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Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio by…
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Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio

by Gary Presley

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I'm almost afraid to write anything about this book. I mean this deeply personal memoir displays such a stew of mixed emotions and feelings, but leans, I think, most heavily toward anger and even rage. And with good reason, certainly. Gary Presley contracted polio at the age of 17 in 1959, which was nearly five years after the Salk vaccine had come along, nearly eradicating the virus in the U.S. Presley's illness was a kind of health care fluke - a live virus vaccine that gave him polio, rather than protecting him from it. So yeah. I'd have been pissed off too. But it wasn't this awful accident so much that made Presley so mad, and kept him that way for much of the next thirty years or so. Because he kinda made peace with that part of it. No, it was - and often still is - the attitudes of healthy people toward disabled, handicapped and crippled people that really kept him angry. For much of the book he rages against such attitudes that for so many years often made him feel something less than human, that "objectified" him and others like him, i.e. made him an object of pity. And I can't argue with those feelings of his, with his anger, his rage. I cringed inwardly throughout much of this book. Because I have been one of those people that made Presley so angry, that also caused him untold grief and even despair that he would ever be recognized as simply a human being with all the same hopes, fears, dreams and emotions that we all have. I mean I'm really torn here, trying to figure out my reaction to this book. So I'm going to try to make just a couple of points. (1) The prose here is absolutely first-rate. This is obviously a guy who has worked hard at learning the craft through literally years of writing, at first largely for his own purposes, but finally (thank God) to share his story with a larger audience. (2) This is not just a story about what it's like to be crippled. (I even shrink a bit at using that particular word. But Presley himself has used it in many and various forms here, so I'll risk it.) Nope. This is a story of a whole life, including what it was like to be an army brat who never had much chance to make close and lasting friendships. As a consequence, he had no lifelong friends to fall back on when polio struck. Hence years of isolation in which his main social contacts were his parents and his much younger brother. Which brings me to number (3). This is also a book about family. And although Presley's parents might be construed today as rather unenlightened about how to cope with a severely disabled child, Presley makes it clear that he knows that they did the best they could, and acted faithfully and lovingly as his only caregivers for nearly 25 years. (4) This is also a love story, and a most unique one at that. Because Gary Presley never expected to find someone to love, and someone who would love him back - not after nearly thirty years of "flying a wheelchair," as he puts it. But he did. And that discovery, that ... what? That good fortune, perhaps, changed the tone of the last part of the book. My wince and grimace relaxed a bit from the time Gary met Belinda. And I'm so very happy they found each other. Hmm ... that was more than a "couple" points, wasn't it? Anyway, if you want to know what goes on inside the mind of a quadriplegic - or at least get some small idea of what it might be like - then 7 WHEELCHAIRS is a good place to start. As a review, this feels very clumsy, but what the hell. I tried. This is not an easy book to read, but it is a damn fine piece of work. ( )
  TimBazzett | Apr 4, 2010 |
Do not describe Gary Presley as confined to a wheelchair! Nothing raises the hackles on this feisty author faster than this unthinking comment, no matter how benignly intended. To Presley, each of his seven wheelchairs has meant independence and self reliance in a life otherwise dependant on others for mobility. His wheelchairs have been the opposite of confining; they are his ticket to freedom.

In 7 Wheelchairs: A Life Beyond Polio, Presley describes his life after polio left him permanently paralyzed. He tells what it was to be a 17 year old boy who walked out of basketball practice with a headache only to wake up in an iron lung, never to walk again. This is not a book about polio victims, people who use wheelchairs, or the general experiences of disabled people before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. This is the story of one man who learned very slowly how to live a life he never considered would be his. It is the story of the “riding lessons” Presley learned by rolling through the decades in his seven wheelchairs. As he explains:

[A]fter I had ridden through three decades in a wheelchair, I began writing about life as a person with a disability. I didn’t write, really, to complain or to change things. I wrote because I found myself unsure of my place in the world, and I wanted to explore my boundaries.

This book is the culmination of that exploration so far. The first half of Presley’s memoir is generally chronologic, setting out his story from the ill-fated polio vaccine that left him a “crip,” through wasted years of depression, to the happenstance that resulted in his long-time insurance career. The second half gets off a strict chronological path, filling in the details of Presley’s life after his parents’ deaths through observations and discussions of various aspects of his life, including his marriage and religious development.

