Review: SMA Author Ben Mattlin Tackles Love and Disability in New Book
If and when the subject of disability and dating arises in popular media, it tends to be oversimplified and filled with gross sentimentality. Films such as the 2016 romantic drama Me Before You, which is based on the novel of the same name, portray the disabled character as a person of pity, who then relies on their able-bodied lover to come to their rescue. Rarely is this kind of relationship portrayed with the kind of nuance and realism that people with disabilities yearn to see in books and in films.
Author Ben Mattlin recognizes these stereotypes, and in his newest book In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Inter-abled Romance, he challenges them at every turn.
Mattlin is a Los Angeles-based writer with SMA type 2, and he writes frequently about how his disability has impacted his life and his family. Yet whereas his first book Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved my Sanity is a straightforward memoir, In Sickness and in Health is a series of essays about different inter-abled couples Mattlin has encountered in his life. With each couple discussed in this book, one partner has some kind of physical disability and the other does not.
Structurally, the book is divided into four main sections. The first part explores the general stereotypes and perceptions people have about inter-abled romances. Mattlin opens with an essay about him and his wife Mary Lois, who he has been married to for 26 years and has two daughters with. Early on, he writes about how they keep their wedding portrait framed in the center of their living room, which clearly shows Mattlin in his wheelchair and lets people know that he didn’t become disabled later on after getting married. He’s lived with a disability his entire life, and he wants to let the world know that this was never a problem for his wife.
Also in this section is an essay about SMA blogger Shane Burcaw and his girlfriend Hannah Aylward. Here, Mattlin writes about Burcaw and Aylward meeting online (Aylward is one of many who discovered Burcaw’s blog and nonprofit and reached out to him as a result), how their relationship has evolved and an overview of Burcaw’s past relationships and what he took away from each.
Yet while both of these couples consist of a male partner who has SMA, many of the others discussed in this book are vastly different. One is about a military man who came home to his wife with severe PTSD, and how their lives became dramatically different after this man’s diagnosis. Another is about a woman named Rachelle Friedman, who became paralyzed at her own bachelorette party when her friend playfully pushed her into a swimming pool and she suffered a severe spinal injury. Though she was forced to delay her wedding, she and her now-husband Chris remained together, and their story has since acquired national attention.
The book’s latter sections feature essays about inter-abled couples who have been together the longest, and how they’ve managed the personal struggles of dealing with a disability, as well as the financial and logistical challenges. Some of these couples are ones Mattlin met through various disability advocacy groups over the years, and in each case he wants to know the specifics of how they navigate their daily lives. He’s unsatisfied with cliche answers like “our love holds us together,” and wants each couple to be honest about their weaknesses and anxieties as well as their strengths.
The book’s greatest strength is its sincerity as it uses both humor and human drama to drive the narrative. In every essay here, Mattlin never sugarcoats the material, and goes into detail about topics like sex, emotional intimacy, being both a romantic partner and a caregiver and dealing with stigmas about dating someone with a disability. Even when discussing how he and other disabled individuals can sometimes feel inadequate when compared to their able-bodied partners, he still avoids the kind of pity-pandering seen in other media portrayals of disability.
In Sickness and in Health is one of the most refined and accurate pieces of literature that explores the intricacies of being in an inter-abled relationship. Mattlin’s prose is swift and alluring as he reflects on each couple he encounters and their stories. A fine companion to Miracle Boy Grows Up, this book has the potential to not only encourage other disabled individuals to not be afraid to seek love, but it might also challenge societal perceptions about disability and romance.
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