Signifying Bodies

Disability in Contemporary Life Writing

Sheds new light on the memoir boom by asking: Is the genre basically about disability?


Memoirs have enjoyed great popularity in recent years, experiencing significant sales, prominent reviews, and diverse readerships. Signifying Bodies shows that at the heart of the memoir phenomenon is our fascination with writing that focuses on what it means to live in, or be, an anomalous body---in other words, what it means to be disabled. Previous literary accounts of the disabled body have often portrayed it as a stable entity possibly signifying moral deviance or divine disfavor, but contemporary writers with disabilities are defining themselves and depicting their bodies in new ways. Using the insights of disability studies and source material ranging from the Old and New Testaments to the works of authors like Lucy Grealy and Simi Linton and including contemporary films such as Million Dollar Baby, G. Thomas Couser sheds light on a broader cultural phenomenon, exploring topics such as the ethical issues involved in disability memoirs, the rhetorical patterns they frequently employ, and the complex relationship between disability narrative and disability law.

"Thomas Couser's Signifying Bodies comes at a crucial moment when debates about physician assisted suicide, genetic engineering, and neo-natal screening are raising the question of what constitutes a 'life worth living' for persons with disabilities. Couser's work engages these debates by exploring the extensive number of personal narratives by or about persons with disabilities. As Couser brilliantly demonstrates through synoptic readings, these works challenge the 'preferred rhetorics' by which such narratives are usually written (triumphalist, gothic, nostalgic) while making visible the variegated nature of embodied life."
---Michael Davidson, University of California, San Diego

"Signifying Bodies shows us that life writing about disability is . . . everywhere. . . . From obituary to documentary film to ethnography to literary memoir to the law, the book casts a wide net, detailing how various written and filmed responses to disability both enact and resist conventional narrative patterns. [This] not only broadens our idea about where to look for life writing, but also demonstrates how thoroughly stereotypes about disability mediate our social and artistic languages---even when an author has (so-called) the best intentions."
---Susannah B. Mintz, Skidmore College

G. Thomas Couser is Professor of English at Hofstra University.

G. Thomas Couser is Professor of English and Director of Disability Studies at Hofstra University. His previous books include, Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing (Cornell, 2004); Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (Wisconsin, 1997); Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography (Oxford, 1989); and American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Massachusetts, 1979).

Praise / Awards

  • "Signifying Bodies offers a much needed contribution to discussion of the modern memoir by highlighting the contribution and representation of people with disabilities to the genre."
    —Elaine Beale, Feminist Review

  • "Also author of Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life-Writing (1997), Couser here contributes another study that deserves the critical yet compassionate treatment that he is in the unique position of providing."
    —S. M Erby, Choice

  • "Couser's readings of all these texts are tremendously lucid and subtle, based as they are on his command of an astounding number of other examples. The book should be accessible to students, general readers, and life writing scholars, whether or not they have any interest in disability."
    —Georgina Kleege

Look Inside

Copyright © 2009, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted October 2009.

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 216pp.
  • 5 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2009
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05069-7

Add to Cart
  • $30.95 U.S.

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