It’s harrowing and heartbreaking, reading Chicago artist Riva Lehrer’s memoir “Golem Girl,” when she describes the position of the medical community of her childhood at a time when bioethicist Peter Singer was advocating to let sufferers of spina bifida simply “die at birth.” Lehrer, born with spina bifida myelomeningocele (SBMM, or MM), goes on to describe the disease in detail, intertwined against the background of her Jewish parents Carole and Jerry, a war veteran wounded fighting the Nazis at Cherbourg.
From the beginning, what Lehrer effortlessly and so adroitly depicts is a life lived in some degree of isolation from the non-disabled world that cuts a streak of void through the book, from her earliest days as a child at the Randall J. Condon, formerly the Cincinnati School for Crippled Children, “three stories of cream-yellow stucco that combined modernist simplicity with an unhinged level of ornamentation.” A haven where they taught a standard academic education to those roughly three-hundred attendees, Lehrer found friends, community and an acceptance that laid the foundation for the elasticity she’d need to cope.
In an era when the medical community was happy doling out narcotics to women as painkillers, when prescriptions are used as “crash test dummies,” with women left to live out the effects, Lehrer depicts her mother’s deepening struggle with addiction that adds to the stressors of an already fraying marriage. In the midst of this, in her sophomore year, at the age of fifteen, she doubles over one day in pain from a hemorrhaging uterine cyst, and the familiar, heart-wrenching machinery of systemic misogyny kicks in and she wakes up one day to realize she’s undergone a forced sterilization.
Lehrer enumerates the history of involuntary sterilization of disabled women, “the most famous example [being] that of Carrie Buck, plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. Carrie Elizabeth Buck was a poor girl from Charlottesville, Virginia, who was raped and impregnated by a member of her foster family when she was seventeen. That family avoided prosecution by committing Carrie Buck to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, at which she was declared incompetent to raise her baby. While in the Virginia State Colony, Buck was sterilized against her will, under the Racial Integrity Law of 1924, a eugenics program carried out by the State of Virginia.”
In some sense, Lehrer goes on to be the fighter her father once was here, calling out a cruel history in American life that resonates with and falls just short of the Aktion T4 program under Nazism, where long before the gas chambers, artists, LGBTQ people, disabled children, and others were forced to undergo a program of mass murder by involuntary euthanasia to rid society of those members determined mere “dead weight.”
It’s important not to reduce this brilliant, moving memoir of an artistic mind coming to its own terms with the medical world and its discontents but, as with many of Lehrer’s many artworks scattered as illustration throughout the book, to know that it seeks to reveal the “monster” she refers to herself as in the book’s opening chapter, with her own experience drawing back the curtain on a future world that would come to recognize its own cruel shortcomings too late.
By Riva Lehrer
One World, 424 pages