This past February, I had the pleasure of attending the first in a new series of programs at the recently established “Pat’s Place,” at the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley (ILCHV) in Troy dedicated to disability rights activist and leader Pat Figueroa, who passed away last April. The event was wonderful and well-attended as the room was quite crowded by the time I arrived in the brightly lit lecture hall a minute or so after the presentation had begun.
This arts event was a series lecture with readings from author and psychotherapist Harilyn Rousseau, who described herself as a “disabled feminist talking back” as she spoke of the new book she had written entitled “Don’t Call Me Inspirational.” Actually, her lecture series was based on that very title and I became captivated with her the minute I sat down and began listening. She read excerpts from her life growing up with Cerebral Palsy (CP) in a sassy, witty, and sometimes melancholy voice as she articulated the societal limitations she had endured. I could think of many adjectives to describe Ms. Rousseau…..spunky, witty, bold, bright…..yes, anything BUT inspiring!
Ms. Rousseau explained her qualms about the term “inspirational” and the inherent demeaning value it held for her. To illustrate verbally to us, she described an encounter she had at age 11 with a gym teacher when that word was first uttered to her. Gazing at her with amazement in her eyes, the teacher loudly exclaimed words to the following effect: “OH, you got yourself washed and dressed all by yourself this morning-what a wonder-you are such an INSPIRATION!” Well, the author could not help but think “For God’s Sake lady, I have been washing and dressing myself since I was freakin’ 4 years old!” Of course she did not express her exasperation out loud, but internalized her sense of indignation. She went on to explain that when people approached her with this “Inspirational” word later in life, it felt to her that this was their way of keeping her at a safe distance and not accepting her for what she was: an intelligent, capable peer who was just like them. For her, if they took her in as an equal (like them), it created too much fear in their own minds and opened up their own vulnerabilities. So calling her inspirational was more for the benefit of the speaker and not flattering for her in any way. Hence, the title of her book….. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed her richly detailed, heartfelt, wonderfully written memoir. Various themes from the book include struggling with an overly enmeshed but devoted mom who was disappointed in her daughter’s inability to walk “normally,” to a devious suitor who built up then simultaneously shattered her lifelong dream of becoming a Bride against the odds of her mom’s and society’s fears and prejudices. Actually, in the case of the ill-intended “fiancé” who broke his promise to her after making her feel like the most desirable princess ever, she learned she was quite fortunate to not end up with this cad. Actually, she came to find over time that he had betrayed her for reasons that had to do with his undesirable character rather than her disability, which had initially caused her much grief and pain. In hindsight, she was quite lucky to land on her feet without him beside her.
Ms. Rousseau closes her vignettes by explaining in her very unique and bold voice how she continually comes to see and accept the image in the mirror, the same one she used to be ashamed and rejecting of. I found her tales entertaining and characterized by strength and endurance. I drew a lot of hope from her richly woven life journeys….and no, I won’t call you inspirational Ms. Rousseau, but I will call you capable of provoking optimism and thought, and that is something we can all use, whether or not we have a disability!
For more information or to purchase book, click on the following link: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2235_reg.html