One-Minute Book Reviews

August 6, 2007

Emily Rapp Writes in ‘Poster Child’ About Life After Her Foot Was Amputated

A former poster child for a March of Dimes chapter in Wyoming had a meltdown after years of trying to persuade herself that her disability made her no different from others

Poster Child: The Story of a Broken Girlhood. By Emily Rapp. Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Emily Rapp was born with a birth defect that required the amputation of her left foot just before her fourth birthday. She adapted so well – in her own eyes and others’ – that at the age of six she was a poster child for her March of Dimes chapter in Wyoming.

But her view of her condition began to change in college, where she read a book of essays by women with disabilities. One contributor wrote that others tended to view people with disabilities “either as helpless things to be pitied or as Super Crips, gallantly fighting to overcome insurmountable odds.”

A great virtue of Poster Child is that it avoids those extremes. In this lucid memoir, Rapp gives a much more complex view of what it meant to walk first with braces, then with a wooden leg and finally with a Flex-Foot, “a prosthetic limb that featured a suction socket and a hydraulic knee unit.”

Poster Child is not a perfect book, partly because Rapp’s effort to understand her disability seems to be a work-in-progress. After years of pretending to be just like anybody else, Rapp developed undiagnosed anorexia in high school. But she did not seek counseling until she had a meltdown, including severe panic attacks, as a Fulbright Scholar in Korea. And in her final pages she at times sounds as though she has traded her earlier beliefs for the new jargon she absorbed in therapy. In the next-to-last chapter, she writes:

“I realized that if I did not break free of my faulty logic, I might spin forever in a destructive trap of my own making, and then I would never be whole.”

That is pretty much the party line for cognitive behavioral therapy, the standard treatment for panic attacks: If you’re having attacks, it’s because you need to fix your “incorrect” thinking. But much of the evidence in this book suggests that Rapp’s problems were caused not by her “faulty logic” but by others’ cruelty and insensitivity. Rapp also doesn’t make clear whether she overcame her anorexia, which once caused her to stop menstruating and carry only 98 pounds on her 5’6″ frame. This is the equivalent of an unresolved subplot in a novel, and the lapse isn’t irrelevant to the story. Anorexia is generally regarded as a condition that involves a desire for control, and some research suggests that it commonly reflects anger with the opposite-sex parent. Rapp says little enough about her father, a Lutheran minister, that you wonder if he had more to do with this story than she lets on.

Such inconsistencies in the last 50 or so pages rob Poster Child of the unity of such as memoirs as Autobiography of Face. But it is still a very good book, maybe the best we have about growing up as an amputee. It also has a powerful message for parents, teachers, health-care workers and others who repeatedly tell children with disabilities, as Rapp’s mother did, “You are just like everybody else.” The question that lingers is: If you tell children with disabilities that they’re exactly the same as others, what happens when they figure out that they’re not?

Best line: Born with one leg shorter than the other, Rapp attracted stares long before her amputation. She says the questions began soon after she took her first steps: “Whenever she was asked, ‘What happened to your baby?’ Mom replied, ‘Oh, she is okay. She just has one leg shorter than the other, and the brace helps her walk.’ She became comfortable with this standard response. It didn’t bother her when children asked her what was wrong with me; she felt that their curiosity was innocent and natural. She got annoyed only when adults asked or, worse, expressed condolences (‘I’m so sorry; it must be so hard’) or dispensed useless medical advice like ‘There are medical advances every single day’ or ‘God works in mysterious ways; at least she looks happy.’ And according to my mother, I was.”

Worst line: Rapp writes that on “a pleasant summer afternoon” in Colorado, “The smell of dry sagebrush and lilacs hung in the air.” A post by the Colorado State University Extension Service says that in Colorado lilacs bloom, as elsewhere in the U.S., in the spring – specifically, in May.

Editor: Annik La Farge

Published: January 2007

Recommendation? An excellent book for reading groups, not just because it’s so well-written but because it has implications for how Americans respond to many kinds disabilities, not just to amputees. Poster Child may especially interest reading groups at houses of worship that have ministries to or programs for people with disabilities.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

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(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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