It was by chance that I chose Nancy Mairs to be the author on whom I would present and write a short essay. I wanted to choose a writer in March, because I had a project in February for work that I didn't want to pull attention from. I wanted to go before my business trip, which limited me to the beginning of March. And I wanted to go on a Wednesday, rather than a Friday so that I would have more time to prepare and read. There were a few writers that fit my criteria on the syllabus, and, after seeing the name of Mairs' essay, "Carnal Acts," I chose her.
I chose her without knowing that she writes about disability. Without knowing that she writes from the perspective of a woman with Multiple Sclerosis - a disease with which I have a lifelong familiarity, because my mom has MS. She has had it for as long as I can remember, practically for as long as I've been alive. And I often fear that I, too, will get it. I know the risks are not highly increased for children of MS sufferers. Logically, I know that. Emotionally... I find writers like Nancy Mairs and Nicola Griffith highly comforting, because they prove for me that there are other outcomes for women with MS than the one I see and fear in my mother.
The essay from Nancy Mairs in Available Means introduces a new dimension of silence and oppression that has not yet been discussed in previous entries, that of physical disability. The main point of the essay is that if to be a woman is to be invisible, and to be a crippled woman doubly so, then the only way to become visible is to use the voice, which itself is inextricably tied to the body, to speak out loud.
"Carnal Acts" begins with a framing device. Mairs recounts being asked to speak on two topics that both seem nonsensical to her at first. She uses this set of questions as an entry point for the essay and also enters into the two questions using her first reactions to their meanings. Her frankness about not thinking that she copes with her disease and not knowing what it means to find a voice that was never lost invites the reader into the discussion by starting at the surface of the questions.
Mairs challenges the questions, and the reader, slowly. Her imagery demonstrates how feelings and experience are central to her author-ity. "This kind of discovery can unnerve you at first. You feel like a giant hand that, pulling two swimmers out of the water, two separate heads bobbling on the iridescent swells, finds the two bodies below, legs coiled around each other, in an ecstasy of copulation" (393). The mingling of the questions regarding coping and the writer's voice becomes a physical entity in her imagination. These ideas are living, breathing beings.
The separation of body and self is central to this essay. The way that Mairs compares the treatment of the body to the way that men have traditionally treated women makes a doubly sharp point. Not only do women treat their own bodies poorly, they do so in order to conform to an external male based standard and end up "suffering from the shame of falling short of an unattainable standard" (395). And shame, too, is a central theme in this essay. Mairs discusses what shame is and what it isn't, and why it has the power to stifle a voice, especially a woman's voice from an imperfect body – one that is not even expected to desire or enjoy sexual experience.
Mairs finds in the writings from her past an example of "a voice that had shucked off its own body" (398). That bodiless voice is still caught in the net of shame, of being unable to associate with the imperfect body – a body that she tried to destroy, and in the attempt, found herself placed into the common group of humanity and compelled to write about it. Her writings find their authority in her own experience, which she helps to explain with citations from other writers. But it is that experience that compels the reader to answer her words with "Me too!" (399).
Despite rejecting the initial questions on their surface level, Mairs does not linger at the surface of their meaning. As the essay progresses, she comes to an understanding about what it means to find a voice. “Forced by the exigencies of physical disease to embrace myself in the flesh, I couldn’t write bodiless prose. The voice is the creature of the body that produces it. I speak as a crippled woman" (399). Her frankness in writing of suicide, disability and coping builds to that conclusion in a way that is logical without being unemotional. Her experiences are personal, and therefore beyond refute. They call out to the reader, asking the reader to compare notes and let her know what we find.