Leslie Swartz describes Able-Bodied: Scenes from a Curious Life (Zebra, 2010) as a “very personal” book: “[I]t feels like a story about my heart, my blood, my being” (51). And it is. A tribute to a father he loved, it is also a discussion of how that father’s disability profoundly shaped his life, primarily in terms of his career as “Mr Disability Studies”, and of the very real ethical issues accompanying this role (18).
Able-Bodied opens with the declaration that “[e]very page of this book, every sentence, every word, is, in one way or another, about [the author’s] father” (1). The book is thus written “to acknowledge” Swartz’s deceased father and is explicitly dedicated to him (1). Able-Bodied describes the disabled and pained body of the father (“lumpy chest”, “twisted hammer toes and strange flat feet”, “funny hip”, “pronounced and painful limp” (1)), as well as the father’s attempt (largely motivated by his mother’s “stealing his pain” to “[turn] what he was going through into high drama of her own” ) to transcend his disability: “[H]e had stood up to [his impairments and their social encoding] with all the strength that he had … On his own terms he had triumphed – he had the career he wanted, played the sport he loved, loved and married the woman he chose” (30-31). Swartz’s portrait of his father is therefore that of a “brave, brave man who had successfully taken on the world, determined not to be defined by his funny broken body” (209).
Although the opening sentence of Able-Bodied prefigures the book as a homage to a father, and much of the book does meet this expectation, the following sentence shows the important relational context of this memoir: “He [Swartz’s father] died in 1983, when I was a young man at the start of my professional life, neither of us knowing how my life would turn out” (1). This book is therefore not merely a biographical account, but also an autobiography; more specifically, it is an autobiography of a psychologist specialising in disability studies. Swartz, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Stellenbosch University, writes that before beginning this project he was “a psychologist knowing so little about [his] own psychology” (87). Able-Bodied thus allows Swartz to “mak[e] something of [his] own from [his family’s] personal lives” and, in particular, from his father’s life (87). For Swartz, “[i]t matters to be the child of a person with twisted feet” (89), “the son of a disabled man” (180): “a key reality of my life is that the way I feel about my body, in my body, for my body, is in some ways a product of my father’s being disabled” (103). Not only does this “disability [matter]” (103) in the way Swartz has constituted his own identity (for example, by “hang[ing] on to [his] non-athleticism with a vehemence and defiance” as “part of [his] core identity” in response to his father’s “urgent wish” that he “play sport of his behalf” [100-101]), but in his career choice. Of his entry into and commitment to “disability research”, Swartz comments: “I had almost no conscious choice – working in the disability field was something I just had to do” (162). Able-Bodied does not, therefore, pay homage only to Swartz’s father, but also “to where he (and his disability) have taken [Swartz]” (13).
This destination is clearly demarcated as psychological research in the fairly new field of disability studies. Able-Bodied can therefore be read as much for its familial narrative as for its narrative about the development of disability studies in southern Africa, and Swartz’s own participation in the construction of this narrative. The text traces some of the key concepts of disability studies (insider knowledge and self-representation: “Nothing about us without us” (50)), conflicts (the medical model versus the social model of disability) and questions (the role of able-bodied researchers in the primarily participatory-based disability movement). Rather than becoming mired in academic jargon, these discussions are clear and accessible, and, fittingly, grounded in the personal. For example, describing the social model of understanding disability, Swartz returns to his father who was “eased out” of his job after “almost thirty years” because he “no longer fitted the [company’s new] profile” – “younger, robust, more flashy, American corporate style” with “squash and saunas” instead of his father’s beloved golf (30). Swartz writes:
[S]omething horrible happened towards the end [of his father’s career and life – he died shortly after taking early retirement], a full circle in which suddenly his broken body and his filleted toes came again to mean something more than just impairments. This, for me, is the social model. (30-31)
In his explorations of disability studies Swartz raises the ethical dilemmas he experiences working as an able-bodied researcher in this field. What is perhaps more striking, however, are his ethical interrogations of his own writing practices in constructing this memoir. Swartz “worr[ies] about every word [he] put[s] down”, about writing from “feelings of envy and even rage”, from “being irrational and unfair” (9-10). He is highly conscious of the way in which he is constructing his version of this story:
I will choose what to put in and what to leave out of my story. And in order to protect other people and myself, I will choose where to massage the facts deliberately, change names and places, tell lies. All of this in the service of the greater truth that I want to tell, a story which, though it starts with me and the vaudeville that is my family, has something more to say. (14)
Simultaneously, he is aware that by doing so, he is “writ[ing] [his sister’s and mother’s] versions out, and in that way [he] do[es] them violence” (14). While Able-Bodied is “a tribute to [Swartz’s] father, it is also a story of [Swartz] getting [his] own back, stamping [his] version, [his] story, [his] take on things, with the authority of the printed word” (10-11). And he is aware of what has afforded him this authority:
I have the confidence, the (inherited) ability to write things down, the education (paid for largely by my parents), the privilege of a job that pays me to write. I have the fancy laptop, (…) the libraries to visit and own. I have the track record, the PhD, the title of Professor. I am allowed, empowered – expected – to say things. (13)
Similarly, he is aware that these “things” are constructed on the basis of a “memory [that is] as unreliable as anyone else’s” (14).
Repeatedly in the text Swartz draws attention to the unreliability of memory. The first of these occasions is in the dedication: “In (unreliable) memory of Alfred Mervyn Swartz, 1921-1983”. The use of brackets to contain personal, humorous and humble comments, often self-reflexive modifications like “(unreliable) memory”, is a notable stylistic feature of Able-Bodied. The numerous parenthetical references disrupt any superficial neatness or completeness of the narrative, or the absolute authority of the narrator. The narrative voice is colloquial and congenial, overtly present and engaging. An example is the conclusion of the first chapter: “And at the end of all this [Able-Bodied] I want to come out smelling of roses (and not, as Granny would have it, ‘Smelling of – excuse me – cat wee-wee’)? Yes, I do. Well then, here goes” (15).
Able-Bodied is thus as much an example of familial life writing as it is an exploration of the ethical implications invoked by this mode. Self-revelatory and self-reflexive, personal and political, academically clear and colloquially accessible, Able-Bodied is “a story about recognising things that count”, and in the telling, it enables the reader to do the same (89).