Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Berger reviews The Secret Life of Stories

Michael Bérubé. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: New York University Press, 2016. 240 pp.

Review by James Berger

Since its inception as an academic field in the 1980s, disability studies has primarily been concerned with physical disabilities. This focus on physical—as opposed to cognitive or emotional—disability follows from the principle directions of the disability rights movement as established in its beginnings in the 1960s. The great early figures of that movement—Ed Roberts, Mary Lou Breslin, members of the Berkeley Rolling Quads and of the Independent Living Movement, among others—were in large part people with mobility impairments, many as a result of polio. Indeed, it could be argued that the disability rights movement would not have taken the paths that it did had it not been for the polio epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s.

Early disability activists were mostly college-age, white, and male, from middle- or professional-class families. Their goal was access to the full range of educational and civic institutions; they wanted university education and access to libraries, voting sites, transportation, and employment. In short, they wanted full citizenship. It was not their physical conditions, they argued, that impaired and impeded them; rather, it was the assemblage of socially constituted physical and ideological barriers that stood in their way and rendered them disabled. They defined their movement in contrast to existing organizations for the “handicapped” which sought to receive and distribute charity on the basis of pity for the poor and helpless. Autonomy, agency, and voice were the key terms for the movement.

The academic field of disability studies as it emerged in the humanities in the 1980s established itself on the political premises of the disability rights movement. It focused its critical attention on representations of physical impairments. It examined these representations as punitive (physical aberrance either portrayed as punishment or as entailing punishment), as establishing boundaries of deviance that allowed norms to be understood, as narrative prosthetics or metaphors that carried the weight of broader cultural concerns, and as figures of alterity that stood in relation to the norm and defined the norm.

What then would be the status of people, in literature and in the actual world, who do not appear to be capable of agency and voice? Disability studies and the disability rights movement have been uncertain on this question. Nothing about us without us, is the famous slogan. But what about people who, in fact, cannot speak for themselves? This is where Michael Bérubé’s new book The Secret Life of Stories enters the discussion. This book’s lengthy subtitle—“From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read”—suggests Bérubé’s concern with literary figures who, as he writes, are “incapable of giving an account of themselves” (p. 63), who “cannot represent themselves [and] must therefore be represented” (p. 69). From this position of discursive incapacity, Bérubé argues, important hermeneutic consequences emerge. The key to reading, in Bérubé’s view—the key to either composing or understanding and interpreting a narrative—lies in the ability to occupy a metacognitive position. The narrator or the receiver of narrative must be able to place him- or herself outside the strictures of the narrative. Intellectual disability, in Bérubé’s literary sense, means the inability to create or to construe a metanarrative. It is a position highly particular and at the same time practically universal. There are characters with obviously impaired linguistic or cognitive abilities whose narratives or attempts at narrative can never step outside of themselves. Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, in his mnemonic-sensory immersion, would be the most typical example. Christopher, the precise, anti-ironic narrator of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, would be another. For Bérubé, however, both Don Quixote and Vladimir Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote, in their flailing, mad, brilliant, and foolish efforts to achieve a status as metanarrators, are also disabled in this sense.[1]

The sweep of Bérubé’s book is both powerful and problematic. His careful and imaginative readings illustrate the central place of figures with intellectual disabilities in our literary canons and make compelling arguments for how these figures who cannot represent themselves (either symbolically or politically) contribute crucially to our understandings of representation in both these senses. At the same time, the book provides us with a vertiginous suspicion that Bérubé’s analyses of these texts of disabled narrators may be valid, finally, for all narratives. For what narrative, after all, has achieved such a degree of metacognition that there is no further knowledge of its mechanisms, contexts, and connotations that can be achieved? There is always, in every story, a place outside, a lever of Archimedean understanding that cannot be found or held. Barred from that site, all of us, as writers and readers, are ants on the beach ball or raisins in the muffin, at home on the surface or within the texture, but never really knowing the text we are crawling on, or in.

