The following article originally appeared on the web site of the
College of Letters and Sciences
University of California, Berkeley.
It describes the highly successful professional career of Dr. Kleege, who has had as the focus of her professional research, the portrayal of blindness in literature.
In one of her courses in the English department, lecturer Georgina Kleege places a question before her students: Do autobiographies written by people with disabilities demystify disability and offer a valuable view into lives at the margins of culture, or are these memoirs merely another form of freak-show, helping to reinforce the notion that disability is a tragedy to be heroically overcome?
Of course, there’s no simple answer. Many accounts of the lives of disabled people are both candid and revealing, while retaining a success-against-the-odds ring about them. Consider Dr. Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures. Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She also has Asperger’s syndrome, a “high-functioning” form of autism. Another book, which like Grandin’s is on Kleege’s course reading list, is Helen Keller’s The World I Live In, the author’s description of her reality in “word-pictures.”
While both of these books do provide glimpses into the lives of extraordinary disabled people, they’re also myth-making — perpetuating the notion that successful disabled people are somehow superhuman in their achievements. This is a notion Kleege — who is blind — has struggled with.
“For a long time I resisted when people urged me to write about my blindness,” she writes in Sight Unseen (Yale University Press), her series of essays about her blindness. “When I looked for models in memoirs and other personal writing about blindness, what I read was distressing. These works seemed to fall into two categories. There were the blind whiners … On the other extreme were the blind mystics, who kept alive the ancient myth of compensatory powers.”
But in the end Kleege has not only written about her blindness, she has challenged the existing stereotypes by analyzing and dissecting them. Ultimately she provides more than insights into blind life: she provides a framework that helps readers humanize disability.
Following Sight Unseen, Kleege wrote Blind Rage: An Open Letter to Helen Keller, a work of creative nonfiction that engages the ghost of Keller in a fictional conversation about the nature of blindness and coping with disability. In Blind Rage Kleege does battle with the “awed tone” most books about Keller take and works to “animate the character of Helen Keller … I looked at events in her life that must have caused her some stress and some upset,” says Kleege, “when so much of her image is to smile in the face of adversity.”
Kleege, who was pronounced legally blind at the age of 11, has taught writing and literature at University of Oklahoma and Ohio State University. She teaches literature and creative writing in the English department and in the disability studies minor program.
Though Helen Keller was writing nearly a century ago, Kleege says, her life experiences raise profoundly relevant issues for disabled people today. As a young girl Keller was accused of plagiarism in connection with a short piece of fiction she wrote in school.
“This whole plagiarism case boils down to her credibility,” Kleege says. “Is disabled experience real experience? Does a deaf and blind child have imagination?”
Further, Kleege says, there is the issue of whether Keller’s writing is taken seriously as literature, or pushed off to the side. “Certainly, for disabled writers, that’s always an issue. Are we ghettoized, or accepted in a mainstream way?”
In addition, Keller’s struggles with romance raise questions about the sexuality, autonomy and reproductive rights of the disabled, says Kleege.
The daughter of two visual artists, Kleege has also written about access to the arts for the visually impaired. Her next book, she says, will focus on how museums do or do not aid visitors who are visually impaired. She addressed these questions in 2005 while helping coordinate a conference for the show “Blind at the Museum,” with artist and Berkeley art practice professor Katherine Sherwood. About Sherwood’s current exhibit “Golgi’s Door,” at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., Kleege wrote in the catalog that the work “makes us mindful of the brain as the site of ideas, imagination, memory and dreams. But it is also a fleshly thing, made of tissue, fueled by blood, heir to mishap, and yet capable of renewal and change.”
Perhaps Kleege’s work demonstrates that it’s not just the brain that is capable of change; the form of autobiography is also open to renewal as we find new ways to express our ideas and dreams.
Note: You may hear Kleege reading an
from Blind Rage as part of a symposium held at the University of California, Berkeley.
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