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Golem Girl: A Memoir

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What do we sacrifice in the pursuit of normalcy? And what becomes possible when we embrace monstrosity? Can we envision a world that sees impossible creatures? In 1958, amongst the children born with spina bifida is Riva Lehrer. At the time, most such children are not expected to survive. Her parents and doctors are determined to "fix" her, sending the message over and over What do we sacrifice in the pursuit of normalcy? And what becomes possible when we embrace monstrosity? Can we envision a world that sees impossible creatures? In 1958, amongst the children born with spina bifida is Riva Lehrer. At the time, most such children are not expected to survive. Her parents and doctors are determined to "fix" her, sending the message over and over again that she is broken. That she will never have a job, a romantic relationship, or an independent life. Enduring countless medical interventions, Riva tries her best to be a good girl and a good patient in the quest to be cured. Everything changes when, as an adult, Riva is invited to join a group of artists, writers, and performers who are building Disability Culture. Their work is daring, edgy, funny, and dark—it rejects tropes that define disabled people as pathetic, frightening, or worthless. They insist that disability is an opportunity for creativity and resistance. Emboldened, Riva asks if she can paint their portraits—inventing an intimate and collaborative process that will transform the way she sees herself, others, and the world. Each portrait story begins to transform the myths she’s been told her whole life about her body, her sexuality, and other measures of normal. Written with the vivid, cinematic prose of a visual artist, and the love and playfulness that defines all of Riva's work, Golem Girl is an extraordinary story of tenacity and creativity. With the author's magnificent portraits featured throughout, this memoir invites us to stretch ourselves toward a world where bodies flow between all possible forms of what it is to be human.


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What do we sacrifice in the pursuit of normalcy? And what becomes possible when we embrace monstrosity? Can we envision a world that sees impossible creatures? In 1958, amongst the children born with spina bifida is Riva Lehrer. At the time, most such children are not expected to survive. Her parents and doctors are determined to "fix" her, sending the message over and over What do we sacrifice in the pursuit of normalcy? And what becomes possible when we embrace monstrosity? Can we envision a world that sees impossible creatures? In 1958, amongst the children born with spina bifida is Riva Lehrer. At the time, most such children are not expected to survive. Her parents and doctors are determined to "fix" her, sending the message over and over again that she is broken. That she will never have a job, a romantic relationship, or an independent life. Enduring countless medical interventions, Riva tries her best to be a good girl and a good patient in the quest to be cured. Everything changes when, as an adult, Riva is invited to join a group of artists, writers, and performers who are building Disability Culture. Their work is daring, edgy, funny, and dark—it rejects tropes that define disabled people as pathetic, frightening, or worthless. They insist that disability is an opportunity for creativity and resistance. Emboldened, Riva asks if she can paint their portraits—inventing an intimate and collaborative process that will transform the way she sees herself, others, and the world. Each portrait story begins to transform the myths she’s been told her whole life about her body, her sexuality, and other measures of normal. Written with the vivid, cinematic prose of a visual artist, and the love and playfulness that defines all of Riva's work, Golem Girl is an extraordinary story of tenacity and creativity. With the author's magnificent portraits featured throughout, this memoir invites us to stretch ourselves toward a world where bodies flow between all possible forms of what it is to be human.

30 review for Golem Girl: A Memoir

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lana

    I was born with spina bifida about a decade after the author. I feel like I've looked for this book all my life. Spina bifida is much more common than you would think based on the representation of those with disabilities. I didn't expect such a comprehensive and honest look at her life. She might be a survivor, but it didn't have the "stink" of inspiration porn. I wish I had had this book sooner. So many of us from those years had nothing to look to for companionship on our life's paths. I will I was born with spina bifida about a decade after the author. I feel like I've looked for this book all my life. Spina bifida is much more common than you would think based on the representation of those with disabilities. I didn't expect such a comprehensive and honest look at her life. She might be a survivor, but it didn't have the "stink" of inspiration porn. I wish I had had this book sooner. So many of us from those years had nothing to look to for companionship on our life's paths. I will highly recommend it to others!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sonja Arlow

