night. In the playground—a cobbled courtyard surrounded by a thin fringe of grass—he would follow me chanting, “There goes ugly girl.” Once, he and another girl asked me if I believed in fairies. I said I did. He picked up a stone and threw it at my cheek. When it cut me, and I bled, I went to the nuns crying. Gabriel said I was lying, that I had tripped over my own crooked feet. The nuns believed him, and I recanted. Later that year, I would read little picture books about the lives of lions: the natural order of predator and prey. All of this would make some kind of intuitive sense to me, but it was a sense that bordered on despair. There was an order, an order I did not understand, hooked together between Gabriel and me, and God’s mystery, God’s judgment, God’s order, and I was on the wrong side of it. “Don’t stagger like that,” our teacher, Sister Agnes, would say to me with irritation as we lined up for morning prayers. “Of course you can’t help it, I suppose, but it does seem to me you could at least try to put your feet straight and walk like other people.”
I think about why I tell this story, a true story more or less, or why I think it might have meaning. The story for me is obviously how I was a victim, but if the story stops there, it is not a story with much lasting interest or value. Perhaps the story is more interesting as an allegory of power—Gabriel and I as symbols of forces beyond us, positions we have in a sense inherited: the ugly “crippled” girl and the beautiful “golden” boy. Yet to tell it as pure allegory leaves out the hot, dense, embarrassing, complex ways in which we as individuals reacted to the situation. Often that year I tried ineffectually to win Gabriel’s and, by extension, my teacher’s approval. I tried by wearing my school uniform longer than was the custom. By forcing straight my crooked feet as often as I could remember. By pretending to like and admire whatever they liked and admired. Gabriel’s cruelty to me—how ironic that he should be named for the archangel—mounted as the year went on. Yet was it entirely personal? I can’t imagine it was. He, too, was performing for an audience, carrying out a role he felt bound to play—or perhaps he was just poking at me as you might poke at a hill of ants, out of child-like curiosity. What will they do? What does it mean that they live, too, in this world, but appear so other?
Late in the year, Gabriel accused me of deliberately kicking in the tall ruby-colored stained-glass window of the school chapel. I knew I was in big trouble when a group of nuns came bearing toward me across the playground, like an Armada of black ships. I panicked and ran out of the school grounds. A group of street people caught me and dragged me back through the school gates. At first, the fact that I had run (barely run, actually, since I was at this time extremely bow-legged) was taken as evidence of my guilt. But when the Mother Superior asked me to recreate the act, I could not lift my leg high enough to reach the window. And it became apparent, because of the precise way my legs were twisted, that I was physically incapable of kicking in the window. Gabriel was in disgrace. Yet the pleasure of victory I might have been expected to feel instead had the ashen taste of the worst kind of defeat. I often thought years and years after that I would like to write a “confession” of how I had kicked in the window, except I hadn’t. I had never even conceived of doing such a thing, until I was accused of it. Yet I could not help feeling that the whole incident echoed or reflected something inside me—I was angry, and I would have kicked that window in had I been able, had I been braver, had I thought of it. I recount this simply to express the ways in which the truth of experience, or its inner meaning, tends to blur or bleed over the more you contemplate it. Hated because I was different, that very hatred transformed me into someone who hated and made me dangerous, left me either with the choice of capitulating, finding a way to fit in, or rebelling outright, refusing to.
As a poet, a storyteller, I am attracted to the unruly and confrontational elements of the confessional, to the ways it complicates personal truth through a presentation that makes the audience continually question whether the speaker is to be trusted. I like how it politicizes the personal and expresses how the political is personal by often staging its confession to most implicate the reader. Cate Marvin again:
A poem becomes confessional when the speaker shirks responsibility for the implications of his or her subject matter. The confessional poem operates essentially in a trickster mode. It is never faithful to the actual; its narrator is not reliable (Marvin: p.44).
I think hard about why this element of unreliability, the trickster aspect of confessionalism appeals to me. And I think the answer has to do with the positions historically available to the person with a disability, or more pointedly the paucity of those positions. For instance, in the story above, no matter how I try, I cannot see myself as anything other than “crippled.” The most striking thing about me, as far as this particular story is concerned, is the fact that I have crooked legs.
I often feel like the worst kind of picky thinker when it comes to my XLH. There is almost no response anyone can make that will please me. I want people to see beyond my XLH, to see me as an individual. At the same time, I can’t imagine myself without XLH. I used to feel happy when people said they “barely noticed ” or “couldn’t tell.” Now hearing something like that tends to annoy me, except that many of my dearest friends are in the “barely noticed, couldn’t tell” camp, and I believe them. Yet I sense that some other people don’t see much else about me and see my disability as a clear negative (which I don’t). Once, when I was in college and experiencing a brief skinny moment in my otherwise chubby life, a very pretty Italian girl I knew only slightly fell and broke her front tooth. During the three or so days when she was waiting for a cap to be fitted, she stopped me on the street and invited me for coffee. Over cappuccino and hamentashen, with its dark poppy medicine taste, she jawed on and on about beauty. “Breaking my tooth,” she said, “made me understand for the first time what it must be like to be you. To know you could never be attractive to most people—” It was a moment of almost comic awfulness. I felt compelled to be polite and reassuring, but inside, I was dumbstruck. For days after, I wondered if my life was like some horrible joke, if everyone knew how ugly, how strange I was except me. But then I also knew there were people in my life who did not see me that way.
