GIMP – Fame and Frailty

Image of the Cover of the Book GIMPThere are a lot of reasons to read GIMP, the autobiography of Mark Zupan. Zupan was eighteen years old when he climbed, drunk out of his mind, into the back of a friend’s pick-up truck and fell asleep. Sleeping off that drunk changed Zupan’s life permanently.

GIMP is the story of the aftermath, written in Zupan’s voice by co-author Tim Swanson. It’s gritty and real. It’s explicit, and is brutally, not to say crudely, straightforward about what quadriplegic injuries meant to Zupan then and what they’ve meant in the years since.

The driver, Zupan’s friend Chris Igoe, was thrown out of the bar where he and Zupan had been drinking. Igoe was similarly stupefied when he got into the truck, drove away and crashed it. Unknowingly, he tossed Zupan from the truck’s bed over a six-foot fence and into a watery canal, paralyzing him for life and nearly killing him.

GIMP chronicles the relationship between Zupan and Igoe, Zupan’s rehabilitation, his rise to star status in the documentary Murderball, and his career as a wheelchair rugby player.

Here’s how Zupan describes his return home from rehab, after the accident:

As [my brother] spread his arms, and leaned over to embrace me, I socked him squarely in the nuts. He fell over backward into the pantry, knocking cans of food and boxes of cereal off the shelves . . .

“If you think that just because I’m in a wheelchair I’m not going to beat the shit out of you, you’re sorely mistaken,” I said.

That’s the essence of what’s wrong with this book, with this life, with this story. Zupan grew up in a world where unthinking acts and instant gratification were cultural values. He grew up in a family, and a society, that accepted these kinds of interactions. His teen years were spent in places where underage drinking was the norm (and even facilitated by parents). He lived in a social milieu that ignored and all-but-glorified the anti-social behaviors of adolescent males.

Zupan and his pal Igoe were irresponsible jerks as boys; that much is clear, and Zupan provides plenty of evidence to prove it in the book. For the most part, they seem to have remained irresponsible jerks as they moved into putative adulthood. That’s well-documented, too.

Eventually, both Zupan and Igoe end up drinking themselves into oblivion again and again, but Zupan still doesn’t seem to feel this is a problem. Here’s how he describes his (post-paralysis) arrest for DUI:

“I had a nice buzz going as I loaded my chair into the passenger seat. I didn’t feel that drunk . . .”

“I actually decided to hide my DUI conviction, my court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous classes, and my eighteen months’ probation from my parents and most of my friends.”

A lot of blather about ‘honesty’ follows, which is pretty meaningless in the context of the choices Zupan has made, and, apparently, continues to make.

Zupan is one uppity self-described ‘gimp’ whose aggressive stance toward the world seems, at first glance, like something worth cheering. Obviously, I’m not the only one who wants to take a shotgun to the able-bodied idiot whose just parked in the only ‘handicap’ slot within miles of a venue. But merely celebrating a ‘gimp’s’ uppityness isn’t really of very much value to either the gimp or to others in the same boat.

Rebelling against anything — stereotypes, stupidity, authority — is exhausting and self-limiting. Lasting change tends to require something more sustainable — something positive that displaces the negative. Adolescents rebel blindly: adults eventually, one hopes, find the maturity to change their world for the better instead of merely tantruming.

There’s not much here that follows that model.

Zupan eventually finishes college and becomes an civil engineer, working for an apparently generous and tolerant firm which gives him plenty of leave to promote both his book and pursue his interest in quad rugby. However, not many people with quadriplegic or paraplegic injuries are likely to be as fortunate in every regard as Zupan has been. Zupan’s intelligence and his extra-ordinary athletic ability have allowed him a life others can only dream of — for now.

Even for Zupan, though, this may turn out to be more dream than reality. The highs of extreme athletics, of the stardom of Murderball, of constant travel and stimulation promoting both film and book will eventually diminish.

That’s the point where Zupan’s life and others’ will finally intersect — out of the spotlight, where earning a living and buying groceries and finding an entrance a wheelchair can actually get through are more omnipresent issues than attention and celebrity. That’s where things called ‘character’ and ‘self-discipline’ matter, where quality of life is dependent on internal strengths.

Ultimately, this is a story about wasted gifts. Zupan and Igoe are young men with better-than-average intelligence and better-than-average advantages who threw them all away. They are young men who, having thereby achieved disastrous results, continue to behave exactly as they did before the cataclysm that put Zupan in a wheelchair and condemned Igoe to a lifetime of mental anguish.

That’s not inspiring; it’s just stupid. It’s also lousy preparation for a meaningful future life. As for the book, it’s one sorrowful story about human frailty.

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