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Vermont author and disability justice activist Eli Clare spoke at Middlebury on November 7.

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Disability Justice Activist Ponders the Complex Notion of ‘Cure’

November 9, 2017

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – What does it mean to cure a body or restore a body? What potential does a “cure” hold — and what dangers or pitfalls does it embody? Those questions were the heart of Eli Clare’s reading and conversation at Middlebury College on Nov. 7, when the Vermont-based writer and activist read from Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure.

Speaking to a packed classroom in the Axinn Center, Clare read from Brilliant Imperfections, focusing on the connections and contradictions between environmental loss and restoration and mind-body loss and cure. Identifying as white, disabled, and genderqueer, Clare speaks and teaches on topics of disability, queer and trans identities, and social justice.

“Clare’s activism and writing invite us to come face to face with our own bodies: all that we cherish and despise, and all that lies embedded there,” said Toni Cuevas ’18 in introductory remarks to Clare’s reading and discussion. “Personally as a future educator, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have read this book, because it allows me to grapple with my own assumptions and preconceived notions of disability.”

Clare’s book, published in February by Duke University Press, is a combination of memoir, history, and critical analysis, all used in exploration of the idea of “cure.” Cures can save lives and banish illness — and yet, Clare writes, they can also be used to justify violence, prioritize some lives over others, generate profit, and function as a form of social control.

“The book as a whole is really trying to find the messy middle in relationship to cure, somewhere between fierce disability rights anti-cure politics and the dominant cultural embrace without question of cure,” said Clare. “The book is trying to find the messy middle in restoration. I would write myself into complete fury about cure, and then I would have to write myself back into the messy middle, write myself back into complexities.”

During his Middlebury College reading, Clare wove back and forth between exploration of environmental loss and restoration and the loss — and possible “cure” — of the human mind and body.

“To restore a house that’s falling down or a tall grass prairie ecosystem that’s been devastated is to return it to an earlier, and often better, condition. In this return, we try to undo the damage, wishing the damage had never happened,” writes Clare. And similarly, often the “cure” of a body focuses on restoration: restoring an individual to former health or vitality, to eradicate that which damaged the body as it “should” have been.

“How would I, or the medical industrial complex, go about restoring my body-mind?” asked Clare. “The vision of me without tremoring hands and slurred speech, with more balance and coordination, doesn’t originate from my visceral history. Rather it arises from an imagination of what I should be like, from some definition of ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’”

The idea of “cure” is messy, Clare said— for ecosystems and human bodies alike. He writes of visiting a 30-acre plot of restored tall grass prairie in Wisconsin where, for more than a decade, his friend and a team of others have tried to undo decades of environmental damage in the form of large-scale agriculture, the decimation of the American bison, and monoculture crop growth. Monocultures start with “violence, removal, eradication,” said Clare. And yet restoration work, too, has its artifice.

The politics of cure, as applied to the individual, can threaten a kind of “human monoculture,” said Clare. Often society “un-chooses” disability — screening for genetic abnormalities in fetuses, vaccinating against disease, racing for cures to diseases like breast cancer and ALS. In some moments, individuals actively choose disability: choosing to throw away hearing aids, to adopt a disabled child, to forego drugs designed to treat psychiatric disorders. 

“To many non-deaf people, non disabled walkies, and people without psych labels, these choices seem unimaginable,” said Clare. “But from the inside, they make all the sense in the world. They pave the way for finding community and connection. They allow for greater and easier mobility. They allow us to be ourselves.”

Clare’s reading and discussion were co-sponsored by the Academic Enrichment Fund, American Studies Program, Brainerd Commons, Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, Dean of the College, Department of English and American Literature, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Studies Program, the Franklin Environmental Center, and the Writing Program.