VENUS ON WHEELS: TWO DECADES OF DIALOGUE ON DISABILITY,
BIOGRAPHY, AND BEING FEMALE IN AMERICA
Gelya Frank

 

University of California Press, May 2000
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
 
Biography, Anthropology, Disability Studies
 
Diane DeVries was born with no legs and only vestigial arms. To herself, she is normal; this is how she is. When she was a year old she discovered how to pick things up, and she  figured out a way to walk when she was two or three years old. She participated in the childhood games of her neighborhood, and has had an active social life since she was a teen. She was married for several years. With the help of friends, her husband, assisting institutions, and her own determination, she overcame many obstacles to earn a Masters degree in clinical social work, and earns a good living as a social worker among AIDS patients.
 
Author Gelya Frank met Diane in class when they were both in their twenties, and was fascinated at first sight. Diane made no effort to hide her physical differences, preferring to wear shorts and sleeveless tops that emphasize her well-developed bust – only partly because sleeves irritated her arm stumps. Ms. Frank’s first thought about Diane was that she could have no sex life, an assumption that was one of many to be quickly proven wrong. Starting with a revealing account of their first meeting, from both her own and Diane’s points of view, the author explores for us her reactions to Diane and the reasons for them. This is part of the technique of cultural biography, in which the writer recognizes that his/her interpretation of the person and events being observed is going to be affected by the writer’s own viewpoint, making it important that the reader know the author’s attitudes and background. The author attempts to lay wide open for the reader her conscious and unconscious self-explorations as they affect her view of Diane over a twenty-year period.
 
This book needs to be reviewed from three viewpoints: those of the scholar, the layperson, and also Diane’s viewpoint. Every decision the author makes shows clearly that her first priority is academic legitimacy. I am sure VENUS ON WHEELS has received good reviews in the academic community. The book discusses the terminology, history, methodology and ethics of life histories such as this one, and returns frequently to these subjects throughout the book. The author includes chunks of Diane’s unpublished autobiography, explores with Diane her experiences and attitudes in many moods, and describes her own involvement in Diane’s life. She recounts in detail the developments in the independent living movement that is evolving throughout their lives, in order to place Diane in her cultural setting. (One wonders, is this setting perhaps too limited? Diane participates in a country and an intellectual climate, not just in a disabled culture.) She examines the ethics of forming a personal bond with her subject while publishing her own opinions which Diane does not always agree with. This is very much a scholarly book presented with all attention to academic forms, but also with the author’s own individuality giving life to the study.
 
The best lay audience for this book would be a reader who wants to understand a disabled person involved in his/her own life. To a layperson, this book will probably be tough going. The sections on terminology and methodology are meant to communicate to readers in the field of anthropology, and like a computer textbook, it may require some prior knowledge of the subject. The story is here, Diane’s achievements and difficulties and the story of the relationship between Gelya and Diane, but it is embedded in a great deal of non-biographical material. For those with a personal stake in the issues, it will be useful. Even though the author doesn’t seem to grasp Diane’s feeling of being normal in her own body, she describes what Diane has told her about it so the reader will have a chance of understanding it. She vividly shows how Diane innovates to do things most people depend on full limbs to handle, such as writing. It is obvious from her descriptions that Diane has a leadership personality and a friendly and understanding nature. These things help us understand how much a disabled person can have to contribute, and how inventive he/she might be in finding ways to contribute.
 
What is Diane’s reaction to VENUS ON WHEELS? Gelya and Diane talked about that. Gelya jokes that Diane thinks the book will be very dry reading, and that another version will have to be written by someone else, maybe Diane herself. Diane wants her message of accomplishment and potential to go out to as many people as possible, and the style of this book makes it inaccessible to many readers. It sounds as if Diane feels the message hasn’t yet been put across the way she wants it.
 
Generally, VENUS ON WHEELS emphasizes how important it is to a disabled person to develop his/her potentials, but it is also clear how inappropriately named the “independent living” movement can be. Diane’s “independent living” is deeply dependent on the people around her, so much so that her mother and husband both broke under the strain. This book does not count the cost of developing a disabled person’s potentials, but both the disabled person and those around him/her must do that. For the sake of all, we need to learn how Diane might have reached her present position as a productive member of her society without either draining those people and resources or smothering her own qualities.
 
Sep 2000 Review, first published on the Independent Reviews Site

 

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