Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Book Review: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern: Chapter 1

I was recently asked if I had ever read Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern, and what my thoughts were on it.  As I have never read a book with a main character who has CP, I thought I should at least give this book a cursory read through, especially as March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month.  What better time to talk about a book that features a character with CP?

I found the story had several glaring issues, but for the purposes of this review, I will stick with, what I believe, are the three biggest:  accuracy and portrayal issues, ableism and sexuality.  I realized soon after beginning this review that it was going to be entirely too long to post all at once, so instead, I'm going to do it a chapter (or two) at a time.


Pre Chapter 1:

Amy (who has CP) says in her first note: people would think "sex was impossible but love was not" but that she has found "both were possible and impossible."

This creates a dangerous premise to base a book in which the author claims she breaks harmful stereotypes.  By insinuating that neither sex nor love is possible for a girl with CP, it sets an expectation in all those who read this book.  For those with CP (myself included) it gives the message that we are not lovable and no one can have sex with us.  It gives the same erroneous impression to people whose exposure around people with CP is limited.


Chapter 1:

The first words in the book are by Amy.  This gave me the impression that she was the main character.  However, even in the first unsent email we read by her, Amy says the story is "about you.  Mostly you."  You, in this case, is Matthew, her able-bodied peer helper, and eventual love interest who has OCD.

After receiving his first email from Amy, Matthew says, he is fine with being on the list of potential paid volunteers and that Amy's mother has said they "might get community service credit," for it, as well as getting paid.  Amy does point out the grossness of this thinking, but Matthew retorts that her mother shouldn't have said it in the first place.  Also true.  Why is a statement like that even included?

We learn that Amy won't be present at the training sessions for her peer helpers.  Why not?  We have no idea.  That is literally all Amy says on the matter before changing the subject and it never comes up again.  Why wouldn't she be present at training sessions that directly concern her?  If it's a matter of Amy herself not being comfortable attending, that's one thing, but if she was intentionally excluded, as if it's nothing she needs to actually concern herself with,  that is an issue.  And it's troubling to me that the person at the center of such important training wouldn't be there for any of it.  How will her peer volunteers really know how to help her best?  This is another oversight that, in my opinion, comes from having zero disabled input in the writing of this book.  It makes sense as an able bodied person to tell the fellow able bodied people how to help the disabled person without actually consulting the disabled person or asking for their input.

Amy assumes everyone else has taken on the role of peer helper so it will look good on their college applications.  With Matthew, she is sure "it's different."  How is it different?  What does she know about him (other than that he's able bodied) that leads her to the conclusion that he has intentions that are anymore honorable than anyone else's?

Chapter 1:


Amy is emailing Matthew and telling him how excited she is that he is on her list of peer helpers.  We learn that instead of getting an aide through school, Amy's mother is paying her peers to fill this role.  Amy knows her parents are essentially "paying people to pretend to be her friend" and then says, "I have no problem with this."  Aides are part of legal accommodations students with disabilities are entitled to and that those are usually squared away at IEP meetings.  Paying peers to do the same job seems illegal.  And Amy has no problem with this?  I don't know of a single teenage girl, especially one who had CP, who would be okay with her parents paying peers to pretend to be her friends.  This statement makes Amy unrelatable from the start, because she is untouched by the "unsettling" and "prideless" thing her parents are doing on her behalf.

Also in their first round of emails exchanged, Amy questions why Matthew does not have many friends.  "You seem pretty normal, right?"  Here's the thing that gets lost in translation when a character with CP (or any disability) is written by an able bodied writer (and not at least proof-read by someone disabled) having CP is normal for us.  It's not normal for someone who doesn't have it, so, to that author, it would make sense to use the word "normal" in reference to an able bodied classmate, but for us who actually have CP?  Maybe not our first thought.

Amy's mom, Nicole, says that they are replacing adult aides with peer helpers because Amy "wants to learn about making friends before she goes off to college."  Um.  What?  I speak from experience when I say socialization goals were on my IEP from the time I started school at 2 years old.  It's just plain negligent to ignore your child's socialization until her senior year of high school!  (Also, another area where the author's lack of insight shows.)

Amy's level of social awkwardness is a huge thing for me in this book.  I understand what the author was trying to convey, but honestly, it would have been more effective if the main characters had been starting middle school with the kinds of behaviors she exhibits.  Matthew's mom remembers that Amy was the child at the sixth grade chorus concert that "sat in a chair up front and sang louder than everyone else" and also "waved her arms like she was conducting the audience."  Amy wants Matthew to "tell her when she's doing stuff wrong," which instantly paints Amy as not only physically needing help but also painfully socially oblivious.

Tune in tomorrow for more thoughts on Say What You Will, and let me know your thoughts.  Have you started reading this book?  Do you have CP?  What are your thoughts on the first chapter?


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