Emily Xiao, Varieties of Disability


The Language of Disability in The Poisonwood Bible

American Literature in the World

Emily Xiao

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

April 27, 2015

Numerous languages come into play in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible ––

English and Kikongo, to be sure, but also those more abstract, from the spiritual tongue of the

Bible to the ecological lexicon of the jungle. There is the jargon of money and diamonds, and the

careful diction of poetry. One of the most striking as well as distinctive vocabularies employed in

the novel, however, comes from the language of disability, centered in the character of Adah

Price. The teenage daughter of an evangelical Baptist, Adah was born with hemiplegia and walks

with a pronounced limp. She travels with her family from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959

on a missionary trip; such a jarring geographical displacement gives rise to the novel’s

conceptualization of a host of categories, from race to family, as culturally subjective. Chief

among these is Adah’s own shifting awareness of herself as “disabled” in a village where

breakdowns and failures of the body are both expected and normalized. As Kingsolver examines

Adah’s identity within distinct cultural constructions of disability, however, she also appropriates

the language of disability to render other aspects of the novel, from memory to political

dysfunction. Indeed, the disability politics that Kingsolver incorporates in characterizing Adah

are further complicated by the “cure” of her limp upon her return to Georgia. Other instances of

disability in the novel, including Methuselah, a crippled parrot, and Adah’s father Nathan, with

his left eye damaged from World War II, provide additional points of discussion and widen the

scope of disability in the novel from the purely literal to the literary. That is, whereas Adah’s

disability exists very much on physical terms, other instances of disability in the novel are

rendered far more metaphorically. This paper will explore these various manifestations of

disability in The Poisonwood Bible and, in doing so, seek to resolve apparently inconsistent

treatments of disability and dysfunction.


“I am a lame gallimaufry,” says Adah. Her twin sister Leah, on the other hand, “remains

perfect.” This is no mere coincidence; Adah imagines herself as having been “cannibalized” in

the womb, deprived by Leah of essential blood and nourishment (34). These parasitic

circumstances –– one’s gain dependent on the other’s loss in a fetal, feral competition for limited

resources –– create a dichotomy between flawed and perfect, disabled and able-bodied, crooked

and straight, that Adah internalizes while growing up in the small town of Bethlehem, Georgia.

In some sense, the twins’ relationship from the beginning resembles a central claim in identity

movements that a subjugated or “other”-ed group is necessary for the definition of a dominant

one; just as, in a more literal manner, Leah is perfect because Adah is not, most people are

defined as able-bodied (i.e., normal) because those with mental or physical “handicaps” are

defined as disabled. Adah’s self-isolation –– she is capable of speaking, albeit with difficulty, but

chooses for the most part to remain silent –– is reinforced by her surroundings in Georgia. As she

notes, she could easily have been placed in Special Ed in elementary school with “all six of

Bethlehem’s thumb-sucking, ear-pulling Crawley children” while Leah was promoted to Gifted

(57), but she is saved by a particularly perceptive principal, Miss Leep. As such, Adah

experiences disability on a painfully individual level. Whereas she and Leah began life as mirror

images, with the same dark eyes and brown hair, it is Adah’s disability alone that divides them,

thus grounding the distance between the twins within the body of Adah herself and her physical

deviations. Such a view is consistent with the dominant tendency to perceive disability as an

But in the Congo, the village of Kilanga presents an opposite view of disability

altogether. As Ruth May, the youngest Price daughter, observes: “Used to be, Adah was the only

one of us in our family with something wrong with her. But here nobody stares at Adah except

just a little because she’s white. Nobody cares that she’s bad on one whole side because they’ve

all got their own handicap children or a mama with no feet, or their eye put out” (53). In other

words, Adah cannot be singled out because she is not at all singular –– on the contrary, the sheer

prevalence of physical disability in Kilanga has normalized it to the extent that nobody “bats

their eye when [Mama Mwanza] scoots by on her hands” because her legs have been severely

burnt in a house fire (52). What emerges is a view of disability as not individual but societal, in

which limitations reside not in a single person but in the inability of others –– a school principal

less observant than Miss Leep, for instance –– to accept and accommodate individual

differences. Of course, this sense of “accommodation” is not entirely accurate. After all, Mama

Mwanza “has got to go right on tending after her husband and her seven or eight children. They

don’t care one bit about her not having any legs to speak of. To them she’s just their mama and

where’s dinner?” (52). Rather than having any positive or negative definition, then, disability in

Kilanga is characterized by an absence of definition.

