Nancy Mairs “On Being a Cripple” Analysis

Last month my English Professor assigned this heartwarming and inspirational narrative essay for our class to read and write up a short analysis on. I found Mairs’s writing to be honest, accessible, and moving. I look forward to reading more of her work. I’ll leave a link to the essay at the bottom of the page for your reading pleasure.

Here’s the assigned writing prompt:

What are the reasons that Nancy Mairs gives for preferring the word “cripple” to define her condition ? Why, after choosing to define herself as a cripple, does she say on page 88 that she hates being a cripple and that if fills her with “self-loathing”? Explain this in light of her assertion on page 89 that, “like many women, I have always had an uneasy relationship with my body.”

Mairs prefers the word “cripple” because it’s the “straightforward and precise” word that describes her condition, as opposed to “disabled,” which she states “suggests any incapacity, mental or physical,” or “handicapped” which she defines as “… [being] deliberately disadvantage[d].” She also implies, however subtly—and skillfully I might add—that the politically correct terms are more for the comfort of society rather than the crippled themselves.

As a cripple, I swagger. —Nancy Mairs

Instead of using language as an abstract crutch, she fully accepts her condition by stating: “Some realities do not obey the dictates of language.” She uses irony to emphasize this point by writing, “As a cripple, I swagger.” 

The self-loathing she feels stem from her condition limiting her ability to complete everyday tasks that she was once able to do easily. She also writes that she feels shame because the symptoms of her condition, particularly fatigue, cause her to be excluded from many of her community’s social functions, referred to as “puritanical tradition[s] of exceptional venerability.” The passage is a subtle dig at society’s close-mindedness toward “disabled” or “handicapped” people. Society wants to hide “cripples” behind these so-called less derogatory terms instead of acknowledging the reality of their situations. This reinforces Mair’s decision to refer to herself as a cripple. She flaunts it openly, thus bringing more attention to it.

On top of all of that, because she isn’t only a woman, but a crippled woman, she has no way of living up to society’s ideals of what a woman should be, leaving her “feel[ing] ludicrous, even loathsome” when she thinks about how “others, especially men” view her body. She also describes a childhood “sense of self-alienation” that is exacerbated by her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis as an adult.

Click Here to read the narrative essay. Feel free to share your thoughts on the essay in the comments.

Feature Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay

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