Elena Marshel Final Project

Elena Marshel


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

Elena Marshel Major Paper: Race and Disability in Of Mice and Men

Elena Marshel
Professor Chris Foss
13 April 2021

Crooks: The Intersection of Race and Disability in Of Mice and Men
For decades, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has held renown as an account of the hardships and tragedies of migrant workers during the Great Depression. Steinbeck illustrates the difficulties workers faced in finding stable jobs, building savings, or attempting to own property through the story of two friends, George and Lennie, as they travel the country looking for work. The novella also explores the ways people during this era formed and maintained relationships with others and the effect of social structures, such as classism and sexism, on these relationships. One social structure examined in Of Mice and Men is that of disability and ableism; Lennie, one of the main characters, has an intellectual disability, and two workers on the ranch have physical disabilities. Candy, an elderly swamper, has an amputated hand, and Crooks, the elderly stable buck, has a crooked back; both of these injuries were received on the job and affect their ability to work, but Crooks and Candy hold relatively permanent positions on the ranch. However, despite their physical similarities, their superiors and peers treat them very differently. While Candy sleeps in the bunkhouse with the other workers and holds social relationships with them, Crooks is banned from the bunkroom and maintains emotional distance from the others on the ranch. These differentiations in treatment stem from an important difference between the two men: Crooks is the only black man on the ranch.
While other disabled characters in the narrative face ableism and discrimination, they are able to maintain some level of basic respect from most of their peers. This is often because the ranchers are able to overlook their perceived deficiencies in certain contexts. However, as a visibly disabled black man in the postbellum era of segregation, Crooks is unable to distance himself from his oppressed identities. There are no contexts in which both of his “defects” are irrelevant as physical health and race both play important roles in determining the social order on the ranch. Crooks is not only black, not only disabled, but both, and it leaves him with little option but to accept his mistreatment and subjugation on the ranch, leading to his social detachment and bitterness. The intersection of race and disability in the character of Crooks creates a story of extreme dehumanization through racism, manipulation, and exploitation.
Crooks’ status on the ranch is evident as soon as he is introduced as a character. When George and Lennie arrive late, Candy describes to them that their boss was upset with their tardiness, finishing his story with, “he give the stable buck hell, too” (Steinbeck 20). This elicits confusion from George because, without knowledge of Crooks’ identity as a black, disabled man, George doesn’t understand the relationship between the boss’s anger and his treatment of the stable buck. Candy seems to understand why George is confused, explaining with the simple statement, “Ya see the stable buck’s a n*gger” (Steinbeck 20). This answer implies that if the stable buck was white, the behavior would be inappropriate, but because “the stable buck’s a n*gger,” he is the rational target for the boss to take out his anger. In his explanation, Candy positions Crooks’ race as the most important aspect of his identity in determining how he should be treated.
Candy goes on to describe Crooks as a “nice fella” and then immediately explains how he has “a crooked back where a horse kicked him” (Steinbeck 20). The description of Crooks as a “nice fella” directly contradicts many of the later descriptions of Crooks as aloof and antisocial. Therefore, it seems likely that Candy’s positing of Crooks as a “nice fella” is not an attempt at an accurate depiction, but rather to separate himself from his boss’s behavior and establish to George that he doesn’t hold inherent aggression towards black people. Candy’s next sentence further justifies Crooks’ position at the bottom of the social hierarchy by revealing his physical disability, yet another visible difference that separates Crooks from the rest of the workers. Candy’s conceptualization and explanation of Crooks reveals how he is viewed on the farm: first and foremost, he is the only black person and therefore he is treated poorly; if more justification for his mistreatment is needed, he is also visibly disabled.
As further proof of Crooks’ social position, Candy tells George a story about a special occasion where their boss had given them a gallon of alcohol and “they let the n*gger come in that night” (Steinbeck 21). The social inclusion of Crooks is portrayed as a rare, unique event. Even then, Candy describes how Crooks was still not fully included, but rather used as a source of entertainment when another worker began to fight him. The others placed restrictions on Crooks’ challenger in order to accommodate his disability, which only serves to increase aggression towards Crooks: “If he coulda used his feet, Smitty says he woulda killed the n*gger. The guys said on account of the n*gger’s got a crooked back, Smitty can’t use his feet” (Steinbeck 21). This treatment of Crooks’ disability is illustrative of the simultaneously protective and harmful effects it has on his life. Because the workers hold such a high emphasis on physical fitness and the ability to defend oneself, Crooks is given accommodations on the basis of his disability that allow him to partially combat the racial discrimination he receives. However, using these tools ultimately increases the animosity the white workers feel towards him. This creates a cycle where discrimination leads to accommodation, which then leads to more discrimination.
