‘Easy Beauty’: A Memoir of Motherhood and Disability

“I am in a bar in Brooklyn, listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether my life is worth living.”

—Chloé Cooper Jones, Easy Beauty

Easy Beauty was re-published by Simon & Schuster on April 4, 2023, after its initial launch in April 2022.

In an early blurb for Chloé Cooper Jones’ memoir Easy Beauty, Sarah Ruhl made the towering claim that this book “has the rigor and precision of Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson, and a forthright humor and naked truth all its own.” It is one lofty order to frame a book with that level of comparison before the reader even gets to page one, a double-edged level of hype that made me instantly incredulous. But within the first few pages, it becomes dazzlingly clear that the book is going to more than live up to the high bar that’s been set for it.

A finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize, Easy Beauty is a memoir of motherhood and disability, of bodily presence and difference depicted by talent that is both staggering and undeniable.

Cooper Jones does not focus expressly, up front, on the disability that defines how her body moves through public and private spaces. Rather, she gives a portrait of being present in the world, but a world that is unprepared for or unused to her—and thus, ungracious (to put it mildly).

In the narrative, she fits herself around the physical and emotional challenges of each new space: The story opens with her exploring an Italian museum, alone, occupying both the gallery space and her own realm of intellect and imagination, through which she also guides her reader. This meditative opening sets the tone for the book’s voice: calm and precise, elegant and unelaborate. We tour with her through the museum, with a David Lynchian level encounter, with an insistently well-intentioned man with an “itch-in-the-brain” look:

“My disability is obvious,” writes Cooper Jones, “but its details are unclear; to look at me is to feel information both shown and withheld. These ideas in opposition create cognitive dissonance and this makes people uncomfortable in a way not reducible to simple prejudice. … Some people cannot feel at ease around me until they know what they want to know.”

Eventually, after this insistent stranger (Joel) has claimed “professional curiosity” and repeats, “I am actually willing to help you,” Cooper Jones makes her escape to relieve mounting pain from standing so long on her feet, doing stretches in the grass outside in the sun-warm grass. And there is Joel again, drinking in the view of the Galleria.

“Two bodies, the Galleria and Joel, ivory and grand; two testaments to the enduring idea from the ancient Greeks and Romans that beauty is rooted in symmetry, measure, order. … Joel and the building, bronzed in the searing sun, inscribed in the same circle of thought… concentric, emanating out, over and over.”

The strangeness and publicness of existing in a disabled body doesn’t so much haunt the book as blaze from it. To me, a reader whose body is generally perceived as pretty “ordinary” when I walk out my front door, Cooper Jones’ prickly, routine need to defend against such noxious good intentions feels absurdist, Lynchian. But of course it isn’t. It’s as ordinary and vicious as the catcalls that follow me down Boston streets.

Easy Beauty is a pressurized, masterful depiction of embodiment, of the social and personal fact of existing in a body and having that body read and interpreted for you by others whose embodiment is other than yours.

“People are quick to assure me they are not intruders,” says Cooper Jones.

Easy Beauty was originally published on April 5, 2022.

The book’s broader storyline is tied around Cooper Jones’ own inner sense of self, her decisions about how to be and move through a world so unaligned to her. The reasons for her solo Italy trip are both initially unnecessary in the opening narrative moment and also organic in how the curtain is eventually drawn back, those background rationales unveiled. Cooper Jones, over the course of the story, covers major tennis championships and the Sundance Film Festival. Her experiences are vast and unexpected with each new chapter.

This memoir is part philosophical acumen, part a personal encounter with the pitfalls of scientific certainties. Cooper Jones certainly isn’t a science writer first and foremost, but so much of what she knows about her life—what she assumes as truth—is predicated on the medical science communicated to her about her body.

The scientific, medical fact of her body is not the cleanly defined mechanism that her doctors describe to her. In a moment experienced and re-experienced in the narrative, she takes a pregnancy test she is certain cannot possibly be positive and discovers that, flying in the face of every scientific promise about herself made by the medical powers that be, she is going to be a mother.

With her son, years later, that certainty re-echoes:

“I’d been told, over and over.

My body was incompatible for growing a life.

So, whose child was this?”

What can motherhood be when it’s been forbidden to you by the fact of your body? Or the apparent fact? Everywhere Cooper Jones turns in this baffling maze of befuddlement and wonderment, there is the perceived “burden” of her body, as one interlocutor terms it.

The betrayal of certainty is only one small part of Cooper Jones’ storytelling. As a philosopher, she takes the nuances of seeing and being seen in hand, in a realm above and beyond kindness or transgression.

Cooper Jones’ language has a lyrical precision matched with an intellect it feels lackluster to call anything as trite as formidable. Cooper Jones is a towering voice, a precision weapon, a storm that leaves you dizzy in its wake.

That effervescent mix of deep expressionistic power matched with the control of philosophical investigation is everything. She has an expert grasp of beauty as a concept from a philosophical perspective. There is indeed something distinctly Maggie Nelson-ish about the blurring of scholarly depth and emotive presence.

This book is beautiful because it is difficult, it is baffling, it is masterfully crafted sentence to sentence. If I sound a bit awe-struck, it’s because I am, however uncritical that might be to admit. I do think it’s a valid aspect of criticism, though, to admit the raw power of a text, the sheer sense of connection and clarity afforded by staggeringly high-caliber talent. 

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Alison Lanier writes about the intersections of gender and media, which is the focus of her current studies at MIT. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry appear at BUST, Bitch, Origins, and elsewhere.