Close Reading Assignment #1

Mary Catherine Farris

Professor Rivkin-Fish

Anthropology 272

25 January 2019


“On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs

Close Reading Assignment #1

From the moment you begin Nancy Mairs’ essay, it is no secret that her words are not written for the faint of heart. Though she remains sensitive to a modern society based on political correctness, the title alone of her essay reveals her true feelings toward the ideals of inclusiveness. In particular, an ideal of inclusiveness that manages to include everyone, and yet no one at all. Through a series of metaphors and similes in order to describe the condition she has been forced into, Mairs has managed to tell the life story of an MS patient hoping to see her unfortunate circumstance with the glass half full. When describing her condition, she keeps it short and simple. “I am a cripple.” However, when she speaks of the long line of diagnosis, struggle, societal expectation, and so forth, her words are deeper and long-winded. By doing this, Mairs has expressed her disease in a similar way in which she looks at it: Mairs is a woman who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease. And to her, life goes on.

Throughout the essay, Mairs has a fairly consistent ratio of the best moments in her life, occasionally interrupted by the hardships the reader, she is aware of, likely cannot even imagine. She includes long lists of “I cans” followed by short stops of “I cannot.” This a parallel to her life as a “cripple.” She speaks of her identity being stripped of her, such as in her inability to even wear the clothes she oftentimes prefers, but still emphasizes just how much she refuses her disease to be who and what she is a human being. She fears people faking being nice to her, something everyone has related to at some point in their lives. By relating to her audience, Mairs includes her audience in her story, proving she is as human and “normal” as those unaffected. She uses humor—the thing she finds hardest to hold onto – in order to express that though she has been handed some of the worst struggles, she is strong enough to overcome anything. By joking about her disease, in addition to admitting failures and defeats, Mairs manages to remain as an inspiration for anyone with major setbacks; setbacks that refuse the “ideal woman” image, but accelerate a life working towards much more.

Reading Response – Mairs – Butler

Cayley Butler

Professors Rivkin-Fish and Thrailkill

Antr 272

1 January 2020

I want to look closely at the autobiographical essay by Nancy Mairs about her experience in living with multiple sclerosis. This self-conscious, first-person narrative allows her to be honest with the reader to give them a perspective of someone that is not always playing the sickness role. She discusses the fact that sometimes she gets angry with herself and her limitations and wants to be a “grumpy cripple” that is not playing by the sickness rules. It seems like if you are sick you have to be happy and positive to make the people around you feel better. She talks about how she has had to work through violent self-loathing because of her limitations and because of how she looks. She does not meet society’s expectations for the perfect woman and is not even represented in media making her not feel pretty. After discussing the different ways that she does not measure up to the perfect woman she then shows that she understands that she looks fine and that she does not hate herself but the disease that has this hold on her life. Mairs says the sentence, “I am not a disease.” (Mairs page 7), in the next paragraph to make it stand out. She can choose her life and how it can be lived. Mairs wants control over her life which is why she chooses to call herself a cripple. She wants people to wince at the word instead of it being comforting, normalized, non-specific or deliberately being put at a disadvantage. Crippled describes the limitations of multiple sclerosis and is clean, straightforward and precise, Mairs believes. This choice of what to call herself is a way to give herself control of her disease and gives her a way to show that she is not her disease. 

Reading Response 1: Mairs “My Life as a Cripple”

From the beginning of her story, Nancy Mairs dives straight into a controversial discussion of the effects of euphemisms to sugar-coat harsh realities. On page one, she notes that “Some realities do not obey the dictates of language.” In saying this, Mairs sets the tone of her narrative while simultaneously, presenting to the audience a common issue faced in today’s society. Often, it is believed that prescribing harsh situations with words that have a more positive connotation allows for an easier integration into society and softens the blow of the hardship. Yet, Mairs makes it clear that while terms such as “handicapped” or “differently abled” may seem less offensive, they inherently suggest a sense of hopelessness and deliberate disadvantage, which is not always the case (Mairs 1). Moreover, the use of such terminology may not always allow for an easier integration into society. In fact, words like “differently abled” creates the sense of a common normality threshold, one that categorizes people such as Mairs as different from the standard norm. As a result, it furthers the divide within communities as people are now being seen as different than their peers.

Intertwined in her scope of unraveling the hidden truths embedded in euphemisms, Mairs touches on a similar argument of Arthur Frank. In chapter 3 of “The Wounded Storyteller”, Frank mentions the idea that many [North Americans] often glaze over instances where their lives have gone wrong (Frank 63). Yet, Frank mentions that what makes a good illness story is the narrator’s ability to explicitly state the true reality of a situation regardless of what people want to hear. Respectively, Mairs represents a good illness story by opting to choose to be described using the term “crippled”. By choosing to embody a word with a negative connotation, Mairs shows that she is actively ignoring the prettifying of her condition, and instead presenting it as it is: a jarring life altering illness that will not define her. Her ability to stand by the word “crippled” in light of her diagnosis not only gives the readers a better understanding of her situation, but also strengthens their respect for her for being honest about the terrifying experiences faced by multiple sclerosis patients. Evidently, Mairs’s way of representing herself and her illness story allows her to reach into the audience and call them to be witnesses to her narrative.

Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” University of Arizona Press, 1986, 1-10.

Frank, Arthur W. “The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics.” University of Chicago Press, 1997

“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.

Reading Response #1 – The Journey of Multiple Sclerosis

Christiana Stickel

Professor Rivkin-Fish and Professor Thrailkill

ANTH 272 / ENGL 264

25 January 2020

The Journey of Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis can be a positive journey, or so Nancy Mairs tells

her readers. In her illness narrative, Mairs describes living with Multiple

Sclerosis and its implications for her life. At the beginning of the narrative,

readers are impressed with her difficult life as evidenced by falls,

embarrassing moments, and progressively debilitating occurrences of her

Multiple Sclerosis. However, Mairs’ writing is a quest narrative in that she

conveys hope and self-discovery in the process of her illness. Examining

the second to last passage of her narrative, Mairs imparts her most

powerful message: “This gentleness is part of the reason that I’m not sorry

to be a cripple” (9). During this passage especially, the reader senses

feelings of gratefulness and contentment which seem incompatible with

her illness. Her feeling of gratefulness contributes to an overall theme of

courage and self-discovery. It is as if Mairs is telling her reader that yes, she

may have an illness, but no, she will not let it get the best of her.  Later

adding to this theme, Mairs says about Multiple Sclerosis, “I’m getting the

hang of it” (10). However, Mairs does not profess an easy life. She writes in

a way that conveys the cyclical frustration that she faces through

highlighting “a life wrenched by change and loss, change and loss” (9).

Additionally, Mairs views her illness as a way to help others. She seeks to

use her knowledge about her own suffering and feelings to reach others in

similar circumstances of suffering. This illness narrative is important for

people to read because it is incredibly inspiring. Mairs’ way of approaching

her illness convinces her readers to be courageous against any challenge

they face.

Works Cited:

Mairs, Nancy. “My Life as a Cripple.” Accessed 24 January 2020.

Language and Illness

One of my favorite readings thus far has been the excerpt from “My Life as a Cripple” because it was an example and application of what we had previously been talking about in class. Nancy Mairs’s blunt and straightforward tone made me feel surprised at first. The opening image she gives her readers is one of her in a bathroom stall; she is honest and uncensored when it comes to expressing how she experiences life with MS. This view of her illness is reflected in the language she uses to describe herself; she opts to call herself a cripple as opposed to handicapped or disabled. 

The fact that people wince at the word cripple exposes how we tend to obscure the illness with the desire to make everything seem nice and politically correct. This desire has led to the usage of ‘differently abled’, a word that, according to Mairs, describes both anyone and no one (Mairs 1). Thus, using these vague terms distances what is said from how Mairs experiences MS. I thought it was interesting that, while she calls herself a cripple, Mairs would never refer to anyone else as a cripple. Language has the power to shape how we view the world and ourselves which is why semantics is important when it comes to expressing illness. Certain words, like a cripple, are steeped in societal implications. How individuals use and understand language is influenced by the society and culture they live in but also their own individual experiences, like in Mairs’s account.

Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” University of Arizona Press, 1986, 1-10.

On Being A Cripple

Katie Pelay

Glass Grant


26 January 2020


For my first reading response, I am choosing to respond to the Nancy Mairs reading entitled On Being a Cripple. This particular reading stood out to me because of the honest tone that the author takes when describing her journey with Multiple Sclerosis. She begins the essay with a story, revealing an incident that pushed her to write about her experience as a “cripple.” It is interesting to note that she does not reveal her diagnosis until further along in her essay. I take this to mean that she does not put much importance on her diagnosis, rather taking her life into her own hands and living one day at a time. She is persistently optimistic but is not shy to discuss the realities about her disease.

The passage that struck me most was when she recalls a time where she fell in the parking lot during an outing with her friend. In this passage, I find that the complexity of illness shines bright. She recalls the incident in a humorous tone but also understands the dangers that her illness brings to her life. To me, the passage reveals how the disease can abruptly show itself with no signs—interrupting her life just as she interrupted her friend.  Overall, this essay reveals the complexity of illness with its highs and lows in a refreshingly candid nature.

Reading response 1: “On Being a Cripple,” Nancy Mairs, section starting from “First the matter of semantics” and ending in “It is the word I use to name only myself.”

