Eli Clare on our relationship with ‘abnormal’ and the promise of cure

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Following on from writer and activist Eli Clare’s visit to Scotland last year, Sandra Alland interviews him about his latest book from Duke University Press, ‘Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure’.

Book Cover with a picture of a collection of stones

In Brilliant Imperfection, Eli Clare expertly blends memoir, political analysis, poetry and historical research. Coming together in what he calls a ‘mosaic’, the varied pieces examine how ideas of cure define, and often harm, disabled and other marginalised people.

What strikes me most about this book, after the beauty and range of the writing, is Clare’s willingness to re-examine beliefs and allow for uncomfortable complexities. He exposes the horrors of how medical and cultural diagnoses of ‘defect’ and ‘disorder’ lead to ideologies of ‘fixing’ and elimination. But cure isn’t a straightforward topic – and Clare also writes of ways we might sometimes embrace treatment or body-mind alterations.

Thanks to Edinburgh’s Nat Raha hosting Clare last September through Scottish PEN and LGBT Youth, I also featured Brilliant Imperfection at a Glasgow meeting of the queer and trans project, Cachín Cachán Cachunga! Clare’s reading sparked wonderfully messy conversations among the disabled and D/deaf artists present.

Nathan Gale raised the complexity of cure for some trans and/or non-binary people. Bea Webster discussed the pressures of audism and white supremacy for her as a deaf woman of colour. Through stunning poetry and image, Emilia Beatriz evoked Puerto Rico’s legacies of forced sterilisation and environmental contamination from US Navy occupation.

As Clare so eloquently argues regarding these kinds of personal, environmental and cultural histories, cure’s reach into our lives can be far, devastating, and complicated. I caught up with him over email to talk more about Brilliant Imperfection.

San Alland: You discuss how ‘low intelligence’ is used to control and eradicate disabled and D/deaf people, women, people of colour and/or poor people. You also say, “Every time we defend our intelligence we come close to disowning intellectually disabled people.” Can you speak about equating intelligence with worth?

Highly detailed painting of a man with short bleach-blonde hair holding several leafy branches to his chest. He kneels on the woodland floor next to a lake

Painting of Eli Clare by Riva Lehrer

Eli Clare: There are so many ways intelligence and worth are connected. Ableism, misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia and capitalism all interlocked turn intelligence into a weapon. Those of us who are deemed intellectually or mentally disabled are all too often denied good education, denied employment, denied housing outside of institutional contexts – group homes, nursing homes, psych facilities, prisons – denied sexuality, denied respect, denied belonging and community, denied self-determined lives, denied personhood. In many marginalized communities, when we resist domination through defending our intelligence, rather than turning away from intelligence as a marker of worth, we bolster those denials.

Alland: In what practical ways can marginalised people move beyond declaring how smart (or sane) we are when fighting personal or systemic attacks on our intelligence or mental health? How have you avoided (or not avoided) arguing with accusations from those intent on denying you self-worth and rights?

Clare: That’s such a good and not easy question. On a community level, we need to commit to sustained access for intellectually disabled people, neurodivergent and neuroqueer people, and mad people. We need to fight for good housing, education, employment, liveable benefits, health care; resist violence; complicate our reproductive justice politics and question disability selective abortion, while defending access to abortion more generally. On an individual level, I try (with mixed success) to disengage from attacks on my intelligence, to say “so what” rather than “no, really, I’m smart.” I also think we need to never name our oppressors, bullies, or political opponents “idiots” or call them “stupid.” To do so is to participate in weaponizing intelligence.

Alland: You write about the harm many disability charities have caused. Can you describe how some organisations capitalise on ableism, pity and cure?

Clare: Charities have made so much money by leveraging the promise of cure. First they declare illness and disability, everything from cancer to muscular dystrophy to autism, as tragedy and trouble that must be cured. This need to cure is posed as undeniably obvious. Then they promise they’re close to finding a cure if only people will give generously, a promise that is often simply hype. For example in the US, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has been claiming for the last fifty years that cure is just around the corner. This kind of fundraising focuses intensely on the future, rarely provides resources to improve disabled and sick people’s present-day lives, and reinforces the ableist belief that disability needs to be eradicated.

Alland: How do cosmetic and drug companies also make money from cure, reflecting oppressive systems that intersect with ableism – such as cissexism and transmisogyny, colonialism and racism, fatism ?

Clare: Cure, not only as a medical process but also as a cultural ideology, functions in many different ways. It saves lives and normalizes body-minds deemed broken, deformed, troubled or troubling. It provides one kind of answer to body-mind loss and prioritizes some lives over others. It supports comfort and acts as profound social control. And through it all cure makes billions in profit. In these various guises, cure shows up in many places: weight loss surgery, dieting regimes, ex-gay reparative therapy, skin lightening creams marketed to dark-skinned people of colour – particularly women from the global south – drugs designed to remove women’s facial hair, and cancer research.

Alland: What happens when we reject cure, and/or ‘claim’ disability and chronic illness?

Clare: I don’t believe the goal is necessarily to reject cure but rather grapple with the contradictions that live inside cure. For me, that grappling has meant rooting out deep shame about my queer trans disabled body-mind. It has meant upending my relationship to normal and abnormal. It has meant breaking isolation and finding disability community. It has meant activist work to resist all the ways disabled/mad/sick/Deaf people, fat people, queer and trans people, people of colour, women and non-binary people, immigrants, Muslims, and poor and working-class people are treated as defective and disposable or in need of cure.

Order ‘Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure’ from Duke Press
Listen to Scottish PEN’s podcast of Eli Clare in conversation with Nat Raha