Born breech and deprived of oxygen for two hours, Irish poet and writer Christopher Nolan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is unable to speak and virtually unable to move voluntarily. His book, subtitled "The Life Story of Christopher Nolan," is narrated as a third person account of the life of "Joseph Meehan." The memoir opens with Meehan's winning the British Spastics' Society Literary Award for his first book of poetry, Dam-Burst of Dreams (1988) and ends with his last day at Trinity College, having turned down the invitation to continue his studies there towards a degree.

In the mixture of linear, traditional life narrative and lyrical, neologistic description that falls in between, the memoir addresses Meehan's birth, early life, education, and growing acclaim as a poet and writer. It recounts how his family and teachers helped develop a combination of medication, tools (a "unicorn-stick" attached to his forehead), and assistance that allowed him to type.

It details, above all, how various family, friends, and health and education professionals advocated Meehan's special-school and mainstream education and made available to him such normative life experiences as riding a pony, boating, fishing, skipping school with his mates, and going on school trips without his parents--and such unusual life experiences as becoming an award-winning writer.


The narrative is linear by spurts, enough to get the sense of traditional biography, but the language is alternately traditional and experimental, lyric and parodic. Even without their shared Dublin heritage, comparisons with James Joyce would be inevitable, but Nolan also evokes Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and modernist writer Virginia Woolf in his love of textured neologisms and the experimental prose style he brings to the project of representing in language how a particular person's consciousness experiences the world.

In terms of disability, Nolan's stance is poised between endorsing the idea that his body is a prison or coffin--and that he should be incredibly grateful for the kindness of non-disabled people--and claiming himself valuable in the particularity that marks his body as in his distinctive intellectual and creative abilities. While Nolan's book doesn't overtly argue that disability is social, environmental, and interpersonal in nature, the memoir offers successive examples--all encouraging--of this reality; the entire Meehan family is actively involved from dawn to dawn in providing the assistance that gets Joseph to school on time or allows him to complete his weekly college essay. School friends pick up where the family leaves off, so while Joseph Meehan is sometimes alone and sometimes lonely, Nolan never represents his life as alienated or unsupported.

Significantly, most of the negotiations with social services, schools, physicians, and the institutions they represent are satisfying for the Meehan family. Equally significantly, Joseph's biggest rebellion in the book is to give the finger to God; he is grateful that he has been able to cross the boundaries society sets for most disabled people, but he never asks for more. He assumes, for example, that he will never have a girlfriend.

This is a delightful, funny, fascinating book, whose compassion for the non-disabled makes it a good choice for introducing students to the experience and social meaning of disability. Teachers should juxtapose it with other narratives, however, lest students assume that living with a disability is something all families can handle on their own as long as they are determined and positive, and that, for example, there is no need for disability activism or social and political reform.


This book won the 1987 Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Whitbread Award in biography.


Pan Books

Place Published

London, Sydney, & Auckland



Page Count