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Curing the Sick Ghost: Beloved, Illness, and Crip Futurity

smalina's picture

Curing the Sick Ghost:

Beloved, Illness, and Crip Futurity


“It’s clear that we’re inescapably haunted by the disability to come.”

- Robert McRuer


124 Bluestone Road, the primary setting of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is a house under quarantine. Its inhabitants shunned by neighbors who view the family as deranged, the house ultimately becomes a makeshift hospital for the ailing Beloved, a young woman who stumbles upon Sethe and Denver in the height of her apparent illness. Quickly identifying Beloved as Sethe’s daughter, whom she killed as a young child to prevent her enslavement, Denver and Sethe eagerly respond to the young woman’s every need--no matter the consequences. However, it eventually becomes apparent just how taxing this care is on its providers; as Beloved grows stronger, Sethe becomes weaker and weaker.


In her piece entitled “not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there,” Avery Gordon offers a meaningful analysis of Beloved’s presence in the lives of Sethe and Denver, deeming the haunting a call for change and a better future. However, Gordon’s exploration does not make use of the consistent presence of illness, transferred from Beloved to Sethe over the course of the narrative. Queer and disability theorist Robert McRuer offers the helpful framework of crip futurity, a concept which refuses conventional narratives of “cure” attributed to illness and disability, and which reaches beyond the current order of things toward a more accessible future. McRuer’s text allows us to unsettle our assumption that the answer to illness is cure.


Revisiting Beloved through McRuer’s lens of crip temporality, it becomes apparent that the ghost’s illness was never meant to be cured, and never could be. Instead, her illness--the very symbol of her own haunting which does not disappear, but rather is passed off to Sethe--is the call for Sethe and Denver to change their lives. Beloved’s existence as a liminal, disabled subject, already outside of a normative, linear life course, serves to refuse the curative narratives of which McRuer writes, as her story demonstrates the absurd futility of attempts at curing a ghost.



A Note on Disability Studies, McRuer, and Crip Theory


In his text entitled Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer takes a critical look at the construction of dominant and marginal bodies, emphasizing the concepts of compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory heterosexuality. As he argues, compulsory able-bodiedness is the notion that we view a lack of disability and impairment as the norm, thus rendering it dangerously invisible and assumed--a “nonidentity” (McRuer 1). Consequently, a disabled identity is rendered flawed and deviant from the “norm.” McRuer dismantles this assumption, along with the narratives that play into it--most notably, the narrative of “cure,” by which the singular objective is to “fix” the ill or disabled subject, restoring them to the norm.


But if we question “cure” as our priority in the face of illness and disability, to what do we turn? McRuer offers an alternative--if we do not think of time and the body’s place in it as a linear, consistent development, then the supposed “disruption” caused by illness or disability is not a tragedy, but rather, a call for an improved order altogether. This emphasis on “curing society,” rather than the individual, he identifies as “crip futurity,” which offers a new way to make meaning of illness and disability and the society that makes these identities so disabling. As he writes in his piece “The Then and There of Crip Futurity,” “crip time unfixes” (McRuer 532).  




She collapsed on Baby Suggs’ bed. Denver moved her hat and put the quilt with two squares of color over her feet. She was breathing like a steam engine (Morrison 64).


From the moment she enters the doors of Sethe’s house, Beloved is a patient to be cared for. Wracked with the pain of her past actions, Sethe immerses herself in caregiving, revelling in its rewards. She can at last provide for her daughter in the form of this spectral figure. Here, Beloved’s illness is a perfect opportunity. While she has no other shelter, it is her illness that justifies Sethe’s constant devotion and attention. Despite the age of the ghostly figure, Sethe can care for her as if she is the baby she was when she died, putting her to bed, feeding her, and cleaning her after she vomits. “Sethe happy when Beloved was; Beloved lapping devotion like cream,” Sethe is clearly deeply gratified by the relationship, and it is what appears to be a never-ending sickness that enables it (Morrison 286).


The ailing Beloved also conveniently offers clarity in terms of the needs of those around her. While Sethe has been aching for another child to care for, Denver, too, has been lonely. Isolated from friends because of her mother’s reputation, and living as an only child following her brothers’ departure, she finds a fast friend in Beloved, who needs her just as much as Denver needs Beloved. As Gordon acknowledges, “they all make Beloved their beloved” (Gordon 140). But it is not enough to love Beloved; Beloved must love them back. Desperate as she is to sustain this relationship and new confidante, Denver intends to keep Beloved needing her. She refuses to present Beloved’s health as improving, insisting she “didn’t see no such thing” when asked if Beloved lifted a chair with one hand (Morrison 67). Though Sethe had been unaware of her daughter’s pain, in the presence of Beloved, the emptiness is impossible to ignore. As Morrison writes, “Sethe looked at her daughter and thought, Yes, she has been lonesome. Very lonesome” (65).