Such cultural relativism becomes especially potent in an argument between Adah’s

mother, Orleanna, and Nathan. In response to Nathan’s assertion that “the body is the temple,”

Orleanna retorts that “here in Africa that temple has to do a hateful lot of work in a day.” It is

important here to note the religious dimensions of disability; the spiritual connotations of healing

in a Jesus-like manner take on particular resonance for Nathan, who tends to view maladies of

the body as physical manifestations of spiritual maladies. To him, the villagers are “broken in

body and soul, and don’t even see how they could be healed” (53). The disconnect between his

and the villagers’ attitudes toward disability provides only one of several points of reference at

which they diverge, impeding Nathan’s ability to adapt Christianity to Kilanga. Orleanna, on the

other hands, takes a practical stance on both disability and spirituality that is more akin to the

villagers’ and indicates her greater facility than Nathan at interacting with their new neighbors.

Adah echoes Orleanna’s view of disability, observing that in Kilanga, “bodily damage is

more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace. In the way of the body and

other people’s judgment I enjoy a benign approval in Kilanga that I have never, ever known in

Bethlehem, Georgia” (72). It is worthwhile here to distinguish among different varieties of

disability. There are those, as Orleanna points out, that result from simple wear and tear and age,

by-products of living. Adah’s disability, sustained from birth, does not fall within that category

–– does this mean her approval is undeserved? Not necessarily so: there is another type of by-

product to consider: that of random misfortunes such as the burning roof that fell on Mama

Mwanza, or the mishap that occurred during Adah and Leah’s gestation. And in Kilanga,

misfortunes and shortfalls are both widespread, giving rise to missing fingers and goiters like a

“goose egg” (53), and valid markers of living.1

Much of the discussion of disability thus far has been strictly physical. In the early stages

of the novel, one of the few, if only, meaningful mentions of mental disability appears in Adah’s

reference to the so-called “mongoloids” (57) in Special Ed. Her derogatory attitude toward

mental disability is in itself quite striking as well as significant in its shorthand denotation of

what she is and is decidedly not –– in resisting rhetoric applied to her physical disability, Adah

seems to apply the same rhetoric to mental disability. Yet Adah does not do so in an attempt to

normalize herself; on the contrary, she (like Leah) has exceptional intelligence as well as an

immense facility with words. In a way, Adah’s hemiplegia is not strictly a physical disability, in

that it improves her mental faculty with “backwards things.” Beyond numerous literary allusions,

1 Such goiters are likely due to iodine deficiency. In the United States, iodized salt was introduced nationally in 1924

to reduce the goiter rate. http://www.iccidd.org/newsletter/idd_aug13_growth_and_iq.pdf

the chapters that she narrates are also notable for their pervasive use of palindromes, anagrams,

and rhymes. Interestingly, Adah’s Hawking-esque intellectual brainpower and deformed body

plays into the popular disability narrative of exceptionalism as compensation –– blind people

who can hear extremely well, deaf people with sharp eyes and lip-reading ability –– although

training also plays a role in the latter. Adah is afforded experiential compensation as well, able to

“read the same book many times” (58). On her walks, she does not have kakakaka –– Kikongo

for “hurrying up” –– but as a result of her slowness, she witnesses “how the women working

their field will stand up one after another, unwrap the pagne of bright cloth tied under their

breasts, stretch it out wide before retying it. They resemble flocks of butterflies opening and

closing their wings” (137). And then there is Mama Mwanza who, despite her damaged legs, is

noted to have an “extraordinarily pretty face, with wide-set eyes, a solemn mouth, and a high,

rounded forehead.” Moreover, Leah notes, “her husband had taken no other wife” (234).

