Johnson, Harriet McBryde. Too Late to Die Young, Nearly True Tales from a Life. Henry Holt, New York, 2005.

Surprisingly little has changed in “fitness” circles since the Washington Post first asked, “Who are the unfit?” and then pointed out that the “unfit” tended to be anyone not belonging to the particular group having the discussion.

In the ninety-one years since the Post posed the question, those belonging to the groups having such discussions have managed to do away with a considerable number of those “under discussion”. Unfortunately, the question behind the “who are” question was too frequently, “And what are we going to do about them?”

There have always been those who resisted the solutions that others had in mind for them. Some resisters, like Eli Wiesel and Ward Churchill, wrote extraordinary books about dealing with the intentions of others. (See, for example, Wiesel’s Night or Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide.)

Recently, two more books have been added to the resistance genre. Both are instructive, monkey-wrenching, first person accounts about disability. One of them is even funny, almost impossible to put it down.

The first book, Melinda Tankard Reist’s Defiant Birth, Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press: Australia, 2006), is a collection of accounts about women who continued their pregnancies despite the advice of others.

Between her own didactic chapters about the eugenic pressures emanating from medicine, technology, and mainstream society, Reist places nineteen narratives by women who were told not to have their babies, either because of perceived imperfections in the fetuses or perceived imperfections in the women. Whether or not the predictions turned out to be accurate (and some did not), all the would-be mothers in this collection point us to a single take-home message: welcome others as they are and find the value in each life, no matter how strange and unfamiliar or short.

As Abby Lippman, board chair of the Canadian Women’s Health Network, notes in a cover quote, “The stories challenge our general notions of what is a ‘good’ mother, and what makes for a ‘happy&rsq baby. They lay bare how simplistic – even dangerous – are offers of ‘choice’ when society limits the childbearing options for women and judges anyone less than ‘perfect’ as disposable.”

Another book with much the same message but written by a much lighter hand is Too Late to Die Young, Nearly True Tales from a Life (Henry Holt, New York, 2005). The author, Harriet McBryde Johnson, unable to walk, bathe or dress herself since birth, has given us a witty and engaging memoir about a life well-lived. Whether arguing a case in a Charleston courtroom, wheeling down the bumpy streets of Havana, stuck “behind the butts” at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, meditating in bed about the pleasures of the flesh, or debating her own right to existence with a Princeton academic who “thinks the humans he is talking about aren’t people, aren’t persons,” this witty lady — who also happens to be a lawyer, an inside party politics player, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, and the holder of the world endurance record for protesting the Jerry Lewis telethon (for its pity-mongering) — is convincing evidence of what can happen when people (with a little help from their friends) resist the assumptions and stereotypes of others.

Beth Burrows is the president/director of the Edmonds Institute, a public interest, non-profit group headquartered in the Pacific Northwest of the USA” See: www.edmonds-insitute.org. Reprinted with permission.

Filed under Book Reviews, Harriet McBryde Johnson