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Compelling autobiography of life with a disability
Richard P. Brickner sustained a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident at age 20. The "second twenty years" of the title are the autobiography of the next two decades of his life. The accident leaves him with quadriparesis (weakness and limited mobility below the neck). After his hospitalization and rehabilitation, he graduates from Columbia University, works at the Doubleday publishing house, and becomes a successful author, teacher and literary critic. This work is a dramatically compelling exploration of his life.
Much of the work details Brickner's determination to lead a normal, independent, and successful life, and to assert as much physical autonomy as possible. While he primarily moves with a wheelchair, he uses his remaining strength and mobility for "adaptive physical improvising" (p. 88), enabling him "to move in a society as a full-time person." (p. 54) He asserts control over his urination by using "a small enamel chamber pot" (p. 62) which gives him a degree of active autonomy over this private personal function, rejecting the passive condom catheter system more commonly used by men whose spinal cord injuries affect their bladder management. He quickly learns to transfer from his wheelchair into a taxicab, which allows him to routinely travel independently, and thus to pursue both a career and a social life which includes many romantic relationships. He transfers into a standard seat during his frequent attendance at the theater and opera. The apartment where he lives for most of the time covered here has a bathroom doorway which is too narrow for his wheelchair to enter. It is possible for him to live there only because he uses his limited ability to walk to precariously traverse a distance of a few feet from the doorway to the toilet (p. 86). However, this comes at the risk of falling, which then requires him to call the police for assistance (p. 193).
Many of the work's most compelling scenes involve the physical obstacles which he encounters as a person using a wheelchair at a time (the 1950's to 1970's) before disability rights and the issue of accessibility were generally recognized. There is no way for him to travel between his dormitory and classroom building at Columbia completely independently (p. 54). The first apartment where he lives after graduating from college has a front step which his wheelchair cannot navigate without assistance (p. 73). A professional promotion at Doubleday comes at the price of a move to an office floor where he requires help to enter and exit the men's room (p. 85). The assistance which he needs from others to lead the life he seeks makes it particularly important to him to assert his intellectual independence in his writing. While this work is an autobiographical exploration, his writing is not limited to disability-related themes. His second novel, Bringing Down the House, challenges the artistic and theatrical establishment of New York in the 1960's, voicing his disagreement with the attitudes of its status quo and the quality of its work. The process of writing this work serves as a liberating and empowering opportunity for him to make a statement of his independence as a thinker in contrast to his physical reliance on others. This opportunity is clearly important to him: "It excited me to disagree with so many strangers. It was dangerous, but necessary, to do so...If strangers didn't aid me when I needed them to - doormen helping me up steps, cabdrivers putting my wheelchair into cabs and taking it out, pedestrians helping cabdrivers and doormen help me into my wheelchair if I fell onto the street getting out of a cab - my selfhood was endangered. Disagreement with strangers risked the withdrawal of their support, and it tested my freedom from them." (pp. 177-178)
The book jacket states that Brickner's injury "left him with the challenge of earning and living and building an effective social and personal life from a wheelchair." This work illustrates his success at meeting that challenge. Richard P. Brickner died in 2006. My Second Twenty Years is copyright Basic Books, 1976. An excerpt of an early version of the work appeared in American Review 19, Bantam Books, Inc., January 1974, pp. 105-121.
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