Life As We Know It

by Michael Bérubé

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

The Triumph of Love Over Conventional Wisdom

Life as We Know It is a work rich with the unconditional love of a parent for their child, but also with a sense of solidarity: an outpouring of empathy from one parent to other parents experiencing the same situation. The author portrays the genuine love he feels without spilling into oversentimentality. In this way, he avoids patronizing or otherwise diminishing his child, affording him the human dignity that is a key part of being loved as a human being. The love that Michael and Janet feel for their son shines all the brighter given that it is oppositional to conventional medical wisdom. The parents turn down the “rational” advice offered them by medical professionals to consign their son to an institution, and they discount the suggestion that they avoid forming genuine attachment to their son due to the likelihood that his life expectancy will be shorter than the average person’s.

The healthy and happy development of their son shows that love can overcome such cruel “rationality.” The figure of Nick is particularly touching. His easy acceptance of his brother’s condition and his dedication to him, as evidenced by the multiple pictures he draws for him while at the hospital, is a clear vindication of what is perhaps the chief message that Bérubé advances in this work: that one should be loved for what they are, not for what society expects them to be.

The Power of Language to Shape Identity

As a professor of literature, Bérubé has a special interest in the role of language in delineating the world his son inhabits. From the very first hour of Jamie’s life, when a passing nurse commented that the child “looks downsy,” Michael was made aware of language’s potential to define his son in ways that did not do justice to him as a person. In a sense, Bérubé seems implicitly to call for what other prominent linguists of the 1990s, such as Judith Butler, called for in the spheres of gender and sexuality: a new lexical mode for interacting with people who have “disabilities.” His commitment to speaking in this new language can be observed in his use of the epithet “exceptional” in the work’s title, as opposed to “abnormal,” “unusual,” or any other term that might have traditionally been ascribed to Jamie.

The Dehumanization of People with Disabilities

Perhaps the most troubling implication of Bérubé’s conclusions concerning how Americans view disability concerns how such prejudices situate people with disabilities as being not quite human. In some cases, those who are labeled in this way cannot protest this treatment. With this in mind, Michael is careful to illustrate the richness and nuance of his son’s personality, commenting in particular on the mischievous tendencies he exhibited as a young boy. Indeed, it might be argued that the author’s salient purpose in writing this work has been to give his son a voice and to afford him an identity other than the one that society has foisted upon him.

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