Physical Atypicalities in The Poisonwood Bible

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“God’s love – Evol’s dog” – Adah.

Recently, I’ve been “rereading” The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (as I’ve mentioned before, this means listening to it on audiobook while I go about my daily activities) and was struck by the way it explores disability-related issues.

The story is told by the wife (Orleanna) and four daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May) of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister who takes his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959.  Adah has “hemiplegia” – which she explains breaks into “Hemi – is half, hemisphere, hemmed-in, hemlock, hem and haw. Plegia is the cessation of motion” (34). So it is, she says, that her “right side drags. [She] was born with half [her] brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood by an unfortunate fetal mishap” (33). While she and her family describe her as working with half her body, as well as half her brain, it is clear throughout the book, that she has extreme insight and intelligence. Aware of this fact, she closes her first chapter of the book by writing, “It is true that I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell” (34).

But once Adah and her family arrive in the Congo, the Congolese stare at all of them, particularly Rachel, who is nicknamed the “white rabbit” because she is so extremely blonde and pale, or “mvula” – the Congolese word for termite (52). Six-year-old Ruth May writes, “Adah was the only one of us in our family with something wrong with her. But here nobody stares at Adah except just a little because she’s white. Nobody cares that she’s bad on one whole side because they’ve all got their own handicap children or a mama with no feet, or their eye put out… they’ll wave a stump at you if they’ve got one, in a friendly way” (53). In an interesting paradigm shift, it isn’t physical “abnormality” that sets any one member of the Price family apart, but the whiteness of their skin that “otherizes” them all.

The way that disability is described as an accepted part of the human experience in Kilanga is striking. The varying body types and physical attributes aren’t even considered on a spectrum of disability/ability; instead, diverse body types are simply accepted. When Nathan remarks to Orleanna that the body should be treated as a temple, she responds by saying, “Why, Nathan, here they have to use their body like we use things at home—like your clothes or your garden tools or something. Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just have to go ahead and wear out their knees!” (51). And so it is, that the people of Kilanga all seem to have varying types of bodies for one reason or another. Mama Mwanza, the closest neighbor of the Price’s became a double amputee after her house caught fire and part of her roof fell on her legs. But, as Ruth May writes, “she goes right on tending after her husband and seven or eight children. They don’t care one bit about her not having any legs to speak of. To them she’s just their mama and where’s dinner? To all the other Congo people, too. Why, they just don’t let on, like she was a regular person. Nobody bats their eye when she scoots by on her hands and goes on down to her field or the river to wash clothes with the other ladies” (52).

I appreciate the way Mama Mwanza’s physical difference is described in sincerity by Ruth May and the way that the Congolese in the story do not take particular heed to the way that Mama Mwanze (or numerous other members of the village) is physically diverse. Indeed, not only is Mama Mwanza a steady character throughout the book, but she takes special care of the Price family in several instances, such as by secretly putting eggs under their chickens so they do not starve and showing them which plants are dangerous. Her character is written in a way that does not evoke feelings of sympathy and she and her family are not portrayed as charity cases. Also, she is not shown as “the brave victim” or as a “supercrip” who valiantly overcomes or overcompensates for her condition. Instead, she is depicted as all of the other Congolese people are: trying as best they can to get along and sharing/caring for those who are less fortunate (which, at times, means the Price family).

But then the issue of disability gets more complicated. Jump ahead about 400 pages and Orleanna and Adah are back in the United States. Adah is attending medical school at Emory and has befriended an “upstart neurologist” who insists that “there should have been complete compensation in the undamaged part of [her] cerebral cortex, and that [her] dragging right side is merely holding on to a habit it learned in infancy” (439). Adah is thus convinced to clear her “nervous pathways of so-called bad habits” and stops walking entirely for six months in order to do so (439). While skeptical at first, Adah soon feels “the snap like a rubber band that drew [her] right leg up under [her] as [her] left arm moved forward” (440). After many years apart, Rachel and Adah meet in person and Rachel is amazed how Adah “has truly had a miracle recovery” (476).

So, what gives? How does this incredible paradigm shift occur both in Adah and the book as a whole? We go from valuing human diversity to “fixing” it through the American medical institution? It’s proven that the only thing “wrong” with Adah is that she developed some “bad habits” as a child and never grew out of them? What a let down. In all honesty, I’m still completely shocked at the turn of events in the last portion of the story and can’t quite reconcile them with the ways that disability was originally introduced. I know I’m really asking more questions here than I’m providing answers for. I’m going to keep thinking about it, because right now, I feel like I’m missing the “bigger picture” for why the book and Kingsolver are editing the way that physical diversity is portrayed.

Citation: Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.

