Just after my 11th birthday, in the summer of 1950, I moved from Washington, D.C., then a small, segregated Southern town, to the Georgia Warm Springs Polio Foundation where I would live without my parents off and on for two years. When I left Warm Springs precipitously following a disastrous accident in which my young and secret love, Joey Buckley, and I had raced downhill in our wheelchairs and flipped, I was almost 13. I was the perpetrator of that adventure that much I’ve always known or at least suspected but what went on with me at Warm Springs before I was expelled, who that young girl, restless and rebellious, growing up in the sunny banality of 1952 had been, was the impetus for writing Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven.
After I left the hospital with my father who had been dispatched to collect me pronto, as he told me, I never looked back until now. I never asked my parents what had happened and they never told me not why I was considered enough of a danger to the other children to be kicked out, not what had happened to Joey Buckley nor reprimanded me, nor inquired as to how I got myself in so much trouble. The questions I would ask them now I had no interest in asking in my 20s and 30s before they died. I had infantile paralysis when I was a year-old toddler living in Toledo, Ohio, so the fact of polio never changed life as I knew it. I walked with a brace and not particularly well, and so as a child, normal was my destination which I imagined as slipping seamlessly into the school group picture exactly like every other girl in penny loafers. Arriving in Warm Springs, after a fifth-grade year of remarkable failure in academics and deportment, I was thrilled to move to a place where crippled children were considered ordinary, only to discover that I was not crippled enough to qualify. As a novelist, I have been suspicious of memoir (although I love to read the memoirs of others), preferring the process of invention to retelling my own story, happier offstage behind the scenes. So I came to this book through the back door. We were sitting one night my husband and I at a bistro in one of those banquette seats beside a couple whose conversation was more compelling than our own and so we found ourselves included by proximity, when the husband asked us to join them. They were scientific researchers at the National Institutes of Health examining the very particular relationship between the AIDS and polio viruses. What struck me was the surprising similarity in social context between AIDS and polio, both viewed as a kind of moral stain. In the case of AIDS, the shame was sexual, with polio it was social a false conclusion that the virus struck only the filthy houses of the urban poor. Shame was the operative word for me, the catalyst which set me on a course.
And so began a circuitous journey back to the years I had lived at Warm Springs. I read about the history of polio and FDR’s impressive contribution to Warm Springs and the eradication of polio. I read about the silent generation of the 1950s and thought about the shame of illness, the character-defining frustration of a child locked in a paralyzed body, the dilemma of the sick child who feels responsible for changing the family’s daily life. A book was beginning to take shape, one in which my own story was the center of a larger subject. But I couldn’t find the center of my own story. Then one night as I was describing to my husband what had happened to me with Joey Buckley, I could feel in myself the fear and danger of telling truth and knew with a kind of crazy relief and excitement that the race I had instigated with Joey Buckley was the screen around which the rest of my memories of those two years could assemble.
And I began to think of what it had meant to me to live in a village of cripples, to travel the distance between childhood and adulthood for that short time by myself discovering the lure of religion and romantic movies and the danger of sexuality lurking in the embryo of adolescence.
The author of 13 novels, Susan Richards Shreve is a professor of English at George Mason University and the former co-chair and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.