An artist born with spina bifida shares her story and her paintings with grace and humor.
“What’s wrong with her?” As a child, writes Lehrer, when a stranger would callously ask that question, “to my dismay, Mom would provide all they’d need to win the vacation package and the new Cadillac. She laid out the details of spina bifida, its causes and effects, as if deputizing a city-wide cadre in case I had to be rushed to an emergency room. For me, this kind of visibility was like being scraped along the sidewalk.” Lehrer, whose paintings of what she calls “socially challenged bod[ies]” hang in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian and many other museums, narrates her difficult childhood with an eloquence and freedom from self-pity that are every bit as powerful as those of Lucy Grealy in her Autobiography of a Face (1994). Remarkably, Lehrer, now 62, found a way to survive endless surgeries (many of them completely bungled) and irremediable pain to create a successful life—one that readers will relish learning about. Her evolving self-awareness as an artist, a disabled person, and a woman with a complicated sexuality are well-explored, and her prose ranges from light and entertaining to intellectually and emotionally serious—and always memorable. In explaining a period when she took up painting beds, she writes, “Beds are crossroads, where impairment and sexuality intersect, the mattress a palimpsest of ecstasy and hurt.” The memoir is illustrated with photographs of family and friends and color images of Lehrer’s paintings. In an appendix—a bonus book within the book—she goes back to each of the portraits and shares anecdotes about her process and her interaction with the subject, often including that person’s own account. In one of her series, The Risk Pictures, Lehrer leaves the subject alone with the canvas for an hour and instructs them to alter it however they want.
An extraordinary memoir suffused with generosity, consistent insight, and striking artwork.