What Makes a Story

The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read by Michael Bérubé is out today! This excerpt appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

—Michael Bérubé

My kids are no longer kids. One is in his late 20s, one in his early 20s; Nick, the firstborn, was a “gifted” child, capable of copying drawings of medieval European hill cities at the age of 5; Jamie, his brother, has Down syndrome. Jamie also has an encyclopedic knowledge of sharks and the music of the Beatles, and an astonishing memory. Both of them are natural narrative theorists — though because of the differences in their capacities for abstraction, I wound up testing their narrative theories in different ways.

I learned almost as soon as Nick could talk that he loved my stories; he even gave them numbers, though I never did learn his classification system. Nick liked stories with drama — the story of how the hockey-camp bus left Tallinn without me in 1972; the story of how the camp counselor threw me out of the pool; the story of my first day in first grade, when the teacher corrected me for saying I was 6 when I was still only 5 (a situation that got worse in the following years, after that teacher decided to skip me into the second grade because of my reading skills). But as you might imagine, sometimes Nick’s appetite for stories became wearisome. I read to him every night, and I told him stories about people in my life, and I even made up some stuff. But one day when he was about 3 and a half, on a long car trip in the Midwest, he asked for story after story. And finally I decided to conduct a little experiment.

“All right,” I sighed. “I have a new story for you. It goes like this: Red. Yellow. Orange. Blue. Violet. Green. Black. Brown. White. … ”

“Daddy!” Nick interjected, annoyed. “That is not a story.”


“No! It is just a bunch of colors.”

“And a bunch of colors is not a story?”

“No! A story has to have things in it.”

“Ah,” I replied, Phase 1 of the experiment complete. “A story has to have things in it. You are right. OK. Tree. Cloud. Sunshine. Water. … ”

“No, no, no,” Nick insisted, more annoyed. “Things happen in a story.”

“Fair enough,” I acknowledged. “The tree blocked the cloud. The sunshine reflected off the water. The flowers grew. … ”

“Dad!!” Nick interrupted, even more annoyed. “That is not a story either.”

“But things happen in it,” I pointed out.

“But you are not telling why they happen.”

Eureka. We were very close, at this point, to E.M. Forster’s famous dictum, “‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” In a story, things have to happen for a reason.

Jamie learned his alphabet before he started kindergarten at age 6; he learned to read at a first-grade level by the time he was 8. Along the way, he somehow taught himself the American Sign Language alphabet and a few simple ASL words by imitating the pictures he saw in a Sesame Street book devoted to the subject. But even though Jamie had developed a profound love of sharks, barn animals, and the movie Babe (just like any number of children his age), he didn’t really understand stories as stories. He had an amazing recall of individual scenes, particularly scenes that involved pratfalls, and he was able to repeat most of the dialogue from the exchange in which Ferdinand the Duck tells Babe the Pig why he wants Babe to go into Farmer Hoggett’s house and steal the Hoggetts’ alarm clock from the side of the bed. But he didn’t understand how much of the movie’s plot is predicated on that scene (the issue is whether animals can avoid being eaten by humans if they demonstrate that they are “indispensable,” and Ferdinand has decided that he will crow like a rooster each morning in order to stay alive), nor did he understand what it might mean for a plot to be “predicated on a scene” in the first place. Until he was 10, Jamie enjoyed narratives almost as if they were a series of entertaining vignettes.

Then, in 2001, we took him to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We feared that the film might be a bit too much for him to take in — from the opening scenes of Harry the Abject Orphan to the climactic sequence in which Voldemort’s baleful spirit speaks from the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, with all the plot miscues and misdirections along the way (most of which point to Snape rather than Quirrell as the malevolent force in Harry’s world). But we were most pleasantly surprised to find that he got it — and not because he himself had glasses just like Harry’s, not because he dreamed of going to Hogwarts himself. He roundly dismissed all comparisons between himself and Harry. Rather, he got it because he loved the story — and he loved talking about it for weeks, even after he’d seen the film three or four times. Impressed, I asked him if he’d like to read the book on which the film was based, and he responded with hand-rubbing glee.

