You’re so inspirational!” “You’re so brave!” (Cue the heroic music!) Or from the less inhibited: “What a shame!” “What’s wrong with you?” That’s the background noise of Harilyn Rousso’s life. Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back, through intimate anecdote and observation, gives the lie to such nonsense and describes the damage it causes. The book is published by Temple University Press.
Rousso’s memoir is about overcoming prejudice against disability, not disability itself. It confronts not only prejudice but also the ways so-called “normal” people distinguish people with disabilities from everyone else by seeing them through the comforting but distorted lens of heroism, nobility and triumph over adversity—stereotypes that kill with kindness.
The book, a collection of short takes and longer narrative sections, is divided in five parts. The first, “Close Encounters with the Clueless” describes the often absurd and ignorant attitudes of friends, strangers and society. The cast of characters includes a beggar who won’t take a dollar from Rousso, a mere “cripple,” and a stranger in a coffee shop who wants her gone if not dead.
The second, “On Leaving Home,” focuses on family, describing, for example, Rousso’s relationship with her sister who teaches her the meaning of “fuck,” and with her mother who sends her off to college to face and find herself.
“On Not Looking in The Mirror” describes Rousso’s own prejudice toward her disabled body and her use of art and reflection to make peace with her seemingly unfeminine walk, speech patterns and facial movements.
In “What’s a Woman,” Rousso reflects on her father’s unspoken message that no man would want her, describes her abandonment on the day she buys her wedding dress, and portrays the healing effects of meeting the love of her life and discovering she’s not alone in hating her body (it’s a women’s issue, stupid!).
“On Claiming Disability” describes Rousso’s involvement with the disability rights community, particularly the disabled women’s community, enabling her to claim disability as a source of pride, positive identity and rebellion. She expresses her frustrations with able-bodied feminism, describes outrageous escapades with her disabled sisters, reveals her self-doubts and discoveries in her work with disabled adolescent girls, “disses” normalcy, exorcises the phantom freak within her, and offers an ode to her disabled self.
A collage of images about Rousso’s life, rather than a formal portrait, Don’t Call Me Inspirational describes what it takes to move beyond the lies and clichés to forge a fulfilling life filled with love, work, community and rebellious acts.
This reading is sponsored in part by Services for Students with Disabilities, Disability Culture class, Screenline, Temple University Press, Nicola’s Books, and the Women's Studies Department.