Always Looking

Chloé Cooper Jones. Easy Beauty: A Memoir. Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022. ISBN 9781982151997.

Book Review by Samuel Freeman

A baby is born “a ball of twisted muscle and tucked bone […] bent in half” with an unexpected medical condition that turns out to be sacral agenesis, a congenital absence of the sacral bone that also affects the hips and legs. As the child grows, the consequences of her condition become clear: very short stature, a curved spine, underdeveloped legs from the knee down, difficulty walking, and chronic pain. So begins the life of Chloé Cooper-Jones, a philosophy professor and journalist whose Easy Beauty (Avid Reader Press, 2022) is a gorgeous memoir that blends travelogue, cultural criticism, and philosophical inquiry.

Cooper-Jones is a seeker who is always looking. Her wanderlust takes her around the world to encounters with great art (the sculptures of Bernini and Richard Serra), remarkable places (Lake Como, Cambodia’s Killing Fields), and pop culture icons (Beyoncé, Roger Federer, the actor Peter Dinklage). Her wide-ranging observations are opportunities for her to explore ideas of beauty and aesthetics, which become the gateway to a deeper examination of her own life experience.

In a gallery of Bernini sculptures in Rome, the eroticism of the art works parallels a chance encounter Cooper-Jones has with a stranger: tactile, charged, sensual. Yet the experience fizzles when she finally speaks to the man who reveals he is sizing her up to understand what exactly her disability is. This crushing anti-climax echoes a lifetime of exclusion from the very idea of intimate relationships. “Sexuality, romantic love, partnership – these were all part of a province I, as a disabled woman, was not meant to enter,” Cooper-Jones writes. For her, being seen as disabled precludes being seen as an object of desire.

Readers will find such arresting moments everywhere in this book, moments in which Cooper-Jones shows how society’s distorted gaze on her body simultaneously erases her and shapes her own ways of seeing herself. “People saw contrast between their bodies and mine,” she writes. “But I, having only ever been in my body, did not feel lacking.” This feeling of lack is learned, the result of “lessons, for which I had many willing teachers.” Some of those “teachers” are cruel, openly mocking her or voicing their disgust at her body; others are well-intentioned, but no less oppressive. In an excruciating anecdote, Cooper-Jones recounts the time a dear friend would not let her climb the stairs to her apartment on her own, thereby assailing her with his goodwill.

Cooper-Jones also learns to manipulate her image in order to be accepted and to survive. As a struggling professor, adjuncting for low wages, she knows how to use her disability to earn her colleagues’ respect. She admits to using her strong work ethic, combined with her disability, to cast a “tragic light” on herself, one that illuminates her “with the look of moral superiority.” Yet as a result, Cooper-Jones finds herself further isolated from her true self, and therefore from others. She has built herself a life that, like a hall of mirrors, distorts and alienates.

Feelings of profound isolation are central to Cooper-Jones’s experience: “I’d believed completely that it was my nature to exist at a distance, to be essentially, at my core, alone.” When she was a child and living with chronic pain, a physician taught her to imagine a “neutral room,” a white space where numbers flash on the wall in eight second segments. At first she retreats to it in her mind to control her pain, but over the years it becomes more than just a temporary refuge from suffering. The “neutral room” becomes a sort of home for her: the space where she is most comfortable, but also where she is loneliest.

Contemplating beauty helps Cooper-Jones break out of the “neutral room”. As a philosopher, her exploration of beauty often begins with texts: Ovid, Plotinus, Elaine Scarry, Iris Murdoch. The book’s title comes from Bernard Bosanquet, a British philosopher, who proposed a dichotomy between “easy beauty”—accessible, universal, popular—and “difficult beauty”—challenging, requiring time and attention, even prompting revulsion in those who cannot do the work required to appreciate it. Reconciling the easy beauty from which she has been excluded and the difficult beauty that characterizes her life—indeed so many of our lives—allows Cooper-Jones to find a new way of being in the world. At a Beyoncé concert, she describes feeling transported by the legendary performer’s presence and ability to bring tens of thousands of fans along with her. Finding herself at one with the crowd, as the richness the wider world has to offer is revealed to her, she realizes what she has been missing out on for so long. ” [W]hat else have I lost to my defensiveness?” she asks herself. Given Cooper-Jones’s disability, her question has a particular weight, but it resonated with this non-disabled reader as well.

Too often, people in general and healthcare practitioners in particular traffic in conventional expectations about what bodies should look like and do. One need only think of how medicine uses so many terms, such as “normal,” “functional,” and “capacity”(and their antonyms) without a thought for the implicit judgments they cast. Our ways of looking and seeing, our obsession with bodies, cuts out not only others, but also ourselves, from the fabric of humanity and the possibility of shared experience and connection.

Easy Beauty has received a good deal of media attention and has been billed as a book on disability, but that is not all it is. From her specific experience, Cooper-Jones explores the meaning of looking, of aesthetic appreciation, and of embodiment. She offers up a transformative text, in which she achieves one of writing’s great, yet often elusive, promises: a form of communion with the reader by which the contents of the writer’s mind—the granular texture of her thoughts, emotions and personal metamorphoses—are shared.

 

Samuel Freeman, MD is a pediatrician, writer, and host of the “Practicing” podcast. He was a finalist for the Missouri Review’s 2022 Perkoff Prize for nonfiction writing on health and medicine. He lives in Montreal.

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