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Review of DUMB: Living Without a Voice

By Irene Velentzas

Webber, Georgia. DUMB: Living Without a Voice. Fantagraphics Books, 2018.

Georgia Webber admits that despite the common branding of her book as a memoir, this label does not accurately or singularly reflect her own experience of disability. Rather, DUMB is a narrative shaped by what she feels is a universal experience of disability (TCAF Interview 2018). Webber’s view of disability aligns with disability scholars’ understanding of disability as a “potentially universal [condition]” (Bérubé B5) as it is probable that “many of the nondisabled today will become the disabled of tomorrow” (Davis 502). This is perhaps the reason why the prominent paratextual spaces which frame the reader’s understanding of the narrative—the foreword and chapter introductions—are occupied by vocal specialists such as Columbian-Canadian electronic musician, singer, and fine artist Lido Pimienta; professional singer and voice coach Madeleine Palmer; and music writer Natalie Zina (rather than the narrator’s own voice). These external narrative interludes speak to the multiple uses of the healthy human voice, framing Webber’s speculative disability narrative and detailing the personal and social struggle of losing one’s voice. These interlocutions question the narrative reliability of Georgia’s disability experience and her narrative voice. As such, these interludes may point to a new type of narrative reliability that suggests an indeterminant and diverse communal voice of illness is more reliable than a specific monophonic narrative voice indicative of the experiencing ‘I.’ Polyvocality in DUMB expresses itself through the verbal-visual composition of the text through multi-authored interlocutions, embodied and disembodied voices, and the visual splitting of Georgia’s avatar into differentiated selves. These various voices and embodiments suggest that a complex representation of illness experience reliably encompasses the potentially universal experience of disability.

Lido Pimienta’s opening to Webber’s text contradicts the very argument it establishes. Pimienta writes:

“For those of us lost in a constant journey of self-discovery that borders on self-deprecation and melodrama, the search for our “true” voice is something way too familiar and, at times, tiring. […]  If we really think about it, the “voice inside” is nothing more than our own selves in the form of thoughts and emotions” (5).

However, the presence of Pimienta’s reflections regarding the human voice at the outset of Webber’s text suggests that the ‘voice inside’ or ‘true’ voice of the narrator is not Webber’s own self, her thoughts, and emotions, but a product of the thoughts and emotions surrounding her in the community. At the outset of the text, Pimienta’s narrative stands in place of Webber’s thoughts and emotions about the voice and its loss.

Instead, Webber’s text explores the complexity of personal and social thoughts, the distress of voicelessness, and the limitations of her literal and narrative voice. In addition to other professional voices occupying the narrative space, Webber effaces her avatar’s speech balloons even when she shows her avatar having the ability to speak ( Webber 4-10). The content of her externalized speech is blurred and scratched, indicating the appearance of text but rendering the spoken words visually indecipherable. Instead, intelligible speech is primarily produced in the early pages of the text by Georgia’s social group, such as “Can you believe that?” (Webber 7); “You okay?” (8); “Hang out soon, okay?” (9); “Time to see a doctor?” (10). In other cases, intelligible speech is produced by thought balloons that capture Georgia’s internal struggle, such as “Wow, I know I had a good time when my throat hurts this much. Gotta rest up,” (Webber 6), “I guess I’ll rest it tomorrow,” (7); and “Arrrgh, I need to stop talking somehow!” (10). This disparity between the visualization of the external and internal diegesis suggests that Webber’s identity, disabled or otherwise, is primarily formed by the social dialogue that surrounds her and her continual need to actively participate in it to exert her identity.

This social discourse is soon replaced by the medical discourse that often accompanies diagnostic sequences in disability memoirs such as DUMB. While many of the images representing Georgia’s social group show Georgia in mutually beneficial face-to-face relations—talking, biking, drinking, or hugging—the images representing medical personnel are more fragmented and detrimental to the self. The initial verbal interaction with a medical professional is undertaken by a headless body in medical lab coat holding a file (Webber 16). Disembodied speech emanates across the page from the initially headless avatar of the doctor. The exchanged speech balloons between Georgia and the doctor are drawn without tails indicating which individual the speech belongs to (16-18). These tailless speech balloons suggest a fluid exchange of thoughts and ideas that may or may not belong to Georgia but nevertheless permeate her psyche and her narrative voice.