    3.5 stars Riva Lehrer was born with spina bifida, basically a death sentence in the 1960’s. “Peter Singer used spina bifida as his central example as to why disabled children should be allowed to die” She also grew up under the cloud of the USA eugenics program which makes me see red every time I read a book that mentions this. Disabled children seemed quite irrelevant to the medical community of this period. But as a child Riva thrived. Her formative years were viewed through the prism of hope and 3.5 stars Riva Lehrer was born with spina bifida, basically a death sentence in the 1960’s. “Peter Singer used spina bifida as his central example as to why disabled children should be allowed to die” She also grew up under the cloud of the USA eugenics program which makes me see red every time I read a book that mentions this. Disabled children seemed quite irrelevant to the medical community of this period. But as a child Riva thrived. Her formative years were viewed through the prism of hope and joy. (while her adult life was characterized by tragedy, strife, and pain) Once she was enrolled in a school for children with special needs she felt right at home. “Every child at Condon was a Golem; little medical monsters” Through her childhood Riva’s mother was her champion to get the correct treatment and operations. But as wonderful as her mother’s intentions were Riva was basically tortured her entire life, with more and more complex operations that did not seem to improve her quality of life. And once Riva made it to adulthood there was a whole host of other problems. Most disabled people are viewed as asexual, so Riva had a hard time figuring herself out as she grew into adulthood. The LGBTQ community is one that has been marginalized for a very long time, and even more so the disabled LGBTQ community. And this is the space the author tries to find herself. She also seemed just as unhappy at the start as at the end of relationships making the latter part of her story not as enjoyable as that of her childhood. Riva finally establishes herself as an artist and she includes portraits of some of the more pivotal projects she was involved in. It’s a pity I read this in kindle format that renders all pictures in black and white as I would have loved to see her colour portraits in their full glory. The main aim of these projects is to allow disabled people to be SEEN. Although I did not enjoy the book in its entirety the sections on her childhood and the stories behind her art made it worth the read and I rounded up my rating to reflect this.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Winner of the inaugural Barbellion Prize (for disabled/chronically ill authors). (4.5) “My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her Winner of the inaugural Barbellion Prize (for disabled/chronically ill authors). (4.5) “My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her legs the same length. In 1958, when she was born, 90% of children with her condition died before age two. Lehrer’s mother, Carole, who grew up in a family pharmacy business and had worked as a medical researcher, was her daughter’s dogged health advocate. Carole fought for Riva even though she was caught up in her own chronic pain after a botched back surgery that left her addicted to painkillers. Lehrer went to a special school for the disabled in Ohio. It was racially integrated (rare at that time) and offered children physical therapy and normal experiences like Girl Scouts and day camp. But it was clear the teachers didn’t expect these children to achieve anything or have a family life; home ec classes just taught how to wash up from a wheelchair and make meals for one. One horrible day, a substitute teacher locked a classroom door and hectored the children, saying their parents must have drunk and fornicated and they were the wages of sin. Between the routine or emergency surgeries and family heartaches, Lehrer grew up to attend art school at the University of Cincinnati and Art Institute of Chicago. Professors (most of them male) found her work grotesque and self-indulgent, and she struggled with how to depict her body. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, even a wife (though in the late 1980s, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized). In 1996 she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and it was a revelation. She learned that Disabled (like Deaf) is a cultural identity as much as a physical reality, adopted vocabulary like crip (a reclaimed term, like queer) and ableism, and began painting fellow artists with dwarfism, prostheses, or wheelchairs. Becoming a member of the Medical Humanities faculty as well as a visiting artist at two Chicago universities, the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern, gave Lehrer access to Gross Anatomy Labs, where she found in the historical collections – just as she had at the Mütter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia – a fetus in a jar with her very condition. Knowing that she might be the first Disabled person her budding doctors met, she was determined to give them an “inclusive vision” of “the reality of human divergence.” She would have the medical students draw one of the jarred specimens, not as an oddity but as an individual, and give a 15-minute presentation about someone who lives with that disability. Golem Girl is a touching family memoir delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most of them named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and – what truly lifts it above the pack – a miniature art gallery, with reproductions of paintings from various of Lehrer’s series as well as self-portraits, family portraits, and photographs. “I fiercely wanted to see a gallery filled with portraits of luminous crips,” she writes; “I suspected I was going to have to make them myself.” And that is just what she has done. The “Circle Stories” featured the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and “Mirror Shards” included animal daimons, while “The Risk Pictures” of some of her personal heroes were daringly collaborative: she would give the subject an hour alone in her studio with their portrait in progress and allow them to amend it as they wished. Much of her work has bright colors and involves anatomical realism and symbols personal to herself and/or the subject – with Frida Kahlo an acknowledged influence. I’ve now (just about) read the whole Barbellion Prize shortlist. For how it illuminates a life of being different – through queerness in addition to disability, engages with the academic fields of anatomy and Disability studies, and showcases the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Readalikes I have also reviewed: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell Favorite lines: “The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up even when it’s as impossible as flying around the ceiling. Whoever has authority can remove your clothes and display your stitched-up monster body to crowds of young white-coated men. You’re an assemblage of parts that lack gender and those elusive things called feelings.” “‘Normal’ beauty is unmarked, smooth, shiny, upright; but my gaze began to slip past normal beauty as if it was coated in baby oil. I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.” Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    Disclosure: I know Riva Lehrer. She interviewed me in the course of writing and editing her memoir. I am mentioned (briefly) in the book. We knew each other in grade school and Riva wanted perspective on the experience of growing up with what the world sees as ‘disability’ coupled with having a segregated school experience because of our physical circumstances. Riva allowed me to read and offer feedback on the sections about our school experience before the book reached its final form. Golem Girl Disclosure: I know Riva Lehrer. She interviewed me in the course of writing and editing her memoir. I am mentioned (briefly) in the book. We knew each other in grade school and Riva wanted perspective on the experience of growing up with what the world sees as ‘disability’ coupled with having a segregated school experience because of our physical circumstances. Riva allowed me to read and offer feedback on the sections about our school experience before the book reached its final form. Golem Girl is an honest introspection offered for others to see. Riva’s artistic talent extends to her ability to express her personhood, her being, who she is- not just as she can be perceived by the outside. She stitches together the vignettes of her experience with surgical precision yet not devoid of the painter’s flair. There is a bit of the professorial air as well, in the later part of the memoir. I admit to being cautious at first reading the pieces of her story with which I wasn’t familiar. Still the pieces, some painfully jagged and raw, others poetically smooth, form an intentional mosaic which encourages the reader to see and yes, at times stare into the depth, the perspective- fears and hate, hopes and love: to see the golem and the human. Kol HaKavod, All respect and honor, Riva. PS: I didn’t give the memoir a 5-star rating; doing so seems disingenuous. Plus, as the memoir reveals, everything has a bit of imperfection.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Nursebookie

