This year I published my second novel, a story about a girl with scoliosis. History Lesson for Girls is not an autobiography, but the scoliosis aspect of the story is inspired by my own experience. I was diagnosed with a curvature of the spine when I was eleven, and wore the Milwaukee brace from then until I was thirteen. When planning History Lessons for Girls, I resisted at first the notion of one of my characters having scoliosis, in part because I didn’t want to get that close to my own life. But finally I decided it would have to be. Scoliosis was what I knew and scoliosis was what terrified me, and sometimes as a writer it's best to head toward what scares you the most.
Do people need to suffer to create? Of course not, and yet discovering I had scoliosis and wearing a brace most definitely had something to do with my becoming a writer. The day my parents and I came home from my first appointment with the orthopedic surgeon--the day I got an X-ray and saw my spine's eerie tumble into an S-curve for the first time, and the doctor sent us marching off to the brace-maker's to be fitted for a Milwaukee brace--was also the day I wrote my first poem.
It's not that I hadn't penned a few rhymes before. We'd learned about poetry in school, and both my parents were writers, so the concept of writing was always in the air, books were part of the household. But after that doctor's appointment, contemplating a future that would involve wearing a brace twenty-three hours a day for what could amount to years, I walked upstairs to my room and closed the door. Like a zombie I got out a notebook and a pen and kneeled in front of my bed. Methodically, somberly, I wrote, trying to make sense of what was happening to me. It was the first time I wrote out of need.
Prior to the diagnosis, I'd had a small, reckless pride in my body. Just a couple of years before, I'd convinced myself that I could learn to jump from any height, you might almost say that I could learn to fly, if I only trained diligently, repeating practice jumps from higher and higher points on a containing wall between our house and the neighbor's. I'd taken special pleasure in not requiring eyeglasses or braces for my teeth. This freedom from cumbersome medical aids gave me the gleeful feeling that my body was all right just as it was. More than all right: I felt lucky.
Through the months and years to come, it was my unfortunate circumstance to lose this faith in myself and in the physical world. My body had betrayed me; I could no longer rely on it. "Idiopathic" means of no known origin, and that's the kind of scoliosis I had. Every two months I'd get a new X-ray, and every two months I'd watch the doctor scribble new, higher numbers on the slide, the worsening degrees of my curves. Outwardly I was altered as well. Scoliosis may have been the internal danger, but it was the brace that knocked off my public image. One year after I began wearing it I moved to a new town, and instead of being a normal or even pretty girl, I was viewed (or so I thought) as a freak. A sense of isolation brewed inside me. Would things have been different if I could have relied on my looks, and if the bones inside weren't shaping me, changing me? The way things turned out, I became more of an observer, with a sense of doubt: two critical aspects for writing.
It wasn't just the diagnosis and the brace that altered the course of my life, but the fact that, after I'd worn the brace for two years, the orthopedist announced that it hadn't done any good, and he recommended surgery. The operation involved the cutting open of the back and the insertion of a Harrington Rod, a pencil-like metal piece attached to the spine. I would be in a cast for months, bed-bound and out of school for a year. (Today's surgeries are still extremely serious matters, but if the surgery is successful, which is not always the case, the recovery time is now markedly less.)
In a case of serendipity, my mother received a call that very day from a friend, extolling the healing methods of two reverends giving classes in herbal medicine in the basement of a nearby church. We made an appointment, and before long my parents and I were shaking hands with a young man who had a chiseled, gentle face, and his wife, a round woman with fluffy blond hair and intense eyes. We explained the situation to them, even brought our X-rays. After hearing us out, they suggested a regimen of healthful eating supplemented by vitamins and herbal supplements, exercise (yoga, as well as a few back aligning movements), "laying on of hands" healing, and prayer. Because we were open-minded or because we were desperate, or some combination of both, we decided to follow their recommendations.
We found a new orthopedic surgeon willing to monitor my curves as we followed this course. Soon I began to wear the brace only at night. My back didn't straighten, but it didn't get worse--or that much worse--either. Essentially my condition stabilized, and the doctor approved my taking the brace off completely within the next year. I've lived an active life, enjoying sports and most activities, giving birth to a child, and not suffering any chronic discomfort, these three decades since.