I saw a review in Elle (yes I read it for the articles and also for the pictures of purses I can’t afford) for a memoir entitled Hot Cripple. The blurb got my attention, because the family of memoirs advocating for a wider healthcare safety net is very small, and I want to get to know any siblings of Cover Me I can possibly find.
So I haven’t read the book. I’m just writing this to process the title. Thanks for being here while I work through the phrase “Hot Cripple” and its relationship to my genre.
The author, Hogan Gorman, was maimed in a car accident. She is an actor and has written a one-woman play about her experience. Maybe she called herself “hot cripple” and is reclaiming the word cripple, as some disability activists advocate. But the phrase “hot cripple” (along with the decapitated boob-a-licious lady-body on the book’s cover) seems to make a plea for attention based on a play on stereotypes, and the element of surprise: as in, “Wow, I didn’t realize cripples could be hot. Did you, honey? Let’s buy this book.”
I have not studied the incidence of hotness in the cripple vs. non-cripple population, but the title makes me think less of humanity–and the publishing industry–in general, no matter how tongue-in-cheek and hip it’s supposed to be.
Okay, BUT. But I’m going to read and buy this book, I think, because I’m interested to see how it’s written, as well as to see whether the content matches the cheese of the cover or is smarter than the cover. I’m interested to see how any author writes memoir in which she tries to messily connect her life story in all its detail to the larger plight of other folks. Memoir is misunderstood in a way that wounds me very slightly–I am much more interested, ultimately, in whether we get universal healthcare than whether this book raises or lowers memoir’s stock with critics. But I’m interested in this genre because it does something hard, and trying something hard and failing often is not necessarily a sign of stupidity or weakness. It’s a sign of trying something hard.
BUT in another way, the title here is exactly what is wrong with the memoir image. Memoir does something inherently risky in referring to real life in prosaic terms, a subject area in which the reader (one hopes) also has some authority and experience (This I learned from Dan W. Lehman’s amazing book, Matters of Fact: Reading Nonfiction Over the Edge.) We are at once empowered as readers of memoir to doubt the story world and sanity of a narrator because the narrator is no more an expert at life on the planet than we are–unless the memoir is about an expert relaying his or her expertise, which makes it a memoir of a different (and less risky, more authoritative) sort.
Memoirs like “Hot Cripple” place their stock in a paradox. The title seems to state that the narrator’s perspective is worthy of attention because of elements of identity as evaluated by stereotypes and general perceptions. The narrator is posed as an expert on the unsought experience of the “hot cripple.” We didn’t know we were looking for that kind of expertise–in fact, it’s a joke on the reader, because the real pull of a memoir is supposed to be a connection with an individual and complex narrator, a human being whose view on the world connects and maybe overlaps or maybe challenges (or both) the perspectives of other humans regardless of individual life experience. I read memoir to have my sense of humanity challenged and reshaped, to find a sense of communion and also growth or at least non-stasis.
Still, there’s a dehumanization in the title that runs too hard against the book’s stated aim of rehumanization. Would you read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin if it were titled “Overweight Balding Guy in Teeny Glasses and a Vest”? In that case, of course, Ben Franklin matters because he is a public figure, which gets at the problem of the memoirist who is not a public figure. How, how, how might we bid for our authority? The easy way to sell books is to bid based on humans as surprising confounding products with features that seem mismatched. A Christian Who Drinks! An Accountant Who Pole-Dances! Yawn. Stop yanking my stereotypes and introducing new ones.
So we have a marketing problem in memoir, but that doesn’t make me love memoir any less. In fact, I love it more for being a problematic, poorly dressed, half mass-market confusing un-snooty genre with gems and trash and odd birds all mixed together in the same Bargain Book Bin. I wanted to be a personal essayist, I suppose, and I write personal essays sometimes, but ultimately I’m a memoirist at heart. And I care more about universal healthcare than about the whether Neil Genzlinger thinks memoir is cool. So I’ll let you know what’s up with “Hot Cripple” after I read it.