    Golem Girl By Riva Lehrer A wonderful memoir about a woman born with spina bifida who was pretty much told there would be no hope for her chronic disease as she was broken and unfixable. With her mother's grace she was provided with education and a provided life, nurturing her artistic talents and abilities. Overall, this was a heartbreaking story yet uplifting that gives hope and inspiration to many. As a person that works in the medical field, I do enjoy a story of resiliency, strength and one t Golem Girl By Riva Lehrer A wonderful memoir about a woman born with spina bifida who was pretty much told there would be no hope for her chronic disease as she was broken and unfixable. With her mother's grace she was provided with education and a provided life, nurturing her artistic talents and abilities. Overall, this was a heartbreaking story yet uplifting that gives hope and inspiration to many. As a person that works in the medical field, I do enjoy a story of resiliency, strength and one that can motivate others with similar issues. A great read I thoroughly enjoyed.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    My review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: https://m.startribune.com/review-gole... In Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature fashioned of clay and brought to life by magic, its Hebrew name suggesting something incomplete or unfinished. As so-called monsters and frequent heroes, golems illustrate the terror and the promise of embodied life, and as the governing metaphor for artist and professor Riva Lehrer’s penetrating and razor-witted debut, “Golem Girl,” they provide an emblem for the “search My review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: https://m.startribune.com/review-gole... In Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature fashioned of clay and brought to life by magic, its Hebrew name suggesting something incomplete or unfinished. As so-called monsters and frequent heroes, golems illustrate the terror and the promise of embodied life, and as the governing metaphor for artist and professor Riva Lehrer’s penetrating and razor-witted debut, “Golem Girl,” they provide an emblem for the “search for the path from being an It to an I.” The subtitle of this incisive tome is “a memoir” and the book certainly is that: a multifaceted account of Lehrer’s life from her birth in 1958 to the present. But so too is it a captivating social history of disability culture from the mid-20th century until now, showcasing the resourcefulness by which “disabled people are experts in finding new ways to do things when the old ways don’t work,” even when the world treats them “as disturbances, as threats, as frightening or pitiable creatures.” Born with spina bifida in Cincinnati, Lehrer endures surgery upon surgery during her coming-of-age imposed by her loving Jewish family and the medical profession, most of whom believe that the only chance for such individuals to enjoy a putatively productive life is to become as much like abled people as possible. Brainy and bodily, sexy and soulful, Lehrer’s writing exhibits the force of will needed to make one’s way in a culture where, “If it’s medically possible to push a body toward that social ideal, then we make it a moral imperative to do so.” Humor sharpens almost every page, as when she writes of her hospitalizations as an infant, “sometimes my surgeons didn’t even bother stitching me up between operations but simply tied me together like a Shabbos brisket.” With vast ambition and the skill to match, Lehrer examines learning on every level — learning to live, to forgive, to create, to love, and to become a part of various communities: familial, queer, disabled and artistic. Her gaze upon the medical-industrial complex and a society that aspires to have its variant members “die of normal, and soon” spares nothing. Admirably, she’s unafraid to turn that scrutiny upon herself. “I’d believed I could visit the world of disability while holding myself above it,” she writes. “I had no idea how ignorant I was. I had kept myself separate for so long that I knew nothing about the dearth of accessible housing, or how expensive independence was for anyone living on Social Security or Social Security Disability Income.” Like a savvy curator, Lehrer leads her audience from incomprehension to understanding, from innocence to experience, building a messy arc full of stalls and setbacks, repetitions and revelations. Packed with photographs of her own life as well as about 50 reproductions of her brilliant portraiture, this daring opus stands as a fittingly visual testament to the “radical visibility” she advocates as a teacher and a person — a beautiful meditation on monstrousness, bodies and the souls they contain.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    https://bloom-site.com/2020/11/24/riv... Riva Lehrer on Disability, Making Art, and Getting Rid of the Explainy Voice by Lisa Peet "Golem Girl: A Memoir" by Riva LehrerThe Golem is a standby of Jewish folklore; Hebrew for “shapeless mass,” it has been brought to life by contemporary writers from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Alice Hoffman. In her memoir Golem Girl, published in October by One World, Riva Lehrer offers it as a disability archetype, and more—from dust and mud, a shapeless mass breathed in https://bloom-site.com/2020/11/24/riv... Riva Lehrer on Disability, Making Art, and Getting Rid of the Explainy Voice by Lisa Peet "Golem Girl: A Memoir" by Riva LehrerThe Golem is a standby of Jewish folklore; Hebrew for “shapeless mass,” it has been brought to life by contemporary writers from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Alice Hoffman. In her memoir Golem Girl, published in October by One World, Riva Lehrer offers it as a disability archetype, and more—from dust and mud, a shapeless mass breathed into life as something magical. Lehrer was born with spina bifida in the 1950s, a time when chronic disabilities often consigned children to institutions. Instead, her mother—a former medical researcher—made sure she had a formidable education, a rich life, and the medical care she needed. An artist from an early age, in college Lehrer was hooked into disability and queer politics and advocacy, and how these could converge in her own work: “One of the only epiphanies I’ve ever really experienced,” she explained. “It was like falling in love with an entire country.” Lehrer has gone on to a rich career as a portrait artist and a teacher, exhibiting widely and holding instructor and lecturer positions across the country; she’s currently on faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and instructor in the Medical Humanities Departments of Northwestern University. Golem Girl, her first book, is a deeply kind and exhilarating look at where experience, belief, vision, and compassion meet—and why. Bloom’s Lisa Peet had the pleasure of talking to Lehrer in November about how, exactly, that works. * Lisa Peet: First off, how are you doing during this strange time of COVID? Riva Lehrer: I am, as far as I know, still alive. When this first hit, I was terrified that I was going to start losing friends, because so many of my friends are disabled. But what ended up happening, so far, is that we all took it really seriously, and we weren’t the people out there wandering around doing risky things. Most of us deal with medicine on a regular basis, and if we didn’t believe in the reality of science, how many of us would still be here? The hardest thing, and I just wrote an essay for the Times on this—I’m a portrait artist. For 30-something years I’ve had people in my studio, or I go to them, and they pose for me. They’re very long, intimate sessions, which mean the world to me. And I can’t do any of it. I’m trying to figure out what my life can look like. The essay is about having face hunger, about not just losing the faces of other people but losing my own. I’m 4’9,” I walk with a limp, my spine is curved, I’m unusual-looking, I’m now 62, and I’ve always used my face as a way of mitigating or managing how people react to my body. Now when I’m out in public, I don’t have a face anymore [because of having to wear a mask]—I’m just this body, and people react to me differently. LP: How have you been dealing with the lack of in-person contact in your work? So much of it is collaborative. RL: I’m about to start a portrait of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who’s one of the top people in disability studies and bioethics, and to do that I’m hiring a photographer in San Francisco who is going to do reference photos. I hate working that way—it’s both technically and emotionally unsatisfying. But I don’t know how long [the pandemic] is going to last, and it feels important to do this because I’m going to be documenting what we’re all going through, which is yearning to see people—being blocked from seeing them, trying to understand what a relationship is from a distance through technology, having our memories of the faces of our loved ones now be flat and framed in glowing squares. It feels appropriate at the moment not to give up, because this is the moment where we’re all trying to see faces. LP: You talk in the book about your creative process—the politics and advocacy behind it, your thoughts on the bond between artist and subject, and your struggles to get it right. Does writing about making art come naturally? RL: I’ve been teaching at the university level for more than 20 years. And when you are teaching visual art, especially once you start working with upper-level students, the thing you have to learn to do is to take information that’s completely nonverbal and verbalize it. It’s a long process of learning how to use language to talk about something that isn’t language—so that was good training. Most of my work is narrative, especially the stories of other people. When I do artist statements and I’m putting down information about self-portraits, I almost always just say “self-portrait,” but when I’m talking about the portrait of someone else, I try and condense something about who they are. It’s a mixed experience, because part of me sometimes wants people to have no information and just encounter the image. But because I feel an obligation to my collaborators, the point is communicating their presence in the world. I’m always involved in something visual that I have to turn into a story of some kind. LP: When did you decide to write a memoir, and why now? RL: It started out kind of as a document. I had arranged with my family to be my executors, and I thought if anyone wants to find out about my work, there should be a coherent document that my family can use. I started writing that, putting together lecture parts and stuff that I had done. [With] the lectures, at times I would use very personal stories to make a point, and people liked them. So as I was gathering the stories of these other people, my story kept getting dragged into it. And something came up and I thought, I should ask somebody in my family about that—I’m not sure what actually happened. I can’t remember what it was. But whatever answer it was that I got, it was something I had no idea about. So that led me to try to talk to the older members of my family before they weren’t around anymore, and that’s when I started finding out a lot of stuff about my mother. That’s what really got things going. I talk about being constructed by medical people and by my mother, but if I had never gone [to my first meeting of the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective], if I had resisted going and told Susan [Nussbaum] No, forget it, my life would be completely different. As I started writing, it got really clear to me that what I was trying to do was write a book about how we treat each other as embodied beings, and how we pressure and manipulate each other into conforming so that our own anxieties are set aside. That’s more important to me than the story of Riva Lehrer. I’m not that interesting. But I think that some of the experiences I’ve had can help people think about their own embodied lives, and those of people around them, and maybe have a little bit more freedom, or at the least self-knowledge. LP: I would really like to see this book, with its wonderful vein of radical body acceptance, in the hands of teenage girls (and probably boys) everywhere. But who were the readers you were thinking of when you were writing? RL: That was tough. If I had written this just for people with disabilities it would be a completely different book. I knew I was writing both for a general audience and for people in my community— including people in the queer community, not just the crip community. I would write it for the general reader, but then I would nod as much as I could to the people in my own community so that it wasn’t just what we call Disability 101. There’s a fair amount of 101 in there—there was no way around it, like the chapter about [disability] language. I couldn’t not put that in, partly because it was such a transformative thing for me, making the point that you get a different set of words and holy shit, your perceptions just turn inside out. LP: You’ve been making art ever since you were young, but have you always written? RL: No, not like this, though I’ve been writing lectures for 30 yrs. That was actually one of the hardest things about writing this, because there’s an explainy voice in my head when I sit down to write, and I didn’t want that. I wanted story voice. Finding story voice took me quite a long time. I had a good initial editor, Goldie Goldbloom. Goldie’s fantastic, and I did a few private sessions with her and then I took a couple of group workshops, and I read a lot of memoir and memoirish stuff to think about when I cared about a story and when I didn’t. It took me 6-1/2 years, and if you saw the early versions it would make your head hurt. So I was not writing like this out of the gate. It was interesting—I started to hear a noise when it was bad. I would hear this noise in my head when I would reread something, almost literally like a warning bell, except more like a bunch of broken bells all going off at once. Not literally—I wasn’t having audio hallucinations—but it was close to that. And I started to trust that, that when I started to reread something and I felt like that noise was coming up, it was a problem. LP: How hard was it to pitch the book? RL: I’d been invited to apply for a MacDowell [Colony fellowship]. I thought, I’ve never had time to write more than maybe a couple of hours a week—I wonder what it would be like to have several weeks where you’re just writing? At the same time, I was invited into a really prestigious studio program here in Chicago, and I had to make a decision. If I did the studio program it was a two-year commitment, and I knew I’d never do the book then. So I asked them if we could delay for a couple of months to let me go to MacDowell. Toward the end [at MacDowell] I did a reading of an early version of the Winter Walk chapter, about mom’s surgery. I told people about being invited into the studio program, and I said, I need you to be really, really brutal and tell me if I’m basically a hobbyist—that’s OK, I’ll go do the studio program, this has been amazing, I loved meeting you all. I had no perspective. So I did it, and everybody was like, No no no no, you have to write this, which I had not expected. In the middle of all that Rosemarie, whose portrait I’m about to start, called me because Peter Catapano at the New York Times had been doing this series of people writing on disability for the op ed pages, and said, I want you to write an essay. So the essay goes out. And unbeknownst to me, my best friend, Audrey Niffenegger, sent it to her agent without telling me. Her agent, out of the blue, calls me and says he really loves this, and it says at the end I’m working on a book—is that true? And I’m like, Kind of? It took us about six weeks to put together a book proposal. I didn’t even know about book proposals. It didn’t even occur to me to look for an agent. He sent it out to his people and it started to go to auction, and then there was a pre-empt by One World. It was all a shock. When he called me, I was teaching a class at the School of the Art Institute—we were over at the museum. I pick up the phone and he tells me what they paid for the book, and I passed out in the gallery of European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. I woke up with my largest male student holding me, going, Are you OK? LP: Are you working on something new? RL: I am. Fiction this time. I’ve never done fiction before, so this is even stupider. I don’t know if I’ll pull it off or not, but I’m going to try. LP: What are you reading now? Some of my favorite writers are David Mitchell, who has become a friend. Richard Powers. My favorite semi-recent memoir is H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I used to read a lot of mysteries—now most of them really bore me, except I still love Tana French. I read Heavy, by Kiese Laymon, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin—that was great. I just picked up the new Susanna Clarke, but I haven’t read it yet. I like books that take a genre and do something fresh with it. And I like books that take me someplace I haven’t been. Chris Adrian, I love him. Hilary Mantel, Lawrence Wechsler. Philip Pullman’s actually really influential for me, mainly because of my obsession with symbol and metaphor. One of the things I think about how that stuff works—I feel like you have to earn your symbolic structure and your metaphoric language. Pullman is somebody who understands how to earn your metaphors. LP: In the book, you’ve done a great job communicating about where your art intersects with your disability and queer activism and your love of storytelling. I like hearing how that fluidity has entered into your writing—can you talk a bit about how your sense of narrative informs your art practice? RL: One of the last installations I did, the painting of Carrie Sandahl in BDSM gear, I did at a museum where on one wall it was just [the portrait of] Carrie with two speakers. Her partner, who’s now her husband, came and taped every single one of our portrait sessions. Sometimes he was there and sometimes he just left the equipment. So we had hour after hour of our conversations, and the speakers were playing snippets. And there was a whole wall of documents that she and I had done separately, talking about the experience of spending an entire summer with each other, and about our experiences of embodiment, or pain, or sex. And then in the far corner I took the chair and the heating pad and the footstool and the little rolling table, the physical setup that Carrie had sat on during our sessions. Our disabilities are not the same but they’re similar, so I was taking care of her physical needs very much in the way that I take care of my own. I wanted the presence of that comfort corner, the proof of the care I was taking of her, and the sense of intimacy—just this little chair with a bunch of pillows on it. It felt very homey. And for opening night, I had plates of the cookies that she liked to eat, and mugs of the tea that she liked. I wanted to pull our relationship into an equal place, along with the actual result in painting, so that anybody in there would be thinking about what it was like—not just to sit for me but to have that be such a long period of deep exchange. The person isn’t just sitting there like a houseplant. They’re talking. What I value are the connections I make with the people. That’s the point of what I’m doing. What drives me crazy is that when you see a portrait in a museum, you just see this picture of a person and the artist seems to be gone, and the relationship certainly doesn’t seem to be there. For me, it’s the relationship that’s changed my life. It’s the exchanges I’ve had with people. You go with where you find your love.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ebirdy

