The most accomplished woman I know lacks the use of her legs. A nationally prominent theorist, clinician and administrator, she has become resigned, if not accustomed, to the fact that on her way to present papers at scientific meetings, airlines treat her like a particularly unwieldy piece of carry-on baggage. Though outwardly grateful, she seethed at receiving a major award for outstanding achievement by a handicapped person. Her legs, she rightly points out, have no part in her work, and so their malfunctioning cannot handicap her professionally.
It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I recommend Nancy Mairs, the author of "Plain Text," as a brilliant handicapped -- or, in her more exact word, crippled -- writer of essays. I do not mean that her profession, any more than my friend's, requires usable legs. Nor do I mean that her efforts merit the soppy approbation accorded to earnest mediocrities produced by disadvantaged people. No, she composes as clean and resonant a line, as piercing an image, as forceful an argument, as vivid a scene, as anyone working in her medium. I simply mean that, because an irreversible, deteriorating disease lies near the center of her adult experience, she often devotes her powers to explicating her relationship to her wasting body; her essay "On Being a Cripple" comes as close as anything I have read to making that condition palpable to us able-bodied. And she achieves the same invaluable effect for other realms of her life as well.
Invaluable to me, at least, for many are realms that, by the grace of God, I do not know at first hand. She has multiple sclerosis and recurring attacks of agoraphobia and depression. She has survived a commitment to a state mental hospital and several attempts at suicide. She lost her father at age 4. She salvaged a foster son from the school for emotionally disturbed boys where her husband used to teach. And, perhaps most painful of all, she scrupulously searches her experience for meaning and bravely bodies it forth in prose.
I fear that I've made the book sound maudlin, bathetic, even "inspirational." I didn't mean to. It's astringent, unsentimental, witty, bracing, provocative, often skeptical, often fun. Trouble hasn't been her whole life. She has also enjoyed, in both senses, a fine education; good jobs; love affairs; a long, reasonably contented marriage; two bright, healthy natural children; grandchildren -- by the now successful foster son; and lately, a major award for her poetry. She intends to continue enjoying, as she says in "On Having Adventures," "the adventures that are mine to have." They become more circumscribed as her illness advances, more limited to the compass of her home, her office, her pen, her memory, but no less exhilarating, no less precisely observed. Her essay "On Loving Men," for example, made me, an almost exact contemporary, shiver at the half-forgotten agonies of romance in our youth.
She has the poet's easy access to the unconscious, and the poet's gift for the meaningfully concrete. What could make more real the indignity of a failing body than this madcap moment: ". . . One May afternoon . . . a friend and I were going out for a drink after finishing up at school. As we were climbing into opposite sides of my car, I tripped and fell, flat and hard, onto the asphalt parking lot, my abrupt departure interrupting him in mid-sentence. 'Where'd you go?' he called as he came around the back of the car to find me hauling myself up by the door frame."
Or how's this for summing up the hard-won wisdom of -- finally -- growing up: "No more 'dream' world, more perfect than the 'real' world, waiting if only I can find the small, golden key; in which I love and rear my children without pain; in which I gratify my husband's slenderest desire; in which I dust all the surfaces of my room every morning instead of Christmas and Easter; in which I understand how to solve basic quadratic equations; in which someone discovers all the poems I haven't written and publishes them in The New Yorker. There is one world -- this world -- and I have made it. No hope of a cure, ever, for being me."
That medical science will never "cure" this one of her ills, legions of readers, I suspect, will shortly feel grateful. And grateful also that the young Nancy chose as her model Emily Dickinson, a woman "crippled by the conflicts generated by the possession of a 'male' power, creativity . . ." I see now that my first instinct was correct. In this sense also, in her ability to plumb the travail of the simultaneously talented and womanly woman of our time, to feel and tell the contradictions of intelligent female lives, Mairs is a brilliantly "crippled" writer indeed.