Professor Christopher Foss
6 May 2021
“Apologies to my OB-GYN:” The Value of Disabled Lives
In her essay “The Case for Conserving Disability,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that disability is an integral part of human society and a source of connection and social change. Some of the earliest pieces of evidence of hominins with advanced intelligence and social structures (in other words, more human-like hominins) come in the form of remains with healed injuries that would have been debilitating before modern medicine. The fact that these early human relatives were able to heal and continue living shows that their community felt empathy and compassion. They tended to their sick peer, even when it was costly and had no benefits besides a life saved. This has always been one of the strongest defining characteristics of our incredibly unique species: our desire and capability to care for those who cannot care for themselves. This aspect of humanity is explored in Rebecca Foust’s poem “Apologies to my OB-GYN,” which is about her experience having a child who was premature and autistic. In her derisive and ironic apology, she brings attention to the way this age-old practice of caring for other humans has been corrupted by modern medicalization and finances, while also highlighting the beauty of life she sees in her son.
The first two stanzas of Foust’s poem describe the circumstances of her son’s birth through an apology, the sincerity of which is not immediately clear.
“Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early, took up so much room
in your prenatal nursery
with his two pounds, two ounces
and did not oblige your nurses
with easy veins.” (1-6)
The very first word of the poem is “sorry,” setting the apologetic tone that pervades the entire work. It is initially impossible to tell how genuine the apology is, and it seems to convey conflicting senses of true contrition and biting sarcasm. She apologizes that her son “birthed himself / too early,” framing it as a conscious act by giving the infant agency in the sentence. The line break, which causes the first line to end at “birthed himself,” seems to be a brief appreciation of the ways in which disabled people, especially those with autism, may act in ways that defy social norms. This defiance is not rebellion, as Foust sarcastically writes it here, but simply the way disabled and autistic people meet their needs, which differ from an abled, neurotypical person. However, these expectation-defying behaviors are often perceived as something to be apologized for. Foust juxtaposes her apologetic tone with twisted descriptions of the burden her son caused the medical staff, apologizing for taking up too much space despite his tiny size and for her son’s failure to “oblige the nurses / with easy veins.” Her phrasing makes the apology seem unnecessary at the very least, and by the end of the stanza, her apology is more clearly insincere.
“Sorry we were such pains in your ass
asking you to answer our night calls like that,
and that he did everything so backwards:
lost weight, gained fluid
blew up like a human balloon
then shriveled.” (7-12)
By the beginning of the second stanza, Foust’s frustration becomes more apparent as she moves to more aggressive language, calling her and her family “pains in [their] ass” for requesting simple medical services. She continues to emphasize the unrealistic nature of her guilt through the way she phrases her supposed offenses. Foust then apologizes again for her son’s deviation from standard practice, saying that “he did everything so backwards” and then describing serious medical conditions. She uses nearly comical language like “human balloon” in a faux attempt to validate her apology, but it serves a similar purpose. The comedic language seems nearly grotesque next to the medical descriptions of the premature child.
“Sorry about how he defied your prognoses,
skyrocketed premiums, weighted the costs,
in your cost-benefit analyses,
skewed bell-curve predictions,
into one long, straight line;
sorry he took so much of your time” (13-18)
In this stanza, Foust moves from the guilt she felt during her time at the hospital to a more general trend in which disabled and autistic people, as well as their caretakers, are held socially responsible for the perceived cost of caring for them. Foust uses specific financial and analytical language in her apology, listing terms such as “premiums,” “cost-benefit analyses,” and “bell-curve predictions” that sound clinical and impersonal in the context of a child’s life. Again, she uses her imitation apology to point out the questionable priorities of the people who place guilt on her and her child. She ends the stanza with a cut-off line, “sorry he took so much of your time,” which, separated from the rest of the sentence, seems to hold less sarcastic intent than the rest of the poem thus far. However, the line is continued into the final stanza:
“being so determined to live. He spent
today saving hopeless-case nymph moths
trapped in the porchlight, one matrix-dot
at a time, and now he’s asleep; blue wingbeat
pulse fluttering his left temple—there,
there again. Just like it did then.” (19-24)
When the line is brought together, it becomes “sorry he took so much of your time being determined to live.” This line is a striking summary of much of the sentiment in the poem, but it is fragmented and interrupted by arbitrary divisions. Just like line breaks in a free verse poem, social constructs can be helpful but are not always necessary nor appropriate, and can in fact be harmful when they are applied to circumstances that require unconventional attention. For the rest of the stanza, as she describes the beauty of watching her child grow and learn to care for others, the lines are divided no longer divided by clause. Instead, they flow as feels natural, as she wishes for her son to do. This is the only stanza that doesn’t contain the word “sorry,” leaving a clear message: by breaking free from the need to adhere to detrimental social constrictions, one can alleviate the guilt autistic people often feel for simply existing.
The final stanza is centered around the very thing Foust found lacking in the hospital, the place where it should be most plentiful: access to guilt-free care. When freed from expectations that do not apply to him, her son attempts to save “hopeless-case nymph moths trapped in the porchlight,” engaging in the selfless acts of care for others described in the introduction of this essay. The juxtaposition of this stanza with the first three, which are guilt-ridden and full of clinical terms, makes the disconnect clear. Although medical care should ideally be based on compassion and humanity, the emphasis on finances and cost in the medical industry has created an environment in which the non-monetary value of things, such as the life of a little boy, is overshadowed. This is caused by and leads to the stigmatization of disabled and autistic people as a drain on resources, rather than a valuable and necessary aspect of humanity.
Word Count: 1170
I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Elena Marshel