    This is one of the most unusual and thought provoking memoirs I have read. It is an amazingly candid, unflinching description of life with a physical disability and how it affects and influences the author's life. It's also the story of a mother and daughter, and all the sticky complications that encompasses. The author's view of herself as a "golem", and her decision to make the idea of golems, monsters and "otherness" a central theme of her memoir is just perfect, and perfectly executed. It's w This is one of the most unusual and thought provoking memoirs I have read. It is an amazingly candid, unflinching description of life with a physical disability and how it affects and influences the author's life. It's also the story of a mother and daughter, and all the sticky complications that encompasses. The author's view of herself as a "golem", and her decision to make the idea of golems, monsters and "otherness" a central theme of her memoir is just perfect, and perfectly executed. It's written in a slightly non-linear style with often very short chapters, which compelled me to keep reading (just one more chapter then I'll go to bed!). It's also filled with the author's wonderous, sometimes uncomfortable artwork. Even better, there's an entire appendix at the end about each piece of art in the book. Because of the artwork, I would recommend the print or Kindle version over the audio version. There is some slightly uneven editing which annoyed me, but just a bit of it. To me, this was a story about difficulty, pain, love, art, personal growth and a different way of looking at people. There's a lot to think about in this book, as well as some beautiful ideas. It might have one of the most powerful closing sentences/ideas that I've read. Highly recommend if you are someone willing to have your view of people widened and enhanced.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rincey

