Terry Tracy

The Unconventional Disability Narrative

When we look to disability narratives we often look to life writing and consider My Left Foot by Christy Brown, Still Me by Christopher Reeve and most recently, Carly's Voice by Carly Fleischmann and Arthur Fleischmann as the most representative of this genre. This approach neglects books such as The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, Aids as a Metaphor by Sontag, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig. These three classics are unconventional disability narratives. In The Idiot you discover how Dostoyevsky explains his own emotions about his epilepsy. In Aids as Metaphor Sontag transfers thoughts on her own age-old stigmatizing illness of cancer through a cool academic eye that observes society's response to the terrifying new illness of HIV-AIDs. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig reveals his philosophical epiphany through his bouts with mental health issues. These books are so hallowed by intelligentsia and popular culture that they go unrecognized as disability narratives. These authors created works of depth combined with exquisite writing to reveal universal truths. No better term shows how 'the establishment' has embraced them as one of their own than the fact that they are considered 'classics'.

The depth of these authors' wisdom at once combined with exquisite writing is why they are appreciated . This admiration is praise, but it is necessary to remind the world of the work's heritage, as a work that is indivisible from the authors experience of his/her own disability. There is a value to reclaiming books such as these because they are works with disability at their core. That is why I am making an effort to review an already well-reviewed book, by understanding and appreciating Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) as a disability narrative.

First published in 1974, ZMM was authored by an American, Robert M. Pirsig. Since that time the book has sold millions of copies world wide and has been translated into multiple languages. Why has ZMM become a classic best-seller? In Pirsig's addendum in 25th anniversary edition you can still hear his tone of astonishment as he recounts the phenomenon of ZMM. He looks to the Swedish langauge for a term that best described his book's success: "kulturbarer." He considers ZMM a "culture-bearing book" that challenged cultural value assumptions and did so at a time when the culture was changing in favor of that challenge. According to Pirsig, 'Hippie culture' at the time was for 'freedom' but never offered a concrete philosophical alternative. For some time, protest slogans, peace symbols spray-painted on VW vans, and the hedonistic counsel to 'turn on, tune in, and drop out' typified hippie culture. ZMM made hippie culture intelligent.

But how does it relate to disability? ZMM is a memoir of a specific time in Pirsig's life, after he was institutionalized and given electro-shock therapy treatment. Pirsig described the onset of his mental health issues in a rare interview with Tim Adams published in the British newspaper the Observer. (Sunday, Nov, 19, 2006).

'I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,' he recalls. 'I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers ...'

It was like a monastic experience?

'Yes, but then a kind of chaos set in. Suddenly I realised that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment. I have never insisted on either - in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to.'

ZMM is Pirsig's account of a motorcycle trip in 1968 from Minnesota to the Dakotas. He travels with his son gripping tight on the back of the motorcycle, as they ride through rain, sun, cold and tire-melting heat. His friends John and Sylvia accompany them on much of the ride that last for over two weeks. Between the brief interactions with people over coffee, malted shakes at roadside diners and steaks sizzling in pans over camp-fires, ZMM is essentially a conversation inside Pirsig's head. He is remembering the thought process he had in the run up to his time in a mental hospital. He reflects on his time being treated through electro-shock therapy treatment , with its technical name 'Annihilation ECS' in a few paragraphs scattered throughout the book. He thinks about his alter-ego, the obsessive compulsive philosopher Phaedrus, who was brought to the mental hospital to undergo electro-shock therapy, and wonders how much of Phaedrus is still with him. The book is an earnest effort to explain how his 'madness' made him wise and his concerted effort to find a calm in the balance between the theoretical and the practical as much as tolerance and acceptance for the imperfect. He relays his philosophy of life through lectures to the reader which he calls, "Chautauquas," a term from an American adult education movement in the 19th and early 20th century that describes the travelling festival events in tents where people could listen to informative lectures, hear music and see art.

In ZMM Pirsig openly acknowledges that his obsessions with logic and reason, perceived as abnormal by most, were the source of this enlightenment. ZMM is a brilliant display of his management of disability, the fragility and the complexity of that management and how the disability forces him to interact with society. He recognizes that he is precariously 'normal' and in one exchange with his son he tells him, Chris you are looking at a father who was insane for a long time and is close to it again.

One reason why this book resonates as an exemplary disability narrative is because any disability narrative is essentially existential. It is a story of self and survival. What is life? What is life with a disability? Is the disability all of you or part of you, then how much of you? Do you 'have' the disability, do you live 'with' a disability, 'are' you the disability? What do you think and what does society think of you in those terms? These issues are addressed continuously in disability narratives and on every page of ZMM.

On Pirsig's ride across America he describes himself before the treatment, his obsession with the classical and the theoretical. The reader experiences his self-treatment of rebuilding his life after his instutionalization through this trip. As he rides he thinks about the analogy of a balanced life in the use and the maintenance of his motorcycle. It's a road trip book, but not along the lines of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. In ZMM the companion is not a fluffy black dog, but rather the haunting image of the insane self, Phaedrus.

Briefly, but clearly Pirsig mentions that he perceives early signs of the same mental health issues in his son. The trip becomes not only his management of his disability but how a father is teaching his child how to live life, with a disability. In the addendum to the 25th anniversary edition Pirsig explains how Chris, his 22 year-old son, was murdered the night of November 17, 1979 as he left the Zen Center where he was the student. Pirsig added that "After his funeral we packed all his things, including a second-hand motorcycle he had just bought, into an old pick-up truck and headed back across some of the western mountain and desert roads described in this book".

ZMM is a fantastic disability narrative on mental health. It also addresses a rare and poignant reality for parents with disabilities, that can be inherited. Even when our children are born 'normal' we are plagued by the notion that one day the disability could manifest in our children. As a woman with epilepsy I sometimes look at my 8 year-old daughter and wonder whether epilepsy might strike her when she is in her adolescence, the same time that it struck me. The only thought that calms my angst is that at least I can show her the ways I have come to deal with my disability through my novel, like Pirsig who introduced his son to Zen and motorcycles. ZMM gives a glimpse of the unique angst of parents with a disability, looking after their child who might inherit their condition.

When ZMM is read in a wider context of Pirsig's disability the book is more poignant, and more meaningful. This context is lost to many outside of disability culture As Pirsig surmised, ZMM's appeal was the depth it gave to a hippie culture. The book offers an eloquent discourse on the difference between classical and romantic philosophy and addresses fundamental questions in Western Civilization. Set against the backdrop of a motorcycle trip across dusty American highways these elegant lectures offer a contrast as sexy as a leather-clad philosophy professor on her way to a protest. No wonder sixties and seventies 'hippie' culture would want to claim it for its own.

However, ZMM is a story of the discovery, survival, and management of a disability. ZMM is a culture bearing book for disability culture and deserves to be read on those terms as well. The value of unconventional disability narratives like ZMM is that they can serve as a bridges for a wider society to begin to understand disability. The struggle for respect for disability is won, one piece of art at a time, when works like ZMM are recognized for their disability heritage. These works of literature, that are already recognized as great must also be revealed for what they are, disability narratives that exemplify our culture and in what society has come to recognize as classics that exemplify the human condition.


Terry Tracy is the author of the novel, A Great Place for a Seizure. She has had epilepsy for over 30 years. Tracy earned her masters degree at Cambridge University. She has worked in an orphanage in Honduras, with a human rights organization in Washington DC, and as a free lance journalist in Guatemala. Currently she lives in London with her family.