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The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read

reviewed by Corrine M. Wickens

coverTitle: The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read
Author(s): Michael Bérubé
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 1479823619, Pages: 240, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read by Michael Bérubé is a dense, ambitious text within the field of disability studies. Disability studies is a more recent field within literary criticism, dating back to the early 1990s (Garland-Thomson, 2017). As with many other identity markers, e.g., race/ethnicity, gender and gender identity, and sexual orientation, disability studies in literature has largely focused on representations of individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities. However, disability studies also centers around areas of social interactions that fall outside what is typically considered “normal.” In this way, disability studies parallels elements of queer theory, which has long challenged normative binaries and ways of being within society (Krentz, 2018).

Beyond representations of individuals with intellectual disabilities in fiction, Bérubé convincingly argues that disability also constitutes a powerful indicator of social relations, “involving beliefs and social practices that structure the apprehension of disability—and of putative human ‘norms’” (p. 25). Capitalizing upon Descartes’s long-established signifier of self and identity, cogito, ergo sum, Bérubé and the broader field of disability studies challenge how intellectual disability is more frequently deployed to dehumanize individuals who may not think in ways that make sense to other “neurotypical” or “normate” (not socially marked by disability) individuals.

Bérubé moves away from typical matters of representation and attends more to the ways in which intellectual disability itself is used as a literary trope. From the highly accessible Harry Potter series and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Philip K. Dick’s obscure Martian Time-Slip, Bérubé explores how texts might signify intellectual disability without ever involving a character with disabilities at all. In three comprehensive chapters, Bérubé illuminates how intellectual disability can serve as (a) a motive behind narrative action, (b) a disruption to normative understandings of time, and (c) a challenge to textual and human self-awareness. In doing so, Bérubé demonstrates how intellectual disability can “warp the very fabric of the text itself, producing ‘disabling’ effects in readers’ comprehension of narrative” (p. 37).

Bérubé begins his examination of intellectual disability by looking at how it serves as a basis for motive, character development, and narrative action. For instance, Bérubé argues that intellectual disability is at the heart of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series as a motivating force behind the character of Hogwart’s brilliant headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana is assaulted as a young child by three Muggles and becomes mentally unstable as a result. This mental instability leads to a series of tragic events, including the death of their mother and later the death of Ariana herself. The resulting grief and shame then shape the behavior of the humbled Dumbledore that Harry Potter and the readers later come to know and love. Another example of intellectual disability as motive is more clearly found in A Wrinkle in Time, in which teachers and classmates perceive Meg and Charles Wallace to be cognitively “not all there” (L’Engle, 1962, p. 16). The social stigma around intellectual disability explains Meg’s quick temper and fighting, while Charles Wallace embraces the stigma to avoid greater scorn: “I’m afraid it will make it awfully hard for me in school next year if I already know things. I think it will be better if people go on thinking I’m not very bright. They won’t hate me quite so much” (p. 34).

Significant in this section is Bérubé’s elaboration of the ethical dilemma (Quayson, 2007) inherent in questions of representation of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Lennard Davis (2013) situates the ethical dilemma within the narrative frame itself: “the very structures on which the novel rests tend to be normative, ideologically emphasizing the universal quality of the central character whose normativity encourages us to identify with him or her” (p. 9). Characters with intellectual disabilities disrupt those normative structures, reinforcing not only an ethical dilemma around the character but dilemmas around the notion of the text itself: What constitutes normal? What happens when the reader cannot read normally?

In Chapter Two, Bérubé extends the challenge of reading “normally” to the issues of intellectual disability, narrative structure, and time. Representation of time forms a cornerstone of narrative construction because it enables the reader to understand a character’s history, the sequence of events, and the overarching connection between the two, which as Bérubé explains in Chapter One is what constitutes narrative motive. When the representation of time is disrupted, the narrative itself becomes “disabled”; that is, the narrative at least in part no longer functions normally or “properly.” When the narrative is disabled, readers’ comprehension of text becomes disabled as well.

In Chapter Three, Bérubé expounds upon the question of textual self-reflexivity, in which an author draws the reader’s attention away from the narrative itself and onto the structure of the narrative. For instance, characters might indicate their own awareness of being fictional characters or there being an author outside the narrative. Such literary devices serve to reinforce texts as socially constructed and demand readers’ attention to that construction. Bérubé asserts that the deployment of intellectual disability is an invitation to hyper-attentiveness, a renewal of perception through “the capacity of literature to estrange, to make objects unfamiliar, to render people imaginable, and to displace the ‘normate’ in every aspect of life” (p. 165). This is the overarching power of art: that which makes the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary.

Moreover, The Secret Life of Stories is an important and challenging study of narrative deployments of intellectual disability in fictional texts. But, take note, this text is not for the faint of heart; rather, it is best suited for serious undergraduate and graduate students of literary criticism who are fascinated by such questions surrounding textual self-reflexivity and metarepresentations. Such individuals might wonder at the infinite recursiveness of different texts with characters who lack or have diminished capacity for metarepresentation, “and who thereby (a) produce metafictional textual effects, and (b) in the course of producing metafictional effects, break their narratives’ fictional frame in such a way as to confirm it” (p. 144). So many “metas” can make the head spin.

While The Secret Life of Stories is an exceptional piece of literary criticism within the field of disability studies, I hope that Bérubé might at some point partner with an educator to write for a more teacher-friendly audience. Such a partnership could enhance educational environments in a multitude of ways: (a) by helping teachers better understand the social dimensions of disabilities, both physical and intellectual; (b) by enhancing the instruction of middle and high school English Language Arts teachers and their students’ ability to interrogate texts from a disability studies framework; (c) by enabling resource teachers to better advocate for their students, and (d) by assisting administrators as they work to create a more thoughtful and understanding environment for all students. Such a text would be valuable indeed.


Garland-Thomson, R. (2018). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature, 20th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

L’Engle, M. (1962). A wrinkle in time. New York, NY: Ariel Books.


Krentz, C. (2018). Disability studies. In D. H. Richter (Ed.), A companion to literary theory. (pp. 348–359). Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Quayson, A. (2007). Aesthetic nervousness: Disability and the crisis of representation. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22376, Date Accessed: 1/19/2019 5:57:07 PM

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