6 responses »

  1. This part:

    “…Mama Mwanza, the closest neighbor of the Price’s became a double amputee after her house caught fire and part of her roof fell on her legs. But, as Ruth May writes, “she goes right on tending after her husband and seven or eight children. They don’t care one bit about her not having any legs to speak of…”

    brings up one more issue:

    How come the house caught fire?

    Was it an accident, or arson?

    If it was arson, then did the person who directly torched the house and indirectly took Mama Mwanza’s legs away from her do something wrong or merely something that diversified the community some more?

    If it wasn’t arson, then would designing a house that was less flammable, and less likely to have its roof fall down and make someone else another double amputee in the first place, necessarily be an anti-diversity thing to do?

    • Hi there! Sorry for the delay in replying to your post (sometimes real life gets in the way of my online interactions!)

      Good questions. Kingsolver doesn’t explain the cause of the fire. The Price’s moved to the continent after it happened, so their interactions with Mama Mwanza were after the fact.

      If I had to make a guess, based on the Price’s description of homes in Kilanga, I’d assume the fire was caused by an accident dealing with an open stove used for cooking. Kilanga isn’t really described as a place rife with crime and no one seemed to have any enemies who would be motivated to enact arson. It seems more likely that the fire was an accident, simply something that happens in life.

      I don’t think redesigning homes to make them less flammable would be considered an “anti-diversity” measure because no one would be claiming that Mama Mwanza’s life (or those in similar physical situations as hers) is less valuable or isn’t a life worth living. Such measures would likely be taken out of a desire to cause people less pain at the time of the occurrence and potentially save lives (Mama Mwanza could have gotten an infection when her legs were removed or the roof could have fallen on her head and killed her, instead of crushing her legs and causing her to be a double amputee).

      If someone were to say that Mama Mwanza should be driven out of the village or be treated in a derogatory manner because of her disability, I think that would be an “anti-diversity” measure. But trying to design safe homes (or automobiles, car seats, airplanes, rollercoasters, etc.) aren’t, in my opinion, measures to reduce “human diversity; “ I view them as measures to ensure safety of all people (disabled, able-bodied, and everyone in-between). What do you think?

      • “Hi there! Sorry for the delay in replying to your post (sometimes real life gets in the way of my online interactions!)”

        Awww, don’t apologize for real life, I understand!

        “If someone were to say that Mama Mwanza should be driven out of the village or be treated in a derogatory manner because of her disability, I think that would be an “anti-diversity” measure. But trying to design safe homes (or automobiles, car seats, airplanes, rollercoasters, etc.) aren’t, in my opinion, measures to reduce “human diversity; “ I view them as measures to ensure safety of all people (disabled, able-bodied, and everyone in-between). What do you think?”

        Right on!

        Meanwhile, I bet some other people wouldn’t agree – for example, Jo at http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/08/30/shaming-other-bodies/#li-comment-769404 :

        “This is just like when expectant parents say “We don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, so long as it’s healthy.” And so what if it’s not – gonna throw it back? I die a little inside everytime I hear someone say this.”).

        As if the reaction when the child isn’t healthy is never empathy for the child’s decreased comfort and safety?

        In Rachel’s post to which Jo replied, Rachel also says

        “…the standard of “health” — a standard that is just as narrow and socially constructed as the standard of “beauty…””

        WTF? Health is merely a social construct?

        She seems to have confused being pro-disabled people with pro-disabling people. It’s like thinking you have to be pro-poverty and pro-impoverishing people in order to not be anti-poor people, or thinking it’s anti-unemployed people to hire someone who doesn’t already have a job (that is, to remove one person from the ranks of the unemployed and add him or her to the ranks of the employed).

      • Oh wow, what an interesting conversation you’ve brought up. Here are a few of my thoughts… but I’m still forming them as I’m writing, so apologizes if they’re not fully flushed out or completely coherent 😉

        I can see both sides of the “we don’t care about the gender of the baby, as long as it’s healthy” argument. On one hand, like you said, parents could simply be concerned about their child’s ease of navigating our contemporary social and cultural institutions (not to mention the physical pain/discomfort that accompanies many disabilities)—basically, like you said, being empathetic, and also realistic about our societal and cultural climate.

        However, I would take issue if a person made that statement and was implying that the child’s life would have less worth, or that the child would be less loved or accepted by its family. I think that’s the real crux of accepting diversity—willingness to accept, accommodate, and integrate all types of bodies, minds, and psyches into our societal and cultural institutions. If someone were to feel that the comment was made from intolerance, I think they would be justified in cringing inside—I certainly would.

        Regarding the construction of “health,” I don’t think I would go so far as to say that health is “just as narrowly socially constructed as the standard of beauty,” but I could see elements of health being socially constructed and certainly varying by specific cultures and time periods.