Thus began his — and my — adventures with J.K. Rowling’s plots, and Jamie’s fascination with the intricacies of plotting. A critical index of Jamie’s increasing sophistication as a reader was that he became increasingly capable of (and delighted by) making thematic connections that enriched his understanding of his other favorite narratives. In the course of our reading of Half-Blood Prince, we came upon an extended flashback/exposition in which the young Professor Dumbledore visits an 11-year-old Tom Riddle in the orphanage in order to inform him that he is a wizard and extend him an invitation to Hogwarts. Jamie gasped at Tom’s arrogant reaction to Dumbledore’s invitation, and, despite his fatigue, stayed awake for another couple of pages.

But before we got to that point, I read the following passage: “The orphans, Harry saw, were all wearing the same kind of grayish tunic. They looked reasonably well-cared for, but there was no denying that this was a grim place in which to grow up”. I decided to say a few words about the orphanage, and about Harry’s odd, complex moment of sympathy for the friendless boy who grows up to become Voldemort. “Did Harry have a happy childhood when he was growing up?” I asked. Jamie shook his head no. “He had the Dursleys,” he said. I pointed out that Harry and Voldemort are similar in that they grow up without parents, and that the kids in the orphanages are there because they have no parents either. I added that Jamie might remember the orphanage in the filmLike Mike, which was in the “heavy rotation” section of Jamie’s DVD collection for a while.

“Or Free Willy,” Jamie suggested. “Yes, that’s right,” I said with some surprise. “Free Willy is also about a kid who is growing up without parents, and who has stepparents, and he has trouble getting used to his new home.”

“Or Rookie of the Year,” Jamie said. “Not exactly,” I replied. “In Rookie of the Year, Henry has his mother, but his mother’s boyfriend is a creep, and we don’t know where his father went before he was born.”

Star Wars too. There’s Luke,” Jamie said. “Good one! Great example!” I cried. Perfect, in fact. Star Wars is like a class reunion of the West’s major mythological motifs.

Mrs. Doubtfire,” Jamie offered. “Nope, that’s about parents who are divorced and live in different houses,” I said, “but still, in Mrs. Doubtfire the father misses his kids and wants to see them, so dresses up as a nanny.”

“What about Babe?” Jamie asked.

“Oh yes, that’s a very good example,” I told him. “Babe has no parents, and that’s why he is so happy when Fly agrees to be like his mother.”

“And Rex is like his father,” Jamie added. “And Ferdinand the duck is like his brother.”

Why, yes, Ferdinand is like his brother. This had never occurred to me before. But who knew that Jamie was thinking, all this time, about the family configurations in these movies? And who knew that Jamie knew that so many unhappy families, human and pig, are alike?

But my children, adept narrative theorists though they be, are not my only inspiration. I’m also informed by years of conversations with colleagues in disability studies, including two wholly unexpected encounters that subtly but decisively widened the parameters of how I could think about how an understanding of intellectual disability can transform the way we read.

The first encounter happened at the 2011 Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles, and in retrospect is merely amusing — though at the time, it seemed like the stuff of professors’ anxiety dreams. I was on a panel titled “Narrative and Intellectual Disability,” chaired by Rachel Adams, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. I was trying to get at the question of how narrative irony works when it involves a character with an intellectual disability, a character who is rendered explicitly as someone who is incapable of understanding the story he or she inhabits. Steinbeck marks Lennie in this way from Of Mice and Men’s opening scene:

Lennie looked timidly over to him. “George?”
“Yeah, what ya want?”
“Where we goin’, George?”
The little man jerked down the brim of his hat and scowled over at Lennie. “So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard.”
“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”

And just as Lennie does not understand where he is going or why, so too will he not understand what is going to happen to him in the book’s final pages; in that sense, his intellectual disability provides the structure for the narrative irony, and the narrative irony defines the novel. Lennie knows not what he does, and we know he knows not what he does. But I mentioned Of Mice and Men only in passing, opening instead with Benjy Compson of The Sound and the Fury and proceeding to a comparison between Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,because Haddon provides an ingenious (and quite moving) solution to the problem of writing a novel in the voice of a character who (initially) does not understand the narrative he is in, whereas Moon has to skirt that problem by giving us a second level of narrative focalized through characters who do not have autism and who can explain what is at stake in the unfolding of the narrative told by the character who does have autism.

