In 1976 Gelya Frank began writing about the life of Diane DeVries, a woman born with all the physical and mental equipment she would need to live in our society--except arms and legs. Frank was 28 years old, DeVries 26. This remarkable book--by turns moving, funny, and revelatory--records the relationship that developed between the women over the next twenty years. An empathic listener and participant in DeVries's life, and a scholar of the feminist and disability rights movements, Frank argues that Diane DeVries is a perfect example of an American woman coming of age in the second half of the twentieth century. By addressing the dynamics of power in ethnographic representation, Frank--anthropology's leading expert on life history and life story methods--lays the critical groundwork for a new genre, "cultural biography."
Challenged to examine the cultural sources of her initial image of DeVries as limited and flawed, Frank discovers that DeVries is gutsy, buoyant, sexy--and definitely not a victim. While she analyzes the portrayal of women with disabilities in popular culture--from limbless circus performers to suicidal heroines on the TV news--Frank's encounters with DeVries lead her to come to terms with her own "invisible disabilities" motivating the study. Drawing on anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, narrative theory, law, and the history of medicine, Venus on Wheels is an intellectual tour de force.
Gelya Frank is a cultural anthropologist on the faculty of the Departments of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy and Anthropology at the University of Southern California. She is the coauthor of Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography (1981).
“This book makes particularly compelling reading for those interested in disability, gender, and embodiment. . . . A thoroughly readable and engaging text, Venus on Wheels should inspire students to grapple with some of the methodological issues in current anthropology.”—Rachael Gooberman-Hill Royal Anthropological Inst Journal (Man)
"A stunning example of the imaginative sweep, compassionate empathy, and analytical rigor of the new ethnography that we so badly need for our new century. . . . [It is] an unforgettable ethnographic dialogue that is deeply philosophical, moving, disturbing, and always lucid about what it means to try to understand another person on their own terms. Gelya Frank brings new life to anthropology's quest."—Ruth Behar, author of The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart
"A thoughtful, breakthough work that moves the field into the next era of conceptualizing theoretical and methodological issues. It will become a classic."—Gay Becker, author of Disrupted Lives: How people Create Meaning in a Chaotic World
"If there were ever a recommendation for how the insights of an ethnography can help us make a leap over the border of difference, this is it."—Faye Ginsberg, author of Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community
"This is one of the most fascinating relationships revealed through a creative juxtaposition of life history and ethnographic narrative along with a much-needed meditation on the doing of such research. Frank achieves a measured and graceful synthesis of purposes that could profitably serve as a model of mixed-genre ethnographic writing."—George Marcus
"Gelya Frank's Venus on Wheels
is a fascinating blend of ethnographic theory and practice. The endnotes alone provide a liberal education in current ethnography, literary criticism, cultural studies, and thought about the human consequences of being disabled -- and of being abled. A stunning achievement."—James Olney, Voorhies Professor of English, Louisiana State University
"Frank's book is a masterpiece of reflection about the meaning of disablity in her own life and that of Diane DeVries -- a woman whose amazing resilience and rock-hard courage to face life shine through in every chapter."—Betty R. Hasselkus, Editor, American Journal of Occupational Therapy
Eileen Basker Memorial Prize for studies in gender and health, Society for Medical Anthropology