Despite the discrimination he faces, Crooks is a long-term worker on the ranch. This is not necessarily out of loyalty or love of the job, but instead due to a lack of options and fear of worse treatment elsewhere. Specifically, his disability is listed as a reason for the stability of his position: “being a stable buck and a cripple, he was more permanent than the other men” (Steinbeck 65). He shares this position with Candy, who says once he can’t work on the ranch he “won’t have no place to go, an’ [he] can’t get no more jobs” (Steinbeck 59) due to his disability and age. It is this sense of hopelessness that feeds the cycles of subjugation described above. If the employees who have work-related disabilities (Candy and Crooks) believe their current positions are their only option, they will withstand more poor treatment than they otherwise would. Curley and his father need only provide them with the most base level of respect and kindness in order to keep them in their positions, and for Candy, a white man, the base level of respect is far higher than it is for Crooks. Again, disability-based and race-based discrimination compound upon one another.
Crooks is completely isolated from the other members of the farm on the basis of his race physically, socially, and intellectually. Much of this isolation arises from the fact that Crooks is not allowed into the main bunkroom where the rest of the employees sleep and socialize. When the worker with an intellectual disability, Lennie, asks Crooks why he isn’t allowed in the bunkroom, Crooks responds, “‘cause I’m black… they say I stink” (Steinbeck 67). His exclusion from the main point of social contact is justified in precisely the same way another character justifies his request for Candy to keep his elderly dog out of the bunkroom. The same issue of odor is used to encourage Candy to allow his dog to be euthanized: “He don’t have no fun… and he stinks to beat hell. Tell you what. I’ll shoot him for you” (Steinbeck 47). These parallels show how the comfort of those higher in the social hierarchy is valued more than the quality of life (or life itself) of those deemed inferior. The parallels also illustrate how dehumanized Crooks has become in the eyes of his peers, as his social standing is disturbingly comparable to that of Candy’s dog: inherently beneath all others.
As seen in the expulsion of both Crooks and Candy’s dog from the bunkhouse, the comfort of the white, able-bodied workers takes precedence over the comfort of others. This is another contributing factor to Crooks’ alienation on the ranch. With the other disabled characters, disability is viewed as a deficiency that can, nevertheless, be overcome and consequently overlooked. When George introduces Lennie, he repeatedly tells the others, “He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though” (Steinbeck 34). George attempts to keep the others as comfortable as possible with Lennie by simplifying his intellectual disability into a matter of “brightness” and immediately compensating for that deficiency with physical fitness and profitability. This explanation is more or less accepted by the others, and by preserving the comfort of those higher in the social hierarchy, Lennie is given access to the bunkhouse that Crooks isn’t afforded. Despite their disabilities, Lennie and Candy are protected by their whiteness, which immediately identifies them as similar to the other workers in at least one important way.
Contrastingly, Crooks is immediately identifiable as inherently different from the others through his skin color, which is almost universally deemed as inferior. So, as he must start at the bottom of the social pyramid, his disability is viewed as an additional defect, as opposed to a singular fault that can be more easily overcome. Instead of being an obstacle to physical and social success, Crooks’ disability solidifies his place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. When Crooks is talking to Lennie and realizes he isn’t listening, he says, “This is just a n*gger talkin’, an’ a busted-back n*gger. So it don’t mean nothing, see?” (Steinbeck 69). Again, his most important identifying feature is his race, which automatically discredits him, but the addition of his “busted back” merely confirms his inferiority. The fact that Crooks himself is the one saying this shows how much he has internalized this narrative due to its constant reinforcement by others.
In order to deal with this isolation, Crooks becomes a “proud, aloof man” who “kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs” (Steinbeck 66), even when it goes against what he truly wants. In order to endure abuse as painlessly as possible, Crooks has learned to rid himself of any outwards expression of desire, contempt, or emotion, in general, to avoid giving his abusers additional leverage. When Curley’s wife comes into Crooks’ room and sees the three disabled characters, Crooks, Lennie, and Candy, she refers to them respectively as “a n*gger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep” (Steinbeck 77). Again, Crooks’ major deficiency is not his physical disability but his race, which therefore places Curley’s wife above him on the social hierarchy. Therefore, she feels free to abuse him in a manner she doesn’t attempt with either Lennie or Candy, who are disabled white men and therefore of fairly equal standing with her. When Candy yells at her, she merely laughs and teases in response, but when Crooks loses his temper and asks her to leave, she responds with a threat to have him lynched. In response, Crooks “drew into himself… seemed to grow smaller” and finally “had reduced himself to nothing” (Steinbeck 78-9). The practiced nature of this process and his history of taking the brunt of aggression on the farm show how consistently Crooks is exposed to this kind of abuse. His persona of “proud aloofness” is a coping mechanism for the long-term anguish of constant belittlement and threats.
Crooks is consistently and unequivocally placed at the very bottom of the social hierarchy on the ranch in Of Mice and Men. This is not totally because of his race nor his disability, but because of the combination of those two identities. His race causes him to automatically be deemed as inferior to the other white workers, but his disability creates a dependence on the system that oppresses and discriminates against him. Crooks’ personality as described in the novella- detached, rigid, unkind- is, therefore, a direct result of his treatment as a black disabled man.

