The therapeutic uses of rhetoric in contemporary American life-writing about disability and implications for a writing pedagogy

Date of Completion

January 1998


Health Sciences, Rehabilitation and Therapy|Literature, American|Language, Rhetoric and Composition




This study begins with an inquiry into the damaging myths and assumptions that pervade the idea of physical impairment in Western culture. Its primary purpose, though, is to explore the way rhetoric is used towards therapeutic ends in the life-writing of several contemporary American writers who have sustained disfiguring disabilities as a result of accidents or debilitating illnesses. To this end, it investigates the underpinnings of a “rhetoric of self address” as articulated in the work of Kenneth Burke, David Payne and others to show how writers evolve notions of compensation and consolation to gain new perspectives on the losses they have suffered from physical trauma to the body. ^ Attention to the features of rhetoric and to the way writers inflect conventional rhetorical elements to reformulate themselves after the onset of illness or injury reveals, among other things, the liberatory possibilities for pedagogy. Thus, this study also provides rhetorical guidelines for a writing pedagogy that can be readily used by students who are struggling with some form of disability. Authors whose texts provide evidence in support of the argument of this study include Andre Dubus, Stanley Elkin, Lucy Grealy, Natalie Kusz, Nancy Mairs, Reynolds Price and Alice Walker. Essays by members from several writing workshops designed specifically for people with multiple sclerosis add a different but important dimension to the findings. ^