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Issue 1


Read the other book reviews in this issue:
Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights

Expecting Adam


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Voices past and present

A review by Sally Rosenthal.

Sally Rosental reviews books frequently for Ragged Edge.

The Little Locksmith: A Memoir by Katharine Butler Hathaway. New York: The Feminist Press, 2000. Softcover, 258 pages, $14.95.

Life Prints: A Memoir Of Healing And Discovery by Mary Grimley Mason. New York: The Feminist Press, 2000. Hardcover, 223 pages, $19.95.

Confession, as the saying goes, is good for the soul. The American public, disabled and nondisabled alike, seems to have embraced that edict, as a trip to any bookstore or library will confirm. Everyone has a story to tell.

But which of these stories will last? What books will stand the test of time to become classics? Which memoirs will, however good, go out of print and be lost to readers? Does this dilemma have even more relevance for tales by disabled authors, denied a voice more often than their nondisabled counterparts?

I found myself pondering these questions recently when I received the two books reviewed here. The Little Locksmith, by Katharine Butler Hathaway, was rescued from obscurity by The Feminist Press and hailed as a lost classic of disability. Life Prints, by Mary Grimley Mason, seeks to preserve the life experiences of a contemporary writer.

What do each of these women have to tell modern readers about living as women with disabilities in different parts of the 1900s? Are their voices, disabled and feminist, more likely to be heard and acknowledged today, assuring that their books will be available for future generations?

The Little Locksmith is a curious book. First published in 1943 just after the author's death, it was a bestseller. Yet, as Nancy Mairs writes in an afterword, less than 60 years later it would seem as if the book had never existed. Mairs, a feminist scholar and disabled writer, admits to having never even come across so much as a footnote about The Little Locksmith. Its current rebirth is due to another feminist writer, Alix Kates Shulman, who discovered a copy in a used bookstore and promoted its republication.

So, what is it about this work that both caused it to fade into obscurity and now to be praised so highly as a lost classic of early 20th century disability experience?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that it is a book about being a disabled woman. Its popularity was no doubt due as much to the reading public's fascination about the author herself as to the elegantly simple prose. At the age of five, Hathaway developed a tubercular spinal tumor. For the next 10 years, in accordance with the best medical treatment of the day, she was strapped to a table in order to prevent kyphosis (more commonly referred to, at the time, as hunchback.)

During her confinement, Hathaway sometimes watched the kyphotic locksmith as he came to work at her home, feeling both revulsion and kinship. When, at fifteen, she was allowed to stand up, she discovered that her sense of kinship had been appropriate: Despite her "treatment," she, like the locksmith, had become kyphotic.

The memoir that emerges from her experience is a singularly prosaic work that combines a sense of otherworldliness with spirited rebellion. The author's descriptions of medical treatment, family dynamics and societal discrimination have the ring of truth about them for any time, yet The Little Locksmith is steeped in its era with its isolation and lack of support for the author. Realizing that a disabled woman could fit nowhere into the world around her, Hathaway forged her own identity as a creative person and free spirit. Buying a house on the Maine coast with a financial inheritance, she lived alone there before joining a group of American expatriate artists in Europe.

The Little Locksmith was actually only the initial work that Hathaway had planned to write about her life after returning to America, marrying, and embracing a spirituality-based lifestyle. But, due to her early death, The Little Locksmith remains her only published book. Despite its popularity, it failed to remain in print or become part of the body of feminist academic writings that emerged from women's studies programs. Were it not for Shulman's discovering the book, Hathaway's life and art might have been just a flash in the pan, a curiosity that engaged the public for a short period of time. And, indeed, other than Helen Keller's autobiography, I can think of no other memoir of feminine disability in existence from that time. Perhaps, like The Little Locksmith, they remain waiting to be rediscovered.

The Little Locksmith tells the story of an early 20th-century life; Life Prints by Mary Grimley Mason progresses through the 1900s. Mason also became disabled as a young child and entered upon a long period of medical treatment designed to return her to "normalcy." In Mason's case, the disability was polio -- she was the nation's first "poster child," dining with President Roosevelt at the Warm Springs rehabilitation center and posing in her wheelchair for publicity shots. The rehabilitation she received at Warm Springs, Georgia, like Hathaway's table confinement, never yielded the hoped-for results.

Like Katherine Butler Hathaway's, Mason's life too had its sense of isolation. Despite marriage, parenthood, and an academic career, Mason always felt set apart as a disabled woman. As did many polio survivors, Mason lived her life on two levels -- the rehabilitated overcomer striving to be "normal," and the real person underneath left to the isolation of disability.

Mason's growing awareness over the years of the feminist movement eventually led her, in 1990, to attend her first disability rights movement meeting. In her memoir, Mason acknowledges her identity as a disabled feminist, even though most of the book deals with her life prior to 1990. The more recent part of her life, as a single parent, cancer survivor and aging disabled woman, receives far shorter treatment than her earlier, more traditional life. Mason appears to have led a well-rounded life and grown comfortably into her current role as a disabled feminist, proud of both parts of her identity. I would like to have known more about her recent life, but that might be my own bias. After all, the story is Mason's, and, if, as a 72-year-old polio survivor, she wants to reflect more on the past than the present, the choice is hers.

Hathaway and Mason believed in the worth and value of their lives, even though they lived in a society that discounted them as disabled women. The Little Locksmith and Life Prints are vital links across generations of disabled women, encouraging others to also tell their unique stories, to ensure that disabled women's voices never be stilled.

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