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Elena Marshel

Works Cited
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.

Elena’s Response to “The Secret Garden” and “Defectives in the Land”

While reading Baynton’s introduction to Defectives in the Land, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the role disability and race have played in the history of immigration and the portrayal of foreign countries and races in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Throughout the book, India is demonized as both the home of uncivilized subhumans and as the cause of Mary’s chronic illness. In his introduction, Bayton points out the overlap between the perception of disabled people and people from “undesirable” races or ethnicities during immigration. In both cases, the group in question is viewed as fundamentally flawed and inferior (as Baynton would say, defective). Just as Mary, Archibald, and Colin are viewed as less than human in various ways due to their disabilities, India and its people are viewed in a similar way. In The Secret Garden, England and the moor are portrayed as inherently superior to India in their quality of life and quality of people. The idea that Mary and Colin’s health issues will be solved by England’s “fresh air” is consistently reinforced throughout the novel, strengthened through the comparison of India and the moor. Mary’s poor health in India and upon arrival in England is repeatedly blamed on the nature of Indian weather: she had been so sick and surly because “she had always been too hot and languid and weak to care much about anything.” This attribution ignores the many other factors that affected Mary’s life in India, such as a lack of parental care, and instead forces a causal relationship between her physical defectiveness and the cultural/racial defectiveness of India. As Baynton identifies in his essay, blood and heritage govern ideas of a person’s worth and where they belong, be it on the moors for the white Mary or in India for her native servants.

The views of India as an inferior country and native Indians as an inferior race are held by the adults and then passed onto children as fact, which often serves to intensify the opinions. This cycle is illustrated clearly in the first interaction between Mary and Martha. When Mary says her life was different in India, Martha replies, “I dare say it’s because there’s such a lot o’ blacks there instead respectable white people.” She then admits she thought Mary would be black (meaning Indian), which Mary takes as a horrible insult. She describes her native servants as “obsequious and servile,” saying they “did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals.” She even goes so far as to say “they are not people.” Although Martha goes on to say she has “nothin’ against th’ blacks,” she still dehumanizes them in similar ways to disabled people in a freak show. She talks about how she had “never seen a black an’ was fair pleased to think [she] was goin’ to see one close,” describing creeping up on Mary while she was asleep in an attempt to look at her unhindered. This treatment is reminiscent of the story Colin tells from his childhood in which a stranger comes up to him and pats his cheek out of sympathy when she learns of his disability. In both cases, the bodily autonomy of those deemed defective is ignored in order to allow the dominant group to use their body for entertainment. This is an example of the overlap between experiences of race-based and disability-based discrimination Baynton mentions in his work, which really centers around the dehumanization of those that the dominant groups view as defective.