Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Curing Monsters in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2021), 15, (4), 437–453.

Abstract

Critically praised for its portrayal of a compassionate physician, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s 2014 New York Times bestselling biography, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, follows the life and work of Thomas Dent Mütter, an eccentric and brilliant man who supposedly cured his patients of their unacceptable deformities, thus excising their socially-constructed monstrosity. A continual emphasis on curing benign physical difference in this text is troubling, however, as cure implies a default normative body exists. By characterizing the fact that Mütter treated unique bodies as an act of heroism, the biography upholds ideals that people with unique bodies must live up to unattainable standards. Aptowicz’s emphasis on this idea creates an excavation-worthy rhetoric surrounding curative violence as it meets benign corporeal difference. In her work on curative violence, Eunjung Kim constructs the disability proxy, or person who assists the disabled or different to return to their normative state, and Mütter most certainly occupies this proxy position in Aptowicz’s biography. In the wake of curative violence, bodies that deviate from an unattainable norm must labor at all costs to reach its ill-defined center, lest they carry a stigmatizing label: monster. Through this process of emphasizing the heroic curative practices of doctors, the biographer inadvertently conjures up ableist tropes. While biographers like Aptowicz have the best of intentions when deploying the term cure, even the best of intentions benefit from critique.

Access Token
£25.00
READ THIS ARTICLE
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here

Works Cited

Abani, Chris. The Secret History of Las Vegas: a Novel. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Adams, Rachel. “Caught Looking.” Commonplace. Jan. 2004. Web. 16 Apr. 2020. Google Scholar

American Horror Story: Freak Show. Dir. Ryan Murphy. FX. 2014. DVD. Google Scholar

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1999. Print. Google Scholar

Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1993. Print. Google Scholar

Erevelles, Nirmala. “Introduction: Bodies That Do Not Matter.” Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print. Google Scholar

Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. Print. Google Scholar

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. Google Scholar

Hall, Kim Q. Feminist Disability Studies. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. Print. Google Scholar

Heller, Jason. “A Poetic Look at A Medical Pioneer, ‘Dr. Mütter’s Marvels’ Jolts the Heart.” NPR, 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2020. Google Scholar

Herndl, Diane Price. Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840-1940. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993. Print. Google Scholar

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013. Print. Google Scholar

Kim, Eunjung. Curative Violence: Rehabilitating Disability, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern Korea. Durham: Duke UP, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York UP, 2006. Google Scholar

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. “Introduction: Disability as Narrative Supplement.” Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Parikh, Crystal. “Being Well: The Right to Health in Asian American Literature.” Amerasia Journal 39.1 (2013): 33-47. Print. Google Scholar

Samuels, Ellen Jean. Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race. New York: New York UP, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Schweik, Susan M. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York: New York UP, 2010. Google Scholar

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2011. Google Scholar

Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015. Print. Google Scholar

Taylor, Sunaura. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New York: New Press, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

Tremain, Shelley. Foucault and the Government of Disability. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2015. Print. Google Scholar

“Visit.” Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Web. 16 Apr. 2020. Google Scholar

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print. Google Scholar

If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here

Details

Author details

Piwarski, Rae