    I completely honest memoir of Riva Lehrer's life living with spina bifida and becoming an artist. I really, really enjoyed it. Watch my review here: https://youtu.be/U54N7N6B9-c I completely honest memoir of Riva Lehrer's life living with spina bifida and becoming an artist. I really, really enjoyed it. Watch my review here: https://youtu.be/U54N7N6B9-c

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    I do need to say that I know Riva - we worked together as 20 somethings in Chicago - bonding over a truly miserable job - and I consider her a friend. I've followed her work as an artist since the late 1980s, reveling in her successes and always eager to know what she is working on. This is really an extraordinary memoir. Born with spina bifada at a time when most infants with this diagnosis would have died within the first year, Lehrer was kept alive through medical breakthroughs, luck and an i I do need to say that I know Riva - we worked together as 20 somethings in Chicago - bonding over a truly miserable job - and I consider her a friend. I've followed her work as an artist since the late 1980s, reveling in her successes and always eager to know what she is working on. This is really an extraordinary memoir. Born with spina bifada at a time when most infants with this diagnosis would have died within the first year, Lehrer was kept alive through medical breakthroughs, luck and an incredibly strong willed mother. Reading about her childhood, her education, her parents, and her first forays into love, sex, and art is pure literary pleasure. There were times when I gasped out loud. And oh how I laughed. She is so smart and so funny! The memoir absolutely has her voice - confiding, bright, occasionally TMI but then she is sure to say something that cracks you up utterly. Her delicious sense of humor is one of the main reasons this is such a splendid read The last third of the memoir is about her work and even though it moves forward in time, it is less compelling. I don't think this is unusual for an artist writing about herself- once she hits a certain level of success exhibiting and teaching, the emotional connection isn't as strong and she has to move through several decades to get to the present. The beginnings of Covid lends a sombre note to her conclusion and I admit, she's one of the people I think of most often as I go around my business, masked, but able bodied and with a decent immune system. This is a also a gorgeously made book, well illustrated with Riva's extraordinary drawings and paintings with thoughtful mini-essays that take the reader behind some of her most iconic portraits. I know she would hate to be called a survivor or for me to talk about her successes as something that she overcame to accomplish. So I won't. But this is an incredible story of beating the odds - which we all have one way or the other - and becoming an artist whose work expands and shatters on our ideas of beauty, able-bodied-ness and humunity. Read it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn

    This stunning memoir takes the reader through Lehrer’s life thus far using this image of the Golem to speak to her life with spina bifida, her education and formative experiences coming into her queerness and identity as an artist and (to a lesser extent) within the Jewish faith, and the beautifully complex relationship she had with her late mother (perhaps my favorite aspect of the book). I knew little of the history and legends surrounding Golems so really appreciated the context Lehrer gave a This stunning memoir takes the reader through Lehrer’s life thus far using this image of the Golem to speak to her life with spina bifida, her education and formative experiences coming into her queerness and identity as an artist and (to a lesser extent) within the Jewish faith, and the beautifully complex relationship she had with her late mother (perhaps my favorite aspect of the book). I knew little of the history and legends surrounding Golems so really appreciated the context Lehrer gave around this, which worked in perfect symbiosis with the narrative she was telling about her own life and her own relationship with her body and disability. The fact that Golems historically are on a search “for the path from being an It to an I” make this analogy particularly apt for the memoir form. . The subject matter also benefits from art commentary throughout the book, which really hits its stride in the latter part when Lehrer writes about her own works and focuses she had. There’s a consciousness about her subject matter (namely other people in her community) and the idea of a lens that was so deftly written. While these sections particularly felt shorter and fragmented at times, they were such interesting glimpses into the workings of Lehrer’s own art. . The time period Lehrer grew up in (1960s-1970s) and the experiences she had in education institutions, in advocacy bodies and other movements also gives a really interesting glimpse into the historical development of disability in a broader sense—the way individuals identify within it, the attitudes and prejudices weighted with ableism and their impact on an individual level. It also tracks the shift in Lehrer’s own identification with disability—“I’d believed I could visit the world of disability while holding myself above it. I had no idea how ignorant I was.” . This is an incredible read and I’m so grateful to @matthewsciarappa for putting in on my radar! This would make a fantastic bookclub read as there’s so much in this to discuss.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Orsolya

