True bodies/false bodies: Disability, appearance, and the politics of personal sincerity

Jane H Van Slembrouck, Fordham University


In her memoir The World I Live In, Helen Keller allows herself a brief protest of the public's relentless appetite for her story. Rarely is she asked to address "matters that are not-me," and thus, "I can only do my best with the one small subject about which I am allowed to discourse." The pressures on Keller to embody her story of striving and disability—a disability whose invisibility only enhanced its attraction and need of representation—points to the tension between the purportedly "true" self and public image at the heart of "Disability, Appearance, and the Politics of Personal Sincerity." I argue that the value of personal sincerity shaped the social reception of those outside the corporeal mainstream in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the texts I examine, prescriptive normalcy requires individuals to align their inner and outer selves by disclosing their personal histories and the stories of their disabilities— confessions that are then circulated, critiqued, and often doubted. Highlighting the interconnectedness of disability, visuality, evidence, and knowledge, my project reads accounts of nonvisible corporeal difference as an important mode of boundary transgression, akin to the blurring of racial and gender lines. Figures with less conspicuous differences may still be stigmatized, but their ability to move between the categories of insider and outsider affords them a certain freedom. While they may provoke anxiety by unsettling the boundaries of normalcy, they can also serve as objects of desire who replace personal coherence with creative dissembling and self-invention. Linking discussions of disability and personal authenticity, my project examines Robert Montgomery Bird's fictional fantasy of corporeal instability, Sheppard Lee; Julia Ward Howe's exploration of the fluidity of gender and sex in The Hermaphrodite; Emily Dickinson's lyrical account of pain's visibility; and Helen Keller's negotiation of self-image and public scrutiny. Finally, my project contributes to the growing discussion within disability studies about liminal differences, including pain and chronic illness. Such differences uniquely register the representational problems attending all social identities and underscore the ways in which disabled performance is informed by values of personal transparency and character.

Subject Area

African literature|American studies|American literature|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Van Slembrouck, Jane H, "True bodies/false bodies: Disability, appearance, and the politics of personal sincerity" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3643389.