Polio--the personal and the political

Review by Sally Rosenthal

Sally Rosenthal frequently reviews books related to disability.

Black Bird Fly Away: Disabled in an Able-Bodied World by Hugh Gregory Gallagher. Vandamere Press, 1998. Hardcover, 276 pages, $21.95

I knew that I had to read polio survivor Hugh Gregory Gallagher's new book, Black Bird Fly Away. Polio and I go way back. Even though I never contracted it, I cannot count the number of times complete strangers stopped my parents on the bus to the orthopedic surgeon I saw regularly as a child in the 1950s and asked, "Did she have polio?"

No, the "she" in question did not, despite the impression given by leg braces. I was just garden-variety cerebral palsy, not a member of what I, in my child's mind, thought of as the "special polio club"; the polio kids who shared my bench in the orthopedist's waiting room were part of something I sensed but could not define at the age of six or seven.

I didn't realize it then, but what I had picked up on as that child in the waiting room was the paradox of polio. Although the "polios" might have been larger in number, more visible, and perhaps more publicly accepted than the rest of us at the time, each one of my fellow comrades in braces was as alone as I was with a disability in the 1950s. It was their fate, if you will, to be part of a medical and social phenomenon that would shape and remain in their psyches long after the rehabilitation had ended--even up to the present post-polio syndrome chapter of their lives.

Not that I understood all this in the 1950s. It wasn't until I married a polio survivor in 1991 that polio once again became part of my life. As I listened to my husband's sporadic accounts of the polio epidemic and his subsequent feelings of isolation and denial, I came to gain a little of the insider's experience. When I read Gallagher's book, I got the whole story--the personal and the political sides of polio, then and now.

Black Bird Fly Away presents those two aspects of polio in a style starkly realistic and, at times, rawly emotional. The author, a seasoned historian, has written that rare but much-needed disability book: the memoir that is also a part of the social fabric of disability experience and culture. Gallagher's first-person account of his initial illness, subsequent paralysis, and life during the ensuing 40 or so years is both a highly personal account and a tribute to a time threatened to become a lost piece of disability history.

What Gallagher didn't know when he began feeling mildly ill as a student at Haverford College in 1952 was that life, as he knew it, was over for him. The upper middle-class student who numbered scholarly pursuits, fast car rides, and making love among his pleasures in life could not believe that he would not recover from the worsening symptoms in time to complete a term paper due the following week. That paper never was written; its would-be author spent the next several months in the hospital, dealing with things he never dreamed would become part of his world: paralysis, acute pain, dependence, and playing the role of model patient. Another thing he didn't know at the time was how much the buried rage and pain of polio and living with a disability would follow him throughout his life, even after his rehabilitation at the famed Warm Springs, Georgia facility and his return to the academic world.

In Black Bird Fly Away, Gallagher presents his life following polio in terms of what has come to be seen as a typical pattern of many polios: denial, overcompensation, and difficulty dealing with the functional and psychological changes necessitated by post-polio syndrome. Following study at Oxford University and a high-powered career in Washington political circles (during which he was able to frame and help pass key disability rights legislation), the author drove himself equally hard in an executive business position until the buried emotions caught up with him. In the mid-1970s, a long clinical depression forced him to re-evaluate himself and his life.

Emerging from years of analysis, Gallagher finally faced himself and polio. Much of the writing career he embarked on and pursues to this day is based in the disability experience--both the historical aspects of it as evidenced by his studies of FDR's handling of polio and of the eugenics/euthanasia movement in Hitler's Germany, and in chronicling his own and other polios' experiences. In Black Bird Fly Away, Gallagher combines both autobiography and his writing about disability to offer both disabled and nondisabled readers an honest, compelling account of life as he and we know it.

As with any collection of writings from various time periods and venues, Black Bird Fly Away has, at times, a slight unevenness. To his credit, Gallagher is able to make those sometimes-uneven pieces into a seamless chronicle. It's no mean feat to give voice to one's own life and the historical backdrop against which it is set. In Black Bird Fly Away, Hugh Gregory Gallagher has done it elegantly.


On calling oneself a 'polio'

While I generally dislike describing oneself in terms of a disability, I have come to see the absolute relevance of it in relationship to polio. The social phenomenon of the experience really does shape and define this subculture. People who call themselves "polios"(I once heard Judy Heumann describe herself this way on an NPR show, and do so very articulately) are, I think, reflecting pride, like Vietnam vets do, in having been through a type of battle that will never occur again in this country. People who use it want to be remembered as its veterans.
--S. R.


In Managing Post-Polio: A Guide To Living Well With Post-Polio Syndrome (edited by Lauro S. Halstead, M.D.; ABI Professional Publications, 1998, $25.00) Halstead, himself a polio survivor who heads the Post-Polio Program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, has rounded up most of the relevant information dealing with the physical, social, and emotional aspects of PPS. With contributions by polios and disability rights activists like Carol Gill and Hugh Gregory Gallagher, it's a must-read.

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