Christina Crosby, 67, Dies; Feminist Scholar Wrote of Becoming Disabled

After a bicycle accident left her paralyzed, she wrote a memoir, “A Body, Undone,” which refused to draw tidy lessons about overcoming hardship.

Christina Crosby, an athletic woman who had just turned 50, was three miles into her bicycle-riding regimen near her home in Connecticut when her front spokes snagged a branch. The bike stopped dead, hurling Dr. Crosby to the pavement, the impact smashing her face and snapping her neck. In an instant, she was paralyzed for the rest of her life.

That was in 2003. She lost the use of her leg muscles and much of her upper body. But over time, she regained limited function in her arms and hands. And two years after the accident, she returned part time to her job as a professor of English literature and feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Eventually she was able to write — by dictating with voice recognition software — a memoir, “A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain” (2016). It was an unsentimental examination of what she called the “surreal neurological wasteland” into which she was cast, and which forced her to search for her sense of self.

In the bottomless grief of all that she had lost, Dr. Crosby had retained her intellect and her facility with language. And yet, at times, her pain was beyond the reach of language.

“I feel an unassuageable loneliness,” she wrote, “because I will never be able to adequately describe the pain I suffer, nor can anyone accompany me into the realm of pain.”

Late last month, she was hospitalized in Middletown with a bladder infection and learned she had advanced pancreatic cancer, her partner, Janet Jakobsen, said.

Dr. Crosby died a few days later, on Jan. 5. She was 67.

In her book, Dr. Crosby refused to draw tidy lessons about overcoming hardship or emerging wiser from her catastrophic injury. That made it a significant text in disability studies and activism.

The typical disability narrative “carries the troubled subject through painful trials to livable accommodations and lessons learned, and all too often sounds the note triumphant,” she wrote. “Don’t believe it.”

Christina Crosby was born on Sept. 2, 1953, in Huntingdon, in rural central Pennsylvania. Her father, Kenneth Ward Crosby, was a professor of history at Juniata College, where her mother, Jane (Miller) Crosby, taught home economics.

As a child, Christina was athletic. She and her older brother, Jefferson, were close in age and physically competitive with each other.

Christina went to Swarthmore College, where she majored in English and graduated in 1974. She wrote a column called “The Feminist Slant” for the student newspaper and helped found Swarthmore Gay Liberation. A queer feminist, she remained committed to social justice and sexual liberation throughout her life.

Her graduate studies took her to Brown University, in Providence, R.I., where she earned a doctorate in English in 1982. While there, she was part of a socialist feminist caucus that focused on issues like domestic violence. She and the caucus established a hotline for battered women and in 1976 founded a women’s shelter called Sojourner House, one of the first of its kind in the country.

During that time she met Elizabeth Weed, then the director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center at Brown, where the feminist caucus held its meetings. They were partners for more than 17 years, continuing their relationship long after Dr. Crosby left for Wesleyan in 1982. Dr. Crosby’s papers are to be housed at the Pembroke Center at Brown.

Dr. Crosby’s dissertation at Brown became her first book, “The Ends of History: Victorians and ‘the Woman Question’” (1991), which examined how Victorian literature excluded women from public life, raising questions about how history is told.

Although she was hired by Wesleyan’s English department, Dr. Crosby became a central part of the university’s women’s studies program, which she helped establish as a major and later helped redesign as feminist, gender and sexuality studies.

“She was the heart and soul of that program for decades,” Natasha Korda, an English professor at Wesleyan, said in an interview.

“She was also a rock star on campus,” she added. “She was charismatic and ebullient, she had so much energy, and she cut a very dashing figure.”

Students gravitated to her, Dr. Korda said, because she could make complex theoretical arguments “crystal clear” and because “she was not only an incredible storyteller but a great conversationalist.”

Among her students in the early 1990s was the writer Maggie Nelson, whom Dr. Crosby advised on her honors thesis on confessional poetry. Dr. Crosby initially had little regard for confessional writing, but she later credited Ms. Nelson with opening her eyes to its value when she began to write her memoir.

In 2003 the university faculty elected Dr. Crosby chair of the faculty. She ran meetings and represented her peers in sessions with the president and board of trustees.

She was just beginning her one-year term in that position when she had her bicycle accident. “Her life had been radiant,” said Dr. Jakobsen, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Barnard, who had been Dr. Crosby’s partner since 1997 and is her sole immediate survivor. “Christina was a person who burned very brightly.”

Dr. Crosby in 2015 with her partner, Janet Jakobsen. “Christina was a person who burned very brightly,” Dr. Jakobsen said.
Jen Liseo

In an uncanny parallel, Dr. Crosby’s brother, Jeff, a lawyer, with whom she had always been close, developed multiple sclerosis in his 20s and became a quadriplegic in his late 40s. She wrote in her memoir that after her accident, her childhood fantasy of being her brother’s twin — Dr. Weed had once called them both “gorgeous physical specimens” — was “malevolently realized, for there we were, each with seriously incapacitating damage to the central nervous system, each in a wheelchair.”

Mr. Crosby died in 2010 at 57. It was his death, seven years after her accident, that prompted Dr. Crosby to start her memoir. It was unanimously selected by a committee of Wesleyan students, faculty and staff to be the book that all incoming students would read in 2018.

Toward the end of the book, she wrote of struggling between being afraid that she would stop grieving for her former life, which would mean she would have “come to terms with my profoundly changed body,” and being afraid that she would not stop grieving, a sign that she was refusing to move on and might not want to live.

“In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I once was,” she concluded. “I am no longer what I once was — yet come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.”

Post a Comment