Sally Rosenthal frequently reviews books related to disability.
I'll let you in on a little secret: reviewing books, especially ones about disability, is a tricky business. Some books, arriving with enough promotional material to make an environmentalist cringe, don't quite live up to the PR promise; others are every bit as good as they are advertised to be. Still others arrive in my mailbox with little fanfare and look, upon first glance, mildly interesting.
I had thought that Slow Dance: A Story Of Stroke, Love, And Disability fell into this last category until I sat down one morning to begin reading it. When I had finished reading it that same day, I knew I had just discovered a quiet gem of a book, one definitely worth forfeiting a day in order to devour.
On the surface, Slow Dance appeared to be one woman's chronicle of stroke survival. Personal memoirs about disability can be very good or very bad--with most falling somewhere in between: interesting books but not usually ones that move from the personal to the political.
What changed my mind about Slow Dance was the evolution Bonnie Sherr Klein underwent through her series of strokes and her ability to describe that journey so well. Slow Dance is no "been there, survived that" account; it is as riveting as any of the detective novels I lose myself in regularly and as movement savvy as the best writings of Anne Finger or John Hockenberry.
Disability came later in life to the author, an American who had emigrated to Canada in the 1960s. With her children ready for college and an award-winning film career that seemed to be losing some funding and momentum, Klein, in her forties, thought she was at a crossroads of her life in 1987. She could never have known what kind of crossroad that juncture in her life would actually turn out to be.
While on vacation with her physician husband, she developed signs of what they suspected might be botulism. Hours later, with her husband suspecting the worst, Klein entered an emergency room. She didn't know at the time that a series of brainstem strokes would keep her in hospitals and rehabilitation for years to come and change the course of her life.
In Slow Dance, Bonnie Sherr Klein uses her skills as a documentary filmmaker to chronicle her experiences; using words rather than film, she takes readers on the harrowing path of hospitalization, ICU psychosis, cutting-edge surgery by an eminent doctor and the long slow dance of rehabilitation which, she came to learn, never really means full recovery.
Running parallel to that medical path is another, happier road: that of family and friends who supported and struggled with the author. This segment of Klein's life and experience also plays a large part in Slow Dance. Klein's words, drawn from her journals, interviews with medical personnel and the collaborative efforts of her writer friend Persimmon Blackbridge, draw a picture as clearly as any film she might have made about the experience.
As the author's condition stabilizes and her new life begins, she comes to realize the importance of many key factors in her treatment and survival and is able to place them within a social context of disability. What kind of initial emergency and continued specialized care would she have received, she wonders, had it not been for her physician husband who, out of love, fear, and sheer determination, was able to pull strings and manipulate the medical system to his wife's benefit? And without the all-inclusive Canadian health insurance she possessed, just how much of that treatment and rehabilitation would she have received? At best, she might have been lost in institutional care; at worst, she would have been denied the life-saving surgery performed by a world-renowned specialist in another Canadian city.
Bonnie Sherr Klein's awakening consciousness does not limit itself to these larger questions. Faced with many of the everyday losses disability brings with it (finding a flight of steps upon arriving at her synagogue on Rosh Hoshanah; the grocery clerk who demands identification--from an attendant!--when Klein, a shopper at the store for ten years, tries to cash a check from her wheelchair; the circle of former work friends who withdraw), Klein reaches out to other women with disabilities in her community. Today she and her husband are active in disability rights, stroke recovery networks and "re-education" of rehabilitation professionals throughout Canada.
Dance, the metaphor Klein has chosen for her book, suits her as much as film and words. Whether dancing post-stroke with her husband or with her own thoughts, Klein listens to the music of experience and moves through it with grace and insight.
This music is still playing: There is much more material for Klein to present: her ongoing experiences, the lives of those women who became her circle of friends with disabilities and the changes she hopes to effect.
Let the dance go on.
The Mystery Of The Eye And The Shadow Of Blindness by Rod Michalko. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Softcover, 179 pages, $17.95.
Many years ago, a friend and I had a discussion about verbs--as they applied to disability, or, in our particular cases, visual impairment. Both of us, far too many times, had heard that we had "overcome" our blindness. After the initial anger at these remarks wore off, we usually had a good laugh at the Monty Pythonesque scenarios we came up with for ourselves post-overcoming.
After we stopped laughing we asked ourselves that if overcoming blindness were not a viable option, could we learn something from it? I was reminded of these discussions recently while reading The Mystery Of The Eye And The Shadow Of Blindness by Rod Michalko. Michalko, a Canadian author who draws upon both personal experience and philosophy in this study of blindness and sight, also muses on what blindness can teach those who live with it.
Michalko's book is both an intriguing one and, at times, a puzzling one. His use of two techniques--storytelling and theoretical discussion--allows him to approach his subject from two very different vantage points, but it can be distracting for the reader. Michalko is at his best when relating his personal experiences of vision loss; such disclosure allows him to enter into a partnership with the reader he hopes to reach.
While the personal accounts in this book serve to enhance it, the philosophical discussion, at times, does little to draw the reader in--which is a shame, because the author raises some interesting theories about the relative "normalcy" of being blind or sighted.
There are many truths about blindness in Michalko's book, but those truths require more attentive reading than a casual reader might expect. More academic in approach than other recent books on blindness (such as Stephen Kuusisto's Planet Of The Blind), The Mystery Of The Eye And The Shadow Of Blindness is not for all readers. Those who do discover it, however, will find that Michalko, a thoughtful and astute observer, has heeded the advice given to him by a friend during the writing of this book: "Do not forget your blind soul." Michalko, like my friend and I, does not believe in "overcoming" that which has shaped his life and world.
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