“On Being a Cripple” – Mairs Reading Response

Nancy Mairs, in “On Being a Cripple” writes in a complexly optimistic tone about her diagnosis, MS, while retaining a framework of realism. She expresses her preference from the get-go: to be called a “cripple” instead of any other politically correct semantic iteration. Her reasoning is as follows; “And I refuse to participate in the degeneration of the language to the extent that I deny that I have lost anything in the course of this calamitous disease; I refuse to pretend that the only differences between you and me are the various ordinary ones that distinguish any one person from another.” In this explanation, one begins to grasp one of the most important parts of living with chronic disease, being the inability and refusal to erase experiences. Mairs is unapologetically acknowledging her losses, and the weight of those losses.

Her autobiographical essay elegantly, though not-so-delicately, expresses the changes of body, mind, and lifestyle that all accompany a chronic disease; these include an inability to see friends on outings, play piano, dress herself for style instead of comfort, and other. The lack of subtlety in language about the symptoms and pain of MS work towards acceptance and even appreciation of the diagnosis at times. To me, it was striking how she was able to so honestly discuss the losses she has endured, and it seems important to recognize one’s past in order to appreciate her present and disregard the future. While she has lost the ability to do many things, she has also gained good, bad, and different. It feels almost like Frank’s chaos narrative, in which she recognizes all the sides of her symptoms and lifestyle without trying to return to her life before. She writes beautifully about the appreciation she has for new activities in her life that fulfill her, including humor and gentleness towards others. She also discusses the intense pressure to please and self-consciousness that partners itself with her diagnosis. And lastly, she notes the ways in which she can still enjoy herself in activities that perhaps are just slightly different now; she still loves to cook even though she makes a mess, and she can play bridge with her friends but has to lay the cards on the table and trust that others won’t peek.

I truly believe that her outlook on life is beautiful and poetic. She finds the light in small things, while acknowledging that it is okay for things to be dark sometimes too. It is with this complexity that she expresses a truly unique and inspiring account of living with an equally complex diagnosis.