18 January 2016
D.D. Mayers autobiography is described as the story of one man’s journey from happiness to despair and back again. Dr Emmeline Burdett gives an analysis of the book drawing on disability studies theory to understand how disabled people can often imbibe a negative self-image from disability stereotypes.
You Have Not a Leg to Stand On is D.D. Mayers’ account of his life before and since breaking his spine in a road accident in 1976. Mayers’ accident and its aftermath are presented in terms which adhere strongly to the ‘personal tragedy’ model of disability which is so prevalent in mainstream society. Mayers describes the accident as ‘a disaster’ (p.1), ‘a catastrophe’ (p.11), and ‘a calamity’ (p.134). He also believes that, due to his impairment, he has for decades had nothing to offer, stating ‘Her [his wife’s] mother, who you would have thought would be aghast at her lovely daughter being tied to a cripple for goodness knows how long, was marvellous with her acceptance of the situation. I didn’t deserve such kindness I was getting from all those around me’ (p.25).
Mayers claims that ‘I serve no purpose and haven’t done so for years’. In view of his undoubtedly interesting and varied life (since his accident, Mayers and his wife have embarked upon various successful building projects and run a vineyard) this statement is bizarre. Mayers’ attitude to his impairment owes far more to his uncritical absorption (and regurgitation) of prevailing stereotypes about disabled people than it does to anything else.
Mayers’ life presents him with a number of real problems – as he tells the reader: ‘I’m … in continuous, excruciating pain below the break, meaning normal painkilling drugs have no effect’ (p.2). He does also have continence problems, which are often (at least by paralysed people) acknowledged to be one of the most difficult aspects of paralysis. Still, there is more to this issue than Mayers suggests.
This is particularly striking when Mayers describes his rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville hospital. As he was unable to empty his bladder in the usual way, he was instructed how to do so using a bag. This system was set up by an orderly who announced that he was going to ‘Plumb you [Mayers] up’:
‘He took hold of the end of my penis, pulled it straight up in the air and washed it, and my testicles, with a wad of cotton wool and disinfectant. He lay (sic) it down on a piece of paper from a roll. Then he opened a little jar which had a brush on the inside of the lid. On the brush was a thick white substance which he proceeded to paint along the length of my upheld penis. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said ‘Glue’. I said, ‘Glue?’ He said, ‘Yes, glue’ … I thought, ‘I’m going to have to stop asking questions’.’(p.23)
Even the most basic courtesy required not that Mayers should have stopped asking questions, but that the orderly should have started answering them properly. How could Mayers know what was happening, if the orderly did not tell him? Michel Foucault’s term ‘bio-power’ means that, in different times and different places, as well as for different reasons, different bodies are accorded differing levels of power. As disabled people, including Mayers, have all-too-often experienced, this can regularly result in being treated as a mere object.
The late Vic Finkelstein criticized Stoke Mandeville’s ethos of making disabled people as ‘normal’ as possible, by, for example, insisting on the primacy of walking. Mayers had his accident in 1976, so was at Stoke Mandeville some twenty years later than Finkelstein. Did Finkelstein’s criticisms still hold true? Maybe not, as Mayers’ physiotherapist taught him how to get in and out of any type of bath from his wheelchair. But Mayers’ attitude – that it is terribly kind of other people to bother with him – makes it difficult to know one way or the other.
Mayers’ attitude to the relationship between himself and other people is the most problematic aspect of this book. He believes that in order to deserve anything from other people, he would have to be a paragon:
‘It was plain to me that I hadn’t achieved anything, I had no talent, nothing to warrant any of the enormous love, care and attention that was being poured upon me’. (p.43)
This passage relates to another in which Mayers is offered a device to help him control his bladder. The device was not available on the NHS, but:
‘My aunt Carmen offered to buy it for me. Such a kind offer I really didn’t deserve’ (p.27).
In Disability Studies: A Student’s Guide (Sage: 2014), Dr Colin Cameron (click here to read an interview with him on the affirmitive model of disability) quotes Sally French’s comment that
‘The crucial difference is that non-disabled people’s problems are regarded as normal and acceptable, and thus they can ask assistance of each other without feeling guilty or inferior’.
Mayers’ depression was undoubtedly partly caused by his persistent pain and illness. As he writes:
‘I was constantly ill with urinary tract infections, I couldn’t eat, I was in constant pain and every morning I retched before having a bath and getting dressed’. (p.16).
Nevertheless, Mayers’ problems are exacerbated by the way he views himself. To an extent he admits this, writing:
‘’My poor little wife’ is a term I use to give you the sense of how I think I ‘am’ imposing myself on her, how I ‘hate’ myself for being as I am’. (p.18)
Mayers’ self-image does not fit with everything that he and his wife have achieved since his accident. As mentioned previously, they have undertaken building projects and run a vineyard. Mayers credits his wife with the success of these ventures, saying ‘Without my little wife pushing, lifting, straining, nurturing, we wouldn’t have achieved anything at all.’
It’s difficult to know how to respond to Mayers’ erroneous assertions that he is simply a dead weight. His book was clearly intended as a tribute to his wife. Nevertheless, in this review I have tried to draw attention to how Mayers’ self-image may have developed, and how there is a different way of looking at things.