a long talk

How Chloé Cooper Jones Changed Her Mind

In her memoir Easy Beauty, she confronts a subject she’d long avoided: her own experience of disability.

Chloé Cooper Jones and her son, Wolfgang, at the Whitney Museum. Photo: Courtesy of Chloé Cooper Jones
Chloé Cooper Jones and her son, Wolfgang, at the Whitney Museum.
Chloé Cooper Jones and her son, Wolfgang, at the Whitney Museum. Photo: Courtesy of Chloé Cooper Jones
Chloé Cooper Jones and her son, Wolfgang, at the Whitney Museum.
Chloé Cooper Jones and her son, Wolfgang, at the Whitney Museum. Photo: Courtesy of Chloé Cooper Jones

For many years, Chloé Cooper Jones tried to ignore her body. She was born with a rare congenital condition that shaped her physical self and often left her in acute physical pain. Growing up in Kansas, she learned to manage this pain and evade strangers’ occasionally cruel comments — about her short stature, or the way she walked — by closing herself into a “neutral room” in her mind, where she distracted herself until the physical and mental discomfort passed. “I had no real critical thought about it because that would require me to actually think about myself and my body and the way that I interacted with the way people saw me,” she says. “But also about the ways that I was complicit — by not learning enough about myself and my community and my history, all the things that can give you a very strong sense of where you belong in the world.”

Through two Ph.D.s, friendships, relationships, a marriage, and the birth of her child, Cooper Jones attempted to be as “normal” as possible. She got a job teaching philosophy and began to write for magazines, including covering tennis for GQ. But on a trip to Italy, after enduring a stranger’s unwanted comments while she wandered around the classically proportioned sculptures of the Galleria Borghese, she reached the limit of her desire for normalcy. Cooper Jones wanted to change how she met the world. So she read her way through aesthetics and thought her way through her family history and the tangle of her own past.

Easy Beauty, Cooper Jones’s first book, is a memoir that came out of the process of trying to change what her mind believed about her body — trying, she says, to “regain some agency.” The book, which is out now, feels like it’s about everything: mothers, fathers, conceptions of beauty, pain, classical philosophy, traveling, desire, voyeurism. (The Cut recently published an excerpt, about Cooper Jones’s experiences during her pregnancy.) “The works of art I love the most don’t always cohere in some seamless way. They embrace the human messiness of the mind,” says the writer. She spoke with Vulture about how she found the shape for her memoir and the slow, messy, meaningful process of trying to change her relationship to her physical self.

There’s a moment in the book I’ve thought about a lot: You’re at a bar in Brooklyn meeting a new friend, Jay, for the first time. You get there first and choose a seat in which your body is uncomfortable. Even though you don’t say anything about it, when Jay arrives, he suggests moving to a different table, which creates a different kind of discomfort. You write, “That night, my body was a heavy thing between us.”

I used to feel as though my body was something I had to wait for people to unsee. I could be wrong about this, but I really believed I could see the exact second in which somebody kind of forgot about my body. It was like a visual tension that was released. It would happen for some people really, really quickly. And for some people it would never happen — they’d always have a startle response. But I would just wait. And I would think of ways in which I could hurry that process along by deflecting, by trying to downplay any sort of discomfort that I was feeling, by not being honest about what my body needed.

That’s obviously a really bad way to think about your body. I would have experiences with people where I would be like, Oh, my body’s a thing between us right now and I can’t get close to you. You’re not really hearing me. I would swear, and people would be like, “Are disabled people allowed to do that?” Or I’d say something sexual or about some crush on somebody on TV, and they’d be like, “Oh!” All people’s bad, dehumanizing assumptions would live like a rock between us. And I would just wait, wait, wait for them to go away. I really saw my job as to obfuscate anything that would bring my disability back into the space between us.

I wonder how your experience of your body in the world has shifted since writing about it in the book. 

The scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who writes not only about disability rights but about disability aesthetics, has been really influential to me. She writes about what she calls being in a “stareable body.” Which is really all of us, depending on context, right? Maybe with disability, that context is more frequent, but it is definitely not singular to disability. When you’re in a stareable body, you live in this tension of both being constantly on display — meaning I can’t go into public without catching someone staring at me — but also my body feels extremely invisible in the larger discourse or in the way people make public spaces. The way that people think about which bodies are deserving of attention or inclusion. Disability is still so absent from some of these conversations. The freedom to be outside of that in your daily experience is an incredible freedom. I don’t think any human body is completely free of that. But I do think we’re all at a different place on a spectrum.

Often the public spaces or places that we go or don’t go are actually choices about where we feel that space is going to put us on that spectrum. So you could really chart this tension, this duality I referenced, geographically in my life. Me being in New York City instead of in a smaller town is absolutely about wanting to be in a place where there’s so much physical human variety that I’m not necessarily the oddest thing somebody’s seen.

There’s a real power in looking at the way in which that shapes choices. That’s largely what the book is about. If I put myself geographically, physically, in spaces where I think I’m going to be less comfortable, what does that mean? Like, what does it really mean for my body to move around in space?

How much was writing the book almost an attempt to translate what it felt like to move around those different spaces? 

