Golem Girl: A Memoir

  • Review
By – February 23, 2022

Riva Lehrer’s Golem Girl is both a mem­oir of dis­abil­i­ty and a port­fo­lio of a tal­ent­ed artist. Pho­tographs and paint­ings includ­ed in the book illus­trate the author’s life expe­ri­ences. Riva is born with spina bifi­da at a time when preg­nant women were encour­aged to abort babies with such diag­noses. Riva’s moth­er Car­ole said yes to this baby and, in turn, Riva was hand­ed a life full of rou­tine hos­pi­tal vis­its, surg­eries, then more surg­eries after pro­ce­dur­al errors and com­pli­ca­tions, and, ulti­mate­ly, the con­stant fear of ill­ness and the humil­i­a­tion of being treat­ed as oth­er.”

Part one of this mem­oir revolves around Riva’s child­hood, par­tic­u­lar­ly her school­ing at the Con­don School in Cincin­nati, which, at the time of Riva’s atten­dance in the six­ties and ear­ly sev­en­ties, is an inno­v­a­tive, rev­o­lu­tion­ary school that pro­vides an excel­lent edu­ca­tion to chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties. Lehrer recounts her com­fort at the school, where she is able to learn and make friends while hav­ing her med­ical needs met. Despite the school being a haven for chil­dren like Riva, she details some dis­turb­ing mem­o­ries of teach­ers or sub­sti­tute teach­ers treat­ing the chil­dren poor­ly or times when class­mates would sim­ply dis­ap­pear, most like­ly due to the low life-expectan­cy of some chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, which was not fol­lowed-up with emo­tion­al coun­sel­ing for sur­viv­ing classmates.

Lehrer often describes feel­ing like a golem, which, accord­ing to Jew­ish folk­lore, is an anthro­po­mor­phic, man-made crea­ture, typ­i­cal­ly made out of clay or soil, mag­i­cal­ly brought to life. Through all of the dozens of surg­eries that Lehrer endures, over time her body becomes so altered that she views her­self as golem-like. Strangers make crude, obnox­ious com­ments about her body in pass­ing. Lehrer’s doc­tors and sur­geons often have no respect for her opin­ions and wor­ries. One cringe­wor­thy expe­ri­ence occurs when Riva’s uterus is removed with­out any con­ver­sa­tion about her future nor any con­cern or mourn­ing for the life she might have had if her body were val­ued and loved. Lehrer begins to draw self-por­traits and por­traits of friends and acquain­tances with dis­abil­i­ties, with the intent of show­ing the human­i­ty, strength, and beau­ty of each individual.

Part two of the mem­oir delves into Riva’s artis­tic career, as well as her explo­ration of sex­u­al iden­ti­ty and roman­tic rela­tion­ships. Lehrer’s research about the body leads her to teach artists and future doc­tors in anato­my class­es. She hopes to impart the sig­nif­i­cance of hav­ing empa­thy for the human body, while ques­tion­ing pre­con­ceived notions about what a nor­mal” body looks like.

Two of Lehrer’s stun­ning por­trait series – titled Totems and Famil­iars and Cir­cle Sto­ries–demon­strates her cre­ativ­i­ty in por­trai­ture and shows her belief that the dis­abled body is wor­thy of seri­ous analy­sis and cri­tique. The lives of her sub­jects add lay­ers of per­son­al expe­ri­ence with var­i­ous dis­abil­i­ties, trau­mas, and love that Lehrer por­trays front and cen­ter, refus­ing to remain at the mar­gins of society.

In the epi­logue, Lehrer men­tions that even though the U.S. has come a long way by becom­ing a more inclu­sive, accom­mo­dat­ing soci­ety, the pan­dem­ic has result­ed in peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties becom­ing delib­er­ate casu­al­ties” due to deci­sions restrict­ing med­ical care to patients diag­nosed with COVID-19. Lehrer’s sto­ry shows read­ers what it means to be human and how art cre­ates an empa­thet­ic, hon­est por­tray­al of the human experience.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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