This blog post presents a discussion between Riva Lehrer, artist and anatomist and our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” festival guest curator, and Sander Gilman, distinguished professor of the liberal arts and sciences and professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Dr. Gilman will present “STAND UP STRAIGHT: Toward a History of the Science of Posture” at our October 18th festival. Register here.
Sander, when reading a scholar’s work, I often wonder whether it relates to personal experiences that set them on the path of intellectual obsession. For me, your work is so empathetic on the subject of difference it’s as if you’ve lived in the bodies of those you’ve written about. It’s fascinating to find out where that path started for you.
It seems that both of us were confronted with the problem of difference beginning in elementary school. Mine began right away. From kindergarten through eighth grade, it didn’t matter whether I was in math class, or English, or social studies; I knew at some point an aide would show up at the classroom door and call my name. All us kids knew this; twice an hour, someone would get pulled out of class and sent to the big open room on the third floor. There, we’d get down on one of the vinyl mats on the floor and start following orders.
These were our daily physical therapy sessions. Almost every student at Randall J. Condon School for Handicapped Children went through this same routine. Most of us had some variety of orthopedic impairment. Condon punctuated our academics with treatments for these perceived aberrations. My brothers were not disabled. They went to regular schools, where their growing bodies were exercised in gym class. This may have been wretched on its own terms but was at least somewhat communal, being arranged around games and team sports. Here, in PT, it was isolating.
Why is gym always the horror! When you are in third grade gym is a horror in most cases any way—except for the two guys you always get chose first for ALL the teams — but when you wear high boots with VERY long laces that had to be cross tied all the way to the top and those boots had metal braces in them, even going into the locker room was a horror. Last one in (on purpose) and last one dressed. And then gym itself—jump, climb, run. But you run like a duck, the gym teacher shouted: STAND UP STRAIGHT!
Well, we never played any games together. Whenever I showed up, there’d be 8 or 10 kids already in the PT suite, mired in separate islands of exercise mats, or on high tables that put them at arm’s level with the physical therapists. We half-ignored each other, though if someone let out a loud enough squawk that faux-privacy would end. As a rule, we were an obedient lot; splaying like starfishes on huge medicine balls, lifting our knees, doing wobbly push-ups, clutching squishy objects to build up our hand strength. In the 1960s, most disabled children weren’t even given basic academic instruction; Condon was unusual in its goals to give us some kind of mainstream education. But it was clear that in the battle between teaching disabled children how to read and pushing our bodies towards normalcy, the toss would always land us back on a vinyl mat.
In that room, every weakness and failure of our bodies was brought to our attention, and then set upon by the therapists. I was told I walked as if I had a broken leg, dragging it a half-step behind me.
In truth, a duck was not wrong. I waddled without my shoes and indeed with them. Standing was hard, running was difficult and the worst part of it was being always the one who was different. I could never quite stand up the way the gym teacher or others wanted me to. Now I know that all third graders KNOW that they are too different, too visible, too comical, but somehow I knew I really was odd. STAND UP STRAIGHT! Still haunts me.
Kids at Condon used to be called abnormal. Condon was a refuge of sorts—at least we weren’t called the brutal names people used outside of school. The PT suite was the only place when I ever saw some of my friends out of their wheelchairs. If a kid could stand at all, the PTs made us watch ourselves walk. (it turned our most of my friends were taller than me; my assumption that I was one of the taller kids in class was an illusion). The room was divided by long metal poles that formed a narrow corridor ending in a tall mirror. I’d start at the far end, clutching the steel poles and trying to get my legs to regulate themselves as instructed. My reflection swayed and bounced as if I were on a ship in my own personal storm.
Until I stopped growing (ending up at 4′ 9″), and my spine was less curved, my limp was most the obvious sign of my disability. Thing was, my limp didn’t hurt. I didn’t even feel it. I only saw it in that tall mirror, where I watched myself list and sway, buffeted by those invisible shipboard winds. I seldom thought about the way I walked at all, but my doctors did, and operated. Nothing made much difference. A year after surgery, my limp always came back, tenacious as malaria.
I am not one who thinks that impairments should not be treated, or that bodies should not be given the chance to experience individual interpretations of health. But health cannot take its bearings from the polestar of normal. Bodies should be supported and encouraged according to specific, idiosyncratic parameters. What was missing from those well-meaning treatments at Condon was any pleasure in the body itself. These were the bodies we’d had at birth. According to our parents, teachers, and doctors, we’d come ashore in broken vessels.
For us, posture regulation, gait repair, and physical therapy rested on a bedrock of shame. We were not given the option of simply loving our bodies as-is, and exercising those bodies out of delight and wonder for what our bodies could do.
The thing is that that sense of being odd never leaves you as, perhaps, we never stop being third graders when we look deep into our souls. When I started my new project on the history and meaning of posture, the title seemed obvious: STAND UP STRAIGHT! We all write autobiographies, even those who avoid writing autobiographies. That is true of artists as well as scholars.
Our early lives taught us both that crooked is a posture that tilts your head and gives you a most unexpected view of the world.