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by Robert F. Murphy
WW Norton, 1987
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 3rd 2002

The Body Silent

In The Body Silent, Robert Murphy sets out his experience of entering the world of the disabled.  In 1972, at the age of 48, he first started experiencing spasms, which became increasingly serious.  It was only in 1976 that he first saw a neurologist, and he eventually was told he had a tumor inside his spine.  He became familiar with seeing medical specialists of different kinds and he endured several stays in hospitals.  While the treatments may have slowed the growth of the tumor, the doctors told him that they could not remove it, and that it would steadily grow and restrict his movement, ultimately leading to his death.  Murphy started writing The Body Silent in the mid-1980s, and it was first published in 1987.  He died in 1990.  The recent reissuing of the book is to be welcomed, for Murphy is an insightful and compelling writer.

For most of his life, Murphy was an academic, and he was a member for Columbia University’s Department of Anthropology for many years.  He brings his anthropological skills to his discussion of the world of the disabled, with the difference that in this investigation, he is a full participant in the world rather than an external observer.  The Body Silent is both a memoir and also reflection on the meaning of disability in contemporary society.  Murphy describes his academic career, some of the work he did as an anthropologist, his time in the armed services, his marriage, his earlier alcoholism, and of course the steadily decline of his ability to use his legs and arms and his adjustment to his new situation. 

Murphy has the wonderful ability to combine revealing descriptions of his personal life with reflections on wider themes, peppered with references to major thinkers or cultural trends.  The book includes discussion of Susan Sontag’s essay Illness as Metaphor, Claude Levi-Strauss, Erving Goffman, Sigmund Freud, the Vietnam War, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and a number of Hollywood movies.  He chronicles the political struggles of the disabled to gain rights and services that enable them to participate more fully in society and even simply to get their basic needs met.  But it is his own observations and descriptions of his reactions that are particularly rewarding.  For example:

Not long after I took up life in the wheelchair, I began to notice other curious shifts and nuances in my social world.  After a dentist patted me on the head in 1980, I never returned to his office.  But undergraduate students often would touch my arm or shoulder lightly when taking leave of me, something they never did in my walking days, and I found this pleasant.  Why?  The dentist was putting me in my place and treating me as one would a child, but the students were affirming a bond.  They were reaching over a wall and asserting that they were on my side.  I was a middle-aged professor and just as great an exam threat to them as any other instructor, but my physical impairment brought them closer to me because I was less imposing to them socially.  (pp. 126-7).

Especially striking is Murphy’s descriptions of the shift of the balance of power in his marriage.  He explains the great strains that are put on marriage when one spouse becomes disabled, and he sets out the routine in his day-to-day life as his wife Yolanda started to take on the role of care-giver.  They married in 1950, and she accompanied him on his several extended field trips to foreign lands; especially important for them was their time in the Brazilian Amazon among the Mundurucu Indians, during which they “came to depend on each other for emotional and physical support to an extent incomprehensible to most people” (p. 210).  Their marriage had survived some very difficult periods, and they stayed together as his illness progressed.  When he is at home during the day with her, he asks her for help many times, but feels guilty for doing so because he knows she is overburdened.  But he is also sensitive to her reaction.

Do I detect a note of impatience?  Is she annoyed?  Is she overtired?  Should I have asked her?  Does that slight inflection say, “What in hell does he want from me now?”  This is not completely a concoction of my imagination, for we have been married so long we are thoroughly familiar with each other’s rich subverbal vocabulary of tone, accent, stress, gesture, and facial expression.  After all, we had learned in the Amazon to communicate in part-sentences, half-words, and grunts.  In my disabled mindset, however, I pick up the right cues but I alter and magnify them, interpreting a small note of fatigue as major resentment and reading rejection into a fleeting expression of annoyance.  The anticipation of such responses, in turn, affects the way I phrase requests.  … [T]here is a heightened self-awareness and guardedness in our relations that  wasn’t there before, and that has reduced openness and spontaneity.  Our very attempts to avoid conflict through increased tact and delicacy have become part of the problem, not its solution.  (p. 214).

It is this kind of detail of everyday life that makes Murphy’s writing so impressive.  The Body Silent will be valuable both to people with disabilities and those who live or work with them.  Highly recommended. 


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.