Mama Mwanza’s relative success as a mother and wife highlights the unique relationship

between disability and sexual identity in The Poisonwood Bible. For a novel so fixated on the

implications of evolution and heredity, there are few, if any, heritable disabilities mentioned ––

making the prevalence of disabilities in Kilanga, more likely results of calamity rather than of

genetics, all the more striking. Whereas the random-mutation ethos of evolution is conducive to

the emergence of disability, disability is often construed as an interruption to the hereditary

process, as when children like Adah are born with defects incomprehensible to their parents or

when Rachel contracts a sexually-transmitted infection that prevents her from having children.

Beyond such immediate biological effects of disabilities and disease that prevent reproduction,

the social stigma attached to disability often carries in it an aspect of desexualization. Indeed, in

church one day, Adah inspects Mama Tabata  –– the housekeeper whom the Prices have

inherited from their house’s previous occupant, Brother Fowles –– and wonders about her bad

eye: “Was she exempt from marriage because of it, as I presumed myself to be?” But in Kilanga,

where there is no stigma attached to disability, many women are “more seriously disfigured and

[have] husbands notwithstanding” (72). This is not to say that sexuality and physical disability

are entirely divorced. One night, Ruth May overhears her parents discussing the “circus mission”

(271) of young girls in the village, female genital mutilation intended to prevent adultery and

what is construed as sexually deviant behavior.

The prioritization of sexual over physical conformity is thrown into high relief with the

realization that Leah is as singled out in Kilanga as Adah once was in Bethlehem. Adah notes

that her twin “is beginning to be looked upon in our village as bizarre. At the least, direly

unfeminine […] For my twin who now teaches school and murders tree trunks I have heard

various words applied by our neighbors, none with much fondness. The favored word, bakala,

covers quite a lot of ground, including […] the male sexual organ” (278). In a particularly

illuminating scene at the marketplace, Orleanna is horrified when Leah, “the twin whose legs

never failed her,” steps over a pyramid of oranges and provokes anger and contempt from

onlookers. What is striking about this scene is that the indiscretion seems less acrobatic than

sexual in nature, as the image that embeds itself in Orleanna’s mind is that of Leah with “her

genitals –– bare, for all anyone knew –– suspended over a woman’s oranges” (89), a

demonization of the body not on the basis of deformity, but sexuality.

As such, the new environment in which Adah finds herself is not necessarily a direct

refutation of Bethlehem –– Nathan, who believes it is God’s plan for girls to marry rather than

attend college, provides indication enough of misogyny outside of Kilanga –– but it nevertheless

presents a unique and, for the Price family, challenging set of priorities and resources. Just as

distinct ecological contexts give rise to their own adaptabilities and life forms, a painful lesson

that Nathan learns in his failed garden, different social contexts from Bethlehem to Kilanga give

rise to entirely different conceptualizations of disability and the self. For Adah, this means that

whereas in “that other long-ago place, America, [she] was a failed combination of too-weak body

and overstrong will,” in the Congo, she is “those things perfectly united: Adah” (343).


If Adah discovers new possibilities for empowerment in Kilanga, there is one character

who decidedly does not: her father, Nathan Price. Feverish in his religious obsession and

authoritarian –– to the point of physical abuse –– in his familial relationships, Reverend Price

receives neither kind characterizations from his wife and four daughters in their respective

narrations nor a kind resolution to his African story from Kingsolver: the daughters learn later

that a crazed, elderly “white witch doctor named Tata Price” (485) was driven up a watchtower

and burned to death by villagers.

Nathan’s death is incited by the deaths of a boatful of children, which had been capsized

by a crocodile. Nathan himself has become infamous for “turning himself into a crocodile and

attacking children,” a mythologization that points to his stubborn desire to baptize his Congolese

congregation in the river, indicating his fundamental misunderstanding, or denial, of the Congo’s

wildlife. His favorite closing phrase in sermons, “Tata Jesus is bangala!” is another one of

numerous other breakdowns of understanding: whereas bangala can mean something “precious

and dear” (276), Nathan’s pronunciation means the poisonwood tree.