    All of us ‘normal’ people take our bodies for granted. Rarely, if ever, do we consider the lives of those with disabilities and the difficulties they face unless we have a direct loved one who fits this category. Schooling, family, friends, sex, career… Every aspect is affected by their disability. Riva Lehrer was born in the 50s with Spina Bifida and was given a short timeline to live. But live, she did. Now a well-known artist and professor; Lehrer lives her best life as the adage goes and sha All of us ‘normal’ people take our bodies for granted. Rarely, if ever, do we consider the lives of those with disabilities and the difficulties they face unless we have a direct loved one who fits this category. Schooling, family, friends, sex, career… Every aspect is affected by their disability. Riva Lehrer was born in the 50s with Spina Bifida and was given a short timeline to live. But live, she did. Now a well-known artist and professor; Lehrer lives her best life as the adage goes and shares it all with readers in, “Golem Girl: A Memoir”. When a text simultaneously makes you laugh out loud, frown AND takes your breath away before you even hit page 10; then you know that you have a masterpiece on your hands. This is precisely what Lehrer’s “Golem Girl” achieves. “Golem Girl” combines elements of a standard memoir, stream of consciousness piece, fictional literature, play and artist manifesto; before topping it off with an educational/informative flair. This, ladies and gents, is how a memoir should be done! Lehrer has set the bar high! Lehrer’s glossy-paged text (yes, these little details DO garner bonus points); follows Lehrer’s life from her diagnosis, through a special school for those with a disability, university and her early career in a chronological format (mostly – as there are some backtracking areas). Lehrer’s storytelling is accessible and easily relatable but never dummied down as the prose is richly nuanced and engrossing. Lehrer is incredibly intelligent but boiling over with creative confidence adding humor into the mix. “Golem Girl” is inviting while being poignantly magnetic. It is, simply put, the dictionary definition of “page turner”. Readers truly ‘feel’ every emotion while experiencing “Golem Girl” but never in a contrived or forced way. Lehrer is genuine and down-to-earth but also effortlessly instructs on life with a disability from menial to important tasks all the way to advocacy for the field. “Golem Girl” is incredibly memorable and raises philosophical and psychological topics that the reader can’t help but continue to consider even after completion of the text. Lehrer is an expert at entertaining and keeping the reader engaged. Her pen knows the secret formula of how much time should be spent on each tale or storytelling style before moving on and switching it up. “Golem Girl” is fresh, feisty and fervent with a strong heartbeat. Unlike most memoirs attempting to catch readers with raunchy, gossipy tales generally obsessing over sex and drugs or constantly playing the “woe is me” pity party card while point fingers at others; “Golem Girl” is instead a strong, independent declaration. Lehrer never begs for pity, complains or blames others for any mishaps and is one of the boldest women alive for it. She is truly a ‘good person’. Even when someone did her wrong; Lehrer never trash talks in “Golem Girl”. Perhaps this is an avoidance tactic (and hopefully Lehrer isn’t bottling emotions inside); but it works to make “Golem Girl” am epically standout memoir. “Golem Girl” is peppered throughout with Lehrer’s artwork, especially when accompanying a related tale. Speaking of art, the final quarter of “Golem Girl” follows Lehrer’s artistic journey during some of her projects/series/exhibitions and is consequentially more of an artist program than a memoir and is a noticeable departure from former portions of the book. Despite this, “Golem Girl” is not weakened in any way and maintains its alluring capacity to draw readers. Impressively, Lehrer is able to demonstrate her weaknesses and share her pains in a manner that shows she has accepted them and moved on. Either Lehrer has an incredible therapist or she, once again, is momentously strong (I would wager it is both). Lehrer concludes “Golem Girl” in a well-rounded way that makes the text feel ‘complete’. Also included, are two epilogues with one being a letter from Lehrer during May 2020 in the height of Covid-19 and lockdowns and the other showcasing Lehrer’s paintings with the subjects’ points of view included. Lehrer also offer reader resources concerning disabilities. “Golem Girl” is an unspeakably amazing memoir that is quite perfect in every way be it content, execution, prose, style, etc. Lehrer is an amazing soul and this is clear in her writing (don’t worry: she is very humble). “Golem Girl” is recommended for all readers who enjoy memoirs; especially about those overcoming hardships.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Magdelanye

    The hospital was a war between textures: a thin layer of soft, bright, and touchable as camouflage over the sharp, hard, and brutal. p68 One of the greatest little known artists today, Riva Lehrer was born at the right moment with a gift for life that allowed her to survive past infancy where so many with her diagnoses of spina bifida did not. Those wires pinned her down for her own good....Hospital rooms kept you where they wanted you....Toys reminded us that we were children. p70 The hospital dem The hospital was a war between textures: a thin layer of soft, bright, and touchable as camouflage over the sharp, hard, and brutal. p68 One of the greatest little known artists today, Riva Lehrer was born at the right moment with a gift for life that allowed her to survive past infancy where so many with her diagnoses of spina bifida did not. Those wires pinned her down for her own good....Hospital rooms kept you where they wanted you....Toys reminded us that we were children. p70 The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up....Whoever has authority cam remove your clothes. p92 In her evolving body of work, RL explores the various complications that involved her body and soul; her empathy and chutzpah allowed her access to and the opportunity to collaborate with other artists of one kind or another in a way that allows, maybe even encourages, complicity rather than shock, aversion or pity. I'd never considered that society derived benefits from ignoring the needs of the disabled....I had spent years fighting against misogyny, homophobia, and ant-Semitism, yet I'd so easily believed that I should be ashamed of my body that I'd never understood shame was both the product and the tool of injustice. p243 Rather than hide her shame and herself in a corner, RL exceeded her own limits. The story of her life is a series of miracles and a great inspiration to anyone, especially those who have hidden behind their disability. The book itself is gorgeous with full colour plates that reveal the free range of RLs imagination. We are all made of parts. Lose any of them, and discover you are some other thing than you thought you were. p280

  14. 5 out of 5

    Theresa

    I found this really hard going, but just because I wanted to read it properly, not skim read like I sometimes do. Such a great book, and the stories behind the paintings were great supplements. I didn't give much thought to the view of "expendable lives" with the pandemic, and this has opened my eyes to the discriminatory behaviour towards those that we could provide less care to. I found this really hard going, but just because I wanted to read it properly, not skim read like I sometimes do. Such a great book, and the stories behind the paintings were great supplements. I didn't give much thought to the view of "expendable lives" with the pandemic, and this has opened my eyes to the discriminatory behaviour towards those that we could provide less care to.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Isabelle (Izzy)