The questions posed by medical personnel become questions Georgia must pose to herself about her own condition: questions like “When did the pain start? (Webber 16), and “Is the pain ever a burning sensation?” (17). However, the accompanying fragmentary images of hands conducting tests and documenting Georgia’s condition (17-18) suggest the empty and impersonal nature of the medical, as opposed to the previously established identity-constituting social discourse. Following the diagnostic sequence, a full-page image of Georgia starring at the reader with document in hand and empty overlapping tailless balloons surrounding her, suggests the inarticulable questions that diagnostic conversation produces and the empty medical discourse that surrounds the disability experience (20). Georgia’s response to diagnosis is similarly empty, suggesting a need to incorporate several other perspectives to understand the changing nature of the disability experience.

Webber illustrates multiple experiential versions of herself by visually splitting her avatar (Webber 28-36). Georgia no longer represents herself as one person throughout the text, but as a black-line, red-line, and a grey-line avatar version of herself that she conjures and removes from her bodily experience. Each version of Georgia visualizes different states of the disability experience. These states may be overlapped, interconnected, present, absent, or competing throughout the text. The black-lined avatar indicates a version of Georgia that considers itself free of the disability experience. This version of Georgia represents a stable narrative presence with the ability to produce an externalized diegetic voice. The red-line version of Georgia emphasizes the pain and silence of the disability experience often at odds with the black-lined understanding of ability. Finally, the grey-lined version of Georgia is an experimental in-progress avatar that functions as a liminal conductor between ability and disability (78-80). This grey-lined version of Georgia is an active production site, a place where the limitations and complications of disability are considered and expressed by Georgia to negotiate the multifaceted and changing aspects of her identity.

These multiple, visually-split versions of Georgia must negotiate the cacophony of disembodied speech that is ever-present throughout the text. Full-page spreads of disembodied speech balloons completely efface Georgia’s affected body from the text. Statements such as: “Oh my god, how did this happen?” “Woah!” “How long will you be like this?” “Is it laryngitis?” “Are you going to need surgery?” “Is it a virus?” “Are you going to be okay?” “How?” “I don’t like it” and “Shit!” present Georgia’s psyche through the negotiation of the social discourse that surrounds her (Webber 37). The significance of the disembodied questions lies in their ambiguity. It is impossible to determine where or who these statements and questions emanate from, and thus, they become reflections both of Georgia’s social group’s voices and her own voice. The questions as to what the disability is, and how or why the disability has occurred, reflect the inarticulate questions represented by the empty tailless speech balloons following Georgia’s diagnosis. Georgia’s social group’s questions about her disability become her own as she defers her narrative experiencing ‘I’ voice in favour of the polyvocal and anonymous plethora of social voices. Expressions of surprise and frustration such as “Shit!” “I don’t like it.” and “How?” can be read as Georgia’s reaction to her situation, her friends’ reaction to her situation, or the universal reaction one would have to a similar disability experience of losing one’s voice. The grey question marks surrounding the red speech balloons represent the confusion that accompanies a disability identity that is constantly under interrogation and revision.

As a subtitled graphic memoir, Georgia Webber’s DUMB opens new possibilities for the construction of narrative reliability in the graphic memoir genre. Not as intensely focused on the narrating or experiencing ‘I’ as other graphic illness narratives do (Stitches, Marbles, Depresso, or My Degeneration), DUMB engages with multi-faceted disability experiences through its use of embodied and disembodied polyvocal interlocutions and differentiated visually-split selves. In DUMB, Webber represents the personal and social struggle of disability and its narrative as a product of interconnected social discourses which inform the transitional self and the negotiation of the potentially universal disability experience. This struggle moves away from individually-based representations of disability, and it moves toward a universal narrative experience that challenges the construct of narrative reliability as a product of a holistic and individually-focused narrative reliant on a singular experiencing or narrating ‘I.’ DUMB’s reliability thus stems from the socially-dependent verbal and visual construction of disability, and from the introduction of an experiential social discourse that constructs the narrating ‘I.’ DUMB suggests that the articulation of individual experience is a communal undertaking. The negotiation of disability, then, necessarily depends on an examination of the social discourses in which its experience is couched.

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. “The Cultural Representation of People with Disabilities Affects Us all.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 43, no. 38, 1997, pp. B4-B5

Davis, Lennard J. “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies.” American Literary History, vol. 11, no.3, 1999, pp. 500-512.

Webber, Georgia. Interview by Irene Velentzas. “Personal Boundaries: Changing Shape of Memoir.” Toronto Comic Arts Festival. 13 May 2018.

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