The dynamics of the two relationships seems to answer a key question: Why try to cure a ghost? As both Sethe and Denver begin to believe that Beloved is the ghostly form of their lost daughter and sister, it becomes increasingly clear that their efforts to “heal” are not intended to save Beloved, but rather, to save themselves. These intentions, too, are woefully misguided.


“Something funny ‘bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.

“Funny how?”

“Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull” (Morrison 67).


And yet, suspicion of Beloved’s illness arises early on in the narrative--first, because she does not appear to be sick. This confusion is only reinforced by the family’s inability to diagnose their patient with any common ailment. This lack of diagnosis marks the possibility that Beloved’s illness may be more than just that--that perhaps her sickness cannot be named because it has a purpose beyond being healed. In fact, Beloved’s illness seems to be conveniently circumstantial, almost as if appearing in response to the thoughts and actions of those around her. This phenomenon is perhaps most evident when Paul D feels at finally driven to action, asserting to himself that he will stake his claim on Sethe and Denver’s attention--driving Beloved out to do so. Beloved is suddenly sick, and Denver and Sethe hurry to her side, nudging Paul D out of the picture once more. The haunting asserts itself.


He wanted her out, but Sethe had let her in and he couldn’t put her out of a house that wasn’t his [. . .] Sitting at the table, chewing on his after-supper broom straw, Paul D decided to place her. Consult with the Negroes in town and find her her own place.

No sooner did he have the thought than Beloved strangled on one of the raisins she had picked out of the bread pudding [. . .] Beloved, on her hands and knees, vomited up her food and struggled for breath (Morrison 79).


After endless effort to care for Beloved, it is clear that this care, though meant to save Denver and Sethe more than Beloved herself, is in fact destroying them. Their efforts are backfiring, and the illness will not dissipate--rather, it is transferred between bodies, as the haunting manifests itself, writes itself on the body. Both Denver and Sethe are impacted by this compromise, but Sethe faces the most dangerous consequences, as she sacrifices her own nourishment to feed Beloved. She feeds the ghost, at the same time as she is consumed by it. She becomes smaller and frailer each day.


They grew tired, and even Beloved, who was getting bigger, seemed nevertheless as exhausted as they were. [. . .] [Denver] saw Sethe’s eyes bright but dead, alert but vacant, pay attention to everything about Beloved [. . .] Then Sethe spit up something she had not eaten and it rocked Denver like gunshot [. . .] Denver knew it was on her. She would have to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help (Morrison 285-86).


In her analysis of Beloved, Avery Gordon acknowledges the significance of Denver’s impassioned actions when she leaves her mother’s property, seeking assistance and connection. As she writes, “Denver is [. . .] the first to see the mortal conflict with the living that will never end if something isn’t done [. . .] The ghost will have to be dispatched” (Gordon 181). The doing of this “something,” however, is no small feat. Denver’s actions are in direct response to the devastation caused by her family’s haunting, which Gordon describes as “creating the possibility of making a life, of becoming something else, in the present and for the future” (142). The ghost, herself haunted, comes into Denver and Sethe’s lives as a signal that something must change.


If, as Gordon writes, the ghost’s presence is meant to alert the characters that they must be propelled forward, that change is needed, then the illness is both the symbol of haunting and the apparition’s strategy, her means of achieving these ends. Gordon’s language mirrors that which defines crip futurity. McRuer validates the “utopian longings” of those who insist on creating a future in which illness and disability are welcome, inherently refusing normative, linear frameworks of temporality (McRuer 533).


Just as the apparition in Beloved drives Denver to eventually act, as per Gordon’s analysis of the significance of haunting, her illness (which eventually becomes Sethe’s own impairment) is the last straw for Denver. Forced to confront the reality that this ghost cannot be “cured” (at least without implicating another in the sickness), Denver must face what parts of her reality she can fix.


But the future alone is not enough when the present has not yet been addressed. As both Gordon and McRuer acknowledge, a part of this new and better future is the acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of the “here and now.” Gordon insists that “this something to be done is not a return to the past but a reckoning with its repression in the present, a reckoning with that which we have lost, but never had” (Gordon 183). Paralleling this sentiment, McRuer offers: “Even though Feminist, Queer, Crip anticipates a then and there, coalitional work (that has characterized feminist, queer, and disability activism for decades) is materializing crip futurity in the here and now” (McRuer 534).


For Sethe has not truly been living out her present, either, haunted as she has been by the loss of her child, the trauma of her past enslavement and dehumanization, the violent destruction of her identity and sense of self. As she and Denver confront the illness that is perpetually present throughout their relationship with Beloved, they must acknowledge what they can, and must, “cure” and what they cannot.




