Chicago artist Riva Lehrer is perhaps best known for her portraits of individuals whom society has frequently stigmatized: people with disabilities, those with non-cisgender identities, and others whose physical differences do not fit into the cultural mainstream. Her work has been shown widely throughout the country, most recently at the River North Zolla / Lieberman Gallery, where her "Pandemic Portraiture" was on display in the fall.
But Lehrer - a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an instructor in Northwestern University's medical humanities division, and a major force in disability culture - may soon become as widely respected for writing as for her paintings and drawings.
She has just released
Golem Girl: A Memoir
, an account of living with spina bifida, or, literally, "split spine," a birth defect in which a baby's neural tube does not close properly. Those with spina bifida often contend with a host of physical challenges, including scoliosis, hip dislocation, clubfoot, and a limp, as well as years of excruciating surgeries - that is, if they make it to adulthood. When Lehrer was born, in 1958, in Cincinnati, most babies with spina bifida died in infancy.
(One World) is not an inventory of medical minutiae, however, and neither is it an inspirational success story of a girl beating the odds. Rather, it is a portrait of artist - one who is smart, angry, loving, and keenly observant, who is adored by and adoring of her highly protective mother of "ferocious intelligence," as described by Lehrer. Readers get to know Lehrer and her mother, Carole Horwitz Lehrer, intimately, along with the other members of her very Jewish, very complicated family.
They also come to understand why she refers to herself as a golem - a clay monster in Jewish folklore brought to life. Think of Frankenstein - as Lehrer often has.
"I grew up loving monster movies," she said in a phone interview from her North Side flat. "I remember in college, my film professor showed us the silent version of
. That's the first time I kind of put it all together."
Lehrer has had a number of those surprisingly clarifying moments over the years.
, for example, was not conceived as a literary autobiography, but "as a document," she said. "I wanted something for my family to explain my work."
Things morphed a few years back, when Lehrer received an invitation to MacDowell, the prestigious New Hampshire residency program for artists and writers.
"I was completely shocked when I got in," she recounted. "I had to send in a writing sample, and I thought that they were being nice to the cripple."
Around that time, she also wrote an essay for
The New York Times
, "Where All Bodies Are Exquisite," which elicited, she said, a call from a book agent "out of the blue."
Up to that time, she assumed that any book she might write would be picked up by an academic press, if she were lucky.
, released by a Random House imprint and interspersed with color images of her artwork and personal photographs, is receiving universal acclaim.
"Readers will be sucked into Lehrer's powerful memoir," hailed Publishers Weekly.
"An extraordinary memoir suffused with generosity, consistent insight, and striking artwork," headlined Kirkus Review.
Lehrer, who has lived in Chicago for more than 35 years, is gratified by the response to her book. It is frustrating, she conceded, to be published in the midst of a pandemic, when book tours are out of the question. But she hopes that
will provide readers, particularly during a major medical crisis, with a more nuanced understanding of how to view the pain of others.
"You can't be operated out of it," she said.
Robert Nagger Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.