Like many people with a disability, I am always slightly amazed to realize I have suffered more from other people’s perceptions of my condition that I have from my own real disabilities. For instance, I do not remember ever staying up all night wringing my hands because I would never run a four or even a ten-minute mile. On the other hand, I have spent many useless hours agonizing over how people might react if they ever saw me in a mini-skirt. As a poet, the influence this has had on me is both hard and easy to track. I tend to write in a kind of supercharged rush with images of violence and/or horror laid up right against images of beauty and/or tenderness, as if the two were part of the same continuum, as if the two could be forced together, blurred into one another, or, more pointedly, represented contradictions that must find a way to co-exist because they could not be resolved. I do believe this comes from the experience of living with disability or, more precisely, living with disability in a world that circles around structures of, ideals of “normal.” A world in which I am always the piece that doesn’t fit and also a body that speaks or argues loudly—even against my will—about the problems with such normalizing structures. Furthermore, these are structures I have certainly internalized in my own attitudes about my disability. I believe my disability matters because I know it matters to other people. At the same time, I tend to believe that it is just one fact about me, and not always a particularly important one. And yet whatever I might feel personally is always rubbing up against the bigger facts of history, society, in which 70 percent of people with disabilities do not have a job. So how can I say—though I do—my disability doesn’t matter?
I love the confessional because it allows such contradictions, such instability to be front and center. It allows feeling and extremes of feeling within an ideological context but one which is inherently unstable, one in which the message is never entirely anchored. As Cate Marvin notes:
The confessional project may be of particular interest to women because it allows them to misbehave on the page, to reconstruct their identities, to display the power of their intelligence through language, to speak their minds without being silenced or interrupted . . . and to, ironically, say what they really mean. In confessional poetry, there are no rules…(Marvin: p.46).
By “no rules,” Marvin suggests that the confessional, by offering the ability to occupy multiple intimate, apparently “true” positions vis-à-vis the charged “issue at stake,” also offers the possibility of an imaginative transcendence. In the case of feminist poetry, confessionalism offers a means of escape from the polarities of a discourse of femininity that limits or encodes the female speaker. The confessional often achieves this through ruthless and even extravagant staging of a charged emotional moment. The most striking example is perhaps Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” which compares her experience of an absent or repressive father to the Holocaust—a comparison that is clearly hyperbolic, offensive and meant to be so, but, also, compellingly in the poem, imaginatively true for the speaker herself. The poem is a kind of psychic theater, but one which in its staging casts new light on the world as it is, suggesting the necessity of a reconfiguration of female power and how it functions (or doesn’t) within a patriarchal system. The radical, even unhinged claims the poem makes thus become an affirmation of the imaginative and real power of the speaker, who speaks with almost Promethean fervor out of a desire to revision or recreate herself.
The parallels with disability poetry are obvious. Often the dilemma for the disabled poet is how to say what the poet truly means in a context in which disability is either silenced and denied, or, conversely, given such overwhelming importance the human being becomes subsumed by his or her condition. Lennard Davis points out that the target of the poetics of disability must perhaps ultimately be the structures of “normal” in which the disabled speaker is conceived and constructed as a perennial other and usually a lesser (Davis: p.3). This, for me, is the project the confessional most animates. When Marvin states that the confessional at its best or strongest “is defined by its artifice,” by “its ruthless desire to convince us its untruths are true,” she suggests how the confessional often uses artifice and untruth to allow a marginalized speaker to radically reconfigure his or her position. By allowing its speaker the dangerous freedom to be, or appear, extravagantly personal while making a wider critique of the social context, confessionalism often becomes, as Marvin puts it, “a true expedition into the imagination” with the potential for tracking multiple modes of our liberation.
1)Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy: the Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the
Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J
Davis. London: Routledge, 1997.
2)Marvin, Cate. “Female Trouble, Women’s Transgressions in the Confessional Mode.” Doctoral
Thesis. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 2003.
3)Rosenthal, M.L. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1967.
Sheila Black is the author of two poetry collections, House of Bone and Love/Iraq (both CW Press). The 2000 U.S. co-winner of the Frost-Pellicer Frontera Prize, given to one U.S. and one Mexican poet along the U.S.-Mexico border, her work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Diode, Copper Nickel, CutBank, Valparaiso Review, Conte, Blackbird, Lingerpost ,Superstition Review, and others. She is the co-editor (with Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen) of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, which is scheduled for release by Cinco Puntos Press in September 2011. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Q: What writers, besides Plath, do you draw on for inspiration?
A: Lately I’ve been reading Primo Levi, Mary Austin (“The Land of Little Rain”),
Melissa Kwasny, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jennifer Bartlett, Jon Anderson, and Roberto
Bolano—all in different ways very inspiring.
Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?
A: How violently I still felt the experience of childhood humiliations. It made me
think again how hard it is for children to move out into the world to…such a simple sounding
Q: What was your favorite fairy tale as a child, and why was this fairy tale your favorite?
A: “The Goose Girl” hands down, because in a way it is terrible—she can’t speak and she
should speak. But in another way, it’s a strangely liberating story. She accepts the life
that is given her. She is the princess who becomes the goose girl.
Q: Tell us about your home library…how are your books organized? Or not? Categories? Alphabetically? Tall to small? Other?
A: (1) I have too many books. (2) I keep promising myself I will get rid of some but never do. (3) They are organized like prizes in Crackerjack box—I like forgetting what books I own and on good days being pleasantly surprised; on bad days I spent ages hunting fruitlessly for books I believe I own…