Though the parallels between Morrison’s text and McRruer’s articulation of crip futurity are rich, Beloved does offer not-so-progressive representations of disability and illness. By associating Beloved with the young child who was killed, and by presenting her as a figure entirely unable to care for herself (thus requiring the constant maternal attention of Sethe), the text effectively reinforces infantilizing depictions of the disabled subject. It is only when Beloved begins to heal and appears to become pregnant, taking up an image of a matured young woman, that she can be disassociated from this illness and disability. Furthermore, though Beloved’s story refutes the possibility of a true “cure” on the individual level, shifting the focus to that of a “cured” outlook, purpose, and way of life, the significance of the illness as the signal of the haunting itself is fraught. If, as McRuer writes, we are all “inescapably haunted” by the disability to come, then a narrative in which the disability quite literally does the haunting seems only to reinforce public fear around illness and disability, and an anxiety around compulsory able-bodiedness.


Thus, it seems important to note that disability justice is almost certainly not Morrison’s project. Beloved is not a story about disability, though the lens is useful in an analysis of the haunting within the narrative. What does emerge, through a critical analysis of crip futurity within the text, is a call for a better order of things--a different and more accessible future that can become possible if it is not the disabled subject who must be cured, but rather, a disabling and damaging social order. This acknowledgement of a future beyond that which we have ever imagined before seems particularly poignant when placed within a text that follows a family living in the aftermath of slavery--who must now confront the possibility of a future that is free. As put by McRuer, in sum…


“Look at me: I am like you...maybe. But we’re not like the others and we might, you and I, be able to imagine something other than, different from, or beyond all of this” (McRuer 182-83).


Works Cited


Gordon, Avery. “not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there.” Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. 137-90. Print.


McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.


McRuer, Robert. “The Then and There of Crip Futurity.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 20.4 (2014): 532-34. Print.


Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf Doubleday Group, 2007. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture


I’m glad to see you anticipating and furthering, here, the move we’ve begun to make in class into questions of intersectionality—although I also need to acknowledge that bringing Critical Race Studies into conversation with Disability Studies means taking a step into a very fraught history (see, for example, this Al Jazeera article on the long-held, and very disturbing conflation, in public schools, of race and disability: See also the review of a recent book on “Black Disability Studies,” which begins by highlighting the ways in which blackness and disability have been historically conjoined in the American imagination. Reading illness in Beloved as “both the symbol of haunting and the apparition’s strategy,” you turn that problematic conjunction of race and disability toward the future, suggesting that the illness which is transferred from Beloved to Sethe is a call not for individual cure, but for an improved social order, “a different and more accessible future.”

And it’s precisely at this validation of “utopian longings” where I’d like to think-and-talk with you further. When Eli Clare visited our class on “Ecological Imaginings” in April 2014, we read his then-in-progress Meditations on Disabled Bodies, Natural Worlds, and a Politics of Cure, which begins with a walk through a restored tall-grass prairie, and invites us to think from that place about the concept of “restoration,” of “undoing harm,” rebuilding a system that has been broken. It is an action that--while acknowledging that such a return will always be incomplete—is rooted in the belief that the original state was better than what is current.

Eli argues that this metaphor (like all metaphors) falls short, as a means of thinking through the concept of “cure,” if we imagine it as a mandate of return to a former, non-disabled state of the individual body. The desire for restoration is bound to loss, to yearning for what was thought to have been--but sometimes such restoration is not possible.  In Eli’s story, as in many others, the original non-disabled body has never existed; such an account arises from imagining what the (normal, natural) body should be.

In class, we discussed the limitations of this concept for those who are disabled. And for those who have been dis-privileged in other ways. As one of the students wrote,

I also resist the desire for restoration, which seems to me to come from a place of privilege. For some of us, this is the best time ever. There is no time we want to go back to, no historical period we want "restored," no era when people who look like me weren’t devalued even more than we are now.

[Eli’s giving a public lecture @ Swat, btw, on disability and queerness on Fri, Nov. 4 @ 4:30,
and a workshop on storytelling 9:30-12 on Sat, Nov. 5, if you’re interested…..]

Anyhow, I was saying…
your essay also interests me for its analysis of the troubling (?) gratification of the caregiver, whose efforts to “heal” are not intended to save the patient, but herself, and for your acknowledging, in concluding, that Morrison’s representations off disability and illness aren’t particularly progressive, in reinforcing infantilizing depictions of the disabled subject. You say that “disability justice is almost certainly not Morrison’s project,” and/but I’m also thinking that the whole question of justice has been deeply troubled by Tuck and Ree’s “Glossary of Haunting.” As we observed in class, their work differs deeply from that of Avery Gordon, in claiming that no “exorcism” is possible in this land of theft: “the fantasy of relief is deciduous. The gift is an illusion of relief and closure....with some crimes of humanity...there is no putting to rest.”

