book by Emily Rapp
annotation by Wendy M. Fontaine
Emily Rapp was born with a genetic disorder that left one leg shorter than the other. At just four years old, doctors removed her left foot, setting her on a long, arduous path of learning how to deal with the pain, shame and confusion of physical disability.
After the surgery, she was fitted with a wooden leg. As she grew and became a more active child, the length of the artificial limb often needed to be changed, leaving Rapp in a constant state of readjusting to the sight, feel and function of her prosthesis.
When Rapp was six, she became the poster child for the March of Dimes in her home state of Wyoming, a title that helped, for better and for worse, establish her early identity.
Her book, Poster Child, is an honest telling of the personal and emotional ordeal of growing up as a disabled woman in a world obsessed with physical perfection.
In the beginning of the book, she is a child who craves the attention that comes with being a poster child, being different and special. However, the rest of her story is about rejecting that special attention, overcompensating for disability, and struggling to feel normal and desirable a woman.
This is where the key to Rapp’s memoir lies. While not every woman is missing a limb, or even has a physical disability, most women can relate to the struggle of negative self image and the uncomfortable shame of hating their own bodies.
As a student of nonfiction, particularly memoir, readers can see how Rapp has made her experiences universal. Ironically, the exclusion and isolation she feels growing up with a disability is what makes the story so broadly relatable. After all, at some point, everyone feels strange in their own body.
Rapp illustrates this in a scene from her elementary school playground, where a classmate imitates her by limping and dragging her arms like a monkey.
“I knew people stared at me,” she writes, “especially during the summer when I wore shorts; I knew they gawked. I felt, in that moment on the playground, not so different from an animal after all. Is that what people really think about me? I wondered. I held that moment inside of me as if it were a fragile bowl, a moment covered in glass.”
What makes this book so interesting is that the author can, in the span of a single page, relate the fragility of being different with the power of drawing strength from that which makes her different.
“My instructors called me ‘Supergirl,’ because I went so hard and fast that I nearly dropped at the end of my [skiing] lessons,” she writes. “I held tight to my nickname, because it fulfilled the desire to be extraordinary that I had developed as the poster child; to be, quite literally, super. It fed my self-image as a fantastic overachiever that had emerged when I was crowned a temporary star by the March of Dimes.”
Rapp writes lyrically and honestly about isolation, obsession with perfection, and self acceptance. She balances vivid scenes that propel her story with raw reflections that give the scenes meaning. Her words are chosen wisely and efficiently, and her verbs (“the women clicked along carefully in their high-heeled shoes”) are strong enough to give the reader a visual picture of the action.
Students of memoir might take lesson in how Rapp is able to combine her experiences of multiple nights into one night, making that one night emblematic of a pattern of behavior. For example, when she writes about her anorexic behaviors in the tenth chapter, she explains how watching television for exactly one hour on Saturday nights and going to bed early in order to avoid snacking helped her have a sense of control over her mind and her body.
“My days were carefully constructed, as if deviating from these scripted activities one bit would mean total failure in all other areas.”
Another interesting writing technique Rapp uses is giving voice to her infant self to tell the story of her disability from the beginning.
“While Dad was preaching at his church that Sunday, Mom padded down the hallways in her pink bathrobe to look at me thorugh the glass windows of the newborns’ room. She felt other mothers looking at her, searching her eyes, and she stared back at them. She had longed for a redheaded girl; I had arrived, but in slightly different form from what had been expected or wished for.”
Obviously, Rapp cannot remember her experience in the hospital only days after her birth, but telling a part of her story from her mother’s perspective helps set the scene of the memoir, puts the story outside of herself and contributes to the beautiful characterization of her mother’s spirit.
“Poster Child” makes no boasts about the meaning of life and Rapp offers no grand platitudes on living with disability. Rather than being self indulgent, her story closes as it begins: simply and honestly.
“I may never fully understand or even accept the body I live in and with,” she writes, “but it does tell a story.”