Polio: An American Story
David M. Oshinsky
Oxford University Press, 2005
368 pp., $35.00
Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture
Harvard University Press, 2005
336 pp., $37.00
Post-Polio Syndrome: A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families
Julie K. Silver
Yale University Press, 2001
304 pp., $40.00
Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Daniel J. Wilson
University of Chicago Press, 2005
312 pp., $31.00
Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
Oh No, Polio
Polio had a "special affinity for the legs."
Roosk's paralysis, from the neck down, gradually—how to describe it?—drained down his left leg and into the foot.
Rehabilitation almost always required physical therapy.
Roosk avoided physical therapy by agreeing to skip afternoon class to rest up for after-school playtime. His playmates envied his polio.
Sometimes tendons were transplanted to restore a modicum of mobility, though not in the first year and not under the age of ten.
Roosk had a tendon transplant at age 13 to allow some minimal control of his toes. Also, a triangular chunk of bone was cut out to keep his foot from growing hooflike. The ugly result was a deformed left foot nearly two inches shorter than the right. As a high school senior, "the kid who limps" played on the football team to prove to the coach that his foot could hold up for basketball.
Outpatient treatment was common for the first 16 months or so, until such recovery of muscle function as was possible ended.
Roosk was treated (at no cost) by star orthopedist Dr. Chandler, and 6 N. Michigan Ave. remains almost a shrine.
Most "polios" had a strong will to succeed, and many excelled at schoolwork and pursued careers requiring intellectual work.
Roosk became a college professor.
Marc Shell's book puzzles blurb writers Wilson and Silver; both say "there is nothing quite like" it. Shell is a Harvard professor of English, a MacArthur Fellow, and miserably unhappy. Amid the current surge of books about polio, Shell complains about "the general repression of the memory of polio." He has ransacked used bookstores on all continents except Antarctica in search of any and all polio narratives, which he suggests libraries have seen fit to make unavailable. Then he expends great effort examining the arts for treatments of polio and finds what he is looking for: "the Polio School" in literature, for instance, and "the dozens of movies about paralysis" (note: not polio) that "would, if taken together constitute a reinterpretation of the history of cinema." The index lists 28 movies about polio and 29 more that are "polio-inspired," including—get ready—The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Star Wars, and The Wizard of Oz. With cultural artifacts appearing and disappearing—as if Prufrock's aimless women come and go, talking of polio—readers unable to connect Shell's particulars and his generalizations may feel the tug of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Only advanced education could direct a survivor to lay a cultural-studies template over his polio.
Ah, but Shell refuses to call himself a survivor, because victims only "convive" (live with) their polio. And that is his main point: Polio is not a thing of the past for those who ever went through the acute phase. Release from the disease's clutches comes only with death. This point is pretty obvious, and it applies to sufferers of many other traumas as well. But it is not false.
At age 37, Roosk had a great fall and landed with all his weight on his weakest extremity. Humpty-Dumpty could not quite be put back together again. He no longer could run. Having discovered early that other kids could now out-throw him and that power-hitting should give way to place-hitting, he learned only when he took up golf how diminished was his fine motor control. He also noticed that one leg was submerged by bathwater before the other. Little self-discoveries kept surprising the apparently incurious man.
The most memorable aspect of Shell's book is his rage—his understandable rage. For his parents told him there was "nothing wrong" with him; he just had a cold in his leg. But he remembered being paralyzed. His father, "for all the love he bore me," took a leather strap to the lad's polio-weakened body parts, as if "to whip the demon out of me." And his mother "actually put my father up to it." So Shell laid his long-range plan: "The child that I was then counted on becoming this adult that I am now, who would try to write that child's polio memoir." Adult bitterness spills over everything. Let others celebrate the "conquest of polio." But even now there is no cure, no effective treatment, merely a vaccine. The NFIP was corrupt, doctors were greedy, parents lied. Polio wards were "made" to "look like concentration camps"— and Shell's next thought is of Cherokees on their Trail of Tears and Japanese Americans in their internment camps. Shell is upset with "polios" who try to achieve some normalcy in their lives, furious with those who inject divine providence into the polio equation, and livid over Christ's "taunt" of doctors, "Physician, heal thyself!" After all, "even he can only do resurrection."