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^ Covenants of Work and Grace: Themes of Recovery and Redemption in Polio Narratives* Daniel J. Wilson From the early twentieth century until the mid-1950s, Americans dreaded the arrival of summer, for it was often accompanied by epidemic poliomyelitis. Inexplicably striking the young, the innocent, the healthy, and the strong, polio frightened parents with its capacity to kill and cripple. Luther Robinson, the father of two polio victims, recalled "a pall of darkness... [that] hung over the people and haunted them... Z'1 The fears were frequently realized; polio killed one of Robinson's daughters and left the other completely paralyzed and dependent upon an iron lung. Once the virus had done its damage, its victims and their families were left with the difficult tasks of recovery, rehabilitation, and acceptance. The scientific success story of the development , testing, and widespread use of the SaIk and Sabin vaccines has been well told.2 But what of the children, the men and women, whose bodies or limbs were left paralyzed and severely weakened by polio? How did they experience the often painful process of rehabilitation? How did they come to terms with bodies that no longer responded to their desires? How did they make sense of what had happened to them? After the acute crisis had passed and after rehabilitation had ended, some polio victims recorded their stories in autobiographical narratives that bring to mind lines from an Adrienne Rich poem: I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. * I thank Kathleen Harring, Ann Wonsiewicz, and, especially, Carol S. Wilson for their comments and suggestions on this essay. Literature and Medicine 13, no. 1 (Spring 1994) 22^1 © 1994 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Daniel J. Wilson 23 The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.3 As many authors have observed, telling one's story can assist the process of healing. The autobiographical narrative orders the experience of crisis; the writer then possesses the kind of control absent from the initial and actual experience of the disease.4 These polio narratives illustrate what Donald E. Polkinghorne has called "narrative enrichment ," which occurs when the author "retrospectively revises, selects, and orders past details in such a way as to create a self-narrative that is coherent and satisfying and that will serve as a justification for one's present condition and situation."5 The disease may have shaped the physical constraints of life, but in retelling the experience, the writer shapes the meaning. Howard Brody has argued that by shaping the meaning, by revising one's life plan in accordance with the new limitations, the person reaffirms himself "as a chooser of life plans, even as he disvalues and repudiates the fact of the illness itself."6 Several authors of these narratives clearly recognized that writing about the experience aided rehabilitation. Telling their stories helped them come to terms with polio and its legacies. As Raymond Leslie Goldman put it, "The writing was part of the fight I was making. Without quite realizing it, I was seeking a meaning."7 Leonard Kriegel found that "only by again writing about [his] lifetime war with a polio virus could [he] regain control of that life... ."8 Dorothy Pallas summoned the strength to write about "[a] shattered world and from it make / Meanings entire."9 These autobiographical narratives, coupled with biographical accounts, provide a window into both the experience of polio at midcentury and the ways in which those who had polio struggled to make sense of that experience. The themes of recovery and redemption that mark these narratives resemble the Puritan covenants of works and grace. For the Puritans, good works were not sufficient signs of being saved; only God's grace could guarantee salvation.10 The covenant of work for polio victims arose out of the agreement, sometimes tacit and often explicit, between patient and therapist to push until the absolute physical limitations had been discovered. For these men, women, and children with polio, rehabilitation meant working to recover muscle function through physical therapy. Once the acute phase of the attack ended, it was difficult to determine precisely how severely...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 22-41
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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