Nathan’s blindness to the ecology and culture of his new surroundings is accompanied by

literal blindness –– that is, the vision in his left eye is severely weakened by a shell fragment

wound from World War II. Orleanna recalls how her husband came home from the Philippines

with a scar on his temple and “a suspicion of his own cowardice from which he could never

recover” (197), precipitated by the discovery that the rest of his company had been captured and

subjected to the Bataan Death March. Given the relatively affirmative treatment of literal

disability in much of the rest of the novel, however, it is surprising and a little troubling that

Kingsolver appears to co-opt the physical vocabulary of disability in conjunction with a deep

psychological flaw. Nathan’s damaged eye is certainly physical, but it has an added metaphorical

dimension whose negative undertones threaten to undo what Kingsolver has done for Adah.

Specifically, whereas in Adah’s case, our view of disability shifts from individual shortcoming to

contextually-dependent and normalized in Kilanga, in Nathan’s case, disability seems to revert

back to individual shortcoming, on both the physical and moral levels. A tension thus emerges

between these two veins of disability, the literary (i.e., metaphorical) dimensions and the fuller

political dimensions, in terms of how disability is constructed as an identity. Symbolic usages of

disability tend to rely necessarily on traditional and pessimistic views of disability from the

individual rather than the social vantage point, using shorthand such as blindness or crippledness

In the first place, a possible way to address this inconsistency may be that Kingsolver

does not intend any such associations. After all, Adah’s disability proves absolutely central to her

identity as a character, but Nathan’s damaged eye is mentioned almost in passing and is near-

forgettable. Still, its very inclusion merits some discussion. The scene in which Nathan attempts

to plant a garden outside their house provides an especially useful starting point. His garden is

doomed to failure, as Nathan shrugs off Mama Tabata’s advice to shape the soil into burial

mounds in order to protect the seedlings from flood. Mopping his face with hands soaked in

poisonwood sap, Nathan comes across as blind indeed, and he wakes up the next morning with

“even his good right eye swollen shut” (40).

But he is not the only one in this stand-off with a damaged eye to speak for. Mama

Tabata herself has a blind eye, one that looks like “an egg whose yolk has been broken and

stirred just once,” and there is no one in this situation more cognizant than she with her “acute

monocular beam” (39). These two characters, Reverend Price and Mama Tabata, share more or

less the same condition but vastly different worldviews and characterizations, and disability is

given both positive and negative weight. Yet it would be unfair to conclude that disability simply

has no bearing on individual experience; to do so would be to deny the extent to which Adah’s

hemiplegia has shaped her interactions with the world.

Rather, it is important to recall that we are in Kilanga, where disability is treated in a

cavalier manner; its very prevalence makes a confrontation like this, with two partially blind

characters, plausible in the first place. Blindness has no inherent moral implications. And in this

scene, context again reigns. Mama Tabata’s vision is described as narrow, but it is a vision that

knows how to tend a garden in Kilanga, and it is Mama Tabata who is ultimately vindicated by

the Congo downpours. Nathan, on the other hand, is in utterly the wrong place at the wrong time,

It also seems necessary to expand our view of Nathan’s disability from simplistic cultural

blindness. Nathan’s vision, like Mama Tabata’s, is an acute monocular beam, but for different

reasons entirely; as observed, his personal construction of the world lacks much room for

alternative viewpoints as he resists adaptation to his surroundings. In part, Orleanna explains his

willful myopia as psychological preservation, a sort of spiritual overcompensation in response to

wartime traumas. As such, the element of memory now comes into play in our discussion of

disability, with Kingsolver inscribing considerations of memory and the past in the language of

the body. This link between social and biological renderings of memory will be discussed in


Next in the progression from literal to metaphorical treatments of disability is

Methuselah, an African grey parrot and the other vestige (in addition to Mama Tabata) of

Brother Fowle’s presence in the house. He spends most of his life in a cage and, irritating but

ultimately harmless, mimics the phrases and interjections of those around him. One day, Nathan,

in frustration, forces Methuselah from his cage and banishes him to the jungle outdoors.