At the last minute, one of my fellow panelists had to pull out of the convention, and Rachel Adams informed us that Rob Spirko, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, would substitute instead, with a paper titled “The Human Spectrum: Human Fiction and Autism.” Rob preceded me on the program — and proceeded to deliver a paper about The Speed of Dark and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,making many of the points and citing many of the passages I had hoped to highlight in my paper. As I listened to Rob, I toyed with the idea of taking the podium and saying simply, “My paper is what Rob said,” but just then, he made an offhand reference to the “Rashomon-like” narrative sequence in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip. I snapped to attention: This seemed to me to be something worth discussing. I had not written anything about Martian Time-Slip in my paper, but I had recently read it and was still trying to figure out what to make of its extraordinary strangeness. And I was thrilled to be able to discuss it at a conference with Rob Spirko, who has worked on disability and science fiction for some time.

I did wind up delivering most of my original paper; Rob’s arguments and mine did not overlap completely. But I threw in some extemporaneous remarks about how the narrative sequences in Chapters 10 and 11 of Martian Time-Slip are not, in fact, Rashomon-like. If they were, they would involve four characters telling the same story from drastically different perspectives, narrating significantly different sequences of events, such that the very idea of “the same story” becomes untenable. But they don’t. Instead, they open by telling the same story almost word for word, and then proceed into disturbing fantasias that cannot be attributed to any one character — even though each character, the following day, feels the aftereffects of the sequence as a whole. The sequence is not merely “about” the perspective of a character with an intellectual disability; it represents an attempt to render intellectual disability in the form of a disabled textuality that cannot be attributed simply to any one character’s mental operations.

And when I realized that, thanks to the offhand remark of a last-minute-replacement speaker giving a 15-minute paper at the MLA convention, I realized that I had a critical piece of my argument — a way of talking about intellectual disability and narrative that did not begin and end with the discussion of whether X character has Y disability.

As for the second encounter: To say that it was “wholly unexpected,” as I have done, is actually an understatement. It was pretty much the last thing in the world I might have imagined. It involved a whimsical decision to join Facebook (after years of steadfast, principled resistance) and, relatedly, to go to the 40th-anniversary reunion of my sixth-grade class (not a happy place for me when I was 10, but I thought that the details of tween angst of 1972 were not worth recalling in 2012).

Within a few days of joining Facebook, I was hailed by one Phyllis Anderson, nee Phyllis Eisenson — someone I had not thought about in almost 40 years. And in the course of striking up a conversation with this person 40 years after graduation from PS 32 Queens, I happened to mention Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, about which I had just been reading; 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, and in 1972 at least half of our cohort had read it. And Phyllis was of course (or so I imagined) Meg Murry, the very smart girl with the long hair and prominent glasses. This rudimentary identification was complicated a bit by the fact that I identified more with Meg than with any male character in the book — with her sense of isolation, helplessness, and vulnerability above all — and by the fact that I did not stop to think that I might be inadvertently saying to my former classmate, “I remember you — you were the girl with glasses and what’s more, everybody thought you were a weirdo.”

But in the course of that brief Facebook conversation, as we caught up on partners and kids and professions (literature professor, clinical psychologist), I mentioned that I was sitting at a table across from Jamie, who had just handed me a list of 25 kinds of sharks. To which Phyllis replied, “I am sure you did not know that my brother is autistic.” Well, I could have plotzed. Needless to say, I did not know that; I did not know anything about this person, starting with the fact that she had a brother. And a brother with autism, in the 1960s (Andy Eisenson was born in 1957).

Oh my goodness, I thought at once, what that must have meant for her mother — to have a child with autism at the precise historical moment when autism was being attributed to “refrigerator mothers.” How difficult that must have been. Followed almost immediately by, oh goodness, and then along comes this very smart girl, the younger sister. I can’t even begin to imagine the family dynamics, except that no, wait, yes I can. And the story quickly went still deeper: Sylvia Eisenson, Phyllis’s mother, was in fact a psychologist in the New York City school system. She was A.B.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I taught for 12 years. She knew very well what Bruno Bettelheim was doing with Leo Kanner’s refrigerator-mothers theory, and had actually written to Bettelheim to tell him that his work was destructive to loving parents. She received a reply from an underling, telling her to get therapy.