As a book about relations between intellectual disability and literature, The Secret Life of Stories stands somewhat at cross purposes with contemporary tendencies in disability studies. In the formative stages of disability studies as practiced by scholars in the humanities, the focus was largely on representations of disability and on the ideological implications of these representations. Variations on this approach characterized the work from the 1990s and early 2000s of Lennard Davis, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Tobin Siebers, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, and Ato Quayson, who all had their primary training in literary studies. Since then, literature has been displaced as a central component of the study of disability even among these scholars. Davis and Mitchell and Snyder have moved toward more historical research; Garland Thomson has turned to bioethics. When scholars (such as, for instance, Michael Davidson and Robert McRuer) have studied aesthetic production, they have studied work by disabled people, rather than work about them. Further, while the older, more literary versions of disability studies were always political in their critiques of the ableist tendencies of textual production and consumption, the politics of more recent work has moved decisively toward queer theory, positing disabled identity not only as stigmatized but as actively transgressive and counternormative. McRuer’s work has been most important in accomplishing this theoretical-political shift. More generally, these changes represent a move toward the study of a broadly defined “biopolitics,” in which mechanisms of state and corporate/media power are conceived as shaping the social status of human (and nonhuman) bodies of various kinds in terms of economic, political, racial, abled/disabled, and gendered categories.

Such mechanisms of biopolitical power would extend also, of course, to categories of intellectual-cognitive and emotional ability and disability. In this regard, there has been significant recent scholarship on the civic status of people with intellectual disabilities, mental-emotional disequilibriums from depression to schizophrenia, and neurological conditions such as autism. In bringing mental impairments into the purview of disability studies, scholars such as Margaret Price and Stacy Clifford Simplican extend the emphasis on agency and autonomy that characterized the early phases of disability studies—with its focus on physical disability—now to mental disability. Simplican, in ways parallel to arguments made by Martha Nussbaum and Eva Kittay, contests the Rawlsian (and still, in crucial ways, Lockean) social contract in which rationality, facility with language—in short, the intellectual ability to enter into a contract—is a requisite for full citizenship. Simplican criticizes what she regards as a widespread, nearly universal “capacity contract” which stigmatizes and delegitimates people with intellectual disabilities. Her engaging and provocative book explores how intellectual disability should not preclude full citizenship status.[2] Margaret Price engages in a similar investigation and critique with regard to mental illness in academic settings.[3]

Where then does this leave Michael Bérubé’s book on intellectual disability as a literary trope that makes possible better understandings of narrative? (And, I would add, where does it leave my own book, The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity [2014], which also examines the status of characters in modern fiction with cognitive disabilities?). The biopolitical position on mental disability as put forward by Simplican and Price would deny agency (or, in Bérubé’s terms, metacognitive capacity) to no one. Mental abilities can be found across various spectrums, but no one, or practically no one, would—contra Rawls—be excluded from any civic status on the basis of his or her position on a cognitive spectrum. Where Bérubé asks how to represent people who cannot represent themselves, Simplican and Price would reject the premise of the question. If someone cannot represent him or herself under existing social conditions, the conditions must be changed. No one is beyond self-representation; it is the responsibility of the normative communicative world to understand the communicative modes of the nonnormative. And if Bérubé (or I) would respond that we are talking about literary characters, the response to that might be, so much the worse for us; perhaps literature is not what we should be talking about.

In other words, disability studies is part of a directly political struggle for full economic and political rights for all people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. And yet, we should note here that Bérubé has himself been an important actor in this and other political fights. As a member (and, for two years, as president) of the Modern Language Association, Bérubé has been among the most cogent and effective advocates for the fair treatment of part-time and other non-tenure-track college faculty, and for the importance of faculty in reclaiming the mission of the contemporary—increasingly corporate—university. And Bérubé has been a pioneer (through his care, advocacy, and, most recently, his literary partnership with his son Jamie) for a general rethinking of the capacities and life possibilities for people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. Jamie, in fact, as his father describes him, possesses metanarrative abilities. He can provide insightful readings of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and Woody Allen’s films. In an exchange with the philosopher and animal rights advocate Peter Singer, who has remarked on what he regards as the limited life possibilities for people with Down syndrome, Bérubé pere responded with some sarcasm, 

More seriously, I note that in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read. OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films. Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies—they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.” Surely you understand my sense that the goalposts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion.[4]