    Riva is nothing short of a survivor. Her story is heartbreaking, but Riva is resilient and a force to be reckoned with. She is an inspiration for trauma survivors everywhere, if I personally would say. I definitely had to take breaks from the book and practice self care, because it can be overwhelming and triggering, especially if you can relate to what’s going on, but I encourage readers to continue with the book and see to the rainbow at the end of all the grey. Thank you so much to netgalley Riva is nothing short of a survivor. Her story is heartbreaking, but Riva is resilient and a force to be reckoned with. She is an inspiration for trauma survivors everywhere, if I personally would say. I definitely had to take breaks from the book and practice self care, because it can be overwhelming and triggering, especially if you can relate to what’s going on, but I encourage readers to continue with the book and see to the rainbow at the end of all the grey. Thank you so much to netgalley and the publisher for providing this arc in exchange for a review.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jill Elizabeth

    This was a fascinating autobiography. I am not an art aficionado and must confess I wasn't familiar with Lehrer, her work, or most of the people she referenced. Thank goodness for Google lol because now I know a lot more, and it's been an extremely interesting education. The book unfolds in segments that describe Lehrer's life from childhood through adulthood and how the presence of spina bifida shaped her and her art. It was an eye opening read - from the personal to the political - and the pat This was a fascinating autobiography. I am not an art aficionado and must confess I wasn't familiar with Lehrer, her work, or most of the people she referenced. Thank goodness for Google lol because now I know a lot more, and it's been an extremely interesting education. The book unfolds in segments that describe Lehrer's life from childhood through adulthood and how the presence of spina bifida shaped her and her art. It was an eye opening read - from the personal to the political - and the patient way she laid out the politics that surrounded so many of the critical moments and events in her life made the story all the more resonant. This was a fabulous read and if you, like me, read it on a black and white kindle make sure to check out her art in full color... The detail and color are amazing - black and white don't do them justice! Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my obligation-free review copy.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Paulette Livers

    I can't remember how the full saying goes that starts out 'You don't know what you don't know'—but I'm glad Riva Lehrer has given this reader a start in finding out some of what I didn't know about living with disability and the powerful disability activism movement. Full disclosure: the author is a writing colleague and friend of this reviewer. I hope that in no way negates the enthusiasm with which I recommend this book. "Golem Girl" does for "ableist" blindness what Ibrim X Kendi's "How to Be I can't remember how the full saying goes that starts out 'You don't know what you don't know'—but I'm glad Riva Lehrer has given this reader a start in finding out some of what I didn't know about living with disability and the powerful disability activism movement. Full disclosure: the author is a writing colleague and friend of this reviewer. I hope that in no way negates the enthusiasm with which I recommend this book. "Golem Girl" does for "ableist" blindness what Ibrim X Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist" does for those whose privilege through race or class conceals their own bigotry from themselves. Lehrer deploys just the right amount of significant detail with pitch-perfect humor to open the minds of readers to what we don't know about life experiences beyond our own.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    Riva Lehrer is a young Jewish girl from Cincinnati, who doesn't know a life without physical handicap. This memoir takes us from her birth with spina bifida through her adulthood and all the surgeries and interventions in-between. Lehrer recounts her life with humor and wryness- a winning combination. She allows us to see her as any girl, but also as those among us who want to be seen and treated as 'normal.' Riva Lehrer is a young Jewish girl from Cincinnati, who doesn't know a life without physical handicap. This memoir takes us from her birth with spina bifida through her adulthood and all the surgeries and interventions in-between. Lehrer recounts her life with humor and wryness- a winning combination. She allows us to see her as any girl, but also as those among us who want to be seen and treated as 'normal.'

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    This is one of the most unique memoirs I've read in a long time. Riva Lehrer was born in 1958 with spina bifida. Miraculously there is a surgeon at the hospital who could perform the emergency surgery on Riva after she's born to close up her spinal cord. She survives the surgery and spends the next two years in the hospital having surgery after surgery. Riva's mother worked in the medical field before marrying, so she knows more than the average parent, but still Riva's health is always at risk. This is one of the most unique memoirs I've read in a long time. Riva Lehrer was born in 1958 with spina bifida. Miraculously there is a surgeon at the hospital who could perform the emergency surgery on Riva after she's born to close up her spinal cord. She survives the surgery and spends the next two years in the hospital having surgery after surgery. Riva's mother worked in the medical field before marrying, so she knows more than the average parent, but still Riva's health is always at risk. The first half of the book covers Riva's life into high school - going to a special school for disabled children, trying to find independence from her family while needing them so much because of her health, etc. The first half also focuses a lot on Riva's relationship with her mother. Riva's mother also had several painful surgeries related to a ruptured disc in her back. So beyond just the normal mother/daughter bond they also bond of their pain and surgeries. This family REALLY had some rough medical issues. The second half of the book covers Riva's art career and how she found her place to "fit in" with a group of Disabled artists. The book is filled with her vivid, yet often disturbing, artwork. At the end there is a section with more information on all the portraits included in the book. I found it really interesting that she ended up teaching anatomical drawing to medical school students - like her life really went full circle in a way. I found the first half of the book more interesting than the second half. Parts of the second half were interesting, but there was a lot of relationship drama and a lot of very detailed parts about working on some of her portraits. One of the reviews I read said that that reader couldn't relate to Riva at all and didn't think she would like her - I could somewhat agree with that. Not having disabilities would make it hard to relate personally to someone like Riva. I'm not sure what she would be like in person, but there was something about the book that was so readable - even when I was uncomfortable or she was talking about something I didn't get or agree with I still found myself wanting to keep reading. She has had an incredibly hard life in many ways and at times it was hard to read one more awful thing happening to her. But, Riva has never shied away from her Golem Girl side and really brings to light how much society shuns anything that is not the "norm." But, when no one is perfect what is the norm? Lots to think about after reading this really unique book. Some quotes I liked: "By the time Frankenstein was published, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley had already had one miscarriage and given birth to two children. The second - a daughter - died before she was two. Of Shelley's five pregnancies, only the last survived to adulthood. Is it any surprise that she fantasized the power to revive the dead? Could Frankenstein have been written by anyone but a mother who had lost child after child? A woman for whom the line between life and death had smudged and faded?" (p. 21) "If my fertility had been valued, perhaps I would have been taken seriously when I complained of pelvic pain. Instead, I had to begin hemorrhaging before anyone examined me. I don't know whether anything could have been done to preserve my fertility, or whether pregnancy was as dangerous as my mother claimed, but I do know that her reaction, and that of Dr. Martin, speaks to a long-held societal dread of disabled people making more disabled people. I know that no one, back then, expressed a single word of sorrow at the loss of my ability to procreate." (p. 139) "I hadn't known there was a difference between the cosmetic aspect of the way I walked and whether my limp was doing me any harm. It's still hard to sort out. My scoliosis was never seen as benign. My curvature was upsetting for others to look at, therefore harmful to society, ergo injurious to me. I gambled my body on other people's visions. I believed that there could be an end to surgeries. That someday, I would be normal enough." (p. 147) "Got it. The Universal equated to men at war and women in bed. The fragile human body pertained only to me. Bryan Jones, TA Extraordinaire, had just stripped me of my nascent purpose in becoming an artist. I unpinned my work with hands that shook so badly that each drawing dropped to the ground. Kids dove under chairs to retrieve the sheets before they were ruined. I surprised myself, though. Instead of sobbing, or quitting, I felt the beginnings of fuck you stirring in my soul." (p. 181) "Most of my own family treated Will [Riva's first college boyfriend] with friendly bafflement, but Grandpa pulled me aside while I was downstairs shooting pool with my cousins. 'I know you like this boy, Riva, but if you really care for him, you should let him see other girls.' Apparently there had been a family conference: all these people who loved me believed that Will could not." (p. 191) " I had spent years fighting against misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, yet I'd so easily believed that I should be ashamed of my body that I'd never understood that the shame was both the product of and tool of injustice. I hadn't just needed Disabled friends. I'd needed friends who could give my experience context and analysis." (p. 243)

