Review of “Hot Cripple”

From Feb. 2012:

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.
The Review:

I had a few hours yesterday waiting in a doctor’s office (no bitching about that, my endocrinologist is a goddess) and so I got to finish “Hot Cripple” by Hogan Gorman (Penguin, 2012) which promises this story: “An incurable smart-ass takes on the health care system and lives to tell the tale.” How could I not read it? So I did. I love that a book takes on social class and also uses the words “vajayjay” and “funner.” The one teeny issue I have with it is that I don’t think she actually writes much about the healthcare system. But I’ll get to that. And she is forgiven the title “Hot Cripple” because some kid called her that on the street as she was limping by. First I want to say that I’m full of love for Gorman, who I don’t know, because our books appear to be kindred spirits in some way. I like that she took on an issue of social class and told tales that were hard for her to tell and that she made it funny. It’s way funnier than my book, with a consistent deadpan delivery that makes it feel like a one-woman monologue rather than a narrative. This makes sense, since Gorman is an actress and it started as a stage show. And we have the same cover design: Apparently when book cover designers see “woman” and “healthcare” in the write up they think “naked stock-photo chicks without heads.” But anyway.

Is it just me?

Gorman is a model-turned-actress, and she starts the book on full-steam “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” As a peasant-build swarthy woman, I found myself thinking, no, I never did want to work out that much, so I really don’t want to be you. This is a lot of the book’s hook: “Sex in the City” meets “Something That’s Never Ever On TV Except Maybe with Rosie O’Donnell or Archie Bunker.” The book is very New York and fashion centric, throwing around names of labels and drinks and so forth. Anyway. Gorman was working as a cocktail waitress to support herself as she switched careers from modeling to acting. She got hit by a car in a horrific accident, suffered major trauma to the head, back, and everything else, and spent two years recovering. Holy smokes, it sounded excruciating. Despite the trauma, her funny voice carries the book. I enjoyed reading—and was stunned by—her growing awareness about what happens to people who suddenly can’t work. She’s honest about all of her self-loathing and crises of faith, and there are vulnerable moments immediately transformed into sarcasm. Gorman was raised by a single mom, and I like that she includes details of living on the edge financially in her childhood. It helps me relate to her and gives the book some depth. But I had two major issues with the book that actually made me squirm, all snark aside. First—and biggest. Gorman is actually SAVED by the Social Security safety net. That is the meat of this book. It’s not actually much about healthcare at all despite moments of mooning at sexy doctors and excruciating pain. Here’s what saves her: Social Security Disability (which she gets), food stamps (which work for her even though it is not enough to feed one’s self with), Medicaid, and the no-fault law in New York which provides some funding for pedestrians hit by vehicles. She has battles with all of these government offices, but she gets her benefits and struggles to adjust. Then she is basically abused by the legal system. She has a crazy judge, gets a settlement, but it’s not anything to make her rich. Again, the legal system around car accidents is not healthcare. Healthcare is doctors and nurses and other practitioners curing people. Health Insurance is that cesspool that the practitioners and patients have to wade through to do their jobs. This is a huge misunderstanding. The battles about the Affordable Care Act (maybe you’ve heard about the recent Supreme Court thing)—and some people’s hatred of the act—might have something to do with this massive confusion. Maybe people mush all this “helpy” stuff together. Maybe they think if they strike down the ACA, they would be getting people off food stamps. I think the confusion in Gorman’s book—and the fact that a major publisher, Penguin, would make no move to correct it—indicates pretty obvious cluelessness about what is and is not healthcare. One of the things Gorman is angry about is that it takes her months and months to find Medicaid and other social services; she wonders why there “isn’t any communication between these government agencies and the general public?” (p. 170). I think this is a big issue with people who either hang out with or identify as privileged. Gorman has a huge issue with asking for help; she mentions more than once that she never does it. She never talks to a hospital social worker or a chaplain, who would have immediately steered her in the right direction. She has apparently never had a friend or acquaintance who admitted to being on any of these services. The government has wisely decided not to focus its outreach materials about Medicaid on the cocktail bars of Manhattan. The contribution of her book is that she’s breaking silence about the shame of social class issues, even though her inability to do so at the time prolonged her agony. Obviously, this is much harder and more traumatic for people who are identified with their class situation as a part of their identity. This leads to my second biggest issue, and the only place where I felt like Gorman was shading the truth either in one direction or another. It’s a throwaway moment at the beginning of the book: she says she didn’t have insurance because she “couldn’t afford it.” She gives enough class markers to let us know that she was maintaining her Louboutin lifestyle with consignment store shopping, but she doesn’t give the dirt: did she actually LOOK for insurance, or did she blithely assume she wouldn’t need it? If she assumed she wouldn’t need it, she made a dumb innocent mistake and I want her to own it and move on, because that makes her part of a huge group of youngish people who shouldn’t (I think) have to wade through a confusing system that will ultimately just screw them anyway. But without insurance, how does she get birth control, etc.? Inquiring minds like me want to know that stuff. Health insurance questions, especially for young women, immediately lead to lots of real questions about bodies and choices, and I want to know. Because she doesn’t tell me, I don’t get the benefit of understanding what her story really means. Is she clueless, or is she shut out of affording even a catastrophic plan because of her cocktail waitress take-home pay? Either story is important. There are two tacked-on sections at the end where she gives readers an overview of the ACA, and says that she still doesn’t have insurance because she now has massive pre-existing conditions, and the ACA would forbid that discrimination. The research chunk doesn’t sound like her voice. The personal experience after the book about still not having insurance…That’s the book I want to read, and that’s the healthcare system. Then there’s a section where someone gives her a free first-class ticket to India and she goes and has insights at a meditation retreat about sharing her story and that she’s at peace with what happened. I didn’t like that, and I am restraining myself from writing more. I don’t like (okay, I loathe) the Eat-Pray-Love spiritual colonialism of going to a Third World nation to get enlightenment and then coming back to make this into a product to sell to people. This would launch me into an Eat-Pray-Love diatribe, and since I hate it when reviewers go off on tangents that aren’t central to the books, I will not do it. Big picture: the good news is that the ACA is intact for now, but there are many cracks through which people without insurance will continue to fall. It’s a complicated, un-integrated system. Healthcare is still private. And Gorman got saved by the public sector.