Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Short Review: Zach Anner is as quick-witted on paper as he is in his videos, resulting in a hilarious celebration of personal growth and love.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m in favor of a broadly defined version of diversity. I primarily focus on multicultural literature, because that’s where my personal interests rest, but recognize that there’s more to be examined. However, it’d be over simplistic to reduce Zach Anner’s book to one that should be read for the sake of diversity, because it’s better than that. For the same reason, I want to shy away from excessively calling this book inspirational– it feels like something one is obligated to say because of Anner’s cerebral palsy.
I’ll say this instead: If At Birth You Don’t Succeed is the singularly most self-aware book I’ve ever read. Anner is funny yet attentive, and his particular breed of humor is just the right amount of self-deprecating to indicate a healthy sense of self worth. Although Anner isn’t particularly religious, his writing includes a large dose of incredulity and awe at the various twists and turns his life has taken in its first 30 years.
The value in Anner’s memoir is not necessarily that he was a host on Oprah’s network, OWN. That story, included in the book as well, is much less important than the statement Anner makes by declaring comfort within his own skin. Admittedly, most fully able people are under the impression that those born without certain abilities spend a large portion of their lives wishing they were like everyone else. Zach Anner is realistic about the limitations his body places on him, but shows that living day to day isn’t necessarily about having the strength to slog through various hurdles.
It’s much simpler than that: it’s just about “having the courage to be silly in a world that seemed to take itself too seriously.”
Anner’s penchant for humor does not render him incapable of addressing serious issues accompanying cerebral palsy, but it does make the issues easy to digest. Mobility and digestion problems are discussed openly and honestly in a way that allows the reader to become comfortable with them. In doing so, Zach illustrates that his everyday problems are not embarrassing or unspeakable, and that he can simultaneously be hilarious and insightful.
While recounting hearing Oprah refer to his strength and tenacity, he reflects that while his life has had its difficulties, he’ll never have to face the exact same challenges as her. “Here was an African-American woman born in 1950s Mississippi…I on the other hand, have all the privileges afforded to every white, middle-class American male.”
I’m not sure if I believe that (I also don’t know if it’s for me to discount his experience either), but it was a welcome passage in a book stacked with crude jokes and fecal stories. In the endless listing of –isms, the ableism that those with physical and cognitive disabilities face is routinely left out of intersectional conversation. When I started this book, I just wasn’t ready to think as hard as I did when he finished that paragraph with, “My single disadvantage is that I was born with cerebral palsy.”*
Much of the book is devoted to Zach’s [lack of] love life. It’s predictably difficult for someone with cerebral palsy to date (even though Zach labels CP the “sexiest palsy”). As Zach discovers, some of the blame for his painfully long dry spell rests on his own shoulders. Fear of failure stalled his willingness to sincerely put himself out there, and at times actively clouded his ability to see when women were clearly interested. It’s endearing, because Zach’s depiction of his own situation reads a lot like any other young man, albeit with a few additional complications. Throughout the book, readers watch Zach’s fixation on losing his virginity transform into the realization that sex will be better when it happens organically. Once again, Zach proves more insightful than most men I know in real life.
I’ll be honest; the odds were stacked against me liking this book. Praise from Lena Dunham really doesn’t get me jazzed up. Additionally, it’s a humorous memoir—and my lack of a funny bone is pretty infamous in my group of friends. All those things aside, I truly enjoyed If at Birth You Don’t Succeed, giving it 4 out of 5 stars. Zach is as quick-witted on paper as he is in his videos, resulting in a hilarious celebration of personal growth and love.
I leave you with one of Zach’s videos. Watch a few! Get familiar with his wit, and be jealous of how much he loves life.
*We had a conversation bout that passage when I read it for the group at our book club meeting last week, but I don’t have the space for it here.
Disclaimer: I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.
Further disclaimer: I’d have bought it anyway.