Can Disability Studies help us here? Offer a guide to living with profound disability, of unremitting haunting?

Eager to learn more,

smalina's picture

I'm grateful for the reminder of Clare's thinking on this, and it feels valuable to consider the expectation of a return to a "better past" inherent in a hope for a "cure." Particularly when the nature of "haunting"--certainly as displayed through Beloved--is something that indicates a past one would never hope to return to. And, as you go on to mention, the idea that there is "no 'exorcism' possible" perhaps renders the notion of a "cure" that takes us back, impossible anyway. Maybe, then, to apply the notion of "cure" to what I call "society" (or an "order," or any other term for broader stuff than the individual) hurts the disability rights cause as much as I intended to help it. 

Also, while sitting in my bed daydreaming about essay-writing...

I'm reminded of a text from a gen/sex course of my past that I wish I could have read alongside Beloved, perhaps avoiding the fraught history of the race/disability intersection: Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval--and her introduction, in particular, where she introduces the notion of cross-temporal touch. She writes about of a "queer historical impulse," by which the queer subject is driven to connect with counterparts across time in a manner which refuses a "progress" or cause-and-effect narrative. As Jill Stevenson adds, these connections across time are introduced as conceptual, but there are also ways in which "these practices are archived in bodies--[which] may suggest that certain instances of cross-temporal touch also have a material dimension" (20). Imagining queerness as a "'way of life' rather than as a way of having sex" (Foucault) and as a product of atypical temporalities and formations of community, it is interesting to consider what drives the cross-temporal touch between Sethe and the ghost of her daughter, Beloved. These points in time are touching both conceptually and physically, in ways that are at times loving, and at other times (and often at the same time) violent--when Beloved puts her hands around Sethe's neck. The cross-temporal connection is loving, guilt-driven, punishing, healing, so many different things at once. And interesting to apply the lack of progress narrative implicit in this touch to Beloved, at a time when the characters are no longer technically enslaved, but are still very much in the process of regaining their personhood and coping with their stolen identities.

Anyway, not going to write an essay on this just yet...

Overall, I'm struck by this thread of the ghost as not just intangibly spectral, but as something physical--physical enough to be sick, to be treated by Sethe and Denver, to be touched by them, and to touch them back. 

Anne Dalke's picture

Your mentioning Carolyn Dinshaw's discussion of  a "queer historical impulse" made me think of your discussion, elsewhere, of Jack Halberstam's notions of queer temporality. Jack queers conventional notions about "the time of reproduction," "ruled by a biological clock," about "the normative scheduling of daily life and family time," about "the time of inheritance as generational time." Dinshaw's focus on "cross-temporal touch" seems quite a different project, one that really insists (as you say) on the physicality of connections across time, rather than refusing these (as perhaps Halberstam does...?)

Dinshaw is a BMC grad ('78) and has spoken in the Bi-Co several times. I remember her coming once to meet with the Gender Studies faculty, and talking about how easy it was to re-shape the Gender and Sexuality Studies program @ NYU, which doesn't have the heavy sense of history that BMC has, which so often constrains our innovations....

I'm also remembering a talk she gave, one semester when Gus and I were co-teaching the core course in gender studies. It was called "How Soon is Now? The Times of Margery Kempe," and focused on the very-disturbing-to-others experiences of the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, who lived passionately in the "eternal now." The everyday chronology of the those around her was continuously assaulted by this mystic who lived in and acted out of the "endlessness of the present," whose experiences problematized the presumption that body is located in sequential time and local space. To me, Dinshaw's most interesting move was her suggestion that Kempe's experience of temporality (as neither sequential nor causal) was shared by her 20th century editor, Hope Emily Allen, who felt herself not just contemporary with but corporeally coexistent with her Kempe. It was shared, too, by Dinshaw herself, who--when she returned to work in BMC's archives--found herself simultaneously occupying multiple temporalities: the present, her own undergraduate life on campus 20-some years before, Hope Emily Allen's bodily absorption in the past, and Margery Kempe's extensive "now." The "fact of mysticism"--that we occupy multiple times and spaces simultaneously, became, by the end of Dinshaw's talk, also a "fact" of scholarship, in which one immerses oneself in the experiences of the past.

Dinshaw's argument was that, in taking seriously Kempe's experience of the "eternal now," we might queer our own experiences of local, located, linear time. (To a priest who counseled restraint in her extreme devotional practices--"Jesus died a long time ago"--Margery Kempe replied, ""his death to me is as fresh as if he died today." ) Yet Dinshaw's multiple examples of asynchronous temporarilty--not only of Kempe, but of her editor and of Dinshaw herself, suggest that what might be queer is our academic (disciplinary?) insistance on sequentiality.