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book review
  • Title: Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space
  • Author: Amanda Leduc
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: Coach House Books
  • Pages: 300

“Why, in all of these stories about someone who wants to become and be someone else, was it always the individual who needed to change, never the world?”

This is one of the fundamental questions Amanda Leduc poses in her latest book, Disfigured. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of three, Leduc, an avid Disney lover, underwent multiple surgeries at the age of four. This was followed by a wheelchair, her classmates initially curious about the different girl with different legs. But it wasn’t long before this curiosity faded and was replaced by rejection.

Now the communications director of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Leduc investigates the intersection between disability and her beloved fairy tales, questioning the constructs of these stories and where her place is, as a disabled woman, among those narratives.

So, for a young girl with cerebral palsy, would this mean Leduc could only have her happy ending if she had normal legs? Were her legs merely a moral lesson that disability is the underworld from which the hero must escape? For Leduc, Disney’s The Little Mermaid resounded with her the most. A young mermaid wanting legs built to run and dance reflected Leduc’s own desire for abled legs, just like the legs of those around her. Acceptable, normal, healthy legs that would bring her a happy ending.

Ariel’s transition into a legged human – and, finally, permanency as one – is the order of imposition on unruly bodies, Leduc states. And the pain that Ariel of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1872 tale experienced “each time her foot touched the floor” mirrored Leduc’s own pain. In the Disney version, Ariel’s happy ending is the gift of normal legs as she sails off into the sunset with her prince (who also couldn’t communicate with her when her voice was taken, and frankly, nor did he even try).

The Brothers Grimm’s Hans My Hedgehog is a tale to which Leduc often returns. The King rescinds an agreement to allow his daughter to marry a half-man, half-hedgehog, out of disgust for the man. Finally, and after many years, Hans, the titular character, shows the world that he isn’t half-man after all, but had cloaked himself in the disguise as a moralistic lesson. They all live happily ever after: the rejecting King, the helpless princess and the deceiver who used a monstrous form as a tool to teach his lesson.

But what is the lesson these tales are really trying to teach, Leduc questions. That in fairy tales, disability is used as a punishment, the strife out of which the heroes must rise, ultimately gaining beauty, love and a happy ending. The sleeping beauty who must be woken from her cursed sleep by a prince. The beautiful maiden who rises out of an abusive house and marries the charming prince, through the luck of her dainty, perfect feet.

That beauty can love despite the beast, but once she does, he transforms into a handsome prince who had been cursed into a terrifying creature.

That a mermaid, longing for her prince, can finally walk.

Leduc illustrates how these stories teach us that disfigurement, disease and disability are often associated with moral failings, and that beauty and abled perfection is the happy ending (usually involving a prince).

What would this mean for a little girl with cerebral palsy or the woman she would grow up to be? How would these moralistic stories frame her perception of self and her place in the world, and in turn, how would the world perceive those like her?

After years of living in this place of otherness, in 2015 Leduc experienced the worst of her depression (and what would later be diagnosed as major depressive disorder). As she struggled to move through life, she was reminded of Grimm’s Rapunzel and the “desolate land where [she] was leading a wretched existence.” This struck Leduc as all too familiar: the greyness that can come with mental illness and the tower in which those living with it are often placed. They are accessible, as the prince is accessible to Rapunzel by the letting down of her hair; but who helps the disabled escape that tower and get out of the desolate land?

And why do disabled folks have to be the victims in the first place? Or the lesson?

As Leduc takes us through these fairy tales and the space they occupy in the narratives that we construct, she slowly unfolds a call-to-action: the claiming of space for disability in storytelling. To challenge ourselves to tell stories in which the “princess or the childless parent or the half-human boy says, ‘Why should I be like everyone else?’ ”

But these are just stories, one might say. Leduc rejects this. “Fairy stories are not real, no,” she says. “But neither are they ever only stories.”

So maybe let’s make new fairy stories, shall we?

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