Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Body Silent: Robert Francis Murphy 1987

Robert Murphy was a professor of anthropology at Columbia University when he became progressively paralyzed by an inoperable spinal cord tumor. His book is a personal journey through profound physical disability, an exploration of the self, and a study of the social construction of disability ["Disability is defined by society and given meaning by culture; it is a social malady" (4)]. As he writes The Body Silent he is virtually quadriplegic, hitting the keys of his computer with the eraser end of a pencil held in place by a 'universal cuff' wrapped around his palm. He is still traveling to Columbia to teach his classes.

Murphy applies the metaphor of an anthropological field trip to his experience: "This book was conceived in the realization that my long illness with a disease of the spinal cord has been a kind of extended anthropological field trip, for through it I have sojourned in a social world no less strange to me at first than those of the Amazon forests. And since it is the duty of all anthropologists to report on their travels . . . this is my accounting" (ix). Drawing not only on his own experience but also on research for which he received funding, Murphy instructs his audience in the metaphysics of his situation, and in the social as well as physical challenges of disability.
The Body Silent makes for uncomfortable yet riveting reading. The discomfort of entering into a detailed narrative of such severe, progressive bodily alteration is balanced for the reader by the narrator's unsentimental stance, and his effective instructional approach. Just as he had overcome alcoholism by going "cold turkey," Murphy took on his physical deterioration with eyes-open determination, a refusal to accept social limitations, and reliance on the essence of his selfhood--his mind.

His account is a highly informative study of the physical negotiation of paraplegia and quadriplegia, and of attitudes and assumptions harbored toward those who are physically "other." It is also a moving personal narrative of his changing relationship with his wife, on whom he is increasingly dependent; of his relationships with colleagues, students, and friends; of increasing isolation from his body and the larger world; of finding meaning and purpose in his altered condition. Murphy, in fact, became a pioneer for rights of the handicapped and spearheaded the initiative at Columbia to provide wheelchair access and other aids.

Murphy's narrative seems to me consistent with a classification of this text as "metapathography," a term proposed by literary critic, Peter Graham (See "Metapathography: Three Unruly Texts." Literature and Medicine, 16: 1, 70-87, 1997). According to Graham, metapathographies are "not simple personal stories of illness but artful transformations of the genre, works whose authors, relying on the distinctive professional strengths at their disposal, write themselves out of illness and suffering--and do so, finally, by looking past pathography itself" (73).

It should be noted that The Body Silent is currently out of print. It is, however, available in some libraries and from used book dealers, and is well worth the effort of tracking down. It can be purchased for $1.00 plus shipping from AbeBooks.