American authors Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, and Gwendolyn Ann Smith, journalist and activist, approach the subject of otherness similarly. Otherness is the societal separation produced by marginalization and the judgment that someone is outside of the norm. An “other” is categorized and put into a box based on non-specific differences. This is problematic because otherness creates a disconnect. In other words, otherness alienates. Both Nancy Mairs in “On Being a Cripple” and self-described transgender woman Gwendolyn Ann Smith in “We’re All Someone’s Freak” work to overcome otherness and their perceived deficiency through analyzing definitions of self and offering personal experience in order to bring specificity and understanding to their situations.
Mairs proudly highlights the word “cripple” in her essay, using this term to refer specifically to herself: “I use this word to name me” (64). This unusual introduction shocks the reader into paying close attention to her rationale. She then thoroughly explains why she calls herself a cripple, and not “disabled” or “handicapped.” In Mairs’ words, cripple is “a clean word, straightforward and precise… I have lost the full use of my limbs” (65). The accuracy of cripple allows Mairs to emphasize the reality of her condition. She rejects broad terms, such as disabled and “differently abled” because they are both inaccurate and create a sense of otherness that turns her into a condition rather than a person. Mairs spends time identifying and defining the labels used to describe her condition because she wants others to realize that she is different. She lives with Multiple Sclerosis. She is and always will be a cripple, and to pretend otherwise would be dishonest and a self-betrayal.
Smith also educates the reader about the distinctions between terms used to define the transgender community. Specifically, Smith focuses on her identity as a transgender woman. Not transsexual, transgender. This difference is critical, for the former is to reject one’s identity and the latter is to embrace identity fully. According to Smith, transgender people “choose to inhabit a third gender space rather than ‘pick a side’” (184). Smith introduces this distinction initially to prevent the reader from categorizing Smith and to instead understand who she really is: one who does not conform to one gender. She explicitly states that transgender is a blanket term for both non-conformists and transsexuals as a way to to inform and prevent misconceptions about identity that result in misclassification. Mairs and Smith are marginalized as cripple and transgender respectively, and they provide meticulous definitions of self as a way to climb out of societal mislabeling, presenting the reader with a more complex self. They show us that, while it might be easier to label someone, it is more rewarding to struggle to recognize and accept real people with real differences.
In each of their essays, Mairs and Smith share the experiences and struggles which come with their identities. Mairs faces adversity because of her disease, encountering intense ups and downs throughout her experience as a cripple. Though she strives to be accepting and optimistic about her disease, Mairs is continuously reminded of how her life is not ordinary and how this negatively affects her and the people in her life. For example, Mairs feels the burden of society’s expectations for her as a cripple, pressuring her to play a part: “anyone who deviates from the norm had better find someway to compensate… expected to be jolly” (69). Mairs admits how she surrenders to stereotypical views of her identity and how she experiences the strain of following the “rules” created for her as an other; she must pretend to be “jolly” in order to fit society’s definition of a cripple, and this causes her to feel like she has to “prove” her worth. Despite her rejection of this expectation, Mairs still struggles to find as much joy as she can in her day-to-day life without dwelling on the downsides of her disease. Mairs does everything she enjoys that is not restricted by MS, like teaching “writing courses… raised a foster son… play a fiendish game of Scrabble” (67). However, her disease does inhibit ordinary tasks such as getting dressed or camping with her family. As a result, Mairs reveals her experience with severe depression hand-in-hand with her fight for impossible normalcy. By admitting her frustrations while still living with and accepting her struggle, Mairs fights otherness valiantly. She embraces that she is different, and this difference defines her.
As a transgender women, Smith also faces adversity in her life. She experienced otherness first-hand when a friend approached her and asked “not to mention that I was a friend of hers” (184). Her own friend was fearful of being categorized as a transgender person simply by spending time with Smith. Smith responds that “It was a difficult thing to hear that my very existence was perceived as being enough to harm a person I called a friend” (184). Yet, shame and the urge to hide and avoid her identity was not the route Smith chose after this incident. Instead, Smith proudly waves her freak flag high as a person who is “professionally transgender” and “happy with where I am in this world” (184, 186). Though she has proudly claimed her identity, Smith observes the unfortunate otherness within the transgender community. She maintains that any group (such as cross-dressers, Trekkies, or transsexuals) may feel superior and judgmental to “someone they view as a freak” (185). This sense of superiority is used to create a false reassurance that it is not they who are the other. Smith urges her audience to be honest and embrace that “We are all freaks to someone” (186). Rather than alienating others for being unlike oneself, Smith wants everyone to admit to their own freakishness and put an end to otherness!
Mairs and Smith face marginalization with the conclusion that to embrace is better than to hide, and that although their identities bring hardships, they also generate purpose. Mairs educates by sharing her perspective through writing, and helping readers understand the complexity and realness of her condition. Though she does hate her disease (“My life holds realities-- harsh ones…”), she accepts that it is an unchangeable. She must make the most out of it: “I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one” (66, 73). Mairs takes being a cripple with “swagger,” and appreciates how it has enhanced her life by giving her the ability to assist and empathize with people struggling similarly, in addition to educating those ignorant to the meaning of being a cripple. She considers taking a stance and educating others her purpose. Moreover, by sharing her story, Mairs invites us all to embrace our differences in order to abolish the “self-alienating” feeling of otherness.
Smith fights for every person’s right to be comfortable with being a freak by calling attention to the fact that everybody is a freak; being “normal” is irrational, unnatural, and a “very limiting way to live” (186). If everyone were to embrace their messy, fallible selves, marginalization and meaningless classification could be abolished and “basic human dignity” could be obtained by all (187). In her essay, Smith’s purpose, like Mairs’, is to educate her audience about the limitations otherness creates, and demonstrate how one can break these limitations by acknowledging that no one is normal, and being a freak allows for exciting possibilities.
Smith and Mairs encourage readers to accept their own and others’ differences. Both writers defy adversity that comes with being marginalized through explaining definitions of self as a way to work to overcome otherness. They inspire their audiences to escape the human construct of normalcy and otherness. In comparing these two essays, it becomes clear that to eliminate otherness, people must begin by embracing themselves and then go on to embrace others, for “we’re all someone’s freak”!
Mairs, Nancy. “On Being a Cripple.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., 14th ed., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 64-73
Smith, Gwendolyn Ann. “We’re All Someone’s Freak.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., 14th ed., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 184-87