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.