What, then, constitutes a proper or competent or—able—understanding of narrative? Jamie, a person with Down syndrome, has this ability. And he is able to represent himself; he has cowritten a book. And so The Secret Life of Stories is not about Jamie. It is about those who cannot represent themselves. And yet, if it is not about Jamie, it seems to be about nearly everyone else. This inability, because it is universal, is not a disability. In this sense, although Bérubé has long been an active figure in disability studies and in the movement for the rights of the disabled, this book is perhaps not a work in the field. Perhaps its skepticism about people’s abilities to understand substantially the stories they are engaged in reading, telling, and living takes it outside the frame of contemporary disability studies. Yet many of the characters in the stories Bérubé examines are, in some way, intellectually disabled. Disabled characters serve as exemplary figures for the universal inability. The disabled or incapable characters are, in Mitchell and Snyder’s sense, prostheses supporting Bérubé’s thinking on narrative and cognition. Further, as I mentioned, the characters with some customary or conventional  intellectual disability (such as autism, Down syndrome, the “idiocy” ascribed to Benjy in The Sound and the Fury) mingle in this book with characters of more or less normal intellect but who possess a certain comic obtuseness regarding their positions in the stories they inhabit (such as Kinbote, Quixote, or the comic aliens from the movie Galaxy Quest, who regard an old TV show resembling Star Trek as “historical documents”).[5]

What then is the role of intellectual disability in understanding narrative? Bérubé’s answer seems to me true and important, though also familiar. Intellectual disability in a work of fiction is a disruptive force that has epistemological and ethical effects. As Bérubé writes of the Harry Potter books, the revelation of the loss of mental control (and control of her magic) of Albus Dumbledore’s sister Ariana “warps the very fabric of the text itself” (p. 37). And this is so for several reasons. First, it decisively shifts the directions of plot and character, and does so in both temporal directions. The change is both subsequent and retroactive, and so the books we have not read and the books we have read are all changed, and our understanding of Dumbledore and of the internal politics of the world of witchcraft are all transformed. In these transformations, in turn, as Bérubé argues, we also experience a warp in our ethical senses. The loss of mental and magical faculties experienced by Dumbledore’s sister renders her radically vulnerable, marginalized, and dangerous. The ethical world of the fiction is no longer the enormous—but really, fairly simple and intelligible—realm of Harry versus Voldemort, the good witches and wizards versus the racial-purist Death Eaters and their complacent or intimidated collaborators. We read here of a crucial moral decision confronting the most wise and virtuous of the good wizards and his failure to make a good choice.

The idea that disability works as a disruption/dislocation in fiction and in social interactions is familiar to students of disability theory. Garland Thomson called disability “the unorthodox made flesh, refusing to be normalized, neutralized, or homogenized.[6] Mitchell and Snyder invoke Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on trauma and argue that “disability serves as the hard kernel or recalcitrant corporeal matter that cannot be deconstructed away” and that “the representation of disability has both allowed an interrogation of static beliefs about the body and also erupted as the unseemly matter of narrative that cannot be textually undone.”[7] The explicit introduction of ethics as a further ground of dislocation in disability representation came in Quayson’s work, in which a formal sense of dislocation—or, as he writes, “a contradictory semiotics of inarticulacy and articulation”—joins, or collides with, the fact that the textual disruption is “specifically tied to forms of social hierarchization.” Thus, for Quayson, “disability returns the aesthetic domain to an active ethical core.”[8]

This is the ground on which Bérubé is working. He is concerned with the operations of texts, not with social policy or social movements. The literary representation of those who cannot (fully) represent themselves creates an instability or strangeness that impedes the processes of reading. Notions of agency, temporality, and narrative self-reflection are all destabilized through the figures of intellectual disability. Thus, we might say, conversely and equally, that this strangeness and instability is what makes a literary reading possible. Bérubé’s approach points toward the work of Viktor Shklovsky, and Bérubé quotes Shklovsky in emphasizing that the purpose of art is “‘to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult . . . because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’” (quoted in Bérubé, p. 163). But for Bérubé, as for Quayson, the aesthetic, finally, is not an end in itself. It is impossible, Bérubé writes, even in the formalist argument he advances, “to bracket out entirely the question of justice” (p. 190).

It is perhaps with this in mind that much of the book’s conclusion focuses on recent writing on evolution, cognitive science, and neuroscience in relation to literature. Bérubé’s takedown of “evocriticism” is welcome and entertaining. I share his sense that looking to evolution or to the architecture of the brain as the keys to understanding literary form results in reductive and profoundly uninteresting criticism; it results, as Bérubé observes, in varieties of “just-so” stories. Since humans are capable of writing complex fictional narratives (with their metafictional sub- and superstructures), there must some evolutionarily adaptive cause and some evident neural mechanism that will explain this capacity. In some broad and trivial sense, this must be true. All human capacities are evolutionary and neural. What else would they be? But, if we want to understand the formal, social, and historical workings of literature (and in a durée shorter than, say, twenty thousand years), evolutionary biology and neuroscience are not much help.

