Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure

Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Eli Clare. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, 218pp.

In Brilliant Imperfection, disability studies scholar, activist, and poet Eli Clare weaves together what he calls a mosaic. This mosaic is made of slivers and shards of his own experiences as well as the experiences of other disabled people, animals, and nature in both the past and the present. In each shard, a different angle of cure is refracted to explore what Clare calls the ideology of cure and the role of curative logic. In thinking through ideologies and logic, Clare is concerned with how cure has become a normalized aspiration and pursuit. At times, Clare weaves together an argument, and at other times, he permits different orientations and experiences to stand in juxtaposition, revealing the messiness and ambivalence of cure.

In insisting on the non-negotiable value of disabled bodies and minds, or what he calls “bodyminds,” Clare argues for an understanding of cure as violent and ultimately unattainable. He explores whether cure requires eradication and/or the return to an imagined past before disability. This is thorny terrain on which to stand: What is pre-disability, specifically for those with congenital impairments and for those who cannot or do not want to remember a time before disability? At the same time, however, Clare is ambivalent in that there are some disabled people who do desire cures and whom Clare works hard to avoid judging. What of the person with chronic pain, the person with cancer? What about the fact that Clare’s mother herself desperately wished for a cure for him? In grappling—his chosen word and mode—with cure, Clare pushes disability studies scholarship into a potentially uncomfortable zone in which questions of loss, pain, and, in a more hopeful note, restoration, emerge. Indeed, this is a disability studies text that honestly and courageously takes on difficult questions about trauma, suicide, and loss.

In his mosaic, Clare blurs the boundary around the human, weaving together reflections on tall grass prairies, Carrie Buck, Ashley X, Terri Schiavo, and Ota Benga, people and sites that he wishes to mourn and rage for. He writes of the ways that the concept of personhood can and has been used as a weapon (pp. 28–29). This helps Clare examine curative logics that exceed neat species boundaries, yet it also raises tensions. Clare is nostalgic for a past in which nature and the environment were not disabled by capitalist overuse, although he is careful to not wish for the same for disabled people, for whom such a past may not exist or be desirable. In his commitment to a consideration of how disabled people are imbricated in a complex ecology—and this is perhaps where the idea of a mosaic is quite productive, in that we can consider an ecology as a mosaic—Clare refuses to submit to disability exceptionalism (Puar 2017). Instead, he joins a growing number of disability studies scholars interested in questions of human and nonhuman relationships. Clare does this as part of a larger value-making project in relation to disabled bodyminds. While these bodyminds are damaged, as is the natural environment in which we live, we can find “fractured wholeness” and “brilliant imperfection” (p. xvii). Clare states: “[A]s a way of knowing, understanding, and living with disability and chronic illness, brilliant imperfection is rooted in the non-negotiable value of bodymind difference” (p. xvii).

As we hope we have made clear, this is an affective text that defies genre and does not provide easy answers. Clare’s points about the ambivalence of cure are underscored by his own discussions of his experience of transitioning from female to male and the kinds of surgical interventions and “cures” that he eagerly sought out. He does not wish to cure his cerebral palsy, but he does wish to modify the shape of his body. This intersection, and Clare’s nuanced discussion of disabled and trans experiences, is an important intervention of the book. Clare also grapples with the power and threat of cure in his discussion of his experience as a sexual assault survivor, noting that for a long time he did wish to be cured of the “damage” that had been inflicted on him. Like the rest of the book, this section resists easy answers. Clare does not disavow his former longing for cure but rather explains that he now realizes that cure, a return to a past before he was damaged, is impossible (pp. 159–60). Clare embraces this inconsistency while maintaining, above all, the violence of the “medical–industrial complex” and the need for disability pride and disability justice movements to work in relation to other social, economic, and environmental justice movements. This attempt to insert disability studies into diverse social justice conversations is another major contribution of this book. Clare also makes intriguing statements about the value of including disability in broader conversations around diversity, both human and biological, thus joining with scholars such as Rosemarie Garland Thomson (2012), with her arguments about conserving disability, and H-Dirksen Bauman and Joseph Murray (2014), with their proposal of “deaf gain” and the importance of deafness in contributing to biodiversity.

While Clare at times romanticizes the non-Western or non-modern, particularly in his discussion of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (pp. 44–45), his constant push to unpack what is normal and what is natural will be valuable to students in introductory medical anthropology courses as well as anthropology courses on the body and human–nature interactions. Because of the way that it is written, it is difficult to pick out individual chapters or sections, but the text is accessible and poetic. In the end, the book’s greatest strength may be its mosaic approach, which invites readers to grapple along with Clare, and to explore the multifaceted aspects of cure—removed from every-day, taken-for-granted senses—in their lives and the world around them.

References Cited

Bauman, H.-D. L., and J. Murray. 2014. Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Garland Thomson, R. 2012. The Case for Conserving Disability. Bioethical Inquiry 9: 339–55.

Puar, J. 2017. The Right to Maim. Durham: Duke University Press.