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Richard Cohen

The Dreams and Realities of a Superman

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page A23

As she aged, Marlene Dietrich became a recluse. She was seen by a few people, but never by the public nor in public. She was determined to stay as she had been -- a striking beauty. Her decline and death would remain her own business. The myth would endure.

Christopher Reeve took a different tack. After considering and rejecting suicide, he thrust himself back into public life. In the words of the writer Roger Rosenblatt, who got to know Reeve when he worked on the actor's biography, Reeve had to choose between a "horizontal and a vertical life. He aggressively chose the vertical life."

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This does not mean that Reeve ever stood again after being thrown from a horse in 1995. It did mean that he avoided becoming a recluse. It did mean that he made public appearances, was interviewed several times by Barbara Walters, appeared before Congress and at the 1996 Oscar awards ceremony, returned to film and even became a director. He refused to become invisible.

Death often rebukes, and this is one of those occasions. Reeve's insistence that he would someday walk again was proved sadly false -- as some always said it would be. He was criticized by knowledgeable people for what they characterized as his ignorant or opportunistic optimism -- he appeared in a TV ad promoting spinal cord research -- that gave false hope to others in his condition. What these people needed above all, Reeve's critics said, was the determination to face reality -- not the bogus dream that the past could somehow become the future.

I leave that dispute to scientists and others. As for myself, I have to confess that Reeve made me uncomfortable. I think I am not alone in this. I always wanted to turn away. It was not so much that he was a quadriplegic, but rather that there was no way to see him and not remember what he had been. It was that contrast between the extraordinarily handsome and athletic man -- a superman who played Superman -- and what he had become that was so disturbing.

Reeve was the personification of the cruelty and capriciousness of life, a rebuke to God (Why? Why?) and a foreshadowing that hinted darkly of aging, infirmity and death. Only the deeply religious -- and maybe not even they -- could make sense of what happened to him. My God, what had he done to deserve this? You wanted to find some sort of answer.

But he provided none. He seemed such a genuinely nice guy. He had not lived a conventionally moral life -- he had children out of wedlock -- but there were no witnesses to any cruelty, any selfishness, any awfulness. On the contrary, he was universally touted as a good person. How, then, could this have happened? Since there is no answer, the tendency is to want to turn away.

But Reeve would not permit that. He knew that others wanted him out of sight -- someplace where he would not be so disturbing. But he insisted on his life, not the one we would conveniently choose for him. He insisted that we face reality, even if he really could not. He had his cause -- spinal cord research -- and it was a greater and truer part of life than flying over Metropolis as Superman. Pay attention, he insisted. He was reality.

Once, we all knew of reality. The sick, the mentally ill -- they lived among us. Now they are mostly out of sight. After World War I, France was full of amputees, and the sight of them so horrified the nation that it sapped its will to fight yet another war against Germany. That lesson has been universally learned. Now, we rarely see the Iraq war's wounded, and our president is not much for touring hospitals or attending funerals. Some of us protest this, but most of us prefer it.

There always was a kind of lie to the life of Christopher Reeve. His faith that he would walk again, his optimism in the face of insurmountable bleakness -- all of this was belied by what we all sensed was a dismal truth. But he kept at it -- kept us at it -- and made us think about what had become of him and others like him. "It was his way of standing up," Rosenblatt said.

R.I.P., Christopher Reeve. You always stood tall.

cohenr@washpost.com


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