Bérubé’s critique of this approach seems, however, to beat a dead horse, although the blows are executed deftly. His goal in this attack becomes clearer, though, in his discussion of Lisa Zunshine’s book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (2006). Zunshine’s work differs from the others Bérubé discusses in that Zunshine is a good reader who produces layered, historically inflected glosses of complex texts. The problem with Zunshine lies in her reductive conclusion: that, regardless of the social, ideological, psychological subtlety and power of literary narrative, its evolutionary and cognitive—that is, its real—purpose is to allow the brain to exercise its abilities to understand other people’s minds (a function referred to in cognitive science as “theory of mind”). The modern novel, then, is a gymnasium, a place to exercise. For Bérubé, this siting is inadequate. And yet, we can see how Zunshine’s argument stands partially aligned with Bérubé’s and why he needs to confront it. In what way does Bérubé’s concern with the novel of intellectual disability as an exercise in playing with metanarrative differ substantially from Zunshine’s concern with the modern novel as an exercise in understanding other minds? Both studies look to the ability or inability of characters or narrators to step outside of their immediate subjectivities and see themselves in broader contexts in relation to the others in their stories and to the stories themselves. Furthermore, despite her affiliations with cognitive science, Zunshine’s readings are, like Bérubé’s, primarily formalist, and her distressingly reductive conclusion is betrayed by the quality of her reading (or, conversely, betrays it).

What distinguishes Bérubé’s argument from Zunshine’s is, first, his ferocious rejection of all scientistic reductionisms; and, second, his insistence that every formal reading of a literary text must incorporate the social realities and historical lineages toward which the text gestures and in which it was composed. Bérubé writes,

My sense is that a theory of Theory of Mind is potentially relevant to a study of intellectual disability in fiction, but there is a larger question at stake here as well, and it has to do with (of all things) justice. Zunshine is right to think that scenes of embodied transparency, in which we can divine the mental states of others, are important elements of fiction. But . . . . sometimes, we ask other questions: What happens to the characters, and is what happens to them right and just? . . . What kind of world is being created in this fiction? [P. 189]

Thus, after his detour into the dead ends of evocriticism and cognitive-neural approaches to literature, Bérubé returns to the need for readings that account for ethics. And yet, though he aligns himself with Quayson, Garland Thomson, and Mitchell and Snyder with regard to the political and ethical responsibilities of literary critics when writing about texts portraying human disability, it seems to me that this book provides, rather, a brief for the autonomy of literary/theoretical work. His instances of intellectual disability—including several characters who would not conventionally be regarded as disabled—are vehicles for thinking about topics not directly related to disability. Bérubé upholds the work of metaphor. His attitude toward the “narrative prostheses” that Mitchell and Snyder critique is that they are of enormous value insofar as they “transform the way we read” (as the book’s subtitle puts it). The ethical and political are always present. They are not in brackets. But the analysis proceeds in the directions it must, prompted by its own imperatives. Though the ethical gets Bérubé’s last word, his ending is ambivalent. He doubts that his book will have “any effect on public policy or on the scales of social justice,” and yet hopes that he has convinced readers that “the study of intellectual disability is also the study of sociality” and so may have “serious implications for addressing the injustice of the world” (p. 194).

My conclusion is that Michael Bérubé’s chief contributions to fighting the world’s injustices have been in his actions in the world, which have been substantial. The Secret Life of Stories is a highly intelligent, wide-ranging, and quite entertaining book about literature. Its moral contribution, to my mind, lies in its conviction—and demonstration—that the mental processes involved in generous and transformative readings have their own ethical significance.


[1] See William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, ed. Michael Gorra (New York, 2014); Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (New York, 2004); Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. John Rutherford (New York, 2003); and Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York, 1989).

[2] See Stacy Clifford Simplican, The Capacity Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Question of Citizenship (Minneapolis, 2015).

[3] See Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2011).

[4] Michael Bérubé, “Equality, Freedom, and/or Justice for All: A Response to Martha Nussbaum,” in Cognitive Disability and Its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, ed. Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson (Malden, Mass., 2010), pp. 106–07.

[5] See Galaxy Quest (1999, dir. Dean Parisot).

[6] Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York, 1997), p. 24.

[7] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000), p. 49.

[8] Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation (New York, 2007), pp. 23, 19.