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Easy Beauty: A Memoir


Easy Beauty: A Memoir

EASY BEAUTY is a genre- and paradigm-bending memoir in which Pulitzer Prize finalist Chloé Cooper Jones embarks on a journey to reclaim her space in the world, using disability, motherhood and a lifelong search for beauty as her throughlines.

Born with a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis, Jones has lived her entire life in a body that has taught her the deepest truths about pain, but also one that has placed her in the crosshairs of strangers’ pity and disgust. "People usually notice my height first. I'm short," Jones writes. "Then they notice the way I walk, then that my legs from the knees down and my feet are underdeveloped and disproportionate to the rest of my body. My spine is curved, which makes my back arch forward." Because Jones’ condition affects both her height and the way she moves through the world, her comfort within her body has always come with qualifiers: the dismissal of being “less than”; the oh-so-helpful admonishments of others; and even her own denials of her comfort in an effort to help others move past seeing her as only her disability.

These judgments and denials come to a head when Jones becomes a mother herself --- a feat that doctors had long told her was impossible, despite having no real reason to know so --- and starts to notice that her sensitive, keenly observant child, Wolfgang, is modeling his approach to life after her own behaviors, and suffering for it. In EASY BEAUTY, Jones begins the difficult, painful and nearly impossible task of turning her remarkable intelligence and curiosity inward to ask whether or not the experience of beauty can become an agent of change to help her become more present in her own life and with her family.

"Written with the curiosity of a scholar, the compassion of a mother, and the keen insight of a person who has lived on the margins of what is deemed acceptable, EASY BEAUTY is a rare, poignant gem of a memoir."

In 12 lucid and flowing chapters, Jones encounters different experiences of beauty --- the transcendent power of a Beyoncé concert, the voyeurism of dark tourism in Cambodia, the power of athleticism as seen through Roger Federer --- and approaches them through the lenses of philosophy, motherhood and accessibility. As she gains new appreciation (and at times disgust) for beauty, she chronicles her own life as a daughter, a woman and, ultimately, a mother. But although Jones is honest and frank about life with her condition (and the rage, discomfort and pain that come with it), EASY BEAUTY is far from a disability memoir or even an EAT, PRAY, LOVE–style travelogue.

By combining these threads, Jones instead presents an incisive, biting exploration of discomfort and the ways that humans retreat from and engage with it. In writing through, about and with her disability, Jones not only forces herself to face the ways in which she has become complicit in her discomfort, but asks readers to consider the times that they have done the same --- disabled or not. For Jones, this means questioning all the times she has retreated to a detached mental state she calls “The Neutral Room.” What once began as a necessary mechanism to work through her pain has become a denial of a real, beautiful, painful life and one that has kept her distanced from the people and experiences around her.

If EASY BEAUTY sounds like a heavy memoir, it’s because it is. Jones’ intelligence and interest in various philosophies, pop culture moments and far-flung countries can at times cause the text to feel inaccessible. But she is careful to never alienate her readers, even if she discomforts them, which she does courageously. What makes the book so profound is not her easy ability to tie together complex philosophies or long-held definitions of beauty, but the deep, all-encompassing current of love for Wolfgang that informs some of her most invasive interrogations of herself, and the sharp, brutal humor that accompanies it. Her memoir, if that is the best label for it, feels less like a slice-of-life look into the life and body of a woman bound to a seriously painful and physically limiting condition, and more of a generous, compassionate conversation with a person who is not only wise and intelligent, but endlessly gracious in her probings of the world around her.

I’ve already said that EASY BEAUTY is not “just” a disability memoir, but I would be remiss to ignore some of the book’s most poignant passages in this review. Because her condition is so visible to others, Jones has faced some of the ugliest expressions of human ignorance that I have ever read. She has been cast aside, deemed evil for wanting to live like others, and even infantilized by those wanting to “help” her manage something she has lived with her whole life. All the while, it seems that people have the innate, perplexing ability to make an entire conversation or encounter about her disability while still acting like she is not present in it or might not know better than them as the person living with it.

Motherhood is a powerful, shining theme of the memoir, and while Jones is in awe of Wolfgang, it is difficult to ignore that some of the most harrowing experiences of human cruelty come with the announcement of her pregnancy. Doctors, friends and even strangers have no difficulty telling her that she is wrong for wanting to bring a body like hers into the world, even when there is no reason to suspect that her disabled body cannot produce an able-bodied one. These conversations not only put her in an impossible position, they reveal far more about the speakers’ opinions of her body and her right to claim space in it. Worse still, Jones knows that every time she has overperformed to help others see past her body, she has been complicit in the same conversations, intrusive thoughts and dangerous stereotypes.

Written with the curiosity of a scholar, the compassion of a mother, and the keen insight of a person who has lived on the margins of what is deemed acceptable, EASY BEAUTY is a rare, poignant gem of a memoir. In sharing with the world her own experiences of beauty, Jones has given readers something equally transcendent: a beauty of mind that is not always easy, but is undeniably necessary.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 8, 2022

Easy Beauty: A Memoir
by Chloé Cooper Jones

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2023
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982152001
  • ISBN-13: 9781982152000