American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

Aliens in our Own Bodies; Representations of Epilepsy in Young Adult Literature

Nicole M. Cordier, Bowling Green State University


Although epilepsy is a common disability with a well-documented history, portrayals of epilepsy in fiction are relatively rare. When they do appear, they that representations of epilepsy are most common in young adult fiction. In this thesis, I explore the role that epilepsy plays in young adult fiction and why epilepsy connects so well with common themes of adolescence, such as resistance, normalcy, and identity. I analyzed two young adult novels featuring characters with epilepsy, applying a disability studies lens. I found that both epilepsy and adolescence occupy a liminal space between normal and abnormal. Authors use the liminal spaces of epilepsy and adolescence to aid in identity formation, especially centered around concepts of normalcy. In chapter one, I argue that the author Austin Aslan uses epilepsy and adolescence to create a middle ground between non-western (in this case, Hawaiian) and western ways of life. Aslan finds this middle ground by turning epilepsy into a superpower. In chapter two, I argue that Mackenzi Lee subverts genre conventions of historical novels in order to subvert ideologies of normalcy and ability. Because epilepsy complements the same problems that teenagers are working through, such as identity formation and normalcy, I suggest that novels with epilepsy should be taught in high school classrooms to help students explore identity, especially disability, and understand ideologies, especially the ideology of ability. I propose ways to teach these novels to develop students’ understanding of disability and normativity. In chapter three, I recommend teaching Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and I offer a lesson plan for guiding students through the ideas of disability, normativity, and happiness in the text. This study shows how epilepsy is represented in young adult novels, what these works reveal about current attitudes toward disability and difference, and it provides teachers with practical tools for teaching these timely, challenging topics.