Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda LeDuc

At some point I realized how much my reading lacked anything about disability. I believe this was around the time I watched Crip Camp on Netflix, which I highly recommend. I picked up a copy of Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda LeDuc, hoping for something that would connect literature and disability.

Unfortunately, what I got reads more like the rough draft of an undergrad essay that needs to go back to the brainstorming phase. LeDuc begins with an introduction in which she explains she is not a fairy tale scholar, she is not a disability scholar, she is not able to go beyond Western fairy tales in the scope of Disfigured because she is white, and she does not speak for the disabled community. Those are fair warnings, but I was left thinking, “Okay, so what is this book going to do?” The author is “a physically disabled woman who also deals with a major depressive disorder.”

I went into the first chapter hesitantly after that introduction. I read Disfigured with Biscuit, and she felt the same way. What we did get was LeDuc summarizing a few fairy tales but mainly fixating on the story of the little mermaid. Why? Because when the author was around three she had surgery to remove a cyst from her brain. Also in her youth she had surgery to alter her right foot, which turned in, resulting in LeDuc using a wheelchair and then crutches for a time in elementary school before she walked unaided but with a limp. Children teased her, filling LeDuc with rage. By comparison, the little mermaid wishes she could walk like other humans, too.

And yet the subject careens, alternating from fairy tale summaries, to LeDuc wanting to be the little mermaid, to discussing how some people feel about “correcting” disabled people to fit the world vs. the world adapting to all bodies, to LeDuc wanting to be the little mermaid. At times, Disfigured completely abandoned the topic of disability and hyper-focused on our desire to be pretty, because fairy tales suggest villains are ugly or scarred — and is a scar a disability? I didn’t think so — and good people are rewarded with beauty.

There were a few avenues LeDuc could have chosen to save Disfigured. Why not write a memoir about her experiences with her disability and apply fairy tales she loved (LeDuc grew up during the Disney renaissance) as she aged and changed her perspective? Or, write a book about the unnatural emphasis on beauty equating to goodness and how she felt left out because she limps, and include not only fairy tales, but other books, movies, and TV shows? Or, she could have written a long article for the web — Disfigured repeats the same themes mercilessly. Did I mention she wanted to be the little mermaid?

As the book went on, it was painfully obvious the author had run out of material, so she turns to superheroes, which are not fairy tale characters. Even then, LeDuc doesn’t go deep enough into the relationship between disability and superhero characters, particularly the X-Men. I wondered, “Are there any fairy tales she plans to cover that aren’t about not walking ‘normally’ and being pretty?” For instance: the little mermaid! LeDuc doesn’t even connect the mermaid’s inability to speak with the deaf community being forced to take lessons on speaking, despite oralism almost always being a failure compared to teaching sign language.

But beyond this strange detour into superheroes, the author again returns to being made fun of in elementary school for her limp and that time using a wheelchair. LeDuc’s tone leans toward a person who felt wronged as a child, despite moving “through the world now in a mostly able-bodied way” for the last several decades, and such repetition starts to read like . . . dare I say fixating? And for how long does a reader sympathize with a story about elementary school when it’s told repeatedly over 235 pages? LeDuc doesn’t give us a journey, she puts a tape on repeat. Overall, Disfigured lacked a diversity of disabilities, a variety of Western fairy tales, and intellectual depth, all muddled by an author whose writing lacks sophistication.

37 comments

  1. What a shame – this is a potentially interesting subject but this doesn’t sound like a particularly meaningful or interesting contribution.

    There’s a booktuber who used to make a lot of videos looking at this subject – I think it was Jen Campbell? (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwME97IPvhAXAV_bbgAvOtw) I’ve stopped watching all but a few of my favourite booktubers and prefer to get my recommendations from blogs these days, but she might have some better recommendations of books dealing with the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, what a shame, a really good opportunity missed and also how did it get published (sorry!)? I have a few disability-centred books on my wishlist, There’s Jodie Ann Bickley’s “One Million Lovely Letters”, Tim Marshall’s “Wheelchairs, Perjury and the London Marathon” and I know there was another one by an artist activist but I can’t find it again now. Not enough, though.

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    • You know, I had the same question about how this book was published…..and it has great ratings on Goodreads, in addition to having won an award. I’ve read a few books by minority voices that have great ratings when the book is poorly organized, or uses manipulative rhetoric, and I wonder if I’m being overly scrupulous. I do have an element of concern: am I being unfair to own voices writers. However, I also read what’s on the page.

      Liked by 2 people

        • Ah ha! Excellent point! There is a chance that a writer from a minority community may receive less support, which is an issue unto itself. I’ve written about that in other reviews, but didn’t think about it for this book because it’s a main-stream press.

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  3. How disappointing! I’d heard about this book (maybe from you?) and thought the premise sounded fascinating. It seems like there would be so much potential in delving into fairy tales and disability.

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    • I don’t think it was from you after all. Leduc is Canadian and this book was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Prize! Based on your review, I’m baffled…

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      • ME, TOO. It’s on all the lists of “must read” disability lit. I’m totally disappointed. I also keep seeing Keah Brown on all the lists. She wrote The Pretty One. I tried reading that book and got completely lost in a chapter about chairs and how she thinks about chairs being like personalities, or something? I think Brown is someone who has a strong social media following and has important things to say, but a book as the medium was not the best choice.

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        • Do you think there is just a lack of books on this topic so readers are grasping at anything out there? The strong social media presence makes sense as to why a book would do well on Goodreads though.

