The painful story of what it’s like to become crippled as an adolescent and forever dependent on others.
Now in his 60s, Presley got a booster shot of the Salk attenuated polio virus vaccine in 1959 at age 17. Designed to enhance immunity, the virus instead produced major paralysis, which required the boy’s removal to an iron lung and then to a series of rocking beds and mechanical devices to force air into his lungs. Over time he gained a little upper-body strength and was able to get around in a wheelchair and breathe on his own—but with respirators handy for when his weakened lungs tired. Now some 50 years and seven wheelchairs later, Presley recounts his evolution from the deep anger, self-pity, frustration, passivity and hostility of those first decades of bitterness and depression to his emergence as an adult. It didn’t help that he spent those early years as a “crip” on a Missouri farm with a stoical, stiff-upper-lip dad (his mom was loving and devoted). Nor did it help that about the time both parents were dying, he fell ill with post-polio syndrome. That he recovered, could work, fall in love, marry and convert to Roman Catholicism are part of the trajectory toward a happy ending. But not quite. He is concerned about his stepsons; he continues to feel sad or depressed or angry. But he has become a fighter, raging against the pity and stigma experienced by people with disabilities, as though they are less than human—attitudes he sees exemplified by Jerry Lewis. Presley’s writing is deeply emotional, sometimes excessive and a bit too self-flagellating. Judicial editing and curbing of the occasional metaphor would help. However, for readers who remember the era of infantile paralysis and newsreels of children in iron lungs, Presley’s descriptions of exactly how they work, as well as the daily care that paralysis demands, are a revelation.
One of the more honest and informative disease memoirs.