Photo: Publisher

I think we’re all engaged in the project of translation, simply because we’re living in minds that can’t be wholly seen or shared. Disability is specific in that you don’t always pass it on to your children and you don’t always inherit it from your parents. So you often grow up in a family that is not like you in that way. That was true for me. And then I married someone who was not disabled and then I gave birth to someone who’s not disabled and my best friends that I grew up with are not disabled. The combination of all these things meant that  basically every single second of my life I was engaged in this act of translation, without even fully realizing it.

There’s a scene in the book where I’m with another disabled person and that act of translation is dropped for a second — it was at this party where I met the actor Peter Dinklage. Coming home after that, looking at the people who unequivocally loved me more than and knew me better than anyone else, I realized, Oh, there’s this huge, huge part of my life that I just can’t share with them. And that is a really lonely feeling. But of course that is actually true for all of us. And so doing that work of translation and making it easier on other people around me to do that work — the hope is that by the ending I’m a little closer than I was at the beginning.

In that first scene we talked about, where you’re at the bar with Jay, it feels like we see the roots of that shift. Another man, Colin, joins you two at the bar and goes on to say some particularly horrific things about people with disabilities. You write that you “tried to explain that disability had shaped me in positive ways,” but that your explanations were “unconvincing because I lacked the language to explain my relationship with disability. I never talked about it.”

Because of this conversation with Colin, Jay is one of the first friends I had where my disability was brought up immediately at the beginning of our friendship and then I couldn’t not talk to him about it. That was a completely new experience for me. There are people I’ve been friends with for decades that I had never had a conversation about disability with. It helped me see the ways in which I had been involved in a very complicated and long-running act of self-erasure. And how that helps no one. These are very obvious things to say, but hard things to actually internalize.

Very early there were editors who looked at my book proposal and were like, “So could we just restructure this whole thing, to begin with you being born and then go through life chronologically?” And I was like, no! I’m trying to say something specific about the way that my mind is processing a problem, and the things, both good and bad, that it’s reaching for to understand it. Including, on the bad side, wanting to cling to some sort of superiority or go so deep into withdrawal that I fail to acknowledge my responsibility for a moment.

My mind reaches for all of those things, but it also reaches for natural beauty in the world, for the love of and understanding of strangers and loved ones alike, and for a kinship with art and aesthetic experience — whether it be with Beyoncé or Bernini. The theory that I’ve read has also really shaped me as a thinker and helped me be in a better dialogue with myself and the way I see the world. That desire for kinship is so vast, and I really wanted the book to reflect that process of trying to integrate all those sources.

That idea of kinship is foundational to the book. It comes from a philosopher named Plotinus, who theorizes that it’s this particular feeling of our soul recognizing something of itself in another. 

He thinks that the soul has a special capacity, like a sensor that is activated in the face of what we would call something beautiful. That can be another person, but it can also be a flower or a bird, a beautiful piece of art, a piece of writing, a fragment of a song. If you imagine yourself walking around a museum and a painting captures your eye, he says what’s happening is like a little bit of your soul is recognizing itself in the tangible world.

I can really identify with that feeling: something that is so personal to me, something I’ve never put into language or maybe have never even had a conscious thought about, but is deeply of me, and I’m seeing it right now or I’m hearing it or I’m feeling it or reading it — it does feel like this spiritual thing is happening.

And I also love that it could be part of the intention of writing or making art to say, I want to pull out this thing that I think is in us, and I want to see if I can put it in a sentence or a brush stroke. If I can, when you look at it, we’re going to have a form of communication that we can’t have through casual language, can’t have any other way.

As you were creating the version of yourself who is the protagonist of this book, how much did you have to winnow?

Vivian Gornick says in The Situation and the Story that a memoir really should not be about your whole life. It shouldn’t tell the reader everything. You don’t even need to tell them about some big traumatic or exciting event. What you do need to ask yourself is: Do I have an idea about what it means to be human that I really feel has to be communicated? And then she says this great thing — basically, that all a memoir needs to do is move from a less coherent self to a slightly more coherent self.

There’s a moment toward the end of Easy Beauty where we get to see you shifting almost in real time. Throughout most of the book, there are a lot of very loud voices of all the people you cross paths with who say cruel things to you. But toward the end, those voices quiet. I noticed the absence, and how much relief I felt when I didn’t have to encounter them. But then, right at the end, you’re leaving a bar and run into a guy who treats you awfully. But your reaction to him is different than it would’ve been before. What were you thinking of when you wrote that sequence? 

In the book, as I’m regaining a little bit of control and becoming that more coherent self, it’s very intentional that the voice also becomes more unified, and that those people staring at me or saying things, they’re not occupying my space in the same way they did before. And so they’re not going to occupy space in the book in the same way.

But then, that whole scene at the end at the bar — I almost got out of the bar unscathed. I’m having a great night. I’m celebrating my friend. I remember it was the most beautiful night in the way that only New York fall nights can be. You’re having this moment, like, I’ve made all the right decisions and I’m living in the best city in the world! And then this fucking asshole.

But, of course, there’s no happy ending in which the reality of being human goes away. The happy ending — and I obviously am using that term ironically — has to be that the world is what it is, but I can change my orientation to it. I have spent my whole life feeling very reduced to one aspect of my personhood. So I don’t have to condone what that guy says. I certainly don’t have to agree with it. But I can see how far I can extend my grace to him without taking on any of that shit for myself.

How Chloé Cooper Jones Changed Her Mind