Book review:
Life-changing polio

By Sally Rosenthal

Sally Rosenthal frequently reviews books related to disability.
A Nearly Normal Life by Charles L. Mee. Little, Brown and Company, 1999. Hardcover, 227 pages, $24.00.
Order this book for only $16.80 ($10.36 paperback).

Memoirs are hot, as a glance at any bestsellers list will attest. Nothing, it seems, escapes memorialization -- impoverished childhoods, dysfunctional families, spiritual growth. The need to share one's life experiences in print has apparently struck a chord with the reading public.

For Charles L. Mee, that's a good thing. Were it not for the memoir craze, his first-person account of polio survival in the 1950s might not have been published and enjoying the critical praise it deserves.

Let's clear something up right away: As excellent as A Nearly Normal Life is, I had the same doubt I know you're having as you read this review. It's in the back of your mind, and it was on the tip of my tongue when I first heard of Mee's book. "Do we really need another polio memoir?" I wondered, thinking of the flurry of books about polio and its survivors published in the past few years (most recently Hugh Gregory Gallagher's top-notch Blackbird Fly Away in 1998).

As a disability book reviewer and someone married to a polio survivor, I was so much on the verge of burnout on the topic that I toyed with the idea of passing up Mee's book in favor of a good mystery novel one afternoon. Most of that afternoon had already been devoted to polio; I had already spent much of it listening to my husband play phone tag with a physical therapy supervisor to complain about a recent appointment with one of her colleagues who had walked into the room and cheerfully admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about post-polio syndrome.

But a review deadline loomed, so I picked up Mee's book. And I'm glad I did. Yes, we do need another polio book; we need as many of them as are waiting to be written. These memoirs give voice to people and experiences long silenced. The disability community, as well as the general public, needs Mee's story. It might have a familiar ring, but it's also an elegantly written book that mirrors the life experienced by people with polio.

With a passion for football and an adolescent's expectations about entering the dating scene of the fifties, Charles Mee was a pretty standard Midwestern teen of his time. The small circle of family, school, church and friends that made up his world seemed large enough to encompass all of his -- or anyone's -- needs. Life in America, as everyone knew from TV sitcoms, advertising and the press, was supposed to be good, with equal rations of health and wealth for all its inhabitants. But sometimes reality entered the picture.

For Mee, reality came when he collapsed after a dance one night. That social event was the end of life as he knew it. The spinal polio that caused his collapse changed his life to one unrecognizable in the fantasy world of 1950s America.

During his hospitalization, Mee realized the world he had fitted into seamlessly no longer existed for him. It was there in substance, but not in the reality he found as a teen on the rehab ward or, later, in his home and school.

Although he outwardly adopted the "good handicapped" role of his era, young Mee became estranged from many of the forces that encouraged this conformity (his father and the church among them). The boy who had loved sports and dances became an intellectual, an outsider. No longer able to fit in, he adopted the role of what he calls "the deviant," someone who expands the boundaries of society. At the time he believed his intellectual curiosity and "beat generation" leanings brought him this outsider role; like other polio survivors, he had pushed disability's role to the back of his mind, unaware that the part it played would always lie buried within the psyche, subtly influencing the manner in which a polio survivor continued to live.

Mee admits this in his memoir, but in small ways. Years after finding himself in a largely inaccessible world, he welcomed changes like ramps brought about by the disability rights movement, reasoning that such accommodations might come in handy when he grew old and was not as independent. The denial of disability and the continuing need to "overcome" polio, so prevalent in the lives of many polio survivors, are juxtaposed in Mee's book with his compelling desire to give voice to the authentic experience.

A Nearly Normal Life would be interesting if only for the slice of 1950s history it saves from obscurity, even without the few pages of epilogue with which Mee, looking back at the age of sixty, chooses to end the book. On first reading, this epilogue -- about his adult life with its professional accomplishments, drug and alcohol use and failed marriages, and with only sparse details of his awareness of post-polio syndrome -- seems disjointed from his beginnings. Threads seem to be missing. The Mee at the end of the book, content at last with a new career, a settled life and loving relationship, seems to have weathered too many storms without letting the reader weather them along with him.

Yet the connecting thread from boy to man is there for readers to discover. Polio, with its life-changing effects, never could have been an isolated event in the author's life. Would his experiences have been the same had he not had polio? Who can say? Did polio, however, change his life forever? Undoubtedly. Just how much it did is reflected in the mellower Mee who writes the epilogue as a now-happy man. It's reflected in the title, too: Having accepted the "nearly normal life" American society expected them to live after rehabilitation, most survivors find, like the Mee who has found solace and joy in late middle age, that "normal" is a wide continuum and that "life" is the operative word.

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