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Emotional Rescue

A review by Mary Johnson


Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge.

Rescuing Jeffrey: A True Story. By Richard Galli.194 pp. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $19.95. Order book.

"We have to do whatever is best for Jeffrey," writes Richard Galli near the start of "Rescuing Jeffrey." "I am saying we may have to kill our son." And, "I asked my wife to consider whether keeping Jeffrey alive was something that people who loved him ought to do for him."

The "rescuing" Richard Galli talks about near the start of his book is not rescuing his 17-year-old from the swimming pool accident; it is rescuing him from life, the fate worse than death:

"Quadriplegic paralysis steals legs, arms, hands fingers -- and the future. . . . No more snowboarding. No more car no more anything we had ever dreamed of.

"He will never be able to run or walk. He will never be able to use his hands. He will never be able to move under his own power. He will be dependent on others for practically everything he needs or wants to do for the rest of his life."

Author Richard Galli, a trial lawyer and former journalist, frames his book as an argument one would make in court. Jeffrey "knows what sex is, but he will never be able to experience it the way he dreams about it. He will never be able to drive a car. He will watch as all the other kids grow up and have the kind of life he has lost."

Jeff Galli's parents don't kill him; he graduated from high school last spring. So is the catalogue the horrors of being disabled -- a rhetorical device, "like a lawyer summing to a jury at the end of a trial", as he puts it -- simply his lawyerly way of marshaling the facts of the opposition, only to dispose of them one by one? Telling us the best option is death only to demolish that argument before our eyes? Is it Richard Galli's way of showing that quadriplegia is not a fate worse than death, even as he had said most assuredly that it was, a mere few pages earlier?

I'm not sure. His catalogue of fears and decision to "pull the plug" are what most impress reviewers; if what he wanted was to make people see this as mistaken thinking, I am not sure he succeeded.

The horrific pictures resonate with readers because it is the picture we all know, or think we know. Bioethicist Adrienne Asch says parents almost always focus on what they see only as the loss of opportunity "rather than on the nearly infinite range of remaining opportunities." And the decision to go on with life seems not so much a result of the arguments having been disposed of as having been laid aside, out of hope -- trust, maybe -- in what he comes to call "the River," but by which he means the community of support and care which carries the family into a future they cannot see yet.

Broader questions -- why must a family even in an upper income bracket set up a trust fund? -- aren't yet being asked. The question of who will "care for" Jeffrey the rest of his days is yet a personal one.

As he begins to deal with the fact that Jeffrey will live and have a future, Richard Galli writes that he had never before given the issue of "handicap rights" much thought -- revealing by that antiquated phrase that he is certainly telling the truth. Yet we know Jeffrey and his father will come smack up against those issues soon enough.

I hope Richard Galli gives "handicap rights" a great deal of thought when that happens. Perhaps he will even write a sequel.

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