        I think we can see elements of its constructedness more clearly if we think about the ways that disability is framed in the “medical model” of disability. Here, we see the medical institution “diagnosing” conditions that many who have the conditions would simply label as part of human variety/experience. Or medical institutions advocate for a “cure” for a condition that some of those who have it are not interested in “fixing,” “preventing,” or “overcoming.”

        One example we might be people who contract HIV/AIDS. While medical institutions would largely label people with HIV/AIDS as “unhealthy” or as having some kind of deficit or condition that needs to be treated, many individuals do not view themselves that way. It is possible (even without medical treatment), to keep many of the associated symptoms with HIV/AIDs at bay and to live a healthy, happy life for many years. It is equally possible, once associated symptoms/complications arise, to treat these with medication and still live happy/healthy lives. Simply “having” a virus (or not having a chromosome, or having chromosomes in a unique order, or not having a limb, or being “over” weight or “under” weight) does not mean that a person is automatically “healthy” or “unhealthy.”

        We could probably also look at the medical institution’s approach to people with are hard-of-hearing/deaf and the opinions of those within the Deaf community. Medical professionals would be largely interested in “preventing” deafness because it is not “healthy” in the way that we typically conceptualize a “healthy” body/person, while many of those within the community believe that deafness is a desirable trait and does not impact an individual’s ability to live a fulfilling and enjoyable life. Do you remember the case of the Deaf lesbian couple who went out of their way to have a deaf baby (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/apr/08/davidteather)?

        So all that is to say, I can see the validity of the claim that “health” can be socially constructed, though I’m not familiar enough with the claims of the original poster to say if I agree or disagree with her—only to say that I can see how such a claim might be made and supported.

        I liked your analogies at the end of the post. I think I’m going to have to give some more thought to the paradigm you present of confusing being “pro disabled people, with pro disabling people.” I’m going to try to work through some of my beliefs with this statement in mind and see what I come up with ☺ One thing is for certain, blogging about disability is never without contradictions, complications, and mental stimulation—thanks for being a part of it ☺

      • “(not to mention the physical pain/discomfort that accompanies many disabilities)—basically, like you said, being empathetic, and also realistic about our societal and cultural climate.”

        Yes, empathy is key! Also, realism about our societal, cultural, and physical climates.

        Physical examples: things in nature are gonna make sounds no matter what, I can grok a parent wanting a child to spend time outdoors and be able to hear claps of thunder and snarling wild dogs out there.

        Societal and cultural (and subcultural!) example: Deaf cultures mostly full of sighted people talking to each other don’t seem likely to switch to using deaf-blind sign languages as their lingua francas any time soon, I can grok a deaf parent wanting a child to be able to see what they’re saying.

        “However, I would take issue if a person made that statement and was implying that the child’s life would have less worth”

        Oh hell yes. Personally, I can see how one could wish the baby has lots of health *without* labeling less-healthy babies unworthy…and I can also see how someone else with a much more rigid black-or-white all-or-nothing view won’t think so.

        “but I could see elements of health being socially constructed and certainly varying by specific cultures and time periods.”

        Yup yup yup.

        “Here, we see the medical institution “diagnosing” conditions that many who have the conditions would simply label as part of human variety/experience. ”

        A good approach might be the one supporting reproductive rights:
        Some people who are fertile don’t want to be, and need medical help like contraceptives.
        Some other people who are fertile and want to be don’t ask for medical intervention [but sadly, a few of these argue “but it’s not a medical problem!!!” against medical insurance covering any contraceptives].
        Some people who aren’t fertile and want to be, and need medical help like surgery to unblock vas deferens.
        Some people who aren’t fertile and don’t want to be, don’t ask for medical intervention.

        Then there’s the issue of personality gender and body sex. Sarah Brown at http://auntysarah.livejournal.com/215336.html covers this brilliantly!

        “…In a world where our gender identities were depathologised, we still need to deal with the medical community because *they have stuff we need* (oestrogen, testosterone, urological surgeons, etc.). This is where it gets a bit complicated because excepting special cases, like pregnancy, public healthcare systems [she’s posting from the UK] tend to shy away from treating people when they don’t feel there’s anything wrong with them (they start using phrases like “lifestyle choice”, and tell people to pay for things themselves).

        [She does a great job of showing how something like a certain body part can be a genuine medical problem for one person who grew it *and* something that doesn’t need fixing because it isn’t broke for another person who grew it *at the same time*]

        “Simply abolishing GID as a diagnosis without replacing it with something else therefore has the potential to leave transsexual people up a certain creek without a paddle. In a better world we might instead focus on gender dysphoria as the cause of a range of problems which need medical attention. As with many medical issues, if you treat the root cause, the secondary problems it causes tend to go away. There is therefore often pathology present, but as a result of *being denied realisation of our gender identities.*…”

        Now that I think about it, Brown’s post also reminds me: what about people who don’t yet have certain disabilities and would need medical help to prevent or postpone them? What if someone’s at risk of losing a foot to diabetes seeks help (see http://forecast.diabetes.org/news/many-diabetic-foot-amputations-are-preventable ), and his or her health insurer says “but there’s nothing wrong with having only one foot in the first place”…?