The first half of the book packs the most wallop, only because Presley makes so real the confusion and despair of sudden disability in a time when America was on the cusp between “warehousing” “invalids” and trying to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream life. He does not spend much time on his early, pre-polio childhood, merely explaining that his family settled on a small Missouri farm when his father retired from the military. Bucolic Missouri seemed particularly sleepy after a nomadic life spent moving from base to base. Little did Presley expect he would stay there, dependant on his parents’ care until they passed away. He recognized that caring for a disabled adult son was also not how his parents had planned to spend their golden years. Presley’s examination of how his own anger and self-pity blinded him to his parents’ emotional needs, and how he lives now with guilt thinking of those years, cuts to the bone.

Equally thought-provoking is Presley’s consideration of the psychological effects his disability has on himself and his loved ones. From today’s viewpoint, when counseling is much more common, accepted, and expected – especially as part of treatment for a traumatizing event – it is hard to even comprehend how Presley and his family dealt alone with the emotional and mental side of his condition.

At a time when Presley and his family needed guidance most, he was sent home after three months in an iron lung and six months of recuperation and physical therapy, having only visited a “mind doctor” two times, including once just to determine if he was intelligent enough to use his new equipment. He wished his doctors at the rehabilitation center had asked him, “What would you like to do with your life? How do you plan on earning a living?” Or, “Better said, I wish I had known the question needed to be asked.” Instead, he was left to come to grips with his situation on his own; professional guidance and an “outside perspective” were not available and went against his family’s nature. Reading of his decades-long struggle with self-pity, anger, guilt, and depression – all without the benefit of professional counseling or psychotherapeutic drugs – only offers a shadow of the frustration Presley must have lived with.

In the second half of the book, Presley tells how his years of struggle left him a “burnt out case,” self-nicknamed “Gimp.” He describes his love affair and marriage with Belinda, a woman 20 years his junior and mother of two sons. He discusses his conversion to Catholicism. But in general, this part of the book is more emotional and abstract, as Presley tries to pull different threads together.

It is apparent here that this book began as a collection of essays, as the narrative flow is a little crooked. There is less attempt at straight-forward biography and more rough and tumble expression of true feelings, some of which are as confusing and difficult for the reader to grapple with as for the writer. For instance, Presley makes it clear that he does not want to be defined by his wheelchair, but ignores the obvious irony that he only wrote, and we only read, this book because of his experience with polio and wheelchairs. Also, when Presley distains all pity because it “objectifies, dehumanizes, and degenerates,” yet recognizes that “it’s all so damned confusing, that murky line between compassion and pity, sympathy and condescension,” the reader is left to wonder just what one is supposed to feel when reading Presley’s story. Finally, Presley’s candid acknowledgement that he lives always with “[i]ncoherent, unjustified unearned rage; putrid rage, mostly buried, mostly festering into guilt” than runs inside him “like a stream of molten lava,” makes it absolutely clear that this is no warm and cuddly, feel-good memoir.

In the end, these difficult passages are the real appeal of his story, if not in the immediate reading then in the later pondering. Presley’s book is as ambiguous, frustrating, and inconsistent as real life, with all of life’s rough edges and raw patches. It is not a guide to understanding “the disabled” as a group; it is a glimpse of the world through one man’s eyes. It is intensely personal story, and all the more powerful for it.

(review first published at http://internetreviewofbooks.com/sep08/7_wheelchairs.html)
  RoseCityReader | Nov 1, 2008 |
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COPING WITH DISABILITY. In 1959, seventeen-year-old Gary Presley was standing in line, wearing his favorite cowboy boots and waiting for his final inoculation of Salk vaccine. Seven days later, a bad headache caused him to skip basketball practice, tell his dad that he was too ill to feed the calves, and walk from barn to bed with shaky, dizzying steps. He never walked again. Set among the hardscrabble world of the Missouri Ozarks, sizzling with sarcasm and acerbic wit, his memoir tells the story of his journey from the iron lung to life in a wheelchair.… (more)

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