Rhetorics of Overcoming

I was able to take a trip down to WV this summer, and I love driving through the mountains on winding interstate roads, watching the fog roll slowly through the valleys—pale gray against the dark green trees. Fog is admittedly not the best of driving conditions, but it’s beautiful and haunting.

Pictured is the fog moving into the valleys of Snowshoe Mountain at dusk. The pale gray fog contrasts with dark pine trees in the foreground and delicate shades of peach, pink, and light blue in the sky.
Fog rolling through Snowshoe Mountain, WV // 2008

When your brain feels foggy, it’s also haunting but perhaps less beautiful. Today I feel like you do when you wake up after falling asleep in the sunshine—eyes blurry against the too-bright background of everything moving out of focus. I felt like that last week when Robin Williams died, too.

I admit that I struggle with empathy. My mom used to tell me I was extremely sensitive, and—as a child—I convinced myself that I was riddled with either Catholic or Jewish guilt. To be clear, my family was neither, but I had read about both in the books I consumed. I empathized with the large problems of the world (and still do, eyes watering as I scroll through #Ferguson for hours) but struggled & continue to struggle to empathize with other things that other people seem to immediately get.

I don’t understand celebrity deaths. It’s not that they’re not sad; it’s just that the things that happen to celebrities also happen to the people I know and love. I don’t quite understand the pain of losing someone you don’t know.

I do understand the pain of depression discourses that circulate after someone like Robin Williams commits suicide, though. The “Oh my goodness, he was so funny!” reactions versus the “How could someone so admired do something so selfish?” reactions versus the “He’s not suffering anymore” reactions. All, in their own ways, hurtful.

And though I was shocked by the responses—Facebook friends opening up about their own struggles with depression, suicide, self-harm—I understand them, too. I understand wanting to reach out to others who may be suffering when something like this happens. It’s perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen develop on Facebook—people who had previously been vocal about mental health issues contrasted with people who were disclosing them for the first time in a semi-public space. It was fascinating and humbling and very, very human.

I also saw a string of articles posted about the impact of Robin Williams. I successfully avoided every one. When the segment about him played on CNN while I was getting my oil changed, I turned up Sylvan Esso on my headphones. For some reason, though, one got through—probably while I was binging on Buzzfeed quizzes. I managed to click the most explicit “article” (I use scare quotes because do Buzzfeed compilations really count as articles?) that I had been hoping to avoid from all the others: “19 Candid Confessions about Overcoming Depression.”


This summer, after consulting all of my mentors and many of my friends, I decided not to teach so that I could work on my dissertation. And I spent my summer making delicious meals from my CSA vegetables, gallivanting across Central New York to different state parks with my boyfriend, and working on my dissertation from 9am to 3pm six days a week. I’ve enjoyed it because I love my topic, I’ve been thinking about it in some capacity for the three years that I’ve been at Syracuse, and I think it matters. And maybe that’s the sign of a good research project: that it matters, to you and to others. Yesterday at our annual programmatic Community Day, Eileen Schell advised (paraphrasing here), “Don’t do work that doesn’t matter to you or others. Your scholarship represents & serves communities.”

My dissertation is about rhetorics of overcoming and how they manifest in spaces of composition: specifically, through our scholarship and pedagogical practices in the composition classroom and writing center. My dissertation interrogates the tendency in our field to try to diagnose disabled students and default to accommodations (or turn to remedial practices) rather than trying to craft more accessible pedagogies. I argue that rhetorics of overcoming—the idea that disabled bodies must overcome their disabilities in order to be successful, to fit in, or to meet the standard—is a useful framework for considering how we as a field de/value disability, accommodations, and accessibility.

The overcoming narrative is a classic trope that positions disability as something that must be overcome in order for an individual to be successful—the disability version of the bootstraps narrative that individualizes struggles and achievements and glorifies triumph over personal hardships. Overcoming stems from ableist ideologies that position disability and disabled groups as inferior to able-bodied groups. Linton explains, “The popular phrase overcoming a disability is used most often to describe someone with a disability who seems competent and successful in some way, in a sentence something like ‘She has overcome her disability and is a great success’” (17).[1] This idea can be interpreted a couple different ways: the individual has willfully risen above her disability, or she has risen above society’s expectations of how a disabled person should act and be. Extended to rhetoric, the ideology embedded in overcoming is “of personal triumph over a personal condition” (18). In Disability Rhetoric, Dolmage connects overcoming to Joseph Shapiro’s articulation of the “super crip,” the disabled individual who has some type of compensatory ability or gift—a gift that reassures the able-bodied that if they become disabled, they too can overcome (39-40).[2] The supercrip is the ultimate image of overcoming, the “courageous or heroic super achievers” (Shapiro 16) who are represented as “‘superhuman’ because they achieve unexpected accomplishments or live a normal life just like people with no disabilities” (Zhang and Haller 321).[3]

This narrative—and the discourses that emerge from it—manifest in larger cultural contexts, too. We see it all the time in cancer discourses. And perhaps most notably (because of recent attention in the media), it manifests in depression discourses. Rhetorics of overcoming in cancer discourse tell cancer patients/survivors, “If you believe you can do it, you totally can!” It takes the biological, physical, totally uncontrollable aspects of cancer and individualizes them to particular people who are supposed to—through willpower, belief, or prayer—beat cancer. Depression discourse is similar, although it tends to erase different things, like the social elements of depression.

The issue with discourses of overcoming depression is how damaging they are. That you should in the first place. That when society tells you you can overcome—something you internalize—it’s even more traumatic when you don’t. This was perhaps the most difficult thing for me about the Buzzfeed compilation: the brief admittances of overcoming that clearly were not going to have a storybook “happy” ending that that the author had so deeply internalized.

Pictured is a gif of Parks and Recreation character Chris Traeger, who struggles with (and ultimately overcomes) depression in the show. He is pictured riding his bicycle, and the text reads, "If I keep my body moving and my mind occupied at all times, I will avoid falling into a bottomless pit of despair."
Chris Traeger from Parks & Rec struggles with & ultimately “overcomes” depression in the series.


I can’t relate to the pain of a celebrity passing, but in some specific ways I can relate to the disclosures of depression that stem from such events. I can relate to people wanting to open themselves up as support networks, but I can’t relate to the extreme discourses that often emerge from that space: the idea that depression is an illness or that depression is something that can be overcome. Each is too individualized, too focused on depression as something that is my fault or my responsibility. This is not to say that folks are wrong for thinking of depression in either of those ways but does point to the need for understanding how this rhetoric manifests—in our cultural conversations through media and news, in our personal conversations with friends and family, in our theoretical musings with colleagues and pedagogical practices with students.


[1] Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York UP, 1998.

[2] Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2013.

[3] Zhang, Lingling, and Beth Haller. “Consuming Image: How Mass Media Impact the Identity of People with Disabilities.” Communication Quarterly 61.3 (2013): 319-34.


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