Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio by Gary Presley. University of Iowa Press; October 2008)
Even held to the most rigorous of definitions, Gary Presley’s life has been filled with suffering. A faulty Polio inoculation received in 1959, when he was seventeen, resulted in three months in an iron lung (a machine that enables those with loss of muscle control to breathe). Presley left the iron lung for life in a wheelchair. Every day since then, he has experienced physical pain—and sometimes indignity, when the world proves unaccommodating to the disabled.
Somerset Maugham once said that suffering does not ennoble the character—happiness, he claimed, sometimes does that, but suffering only made men petty and vindictive. The first part of Presley’s memoir would seem to prove Maugham right. Succumbing to self-pity, Presley fought a “strange silent war” with the reality of his disability, challenging his parents with his intransigence and resentment. Unable to look beyond the unreason of his condition, an embittered Presley asked his father, “Do you think God wants me in this wheelchair?” The response was an honest if unhelpful “How should I know?” The tension between religion and reality, an omnipotent God and hapless subject, is one of the central conflicts in this work, and carried through till the surprising resolution near the book’s conclusion.
Over fifty years, Presley gradually travels the arc from rage to acceptance—a journey that I have come to understand (from reading this book) is by no means inevitable for the disabled. He describes his voyage with a salty humor that leavens an often-harrowing story. The danger in this sort of book, at least for me, is that the weighty (and worthy) subject matter might overwhelm the writing, but Presley the prose stylist has as much to offer as Presley the memoirist. Consider:
I had yet to learn that I had been drafted into an army that throughout most of human history had sustained itself by begging… I understood then, and still believe it now, that it takes a certain grace to accept charity, a grace I could not find within me during that period…
Presley states that the aim of his book is to “show that a life disabled is a life worth living.” But this work calls to my mind Socrates’ words—that the unexamined life is not worth living. Presley meticulously analyzes every instance where his actions and attitudes fell short of his own (very high) standards. At times, Seven Wheelchairs almost seems like an act of catharsis:
I found comfort in contriving a fantasy that my simple existence proved I had mined a heroic quality from within; I fancied I had survived through an act of will, and act of bravery. That contradictory delusion—heroic, even though dependent—overlooked the fact that I would wither and die in bed […] if I did not have someone to watch over me.
Stop beating yourself up! I sometimes want to tell Presley. You’ve been through a lot, and you deserve some compassion. Not pity though; no reader would dare pity him, not when his life is filled with such spirit and wry self-awareness. Presley himself shuns the term noble, and I agree with his reasoning: he does not want to be extolled for spending his life in a wheelchair. Rather, all he demands is equal opportunities for the disabled. But in his capacity to find meaning in love and faith and work so his disability is but one facet of his life, in his view of the wheelchair not as constraint but an enabler of independence, in his insistence on his ordinariness, Presley to me is close to noble. Maugham should have remembered that the alchemy of suffering is selective; it takes a certain metal to make gold.
(This review appears in the current edition of Eclectica magazine.)