“Methuselah, like me, is a cripple: the Wreck of Wild Africa,” observes Adah, who

secretly feeds the exiled parrot bits of fruit. “For all time since the arrival of Christ, he had lived

on seventeen inches of a yardstick. Now he has a world. What can he possibly do with it? He has

no muscle tone in his wings. They are atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery.” Like

Nathan with his temple scar, Methuselah is damaged by a sort of literal, physiological memory.

The extent of his dependence on the familiarity of his cage is visible in his resistance to leaving

it, as well as, more pathetically, in his continued habitation of the cage, which has fallen into the

The more metaphoric dimension of Methuselah’s disability arises from his strange

association with the newly independent Republic of the Congo. Leah accompanies her father to

Leopoldville, where she witnesses the inauguration of Patrice Lumumba, the nation’s first

democratically elected Prime Minister. However, her transcription of Lumumba’s high-pitch

speech, of his hopes for “justice and peace, prosperity and grandeur” (184), is immediately

followed by Adah’s depiction of the death of Methuselah, who leaves behind “only feathers,

without the ball of Hope inside” (186). The juxtaposition is telling, as, indeed, the Price girls

bear witness in various indirect ways to an international murder conspiracy against Lumumba.

Despite its initial breath of freedom, the Congo is handicapped in a number of ways by its

colonial past: educational shortcomings, for instance –– Leah learns from Mrs. Underdown that

“the Belgians have always had the policy of steering the Congolese boys away from higher

education. Girls too, I guess that goes without saying” (126). And as Nathan, of all people, points

out, around two hundred different languages are spoken within the borders of the Congo (167).

Yet, perhaps equally, if not more damaging is the context in which the fledgling Republic must

survive: a macro-political network of nations such as the United States and Belgium seeking to

exploit the Congo’s most valuable natural resource: diamonds. If Georgia is the context that

limits Adah’s agency, the larger geopolitical stage is the context that limits the agency of the

Congo –– unfortunately, it is the only context that the Congo has access to. Kingsolver, then,

represents the political dysfunction of the Congo using the framework –– the metaphor –– of

Methuselah’s physical dysfunction, incorporating the pattern of disability throughout.

Methuselah is incorporated as well on the highly individual level to explain Orleanna’s

marital dysfunction, the personal and the geopolitical collapsed into a single parrot. Describing

her gradual loss of freedom after Nathan’s return from war and the birth of her daughters,

Orleanna compares herself to the parrot: “Like Methuselah I cowered beside my cage, and

though my soul hankered after the mountain, I found, like Methuselah, I had no wings” (201).

Though Orleanna has neither a limp nor atrophied wings, it seems shortsighted to write off the

particular disability of her psyche as purely metaphorical or fictional. In their family, says Ruth

May, Mama comes last, even after Adah, “because something in her is even worse hurt than

what Adah’s got” (238), and Orleanna remains in bed for weeks after the Underdowns’

departure. Her depression reinforces the previous conversation surrounding physical disability in

that the context into which she is trapped not merely defines but actively shapes and exacerbates

her psychological condition. On the other hand, it presents points of departure in that, for

instance, unlike Mama Mwanza, Orleanna begins to neglect duties of motherhood.

A particularly curious aspect of Methuselah’s crippled “freedom” lies in its very first

moment: Methuselah flies. And he does so gloriously, opening his wings in “a burst of light”

(82). But from that moment on Methuselah is ostensibly unable to remember flight, instead

waddling along branches. This calls into question the physical nature of his disability, despite

Adah’s description of his weakened or missing muscles. To what extent is Methuselah’s

flightlessness truly physiologically-based, and to what extent is he crippled by memory?


According to an “upstart neurologist” who befriends Adah in medical school, Adah’s

disability is all memory –– “a great lifelong falsehood” (439). In a variation on the

compensations that accompany disability, discussed in the first section of this paper, the

neurologist asserts that her limp is altogether unnecessary because of compensation in the

unaffected part of her brain. In other words, it, like the comfort of Methuselah’s cage, is nothing

but a force of habit sustained unnecessarily from birth.

