Accidents of Nature
By Harriet McBryde Johnson
Copyright 2006, Henry Holt and company, New York
360 Braille pages
Disability, Young Adult
If you dive heart-first into Harriet McBryde Johnson’s autobiographical novel, “Accidents of Nature”, you won’t come up gasping for air. Rather, dwelling among strange creatures, you will find yourself breathing for the first time.
Set in 1970, the story is told through the experiences of Jean, a seventeen year old girl who just happens to have been born with Cerebral Palsy. Jean thinks she is like everyone at her “normal” high school in small Crosstown, South Carolina. She has friends, goes with them to ball games, even joins them when they grab a burger. But when she spends ten days at Camp Courage, her reign as poster child and telethon inspiration seems destined to crash.
For the first time in her life, Jean ventures beyond the parameters of her loving family and is thrown into the mix with other “freaks”. She watches as fellow “crips” remove body parts to enjoy the weightlessness of swimming, and listens terrified while cabinmates moan and howl with seizures and fits. She endures the patronizing attitudes of camp staff, even as they risk their own well-being to assist campers in distress. Most touching of all, as we listen in, she collides with the reality of who she is, and questions her place in the world.
Ms. Johnson masterfully sets the tone for Jean’s story in the prologue as she reflects upon the camp’s setting, and hints at the title’s meaning. “Twisted and shapely, bent and straight” trees which survived the process of natural selection, she writes,
“…did not survive because they were fit. Rather, they were proven fit because they survived. They survived by accident.”
And as Jean’s fellow campers come forward, the question arises in our minds: what about their quality of life?
Everyone is sure to steer clear of Willie, with the hideous face you can’t stomach and physical characteristics equally as abominable. Dolly is mindlessly oblivious of everything around her as she babbles on and on about the novella she is writing. Margie is sweet and always helpful, but you know she is destined to remain a child. And Sara may be more intelligent and well-read than anyone, but she will require assistance with everything for as long as she lives.
No wonder Jean questions her own future happiness.
The story’s everyday realism becomes most significant when you learn Ms. Johnson writes from personal experience. She attended a school for children with disabilities until age thirteen, and a cross-disability summer camp until age seventeen. She became a lawyer in 1985, was active in the struggle for social justice, especially disability rights, and holds the world endurance record (fifteen years without interruption as of 2006) for protesting the Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She died in 2008.
Reading Accidents of Nature in Braille, I couldn’t help considering my own sense of independence, and all the people in my life who have helped me achieve it. At the same time, my emotions were seized by memories of the two years I attended Litzsinger, a special school for physically challenged, mentally retarded, and deaf students. I remember how easy it was to become one of them, reveling in their off-beat humor, learning alongside classmates born with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, teenagers who struggled minute by minute to move a hand, formulate discernable speech, or simply prove to onlookers they were in fact human beings.
Accidents of Nature is definitely a window into the world of difference. But a funny thing happens as readers gaze, or sometimes gawk, at the “spazzos” and “aussies” attending Camp Courage. We catch a glimpse of our own reflections in the glass—and recognize we are one of them. Their longings are our longings. Their dreams are our dreams. And by finally engaging their humanity, we, too, become human.
And like Jean, we can’t help declaring,
“I’m not disgusted by the others, people with pieces missing or mangled. I count it a rare privilege to see them all without their coverings, their equipment, their attachments, their replacement parts, as they really are, in all their strange variety.”