Defective, Deficient, and Burdensome: Thinking About Bad Bodies

Watch a video of Eli’s lecture at Middlebury College in September, 2015 or read the excerpt below. The video is captioned.


  1. Prayers, Crystals, Vitamins

Complete strangers offer me Christian prayers or crystals and vitamins, always with the same intent—to touch me, fix me, mend my cerebral palsy, if only I will comply. They cry over me, wrap their arms around my shoulders, kiss my cheek. Even now, after five decades of these kinds of interactions, I still don’t know how to rebuff their pity, how to tell them the simple truth that I’m not broken. Even if there were a cure for brain cells that died at birth, I’d refuse. I have no idea who I’d be without my tremoring and tense muscles, slurring tongue. They want to make me normal. They take for granted that my body-mind is wrong, bad, broken.

The body-mind as gristle
and synapse, water
and bone, pure
empty space.

Complete strangers ask me, “What’s your defect?” To them, my body-mind simply doesn’t work right, defect being a variation of broken, supposedly neutral. But think of the things called defective—the mp3 player that won’t turn on, the car that never ran reliably. They end up in the bottom drawer, dumpster, scrap yard. Defects are disposable, body-minds or objects to eradicate.

Complete strangers pat me on the head. They whisper platitudes in my ear, clichés about courage and inspiration. They enthuse about how remarkable I am. They declare me special. Not long ago, a white woman wearing dream catcher earrings and a fringed leather tunic with a medicine wheel painted on its back, confided that I was, like all people who tremor, a natural shaman. Yes, a shaman! Don’t get me started on white people who co-opt Indigenous spiritualities. I wouldn’t know where to begin to untangle the entitlement that led her to believe that white people can just become shamans from the ableist assumptions that bestow disabled people with spiritual qualities. Before I could say no, she grabbed me in a bear hug and whispered in my ear that if I were trained, I could become a great healer. As she released me from her grip, she directed me never to forget my specialness. Oh, how special disabled people are: we have special education and special needs. That word drips condescension. It’s no better than being defective. It’s simply another way to declare some body-minds bad….

  1. Defect

Across the centuries, how many communities have been declared inherently defective by white people, rich people, non-disabled people, men backed by medical, scientific, academic, and state authority? I ask this question rather than answer it, because any list I create will be incomplete. I think of white women suffragettes fighting for the right to vote, declared defective as a way of undercutting their demands; Black people kidnapped from west Africa and enslaved in the Americas, declared defective as a way to justify and strengthen slavery; immigrants at Ellis Island declared defective and refused entry to the US; lesbians and gay men declared defective and given hormones to cure their homosexuality. The list of peoples considered defective keeps growing, the damage deepening.

Defectiveness holds such power because ableism builds and maintains the very notion that defective body-minds are bad, undesirable, disposable. In a world without ableism, defective as it is applied to humans, meaning the “imperfection of a bodily system,” would probably not even exist. But if it did, it would only be a neutral descriptor. However, in today’s world where ableism fundamentally shapes white Western cultural beliefs about normal and abnormal, worthy and unworthy, whole and broken body-minds; any person or community named defective can be targeted without question or hesitation for eradication, imprisonment, institutionalization. The ableist invention of defectiveness unequivocally names many body-minds bad.

The body-mind as symbol,
metaphor, academic
abstraction, the body-mind
as history

Defective arcs repeatedly through history. Let me trace a single trajectory, starting in 1851, though I could begin nearly anywhere. Dr. Samuel Cartwright writes in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal: “It is this defective hematosis, or atmospherization of the blood, conjoined with a deficiency of cerebral matter in the cranium… which has rendered the people of Africa unable to take care of themselves.” Using fancy-sounding scientific language, Cartwright defends and justifies slavery. He never utters the word monkey; it floats between his lines. Through defectiveness and deficiency, he casts Black people as inferior and racist stereotypes as medical truth.

In the same article, he coins several “diseases of the mind,” including dysaesthesia aethiopica, which according to Cartwright lead enslaved African Americans to be lazy. This diagnosis not only turns resistance into illness but also allows Cartwright to frame white power and control as cure: “The complaint [of dysaesthesia aethiopica] is easily curable…. The best means… is, first, to have the patient well washed with warm water and soap; then, to anoint it all over in oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap….” Cartwright’s slight of hand is brutal. Enslaved Black people become patients and “it.” The violence they endured becomes cure. The disabling nature of that violence is hidden away. Cartwright reveals in no uncertain terms the social control embedded in the declaration of defectiveness.

copyright 2015, Eli Clare