        “…One example we might be people who contract HIV/AIDS. While medical institutions would largely label people with HIV/AIDS as “unhealthy”…”

        HIV brings up yet another angle because it’s contagious. It brings up questions like, if someone infects someone else with HIV against his or her will (for example, by lying about being HIV+ before sex – a possibility brought up at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/21/minnesota-supreme-court-hiv-positive-man_n_3791872.html?ref=topbar and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/KrazyJay/minnesota-supreme-court-hiv-positive-man_n_3791872_278723102.html ), then does this previously HIV- infectee have a right to be angry about that, to consider his or her own previous immune system something of value lost and his or her own current immune system (needing to be propped up expensively with so many more pills) a replacement in any way lesser?

        “Simply “having” a virus (or not having a chromosome, or having chromosomes in a unique order, or not having a limb, or being “over” weight or “under” weight) does not mean that a person is automatically “healthy” or “unhealthy.””

        Especially since there are so many different degrees of health for so many different parts of the body! It’s totally possible for the same person to be very healthy in a bunch of ways, very unheathy in another way, kinda sorta in-between in yet other ways…

        “while many of those within the community believe that deafness is a desirable trait and does not impact an individual’s ability to live a fulfilling and enjoyable life. ”

        …and there’s diversity on that even among deaf communities. From what little I’ve read of UK Deaf culture, since cochlear implants make it easier to learn spoken language if they’re implanted earlier and come with off switches, these days a whole bunch of parents leave the choice up to their children’s adult selves by getting them the implants early and letting the kids turn the things on and off whenever they want: http://www.metafilter.com/92355/Cochlear-Implant#3111420

        “…Initially here in the UK there was a lot of hostility from the deaf community towards cochlear implants. There were protests. Parents were accused of mutilating their children. Even ‘See Hear’, the BBC’s magazine programme for deaf and hearing-impaired people, took a really negative stance. It’s important to undertstand that the deaf community is much more than just a group of people sharing a disability – it’s a distinct cultural group in many ways. Having your own language does that, and that language

        [Very key point here about languages! I wish more people knew that sign languages are real languages!]

        was seen to be under threat of extinction. Politics ensued.

        “The good news, at least to my mind, is that people in the deaf community are, on the whole, getting much more understanding towards parents who are choosing to have their children undergo implant surgery. Yes, cochlear implants are a threat to the continuity of deaf culture, but so are ordinary hearing aids, and so was the ear trumpet. Once the message got through that no, this is not a cure-all for all types of deafness, this is a high-tech hearing aid that can, in some cases, give an otherwise completely deaf person the ability to hear on a basic level, and that just like any other hearing aid, there’s an ‘off’ switch, people started to relax a little. Probably the biggest factor in this softening of attitudes has been the emergence of a generation of young people with cochlear implants who coexist happily in both the deaf and hearing communities.”

        “Do you remember the case of the Deaf lesbian couple who went out of their way to have a deaf baby (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/apr/08/davidteather)?”

        Yeah, I remember reading about that on another forum a while ago. Some ignoramus got all “bad scientists, they’re re going too far!!!!” and someone else was like “the only thing the scientist does there is move the sperm from the man to the woman. They could get the same likely-deaf conception results with *no lab involved at all* if she had *sex* with him, it’s just that meanwhile she’s also being faithful to her lady instead of having sex with him.”

        “I liked your analogies at the end of the post. I think I’m going to have to give some more thought to the paradigm you present of confusing being “pro disabled people, with pro disabling people.” I’m going to try to work through some of my beliefs with this statement in mind and see what I come up with ☺ One thing is for certain, blogging about disability is never without contradictions, complications, and mental stimulation—thanks for being a part of it ☺”

        Awwwww, thank you! 😀

  2. Whoa whoa whoa.

    Just realized yet another reason it would be so awesome if public schools included the local sign languages (like ASL in the US) and tactile transliterations of the local written languages (like the Braille alphabet in the US) for everyone, just in case…

    …not just in case someone ends up blind or deaf…

    …not just in case someone wants to talk with a deaf person or read stuff by a blind person without an interpreter…

    …but also in case someone wants to say something while having a mouthful of tools.

    Ever had a root canal? At least two people (orthodontist, hygienist, maybe dental students watching closely) work on your mouth at once for that, and if they’re having a fascinating conversation it can be so tempting to chime in but there’s drills and picks and stuff in your mouth and a rubber shield over the other side of your mouth and all that.

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