Last Friday night author Beth Finke and I participated in an event called “Body Language—Reading and Discussions about Writing the Body.”The event was held at Access Living, a non-profit advocacy organization in Chicago that delivers programs and services to people with disabilities.
As a writer in one of Beth’s memoir-writing classes, I’m included in her latest book, Writing Out Loud. The book tells Beth’s story about teaching memoir to older adults, and I gladly accepted the invitation to get on stage with Beth and interview her about her writing and teaching. After introductions, I asked some of the obvious questions most people want to know:
- What was it like to get fired from your job when you lost your sight?
- How did you get started leading memoir-writing classes?
The shocker came when I asked, “What other jobs have you had since going blind?” Beth answered by “reading” a passage from her book about auditioning to pose in the nude for an art class. She pulled out a phone-size gadget with her passage teed up, put in earplugs and flipped the switch that talked the words in her ear as she perfectly mouthed these words out loud to the audience:
My robe was still on when I backed up to the table and hitched myself up. Crouching down, I felt the tabletop’s edges to be sure I wouldn’t fall off, then stood up and unbuttoned my robe.
I’d been told to strike six poses, eventually ending up in a reclining position. Had I been able to see that first model do her audition, I might have had a better idea of what was expected. I was suddenly so concerned with coming up with six different poses that I forgot I was naked.
The department must have been pretty desperate for models, especially ones middle-aged or older and willing to work mornings. Most models are students who liked sleeping in.
I passed the audition.
Access Living is a leading force in the national disability advocacy community. The audience included people from their extensive list of volunteers, clients, personal assistants, board members and friends. Executive Vice President Jim Charlton even brought students from his classes at the University of Illinois Institute on Disability and Human Development.
Next up after Beth’s interview was a reading from artist Riva Lehrer’s upcoming memoir, Golem Girl. Riva read a riveting account from her magnificently written manuscript about growing up at the Condon School for Crippled Children in Cincinnati. A slide show moved from photo to photo behind her as she read. It showed lovely old black and white yearbook pictures of the school, the students and the teachers.
Riva works at Access Living, is an adjunct professor in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University, and was born with spina bifida. Her paintings focus on physical and cultural representations of hers and others disabilities. Golem Girl will be published by Penguin/Random House next year.
The most startling part of the evening came as questions from the audience started flying. An audience member said she’d read Beth’s book Writing Out Loud and asked if she was writing another. Jessica said she writes, too and asked if Beth ever would start a class for younger people near where she lives, in Skokie. Then, Kapow! Someone asked Riva how she was able to accomplish so much after being ridiculed relentlessly as a child because of her disability.
“I’ve been called crip, gimp, freak, retard, midget, you-name-it,” she acknowledged. “In the Condon school, because we all had something, I felt safe, not so different. Outside of school I was always scared.”
She said that when she first started working alongside so many other people with disabilities at Access Living, she felt safe at work like she always had at school. “I was afraid to go out the door at the end of the workday.” She credited Susan Nussbaum, her friend and colleague at Access Living, for helping her navigate the outside world. “You just have to rely on others.”
Afterwards I walked around the room to chit-chat. When I returned to Beth she was leaning into Jessica showing her how to work the reading gadget so Jessica, who uses a wheelchair and has limited sight, could read her own stories out loud to her own audience.
Just before we left, Beth’s guide dog, Whitney, uncharacteristically stood up and lifted her head high enough for Jessica to pet her.