Emily Rapp’s satisfying memoir

Her tale of physical disability depicts an inner transformation.

Poster Child: A Memoir by Emily Rapp. Bloomsbury, 226 pp.

This semester my freshman honors students and I have read six memoirs and Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir (reviewed) in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” As with novels, coming of age stories are common in memoir. It has pleased me to see students who hadn’t read a memoir, or who had read one bad one, come to admire the genre.

By far the students’ favorite memoir has been Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, followed by Darin Strauss’s Half a Life (reviewed), followed by Gregory Orr’s The Blessing (reviewed). We read them in that order, too, followed by Veronica Chambers’s Mama’s Girl, Emily Rapp’s Poster Child, and now we’re into Kevin Sessum’s Mississippi Sissy.

I respect The Glass Castle for its craft. Though I’ve taught it to two classes in a row and am weary of rereading it, this tale of epic parental dysfunction rivets students and is a thematic and symbolic cornucopia for their analyses. Half a Life and The Blessing are two of my all-time favorite memoirs—deep and sad, reflective and bravely hopeful—and fast reads, too, which make them useful in a required reading lineup. The semester’s surprise for me was Poster Child, which I’d never read and which I’d expected to be a straightforward tale of a girl’s struggle with her birth defect.

Emily Rapp was born in 1974 with her left leg too short, from a rare condition that caused her femur to develop abnormally. She learned to walk with a brace, and before her fourth birthday doctors amputated her foot, the first of dozens of operations that left her with a stump just above knee height. Born to highly supportive parents, a Lutheran minister and a nurse, Rapp attacked life, buoyed by their optimism and emotional support. As she grew she wore a series of crude (by today’s standards) prostheses. She swam and skied and, at age six, became a March of Dimes poster child.

She also became a little monster, as Rapp explains:

            The feeling that I was a very real burden who was never made to feel like one or treated as such did not make me a sweeter child; rather, it made me a quick-tempered terror. The more attention I received as the poster child, the more attention I expected and demanded from everyone else and, in particular, from my family. Mom and Dad were afraid to say no to me. I sensed this and pulled out all the stops. The older I got the worse it became. I was an expert at the silent treatment game. Door slamming and screaming fits were simply commonplace. I was sweet in my appearance as the poster child, of course, and I learned always to be good and nice and accommodating in public, but my anger flared at the slightest provocation . . . I claimed to hate everything and everybody, but more than anything else, I began to hate myself.

Though she was spoiled rotten, one can see her parents’ dilemma in coping with her and her disability. Her childhood struggle sowed guilt, shame, and anger that became Rapp’s alone to bear. What makes Poster Child rare and valuable is its tracing of how she painfully changed, casting off, in her attempt to be fully human, the mask of perfection she’d worn over her fear and grief.

You might think that tales of such inner transformation are commonplace in memoirs, but you’d be wrong. Stories of overcoming hardships, yes, but not examinations of how defenses adopted in such struggles are rooted out. Far more than a story of a girl’s physical disability, Poster Child dares to go inward. Of course this approach requires the perspective of the memoir genre’s vaunted “distanced narrator,” the writer at her desk now, musing on meaning, but this technique doesn’t dictate the nature or quality of a writer’s reflection. What makes Rapp’s story relatable, as my students say, is the fact that most people can grasp having to come to terms with their childhood selves. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the child is father of the adult.

Unfortunately Rapp’s story has a tragic coda, now playing out. Her son, Ronan, was born with the genetic disease Tay-Sachs. While pregnant, Rapp was tested for Tay-Sachs and other genetic problems, but apparently a mutation in Ronan’s version allowed the disease to escape detection. Tay-Sachs is one of the cruelest diseases I’ve heard of: born normal, babies regress into a vegetative state, losing all their senses, before becoming paralyzed and dying by three years old. Rapp has written that she expects Ronan to die this year.

Her memoir about parenting him, The Still Point of the Turning World, is to be published by Penguin in March 2013. “This is a love story,” she writes in a column for The New York Times, “and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss.”

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14 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, memoir, REVIEW, teaching, education

14 responses to “Emily Rapp’s satisfying memoir

  1. Can you speak about how this story plays out in Canada as well as in the U.S.?

  2. No, I’m not sure how it’s been received in Canada.

  3. Emily was my creative writing student when she was an undergraduate at St. Olaf College. She was an amazing writer even then, and a delightful person. I’m happy to see you draw attention to her beautiful work. I’ve been following Ronan’s story on her blog, and I’m sure her new memoir will be extraordinary. If anyone can write this tragic story with grace and beauty and soul, it is Emily Rapp.

  4. Thank you for introducing me to Emily Rapp. Poster Child is now on my reading list.

  5. Here’s your line that got me: “She also became a little monster,” so now I must read.

  6. Yes, there is magic in Minnesota 🙂 I didn’t realize Emily Rapp also spent time here (I’m not clear if she grew up here, too).

    What you describe is difficult to do in memoir, and many memoirs fall short. Rapp’s story sounds like one of detailed transformation, and an honest portrayal of shortcomings. Too often writers are afraid to write honestly about themselves, either past or present.

  7. This sounds like an excellent memoir. Darrelyn’s comment and your response is a lesson to all of us reflecting on childhood to make sure we reveal the darker sides of our stories and our little monster selves.

    Paulette, you have having a remarkable year as a mentor/writing professor! The success of your students is your success also. Brava.

    • Hi, Shirley,
      You’re supportive and generous as ever! I can’t take ANY credit for Emily or Cheryl or any students, no doubt! But thanks. And as for the magic going on in Minnesota, Richard, not to brag, but we had TWO Minnesotans win National Book Awards this year: Louise Erdrich in fiction and William Alexander in young people’s lit. People say it’s the winters, but I think it’s something in the water . . . I’m drinking as much of it as I can.

  8. Love the humor & irony of the Milosz quote