Harriet McBryde Johnson

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


On February 16, 2003, readers of The New York Times Magazine came upon Harriet McBryde Johnson's cover story, "Unspeakable Conversations," and a remarkable image of her gazing directly at those readers from her power wheelchair.  Her story memorably recounts her uncompromising, yet civil disagreements with Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer about nothing less than the value of her life.  That narrative essay is one of eleven stories published in Too Late to Die Young.

They make the case that philosophers and others have incorrectly imagined Johnson's life, and the lives of others with chronic and disabling conditions, as burdensome and not worth living.  Born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, Johnson grew up in a family that appreciated her; she practiced law in her native Charleston, South Carolina, and became nationally known for her disability activism.  Still, she encountered a world filled with people who feared her condition.  Fear, she found, led them to assume that disability inevitably brings suffering and to use that assumption to justify acts that would prevent her birth.

Her stories, conversationally and often humorously, ask readers to question why they burden some people with calls to justify their lives or to assure the world that they experience pleasure.  Each story recounts an episode that reveals the pleasures Johnson experienced as an active agent in the world.  She ran for a county office, represented her state at a Democratic National Convention, stood her ground for free speech and against Secret Service tactics when President Reagan spoke at her law school, protested Labor Day Week-end telethons, traveled to Cuba to cover a disability conference for a magazine, advocated for clients in employment discrimination cases, and made many, many friends.

Feeling exhilarated rather than confined by her wheelchair, she bears witness, perhaps unexpectedly, to another pleasure:  "the simple delight of movement."  She writes of maneuvering around Charleston, "I zoom through chaotic swarms of tourists, zip around the raggedy sidewalks . . . loop around every inconveniently placed garbage can, with maximum speed and also with style and grace" (252).  But her stories also describe her wheelchair stumbling over incompatible surfaces, one of which sends her to an emergency room far from home.  This episode also brings moments of grace, this time with the ER staff.  After learning who she is, they Google her on-line profiles and writings.  Delighting in their patient with unpredictable needs, they place print-outs of her electronic portfolio in her chart.

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