My nightstand is a graveyard of books left open and abandoned. It isn’t their fault really. It’s hard to slow down a racing mind, especially one that works in media, reading words all day long. Before quarantine, I would read on the bus or before a meeting, or on my lunch break. My home is my office now and that means I work late into the night—there isn’t a clear line of when to “clock out.” Books have subsequently taken a back seat.
But I read Golem Girl—swiftly—in a week.
Riva Lehrer, artist and writer, was born with spina bifida in the late 50s when the birth defect meant a death sentence. Lehrer’s debut memoir, Golem Girl (One World), is written in two parts, starting before she was even born by detailing her parents’ marriage. She writes about the bond with her mother, her mother’s disability, the surgeries she lived through, and her early education. The second part focuses on finding her sexuality, relationships, her art career, and the community she finds as a queer adult. It’s a stunning telling that takes the reader through a range of emotions. I experienced anger, frustration, laughter, tears, and even developed a little crush on Lehrer while diving into her life story.
In the memoir, Lehrer references her disability and how she physically stands out in a crowd, especially when she was young. At her time at Condon, a small school she attended in Cincinnati, she says they were all “medical monsters.” In her footnote she writes, “I’m not ever saying that’s how they saw themselves, or that they were evil, freakish, or anything negative whatsoever. I am saying that’s how we were often treated in the world; as disturbances, threats, as frightening or pitiable creatures, not as young humans on their way to human lives.”
Golem, in Jewish folklore, is a clay figure brought to life through magic. It is meant to reference something unfinished, like a monster. In Golem Girl Lehrer takes back the meaning of the word, reappropriating it, and referencing it frequently as she finds her place in the world. She proves that she’s a force to be reckoned with.
For much of Lehrer’s life, even when she had a long-term boyfriend, family and friends told her she couldn’t be loved or desired sexually. Doctors agreed with her mother that sex and motherhood were out of the question. After undergoing a hysterectomy at a young age, Lehrer asks her doctor if she will ever be able to have sex. The doctor dismisses her and says, “Riva, I thought you were a nice little girl. I cannot believe what you just asked me.” Lehrer describes the involuntary sterilization of disabled women and how this violent procedure still happens to those who are intellectually disabled. “I know that no one, back then, expressed a single word of sorrow at the loss of my ability to procreate,” she writes. While she may not be able to have children, she does prove that she is loveable. In the second part of the memoir, Lehrer writes beautifully about intimacy and relationships as she explores love, queerness, and coming out.
Lehrer’s artistic works also look at gender identity and sexuality. Paintings created by Lehrer and photographs from her life are featured throughout the book. She clearly illustrates her autobiography and shows the reader how her artwork changed through the years and was impacted by personal experiences. It wouldn’t be until 1994 while taking a class in Colorado at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center that she would be instructed to paint herself nude. After creating a cabana in the art studio to hide her body from the other students, she painted herself unclothed, exposed, and raw. The figure in the painting claws at the wall. After this moment, scars exposed, Lehrer writes that she was able to go forward. “I had no more secrets.”
A few years later she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective in 1996 where she begins to truly flourish and blossom. She reclaimed the word “crip” as she became ingrained in disability advocacy and a larger community. During the mid-90s, disability representation was changing and improving.
While the story begins with a child comparing herself to zoo animals at the Cincinnati zoo, it ends by taking an inspiring and soulful look at disability culture. Written with humor and honesty, Lehrer takes us through necessary, cosmetic, and life-altering surgeries, as she tackles her sexual identity, friendships, family ties, and her art career. The girl on the operating table is transformed into the skin she lives in—”a queer crippled Jew with peculiar shoes, a dreadful, grievous monster.” Readers see Lehrer grow—from page to page—into a radically visible advocate, teacher, curator, and human-being.
“For most of my life, I had glanced at impairment and looked away, afraid to see myself. Now I looked slowly and deliberately. I let the sight come to me. And beauty arrived,” she writes as she dives into the world of portraiture outside of self-portraiture and into her new community “I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.” v