Crosby cover

Feministing Reads: Christina Crosby’s A Body, Undone

I should begin as the author does, with the accident: “On October 1, 2003, I caught a branch in the spokes of the front wheel of my bicycle, and hurtled toward the pavement.” Christina Crosby was paralyzed upon impact. Fifty years into an exceptionally active life, she was thrown into a radically uncertain future of limited mobility and dependency on others. Crosby’s new memoir, A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain (NYU Press), begins at the onset of that after not simply because of the irreparable rift it opened between old life and new, but because of the trial it poses to both writer and reader: “to put into words a body that seemed beyond the reach of language.”

Crosby was already an accomplished scholar at the time of her accident and remains Professor of English and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University, her institutional home for decades. Her training as a close reader is evident in the precision and care with which she guides us through the book’s varied materials—many of her short chapters juxtapose childhood memories, present-tense sensations, and snippets of poetry to illuminating effect. In a particularly instructive pairing, Crosby brings her knowledge of Victorian realist fiction to bear on the genre of disability memoir to which her book ambivalently belongs. Revisiting George Eliot helps Crosby identify a formula: conventional disability narratives begin with a moment of diagnosis or impairment—Crosby’s one point of compliance—proceed chronologically through hardship, and culminate in “a satisfying conclusion of lessons learned and life recalibrated” toward a healthy future. The desires motivating such an arc and the reassurances it afford are powerful and real, but Crosby insists against their promise, “Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone, and living some part of her life in another dimension, under a different dispensation than that of realist representation.”

Though she recognizes the risk of pathologizing disability by dwelling in grief and loss, Crosby also protests the “strategic elision” of these affects in disability narratives. “I find myself repeatedly, daily, relentlessly, and wearyingly horrified by the elsewhere of spinal cord injury,” an elsewhere that she maps with remarkable clarity. To do so her book refuses linear progression, instead presenting the reader with a tight skein of passionately interrogated subjects: family, athleticism, gender performance, reading, and sex all bleed into one another, despite the memoir’s division into brief and focused chapters.

Crosby coverThough the book is organized around a violent moment of rupture, Crosby’s moving reflections on her new experiences of embodiment, gender, and sexuality in the years since being paralyzed prove the depth and consistency of her lifelong intellectual commitments as a lesbian and a feminist. Her hard-won convictions help Crosby weather the unabated “neurological storm” of quadriplegia and her dramatically curtailed mobility, but it is a testament to her flexibility as a writer that she remains eager to reconsider, tweak, and think them anew in light of what her present life makes perceptible.

Given how thoroughly disability has restructured her daily life, Crosby’s prose on the subject can be disarmingly direct. “I needed so much help,” she admits; her lover “Janet needed so much help helping me.” It is clear from the earliest pages of her memoir that these admissions of need are also political interventions, laying bare the obscured networks of interdependence through which all of us are kept alive, no matter how self-sufficient we feel ourselves to be. In describing her rehabilitation and new domestic routines, Crosby folds the specialized activity of EMTs and CNAs into the same category of mutual obligation—help—as domestic labor, intimate care, and small gestures of kindness between friends, strangers, and “all who in some way touched me.”

A Body, Undone is particularly moving in its account of Crosby’s relationship with her home aide, Donna, with whose life her own becomes intimately entangled even as certain boundaries remain unbridgeable. We learn much through Crosby of Donna’s poverty, her religious faith, and her own ongoing physical pain resulting from the strenuous and underpaid labor of nursing. But Crosby is also careful to stress that the intimacy between them and the kinds of interdependency it cultivates are in no way equal or redemptive: Donna remains, “in many regards, unknown to me and unknowable… our intimacy is very real, but it’s [Janet and I] who have the money.” The deeply felt love that Crosby develops for her caretaker intensifies rather than placates her political commitments; Crosby now teaches about domestic work in her courses, and she’s careful in the book to cite resources that readers can refer to themselves. While she acknowledges that teaching is no substitute for activism, doing so has become “a way to name social reproduction as an object of knowledge consequential to feminist thought, and to link my dependency to a broader vision of caring labor and reproductive work.”

The interdependency that Crosby values is realized in the broad cast of characters she makes room for in her writing. Her book lovingly testifies to the precious network of thinkers, activists, and friends that she has cultivated throughout her career, and some of the figures that float in and out of her narrative may be familiar to Feministing readers. Janet Jakobsen, a brilliant scholar and Barnard professor who has been Crosby’s lover since six years before her accident, features prominently, as does Maggie Nelson, a former student and longtime friend of Crosby’s. (Attentive readers of Nelson’s may in turn know Crosby from her appearances in Nelson’s own writings.) In its intellectual generosity, its frankness, and its dexterous deployment of the resources of scholarship toward the ends of life writing, A Body, Undone recalls other invaluable memoirs of illness and disability by feminist academics like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, though unlike those antecedents Crosby engages explicitly with the now-robust field of disability studies.

Crosby writes just as insightfully about her commitment to embodied pleasure, the thrill of bicycle racing, the nuances of gender performance in lesbian community, and a range of friends and family members whose lives have shaped her own. She shares her passions eagerly, and her prose is often boldly emphatic. Even so, honoring our necessary interdependence is not the same as romanticizing it, or pretending that it leads invariably to joy: In a poignant chapter about Crosby’s inability to take on home improvement projects as she used to, she recounts, “Janet told me, very truly and not in wrath, but with a terrible finality, ‘You can’t have what you want. You just can’t.’”

Paid care work can satisfy many needs, though of course not all of them. There are some desires and experiences that Crosby will never be able to recoup through others, no matter how generous or competent. To pretend otherwise would be to misrepresent both the coordinates of her current life and her intense appreciation for the life she used to lead: “I knew what I had. I know what I’ve lost.”

The great pain persists, but so does the work of living. Rather than fixing, resolving, or protecting against further suffering, Crosby accepts the task her friend Maggie Nelson poses in a poem written in the immediate wake of Crosby’s accident: “Live with your puny, vulnerable self / Live with her.” Crosby can only approach this task through writing, which “offers, not a way out, but a way into the impossible dilemmas of not-knowing.” It’s a beautiful gift to have given us as readers, and a remarkable challenge: “how else will I understand? How will you?”


New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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