The Chilling Days Of an Epidemic
Friday, June 29, 2007
Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven
By Susan Richards Shreve
Houghton Mifflin. 215 pp. $24
About halfway through this extremely intense memoir, I began getting visions of Stephen King. I hope he never lays eyes on this, because if he did, he'd stagger into a corner, pull out a large linen handkerchief and weep into it: "All my raving lunatics and hideous epidemics and fiery-eyed dogs -- all my thousands of pages of horror -- and I've been outdone in 200 pages by a refined, literary lady-novelist!"
It's true, Susan Richards Shreve knocks King out of the ballpark. She well knows the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. She also knows the corollary maxim: The harder your life, the better your material.
When she was 1 1/2 , Shreve had poliomyelitis. When she was 4, she came down with rheumatic fever and spent months in bed. A year or so later, around the time her little brother was born, she had spinal meningitis and lay for a while in a coma.
(One thinks of the young parents: Shreve's father, who felt that his career in radio had been truncated by his daughter's illnesses, and her astonishingly beautiful young mother, who -- orphaned at an early age -- stood by Susan through thick and thin; patient, innovative, loyal.)
Shreve had one paralyzed leg, one useless foot. In 1950, when she was 11, she was sent to Warm Springs, Ga., to undergo a series of operations (bone fusions and muscle transplants) that, in theory, could allow her to walk like a "normal" person again.
The historical context is handled beautifully here. Some of us already know the story and some of us, by now, may be a little hazy on it. Up until the middle of the 20th century, polio was one of the great scourges of human life. In American terms, it played out like this: If you were a kid and running a fever, your mother would bang your head down toward your chest. If your neck could stretch enough to do it, there was general relief because you didn't have polio, you wouldn't be paralyzed. In my own youth, my best friend's aunt lay paralyzed in the dining room; another friend's mother breathed in an iron lung. No one was safe from it.
Franklin Roosevelt, privileged beyond words, succumbed to it during the beginning of his political career. It was he who escaped to Warm Springs, to take the waters and work strenuously toward his own cure, and, lacking other things to do, converted the genteel, elegant, run-down spa into a new kind of hospital, offering a new kind of healing. Afflicted people could come to this place, the story was -- and the story was almost true -- have fun, lift their spirits and, in the process, have their bodies healed as well.
How effective the physical healing was remains hazy in Shreve's telling. In an afterword, she mentions a Dr. Irwin, "who was responsible for changing the lives of so many patients." She doesn't say "improved" or "saved," only "changed." In what might have been some kind of cruel irony, Irwin died, crippled by injuries in his later years, unable to escape from a house fire.