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A Great Book!
on June 24, 2013
As a deaf person, I find a great many unsettling parallels between my own experiences and the brutal themes explored in Terry Tracy's A Great Place for a Seizure. One such theme is the question of identity: if you have a disability (epilepsy in the case of Tracey's main character, Mischa Dunn) are you a disabled person? Or are you a person with a disability? Who or what is at the forefront, in other words, the master sculptor shaping you into what you are? Are you the sum totality of your experiences, or is each experience altered, perhaps even overpowered, by something that is far more than a mere part of you?
Are you an epileptic or a person with epilepsy?
The novel, which is actually a collection of short stories depicting various phases of Mischa's life, confronts both the reader and Mischa simultaneously with this question. And a fascinating life it is: her childhood in Chile and her father's constant alarm with the growing oppression of the regime running the country at the time (coupled with his growing alarm over the seizures his daughter was already starting to have), her move back to America and the atmosphere of an all-girls Catholic school, her complex relationship with her mother's heavy emphasis on relationships and beauty, college, the quirks of living in Cambridge and the British mindset, and the equally quirky mindset of working in Washington DC's advocacy groups/policy think tanks.
While there are several personal similarities I share with Mischa that were immensely rewarding to read about (I too work in DC, know a lot of people who work in advocacy fields, am familiar with the lingo and mannerisms of the region and the business--all of these are highly detailed and exceedingly accurate throughout the portions of the novel that relate to DC), the greater part of the kinship I felt with Mischa centered around other similarities we share.
I mentioned above the fact that I am deaf not to make myself in any way the focus of this review, but rather to outline further parallels between Mischa's experiences and what may seem hauntingly familiar to any person with any kind of disability. As an educator I could identify strongly with the initial reactions of Mischa's parents: their shock, confusion, the scramble to find out what was wrong, endless visits to doctors. This is a story often repeated not only by deaf people in my own community but also by many of their parents. An additional issue I could identify with was the constant leaping between cultures and languages. For Mischa this is Spanish and English, Latin America, America, and Europe. For me and many deaf people this is English and American Sign Language, the hearing world and Deaf Culture. These experiences are not exact copies of each other, of course, but are comparable in some ways. I, like Mischa, have often felt a sense of alienation among deaf and hearing people alike. Not all deaf people are like me just because they are deaf, but I am not like hearing people precisely because they are hearing. And no, I really can't explain that any better than I already have. But I recognized a kindred spirit in Mischa when she confronted the issue from her own vantage point.
I could also identify strongly with Mischa's growing distaste for doctors, especially those who treated her as a "case," or a "file," rather than as a human being. In one chapter Mischa erupts at a doctor who apparently skimmed her file only minutes before the appointment and mapped out an aggressive and inappropriate suggestion for treatment that Mischa, who has been around this particular block more times than she can count, wants nothing to do with. So it is among many deaf people as well, the automatic suggestions (by doctors and laypeople alike) that one get a cochlear implant, the expectation that the medical "fix" really fixes everything, that all people will respond the same way to the same treatment. The subtle disappointment and not-so-subtle blaming and hostility when they don't.
I especially identified with Mischa's contempt with the term "disabled," and would not be surprised if quite a few "disabled" people share this contempt. To me, as it is to Mischa, this term is a term for weakness, for deficiency. As a deaf man I don't see the deficiency as residing within me. It resides in the world I live in, in a world that is not designed for me. I had always wondered if other people with various disabilities shared my view on this, and A Great Place for a Seizure is an interesting take on that general attitude. For example, if a building has stairs but no ramp, is the deficiency (if you accept the premise suggested earlier) within the person with mobility issues, or in the design of the building? Now with epilepsy, the premise (from the point of view I had prior to reading the book) comes under a bit of fire, because how can one design a building, an environment, a society to accommodate a seizure? I ask this question not to belittle the efforts of those with epilepsy to obtain such accommodations, but to clarify the frustration and ridicule they might experience in trying to do so.
Mischa does not frame the issue in precisely this manner, but the haunting similarities are there. Is she concerned with potential discrimination? Absolutely. Barriers in her chosen field of work? Absolutely. The ignorance of people around her, and how they'll react after one of her seizures? Yes. Because Terry Tracy herself lives with epilepsy, the writing is starkly authentic. And because I am deaf, because I, like her, have no choice but to be what I am, because I cannot run away from it or take a break from it or turn the world into something else with a snap of my fingers, the writing and the issues explored are often uncomfortable. Painful, even. But Tracy draws us into a life that demands our empathy, not our sympathy or pity.
In closing I must address a final issue. Not only does Tracy address the question of her own identity, both as an epileptic and as a person with epilepsy, but also the identity of epilepsy itself. I was pleased to learn of the deep and rich history, both mythological and factual, behind the condition. This too has strong parallels with deafness and how society has perceived deafness (and why it perceives the condition the way it does). I was waiting to see if there was, if not exactly a culture of such individuals, then a community, a kinship of some kind. Mischa appears to have stayed separate from such a community if there is one, but she did not shy away from defining epilepsy herself, and her definition is a highly realistic mix that matches my own definition of deafness. In days past I too viewed it as an oppressor (her terms are stalker and predator). However, I came to see it, as Mischa also saw her epilepsy, as a companion and a mentor. A guide opening my eyes to the true nature of humanity--not just my own but its entire continuum, and I honestly believe that the perspectives I hold today would not be the same perspectives I would have had I been born hearing and remained so. Thus, because Tracy through Mischa validates these beliefs, I felt a great sense of spiritual reward at the end of the novel. It ends in the only way it can, given the style of writing and the seeming contradiction between writing from a first-person viewpoint yet somehow getting into the heads of other characters and writing from their viewpoints, as well. Readers will understand how this could possibly occur when they get to the end, and I won't give that away here. But when readers understand what I'm talking about, they will also hopefully understand that these stories are not a collection of difficulties and tragedies. They are her way of saying "This is who I am, all the ways in which I came to be, all that defined me, and ultimately the way I defined myself." Telling them was her act of definition, the greatest single act of strength and empowerment any of us can undertake.