All this I learned in the course of one Facebook chat, which somehow went from “oh yes, I remember you” to serious familial and emotional matters in the course of a few minutes. Life in the disability community can be like that; I remember a conference at which someone introduced herself as the parent of a child with Down syndrome and we wound up talking about our then-teenaged sons’ desires for friends, especially girlfriends, within 10 minutes. Because there is so much shared terrain, casual conversations can suddenly turn into serious discussions of special-needs trusts and the ethics of getting your child or sibling to sign over his power of attorney. And then, a few days later, after Phyllis had gone back to look at her copy of A Wrinkle in Time, she wrote:

just read the first chapter of “Wrinkle”, and Meg is described with her glasses and braces and general awkwardness. And I thought — that is at least partly why I liked this book so much — there I am, though without the spunk to duke it out with the kid who said something mean about my brother.

When I read that note I had yet another “oy, what did I say” moment: Oh yes, I remember you with your glasses and braces and general awkwardness? (It turns out the braces came later. I did not remember any braces.) But it was the last clause that grabbed me. No doubt young Phyllis Eisenson, or anyone with a sibling with an intellectual disability, would read Wrinkle with that inflection, with a sense of protectiveness for the more vulnerable family member: Wasn’t this one of the lessons we learned in Reader-Response Criticism 101?

From one angle it is a rudimentary point, a truism: Of course we all bring to every text the welter of experiences, associations, encounters, and intertextual relations we have accumulated over the years. Reader-response criticism made much of this rudimentary point for much of the 1970s, with earnest Critical Inquiry forums on whether readers or texts make meaning, whether meaning is determinate or indeterminate, and whether the hypothetical “Eskimo reading” of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” can be ruled out of court.

But from another angle, this exchange seemed (and seems) to me to open onto a principle of considerable breadth, one that has not yet been considered by literary criticism influenced by disability studies. It is the complement to the Rob Spirko-induced insight that disability in literary texts need not be located in, or tied to, a specific character with an identifiable disability: It is the Phyllis Eisenson-induced insight that disability in the relation between text and reader need not involve any character with disabilities at all. It can involve ideas about disability, and ideas about the stigma associated with disability, regardless of whether any specific character can be pegged with a specific diagnosis. This opens the field of criticism considerably; and I am going to insist that this is a good thing, not least because I am determined to cure disability studies of its habit of diagnosing fictional characters.

My argument is that even as disability studies has established itself in the humanities in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago, it has still limited itself to too narrow a range of options when it comes to literary criticism; and though I am (obviously) being facetious about the idea of “curing” disability studies of anything, I am quite serious about the conviction that disability studies limits itself unnecessarily, as a new branch of criticism and theory, whenever it confines itself to determining the disability status of individual characters. Disability studies need not and should not predicate its existence as a practice of criticism by reading a literary text in one hand and the DSM-5 in the other — even when a text explicitly announces that one or more of its characters is (for example) on the autism spectrum. It is not that a character’s condition is irrelevant to how we read him or her; rather, I want to argue that we should avoid the temptation to think that a diagnosis “solves” the text somehow, in the manner of those “psychological” interpretations of yesteryear that explain Hamlet by surmising that the prince is, unbeknownst to himself, gay.

In opening the question of the potential relations between disabled and nondisabled characters (and readers’ potential relations to those relations) so that it includes characters who are merely presumed to be intellectually disabled by their fellow characters (such as Coetzee’s Michael K and Friday, from his novel Foe), we come to recognize intellectual disability not merely as the expression of somatic/neurological symptoms but as a trope, a critical and underacknowledged thread in the social fabric, a device for exploring the phenomenon of human sociality as such.

This is not merely a matter of remarking that the idiot and the holy fool offer strategic insight into human hierarchies and the contingency of systems of value, though it is partly that; it is also a matter of gauging how literary works depict systems of sociality in part by including characters who either are, or who are presumed by their fellow characters to be, constitutively incapable of understanding or abiding by the social systems by which their worlds operate. When you think about it that way, and you should, you realize that we have only just begun to explore the implications of disability for our understanding of the narratives we read and the narratives we live by.

Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks professor of literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read (NYU Press, 2016).

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