The neurologist’s medical approach, which is in line with the individual (rather than

societal) model of disability and views Adah’s limp as a condition to be cured, succeeds by its

own standards: Adah does lose her slant. This presents challenging implications for how

disability is treated in The Poisonwood Bible. Adah’s disability now seems to exist not in body

but in mind. Does that invalidate her limp’s physicality and visibility, which have been central

not only to her own experiences and self-perception but also to the novel’s constructions of

disability in Kilanga? Are we to read Adah’s body instead as a metaphor for abstract literary and

political concepts –– an illuminating metaphor, to be sure? The progression of the novel’s

depictions of disability from the physical to the intangible, from old Adah and the villagers to

Nathan to Methuselah to Orleanna to Africa to new Adah, gives rise to the troubling question of

whether abstracting Adah’s disability undermines the real, physical challenges faced by those

with disabilities, and, moreover, whether Adah’s miracle cure is an instance of deus ex machina

that paints disability as only a matter of willpower.

The medical model of disability, at least in The Poisonwood Bible, fails to take into

account the fuller complexity of Adah’s hemiplegia beyond simple pathologization. Adah herself

wonders to the reader: “Will I lose myself entirely if I lose my limp?” (441). And, indeed, she

loses some of the most integral parts of her identity, linked to the physiological basis of her limp,

and she finds herself now unable to read “in the old way. When I open a book, the words sort

themselves into narrow-minded single file on the page; the mirror image poems erase themselves

half-formed in my mind. I miss those poems” (492). For a character whose trials and triumphs,

vulnerabilities and small delights, we come to know almost exclusively through her own

narration peppered with wordplay –– in a marriage of narrative and identity, Adah is her

narration, her anagrams –– the loss of that wordplay is perhaps a more significant blow to her

self-perception than any loss of mobility. Adah describes how on some nights, she limps

deliberately around her apartment at night, attempting to recover “old ways of seeing and

thinking” (492). It is this continued disconnect between body and will –– before, Adah’s limp

“prevented” her from carrying out willed actions; now, her cured body prevents her from

accessing aspects of her old self –– that provides a starting point for Kingsolver’s critique of the

individual and medical models of disability.

“I was unprepared to accept,” says Adah, “that my whole sense of Adah was founded on

a misunderstanding between my body and my brain” (439). Here, that misunderstanding

produces Adah’s limp, and in a slightly different sense, physical disability can be seen as a

disconnect between body and mind. Here in Georgia, then, we can return to lessons in Kilanga:

in many ways, the society determines whether the body is a broken one or not. An individual in a

wheelchair may have the will to go from point A to point B, but the social context determines

whether the distance between the two is a ramp or a flight of stairs. Kilanga has allowed Adah to

experience the sensation of there being no such disconnect: “How can I explain that my two

unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? In Congo I was one-half benduka the

crooked walker, and one-half benduka, the sleek bird that dipped in and out of the banks with a

crazy ungrace that took your breath” (493). The limp is there, yes, but it is additive and

conducive, not debilitating, to her sense of self.

Thus, Adah in her “healed” state in Georgia offers a far more deliberate and explicit

indictment of Western conceptualizations of disability than we are given in Kilanga. Resisting

the assumption that her quality of life must be improved because she no longer has a limp, she

observes: “The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get

places quickly, and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest

of you, or get the Verse. We would rather just be like us, and have that be all right” (493). Not

only is Adah’s life not necessarily better for having been cured, it never should have had to be

cured; taking cues from Kilanga, Adah places the responsibility of disability squarely on those

who define it. Remarkably, in Georgia, Adah is more isolated as a nominally able-bodied person

than she was as a cripple in Kilanga; in a strange sense, memory continues to sustain Adah’s

disability long after she is healed. For instance, it turns out that the famous upstart neurologist

wants to be her lover –– but only after she becomes whole. Adah rejects him and several other

men based on the following test: she thinks back to a particularly traumatic night in Kilanga,

when the village was invaded by a flood of nsongonya, flesh-eating driver ants. This is the “dark

center” (306) in her life, when Orleanna chose to save Ruth May instead of her. Adah’s sense of

betrayal is only one in what she perceives to be a lifetime of betrayals, beginning with her

sister’s cannibalization in the womb. But it is also a moment of resistance for her:

The wonder to me now is that I thought myself worth saving. But I did. I did, oho, did I! I reached out and

clung for life with my good left hand like a claw, grasping at moving legs to raise myself from the dirt.