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          • I think there is also a fear of suggesting the topic is not important because the book isn’t good. I’m wondering if there is a lack of books…..many that are recommended are quite new, so I think interest is out there, and that publishers want to catch the wave of folks looking for more disability lit. That could be attributed (in my opinion) of the visibility of folks like Haben Girma, seeing so many translators during the pandemic, and all the commercials for Facebook and Amazon with disabled people.

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    • You would think, but the author conflates disfigurement with disability, and those are not the same thing. For instance, Scar from the Lion King is not disabled, but Leduc would like you to think so. The evidence is so cherry picked as to be verging on unethical, to say nothing of irresponsible. She also argues that Ariel from The Little Mermaid is disabled because she doesn’t walk, but, like, Ariel is half fish, so why WOULD she have legs?

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      • I wouldn’t say those are the same at all! I can understand that something like a facial scar is hard to deal with in a society as physically-obsessed as ours but it’s not the same as a disability. Does she mostly focus on the Disney Little Mermaid? Because if I remember the original tale correctly, when the Little Mermaid has legs she feels like she’s walking on glass the prince doesn’t know. There could be parallels there to people who don’t “look” disabled and are therefore judged by others. Ariel though, you’re right, doesn’t qualify to me as Disney presents her.

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        • She focuses obsessively on Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid. Leduc is at the perfect age to have seen that movie and fallen hard for it, like many of us did.

          That’s a great point about invisible disabilities. She also fails to mention Ariel cannot speak while she’s on land.

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    • And the part that makes me doubt myself is the way this book keeps popping up in every list of disability lit. But how is she going to get away with arguing that Scar from The Lion King is disabled, or that Ariel is disabled because she’s a fish with a fin?!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Don’t you think it’s unnecessary to say “I don’t speak for the disabled community”. She speaks as the person she is, depressed, disabled as a child and so on.
    I think fairy tales need a lot more analysis from the perspective of people who are not white/fully able/beautiful especially since they’ve been taken over by Disney and Americanised (I grew up with the Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson). The stories they tell, especially girls, about waiting to be rescued, the necessity of being beautiful, are the direct cause of parents telling all girls that they are princesses which seems to me a particularly unhelpful approach to preparing them to negotiate the real world.

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    • I get what she was doing in the introduction; if she hadn’t written, “I don’t speak for….” and then listed a ton of communities, those communities would slam her online because they assume she thinks she speaks for the community. This idea that one person speaks for a community, to me, does not stem from the author’s intentions but the reader’s projection of a person as an icon for X. There are a few people who claim they are the voice for X, and those people always sound delusional (Lena Dunham, who said she is the voice of the Millennial Generation — please gag me — comes to mind).

      I’ve noticed a small shift away from princess movies from Disney, or if a person is still a princess, she doesn’t always end up with a prince. I’m a fan of a number of Pixar movies that have animals or normal people or robots or even feelings(!) as characters instead.

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  5. If I was a disabled person, I would probably be really annoyed at this book. Being briefly disabled, is not the same as living with a disability. It makes it look like a clutch at attention/money while claiming something you don’t even have anymore to make you a part of said group. Perhaps she should have written a book on bullying instead.

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    • That’s a good suggestion. I can see how bullying has affected her and carried on her whole life, and other people I’ve spoken to who were bullied 20+ years ago still feel the effects.

      She has a “slight limp” (how she describes it) now and mentions severe depression both as disabilities. But the whole book focuses on the wheelchair for a brief time in elementary school.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As I was reading your second paragraph, I thought, so “what is it going to be about”, but you took that.

    My first thought when I got to the end was “what a shame”. But, louloureads has already taken that.

    My next point, which no-one has taken – well, maybe they have because I stopped at loulou! – was “what was the publisher thinking?” Or, is it self-published?

    Anyhow, I’ll just say that I enjoyed reading your assessment of the book, and particularly on what she could have done to have recovered it. I wonder if she will read this post.

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    • I always feel like a jerk when I’m the one person who seems to not like a book that everyone else is praising. However, if you get on Goodreads and look up the reviews with 1-2 stars, other readers have written excellent analyses that go even further in depth than I do.

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  7. Oh noooooo haha. In your last blog post i talked about how excited I was for you to read this because she’s such a big ‘canlit’ person, but now I see I don’t have to feel badly about not reading this one, because it sounds like I would have been annoyed with it as well! Repetition is something that I find I get really annoyed by in books, because it feels like an obvious mistake that needs to be fixed, if not by the author, than by the editor. This one needed to go back to the substantive editing phase I think…

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  8. That’s too bad. This one sounded so promising. Missed opportunity for sure. And so weird to pitch it as a fairy tale theme and then veer off to talking about X-Men. 0.o
    Very good point on the missed discussion points regarding The Little Mermaid in this book, too. My brother has autism and is nonverbal, and he absolutely LOVED Disney’s The Little Mermaid to the point that he went through multiple VHS tapes of it back in the day because he watched it so many times. He liked the movie The Trumpet of the Swan for the same reason. He doesn’t like watching things that specifically talk about autism but he likes seeing nonverbal characters, just like everyone else who likes to see themself represented. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Wait, wait, wait. There’s a MOVIE version of The Trumpet of the Swan??? Tell your bro I said thanks for the heads up! Also, that’s cool that he seems himself in movies in which characters are nonverbal. I’d never thought of someone with autism seeing themselves in such characters, but now that you point it out, it makes total sense. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

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