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A Personal and Cultural History of Polio

by Anne Finger

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-312-34757-X
Publisher: St. Martin's

Memoir of a life shaped not just by polio but also by society’s perceptions of the disease.

Disability-rights activist and fiction-writer Finger (Bone Truth, 1994, etc.) was only three when she contracted polio, in 1954; she has no memories of life before the disease and only vague ones of her initial experience with it. Her text combines a personal history of growing up with polio with a history of the disease itself: its viral origins, early epidemics and the myths surrounding its effects and treatments. The generally held belief that polio survivors suffered only physical symptoms that with hard work could be overcome (witness FDR), combined with the well-publicized “success” of Sister Kenny’s hot-packing treatment, put pressure on its victims to cheerfully minimize their problems and fit into the normal world. The author relates the attempts made to repair her body, the discrimination she encountered, her refusal to associate with other disabled people, her rejections in the workplace and the many obstacles to conducting an ordinary life with or without crutches or a wheelchair. Doctors have too often overlooked polio’s neurological effects, she says. Her recurring bouts of depression, a suicide attempt and hospitalization for mental illness would seem to support this contention, but it’s difficult to decide from her account what exactly played a greater role in these developments: polio, or abuse by her father. Harrowing descriptions of his violent attacks and her mother’s weakness in the face of them send what began as a personal and social history of polio off into a different direction.

An informative and rewarding narrative of living with a disability, occasionally veering off course.