Desperate to save myself in a river of people saving themselves. And if they chanced to look down and see

me struggling underneath them, they saw that even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious.

That is what it means to be a beast in the kingdom (306).

By dint of her weakness, Adah ought to be a victim of evolution’s “survival of the fittest”

mindset, a world of beast-eats-beast. In this moment, Orleanna appears to subscribe to that

methodology; however, Rachel’s glimpse of Mama Mwanza being carried on her husband’s back

(302) underscores the cultural subjectivity of pure biological fitness.

In her imagination, Adah presents the same choice to her suitors, concluding that they

would save Ruth May, the “darling perfection,” over her own crooked self. Her self-enforced

exile from the sphere of marriage is based on her belief that “any man who admires my body

now is a traitor to the previous Adah” (532). Ultimately, in an echo of the individual versus

social views of disability, Adah is more alienated by attitudes surrounding her body, perpetuated

by those like her suitors in Georgia, than by any literal disabilities of her body.


All this presents an intriguing paradox. Adah’s narrative of disability represents a shift

from defining disability as physiologically attributed to the individual to a more social view of

disability as dependent on the context and attitudes of others. Yet more metaphorical depictions

of disability, such as in the association of the Congo with Methuselah the parrot, root abstract

concepts like political dysfunction in the language of physiological dysfunction. Are we to

understand that, as Adah finds empowerment in Kilanga, the Congo must be similarly optimistic

about its own handicaps, or that Orleanna’s depression must be idealized? Not necessarily so ––

rather, what Adah’s experience offers is an understanding that dysfunction cannot be understood

in isolation. The political troubles besetting the Republic of the Congo are specific to the Congo,

but they are also deeply sensitive to the machinations of world powers.

Back in Georgia, Adah is forced to re-evaluate her lifelong “comforts of martyrdom” as

she considers debts incurred and paid; she must account, for instance, for her mother’s choice to

rescue her, not Leah, from Africa. She remarks: “There are only the two of us now, and I owe

her my very life. She owes me nothing at all” –– an unfamiliar feeling for someone whose “habit

is to drag [herself] imperiously through a world that owes me unpayable debts” (410). Such a

dissolution of the guilt demanded by Adah on the basis of her disability, however, runs counter

to the lasting nature of the colonial guilt crippling the Congo. Moreover, aside from the

handicaps incurred from others’ guilt, there are those incurred by one’s own guilt: Nathan’s

blindness, and Orleanna’s psychological suffering after the death of her youngest child. Nathan

meets an unfortunate end, but for Orleanna, there is something perhaps more constructive.

Something that is Ruth May, a ghost, a spirit, the eyes in the trees, narrates the last chapter of the

novel, addressing her mother: “The teeth at your bones are your own, the hunger is yours,

forgiveness is yours.” She roots her mother’s emotional pathologies in physical ones, and at first

glance, her absolution seems to present the same issue as Adah’s cure in its implication that

healing is only a matter of willpower. However, Ruth May goes on to say, “You are afraid you

might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember” (543).

Scars, healed but unforgotten, remain embedded in the narratives of Adah and her mother

and sisters. As Adah says, “What you have to lose is your story, your own slant. You’ll look at

the scars on your arms and see mere ugliness, or you’ll take great care to look away from them

and see nothing. Either way, you have no words for the story of where you came from” (495).

Adah is “healed,” but she is also damaged by newfound shortcomings, on multiple levels, of

communication and self-expression. Ultimately, her story is a warning of narratives lost –– the

palindromes and butterfly women gone unnoticed, as well as individual sufferings and

byproducts of life –– in the shuffle of a culture too rigid in its construction of normal.

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