Disfigured: On Fairy tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc (Coach House Books 2020)
Reviewed by Katie Vogel
Within the first essay of Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, I encountered a Joan Didion quote with which I am familiar. It is a quote that exemplifies what Amanda Leduc does in this book, which is as much an exploration of the ways that Western fairy tales reinforce and embody beliefs about disability and happiness as it is a retelling of her own story as a disabled person. It is a reminder that the stories we tell, why we tell them, and who is or is not included in them matters.
The quote is: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
This has been a staple theme in my own writing and a guiding belief that I’ve come back to as I have worked on undoing the ableist narratives I’ve internalized about my own experiences as an autistic and ADHD person. I have told myself many tales about why I am the way I am and watched others do the same. I convinced myself that my struggles were things I had brought upon myself as punishment, and my joys were rewards for ‘good’ behavior.
At present, I am still unlearning this pattern of reducing my existence to a thing that is good or bad. That has involved a lot of searching for stories that mirror that quest, that teach me how to craft versions of my own that will let me live. As a result, I have experienced the euphoria and relief of finding books like Disfigured.
In each of the nine essays that comprise Disfigured, Leduc, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, lays bare the moralizing stories that Western fairy tales reinforce from their start as oral traditions all the way through Disney’s animated empire. She examines Jack and the Beanstalk, The Ugly Duckling, and Beauty and the Beast, among many other fairy tales and fables, drawing parallels between the linguistic patterns and storytelling tropes that form the basis of their ableist beliefs and her own history of relating to her disability.
Within each essay, Leduc includes her own experience as she navigated school, bullying, childhood dreams, and later, living her life as a disabled adult in a world that demands, as it does of all disabled people, that she change instead of providing adequate accommodations for her. She also offers us the context of writing by disability justice activists, fairytale scholars, and interviews with a diverse group of disabled folks (due to having different disabilities or being multiply marginalized through race, class, gender, and/or sexuality) to describe how these subtexts don’t embed themselves in the cultural fabric out of nowhere.
The messaging about how we should conceive of ourselves and engage with our disabled bodies and/or minds in relation to not just happiness, but existence and everyday life, shows up in political, educational, social, medical, and professional settings. Leduc is honest and direct about the individual and communal harm that happens when you are taught that you shouldn’t expect to be accommodated. She, too, makes space for others to share the emotional, mental, and material repercussions of insisting that, in order to attain happiness, our disability must be overcome or eliminated and what the personal and collective journey has been to resist and rewrite the different versions of this script.
She writes, “I knew, growing up, that my life as a disabled child was just as valuable as that of any other girl. But I did not know – and sometimes still don’t – how to fit physically into that ‘valuable’ space” (29). Further in the book she describes how, “These years later, I feel like I’m still discovering the answer, still writing this story anew.” And that, “Even now, as an adult, there are parts of the story that can hurt, and there are still times when I catch my gait in the mirror and feel a whisper of those voices that spoke so cruelly when I was a child” (234).
Leduc brings to our attention how these fairy tales moralize, abstract, and erase disability. Meanwhile, her story-telling structure turns our disabled stories, and their precarity or erasure, into ones that are within our power to write for ourselves. In defiance of ableism, and in community with each other. As I read, I see myself on my own quest for my version of a complicated happiness that fits me, one I can attain without having to fundamentally alter who I am. I see everyone who is struggling and dancing through their version of this process of revising, revisiting, and redefining themselves. I feel less alone as I write my many stories because I see myself in this story I am reading.
As Leduc recontextualizes what fairy tales tell us about disability, she too calls for fairy tales that more closely resembles disabled people’s lived stories, declaring, “Give me fairy tales where disabled characters not only triumph but also change the world. Because disabled people have already done that countless times over, and in a world that continually tells them another story: one where they have no place at all. What might we accomplish, instead, in a space where the disabled body is front and center in our stories?” (235)
This call, much like the Didion quote, highlights the way that stories help us know who we are, find others like us, and affirm that our reality, our happiness, our struggles, our lineage within community and humanity are real and knowable. Stories have the power to show us that existing as we are is not just feasible but a functioning reality, and so we must have stories that tell us not just that we are present, but that life as we wish to experience it is possible.
Katie Vogel (who lives on the internet as and occasionally publishes under the name ‘Katie Bird’) is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn, NY with their cat, Lion. A former Lambda Literary Writers in Schools intern, their recent prose and hybrid work focus on the presentation and function of power dynamics within learning environments and book-reading as a time-keeping device. Their poetry has appeared in and is forthcoming from BlazeVOX and The Portable Boog Reader. Katie is pursuing their BFA in Writing from Pratt Institute with a minor in Performance & Performance Studies and a custom minor in Power Dynamics in Learning.