I was going through my email a few weeks ago when I came across one from the Jewish Women’s Archive. They hold a few virtual author talks every now and then, and I’ve attended quite a few, all of which have been fabulous. The email was announcing the newest round, and one of the books sounded familiar. I looked it up on Goodreads, and sure enough, it was on my TBR! I picked up Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (One World, 2020) from the library the next day and immersed myself in the world of art and disability activism.
Riva Lehrer was born in 1958. Her mother, a former researcher, recognizes her infant daughter’s spina bifida immediately. At this point in history, infants with disabilities like these aren’t expected to survive. Most are institutionalized, but Riva’s mother is sure she can care for her daughter’s complex medical needs. Riva becomes among the first of her generation with spina bifida to live to adulthood.
That doesn’t mean her life is easy. Everyone around her, including her family, defines her by her disability and by their own standards for her, constantly telling her that she’ll never have a romantic partner (she’s given a hysterectomy at age 15, ostensibly due to cysts, but disabled people were routinely sterilized at this point in history), she’ll never live alone, she’ll never hold down a real job. But she forges ahead anyway, living out her life as an artist, a queer person, whose disability affords a unique perspective of the world. Riva Lehrer’s art is displayed throughout the pages, offering the reader a journey through her career and the empowering way she views her friends and colleagues with disabilities.
This is a fabulous memoir (and it’s so beautifully Jewish!). Riva has lived a complex, fascinating life, and I wish I could sit down with her and hear more stories. She’s been through so many surgeries and medical procedures, and her success has obviously been hard-won; how could it not be in such an ableist society?
There are so many gems scattered throughout this book that provide such insight into what Ms. Lehrer’s life has been like, and what the world was like and how it’s changed (and how it hasn’t…) for those with disabilities. From the stories of her earliest days growing up in a hospital, to the way her parents and her teachers spoke to and about her, the dawning realization of her queerness and what that meant for her life, the casual mention of her countertop coming up to her mid-chest (the world really isn’t built for those whose bodies differ from the standard issue), her writing paints a very clear picture of a woman who has definitely struggled, but who has forged ahead despite not only the obstacles her health has presented, but those placed in front of her by both society and the people who loved her.
I really enjoyed this and was sad that it ended. Fascinating fact: I figured out about halfway through this book that Ms. Lehrer works (at least sometimes) in the same (very large!) building my husband does. I love when my reading life and real life collides. : )