In this portion of her personal essay, Nancy Mairs contrasts the semantics between “crippled”, “disabled”, “handicapped” and “differently abled”. She is intent on explaining her choice of “crippled” and more so on emphasizing that it had been her choice in coming to this conclusion. By doing so, Mairs indicates a successful quest narrative in which she has been able to redefine herself through the exploration of semantics—as a woman who has been able to “face the brutal truth of her existence squarely.”

At the same time, Mairs explores how society’s use of semantics regarding people diverging from the norm tends to hide/deny the true experiences of illness/poverty rather than treat them as equal. She makes a pointed criticism when she says that some realities don’t “obey the dictates of language”—that the shift for more inclusive terms has also been to create a societal hegemony, a way to escape the uncomfortableness of encountering those perceived to be as less fortunate. Her denial using such words, then, takes on the larger responsibility of raising a voice for a better understanding of people with similar disabilities.

This portion is also unique in that the level of self-confidence and determination is unmatched throughout her essay. She takes her stand as a “cripple,” and dominates this three paragraph portion with phrases like “I choose,” “I made the choice,” “I want”. Through the “I _______”
format, Mairs puts forth her most confident self as if to establish it as her most dominant identity, the self she would like her readers to remember. At times, her over-justification of “cripple” and her almost forceful positivism reveals the underlying chaos narrative: despite her success in creating a new self, she is constantly struggling to keep her other uncertain, hateful, and hurting selves at bay.

Carpenter Response 1: Sickness in relation to “On Being a Cripple”

Kayley Carpenter

Reading Response 1

Julio Villa-Palomino

Prompt 2 (Kleinman and pg 1 of “On Being a Cripple”)

Word Count: 298


In The Illness Narratives, Arthur Kleinman distinguishes illness, disease, and sickness, as they pertain to suffering and healing. He describes illness as the “innately human experience of symptoms and suffering” (3). Contrastingly, he defines disease as “the problem from the practitioner’s perspective,” reminding readers that not every culture of healing believes in biomedicine, and their epistemologies are no less valid in defining disease within their cultural narrative (5). Sickness differs from both terms, as Kleinman defines sickness as “the understanding of a disorder in its generic sense across a population in relation to macrosocial…forces” (6). Kleinman’s specific use of a third term, sickness, emphasizes that, in many cases, sickness intensifies the illness experience more than the disease, or diagnosis, could. This concept regarding societal understanding and connotations of a particular disease is especially prevalent in Nancy Mairs’ essay, “On Being a Cripple.”

Mairs describes her multiple sclerosis diagnosis and self-label of “cripple.” She uses imagery to depict her illness experience, including her fall in a public restroom. On page 1, the audience is enlightened on her illness experience and suffering from her declining health. Mairs also explains how her disease fits into a larger societal understanding of people functioning as less-than the average, healthy person—this broader understanding and labeling of an illness within a culture is what Kleinman deems sickness. The societal understanding of disability is that “cripple” is a demeaning synonym for “handicapped,” “disabled,” or “differently abled.” Mairs vehemently dislikes the latter, as it glosses over her illness politely, so as not to offend her. Mairs claims this term fails to acknowledge her own personal suffering. Without acknowledging that sickness is the societal understanding of the disease diagnosis, society lacks the ability to truly absorb one’s suffering and oftentimes furthers the burden of one’s illness experience.

Nancy Mairs’ Use of Crippled

Nancy Mairs’ essay “On Being a Cripple” reveals the raw emotions and truths of suffering from an illness, specifically multiple sclerosis. One of the most powerful sections in Mairs’ essay describes semantics and her choice to call herself a cripple, rather than disabled or handicapped (1). Mairs explains how such euphemisms broaden “the gap between word and reality” of her illness (1). Identifying as a cripple better captures Mairs’ experience with MS, but it also symbolizes her resistance to the societal delicacies concerning sickness.

Mairs’ self-conscious point of view allows her to explain how she addresses her illness and why the “verbal garbage” society uses is not sufficient to describe her “calamitous disease” (1-2). Mairs recognizes her differences from others and acknowledges her losses, refusing to employ language, such as “differently abled” that misconstrue the reality of her suffering (1). In denying these euphemisms, Mairs is working towards reclaiming her illness story as her own. She disregards the fragility of others who choose to shadow the authentic experience of MS with comfortable language that merely serves to reassure themselves.

Mairs explains that “society is no readier accept crippledness than to accept death…” (2). It is easy to assume that those who suffer from an illness would prefer more inclusive language. However, we oftentimes fail to acknowledge that this same language diminishes an individual’s experience with illness and confines their narratives to what society deems acceptable. Mairs wants people to know that she “can face the brutal truth of her existence,” which ultimately gives her more agency and ownership of her illness (1). Mairs, along with others who experience suffering, deserve the right to define it completely and without reservations, and how they choose to do so should influence the language we use when discussing illnesses.

Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” University of Arizona Press, 1986, 1-10.