"Accidents of Nature"
Harriet McBryde Johnson
Henry Hole & Co.
Review by Taylor and Michael Bailey
It is not easy to place "Accidents of Nature" into a neat category.
Is it a novel for young adults? A treatise on disability culture? Or, simply, a well-crafted story of how one woman learns that, by accepting others, she comes to accept herself?
The basic tale is simple. Jean, a 17-year-old woman with Cerebral Palsy, has always attended school with "normal" classmates. Her protective family has done everything possible to ignore Jean's differences and provide her with all the trappings of life without a disability. Jean confronts some very real truths about herself, her disability, and her connection to other people with disabilities when she faces a week of summer camp. The typically named "Camp Courage" caters entirely to people with disabilities and it is they she must deal with during her week away from family, home and her regular circle of "friends."
We read this book with care. Partly because it is a good read and partly because our daughter/sister is 18-years-old and is a person with Down syndrome. Like the character, Jean, from the book, she has always been in
"regular" classrooms and had school friends with no disabilities. What we have learned is that her friendships only go so far. Her "friends," like Jean's,
only pursue her, or tolerate her, within the bounds of school. Although no one is actually mean to her, it is clear to everyone that she is different and that there are limits on how much time and energy her classmates are willing to devote. And, like Jean, she has learned a lot about herself by going to a place called Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp, which, like the fictional "Camp Courage" is for people with disabilities only.
Jean has been exposed to politically correct people and circumstance. So she is quite shocked when she meets Sara. Sara calls the camp "Crip Camp"
and promptly labels Jean as "Spazzo." Jean is quite distressed by these characterizations and her fellow campers whose facial deformities, speech, lack of coordination and odd behavior shock and, at the same time, intrigue her.
Throughout her week at Crip Camp Jean is exposed to "the world according to Sara." Sara ridicules the notion of charity, the pomposity of the camps sponsors and the whole culture of "do-gooders." Sara revels in her disability.
She also manages to get poor Jean into a lot of hot water with her comments and misbehavior.
As the week moves along Jean comes to see more and more that Sara's seemingly mocking and tasteless behavior carries with it a seed of truth that
no one has every expressed before in her presence. It becomes clear to Jean that, like it or not, Sara is telling the truth and that she, Jean, has a mysterious connection with all the other campers that regular school, determined parents and a blind eye cannot erase. Jean finds, at camp, a window on a whole new view of life that makes her happier and sadder, wiser and more curious and, mostly, more at peace with herself and the truth of her place in the universe.
As our family member moves into the world of young adulthood we see her experiencing some of the same things as Jean. To she and her pals with Down syndrome they are the "Downers." They like the "Down syndrome girls supper club" and other disabled-only shenanigans they cook up. She moves about quite skillfully in the world of the temporarily able-bodied but finds her real friends, the people who understand, the people she can be goofy with, among her peers with disabilities.
This book is not anti-inclusion. Quite the opposite. Jean learns that her life in the "real world" will never be real if it is based on a paradigm of rigid segregation from people like herself, or if she is only and always treated as some kind of exhibit that needs to be treated courteously but is never afforded a real place in the human family.
We were struck by what a well-established character Jean is. Her interaction with Sara is the catalyst for self-discovery. Jean, through the roguish character of Sara, is altered profoundly. The new discoveries she makes mature and change her is ways she had never considered.
This story is funny and sad and clear and obscure and, above all, wise. If you have a family member with a disability this book will awaken you to the fact that they are fully endowed human beings. People with their own inside jokes, bitterness and point of view. The book is a joy to read for anyone.
And, who knows, perhaps it will cause you, like Sara, to open your imagination to a complex and complete world, a world based on truth and not perched precariously on the edge of an artificially created world of telethons, charity and good intentions which, inevitably lead to isolation and artificial trappings.
It is a conclusion important to every young person and especially young adults with disabilities longing to find a path in life that is right for them.