Riva Lehrer, portrait artist, educator, curator, and author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Golem Girl, spoke to the Levy Lecture crowd on March 2 about her life, her book, and her art.
Ms. Lehrer was born with spina bifida, essentially a hole in the spine. In spina bifida patients, the spine does not fuse properly, leaving a fissure or lesion, creating an easy entry point for infections that risk going directly to the patient’s brain. In 1958, the year of her birth, 90% of babies born with spina bifida died within two years.
The morning Riva Lehrer was born, she was taken by ambulance from Cincinnati Jewish Hospital across the street to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. A recently hired pediatric surgeon, Lester Martin, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, had learned and trained in the latest techniques to close spina bifida lesions and other neurological conditions. The newborn Riva had surgery the evening of her birth and survived. She would spend her first two years of life in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Ms. Lehrer’s conversation with the Levy Lecture audience discussed her elementary education at the Randall J. Condon School, one of the earliest elementary schools in the country specifically for disabled children and one that offered a standard academic curriculum. She discussed some of the family and social dynamics she experienced growing up in a Jewish household in politically conservative Cincinnati, Ohio.
Golem Girl is filled with stories about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Ms. Lehrer’s family – and society at large – automatically assumed that she would not have any romantic or sexual relationships, that she would never have a family of her own, and that she was not ‘good enough’ to be dating an able-bodied man. Several times during her teens and twenties, while she was standing next to her then-boyfriend, she experienced having others, family members or total strangers, suggest to him that he should look elsewhere for romantic love.
Children can be cruel, but the verbal cruelty she experienced in childhood has not stopped in adulthood. She discussed the staring, verbal abuse, and bullying she and others like her are subjected to almost daily even now: strangers, unprompted, telling her that she is ugly, she should think about killing herself, that they would kill themselves if they looked as she does, or that their particular deity loves her and will help her walk better. More than once while out walking in Chicago, she has been stopped by strangers pulling over in a car to ask if they can take her to a hospital. Clearly, all of these unsolicited comments are exhausting as well as cruel and dispiriting.
There is a section toward the end of Golem Girl that is essentially an art book; it includes beautifully printed color images of the self-portraits and portraits she has painted. (More is available online.) Ms. Lehrer is a well-known portrait artist whose work may be found in private collections across the country and in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
She is a longtime faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an instructor in the Medical Humanities Department at Northwestern University. At Northwestern she teaches first and second-year medical students how to really ‘see’ the body in front of them even if that body does not fit on the normative spectrum.
Ms. Lehrer described Golem Girl as a book in two parts: the golem, or monster, is the first part and ‘the girl’ is the second part. There is Riva trying to cover up her disability, denying her own self, and Riva actively seeking out other disabled people who flaunt their unique bodies, characteristics, and talents. She thrived as she embraced disabled culture.
Golem Girl is all of these things and more: an autobiography, a family history, a history of medical advances and surgeries ‘gifted’ to those with spina bifida, a history of accessibility to education for disabled children in Cincinnati, a love story, a way of looking at and accepting one’s self and others through art and other forms of expression.
She wrote it as much for others as for herself, saying “I don’t actually find my own life that interesting. What was interesting to me were the societal forces and phenomena that I could look at through the lens of what had happened to me.” Disabled people will not be hidden or spliced out of the gene pool. They are here to stay and have much to contribute.
An encore of Ms. Lehrer’s conversation is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel, and Golem Girl is available at most public libraries and independent bookstores.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.