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alexis

    This was an outstanding memoir that deserves much more publicity than it seems to have had. Riva Lehrer was born with lipomyelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida, in 1958--just when surgeons were beginning to operate on infants rather than waiting to see if they could survive. Her first two years were spent in Cincinnati Children's Hospital, before her parents were finally able to take her home. Since then, she's had dozens of surgeries. These things are important to know, but they are not who This was an outstanding memoir that deserves much more publicity than it seems to have had. Riva Lehrer was born with lipomyelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida, in 1958--just when surgeons were beginning to operate on infants rather than waiting to see if they could survive. Her first two years were spent in Cincinnati Children's Hospital, before her parents were finally able to take her home. Since then, she's had dozens of surgeries. These things are important to know, but they are not who Riva Lehrer is. Her story is not just her disability, but her art, her family, and her activism, all inseparable. Lehrer's story is one of identity: how she developed as a woman, as an artist, as a queer person, and as a disabled person, and how all those identities have intersected: the disabled are frequently desexualized, and her work as an artist has often focused on portraying disabled people. She discusses, openly and frankly, how society sees her and people like her. The book contains quite a few of her portraits, and for this reason I recommend getting the paper edition (or if you must read it as an ebook, do so on a good quality color tablet). What marks the memoir is her glorious sense of compassion and sensitivity. Her parents, especially her mother, both loved her deeply and would have done anything for her, but were overprotective. Carole Horwitz Lehrer gave up a medical research career to have children; it was probably her actions that saved Riva's life and kept her from being institutionalized. At the same time, Carole dominated her daughter's life and made devastating medical decisions on her behalf. Riva is able to treat the complexity of her relationship with her mother, and her mother's own physical problems, with uncommon grace. Her writing also shows the same care as her portraiture. There's a remarkable level of detail and precision, especially when discussing her family. The book is not funny, but Lehrer reveals herself as a person of great warmth and humor. Although the book is not directly about religion at all, this is also a distinctly Jewish story, from her imagery of herself as the golem to the Jewish culture she was steeped in--adding yet another facet to her identity.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Keshia

    First let me start this review by saying that I love Riva Lehrer's writing style. I devoured her sentences and found myself gasping at her beautifully written sentences too many times to count. Second let me state that while I did read this book primarily because I won it from goodreads giveaway I can honestly state this review is 100% my own unbiased thoughts and this book is truly 5 stars. I, a cis-het white non-religious woman, had to google so many words from this book and it was so much fun First let me start this review by saying that I love Riva Lehrer's writing style. I devoured her sentences and found myself gasping at her beautifully written sentences too many times to count. Second let me state that while I did read this book primarily because I won it from goodreads giveaway I can honestly state this review is 100% my own unbiased thoughts and this book is truly 5 stars. I, a cis-het white non-religious woman, had to google so many words from this book and it was so much fun going on that journey. Most of the Jewish words I didn't know led me down funny internet rabbit holes of sayings and deeper meanings, most of the medical terminology I didn't know helped me understand what the author actually went through. I found myself listening to her speak through the pages of this book as if I were simply sitting at her coffee table. I was ravenous to know more about this life and truly enjoyed every minute of it. I will say that I enjoyed the first section of the book where Riva tells of her childhood and family more like a memoir and the second part more like an artistic explanation of her work. The art in the book is beautifully complex and while I am not educated on art, I still enjoy it! Learning about her collaborations with people to create what she did was really fun and the end of the book has all the art shown with excerpts as well to help clarify. I've never read anything quite like Golem Girl so I am incredibly thankful to have been given the opportunity to read it.

  22. 4 out of 5

    cat

    Another fabulous book to round out this very long and strange year. Somehow the last weeks of 2020 have brought some of my favorite books and some of my most voracious reading. This memoir of a queer, Jewish artist born with spina bifida at a time that held limited medical expertise to treat the physical effects. Her bad-assery and authenticity and writing voice all combined to make this one of my favorite memoirs (if not the favorite) of the year. Her art is interspersed throughout and I loved Another fabulous book to round out this very long and strange year. Somehow the last weeks of 2020 have brought some of my favorite books and some of my most voracious reading. This memoir of a queer, Jewish artist born with spina bifida at a time that held limited medical expertise to treat the physical effects. Her bad-assery and authenticity and writing voice all combined to make this one of my favorite memoirs (if not the favorite) of the year. Her art is interspersed throughout and I loved seeing the many activists within the disability rights/crip world portrayed by the author's paint brush. There is pure art throughout this memoir - visual and written word. As the Star Tribune review shares, "In Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature fashioned of clay and brought to life by magic, its Hebrew name suggesting something incomplete or unfinished. As so-called monsters and frequent heroes, golems illustrate the terror and the promise of embodied life, and as the governing metaphor for artist and professor Riva Lehrer’s penetrating and razor-witted debut, “Golem Girl,” they provide an emblem for the “search for the path from being an It to an I.” The subtitle of this incisive tome is “a memoir” and the book certainly is that: a multifaceted account of Lehrer’s life from her birth in 1958 to the present. But so too is it a captivating social history of disability culture from the mid-20th century until now, showcasing the resourcefulness by which “disabled people are experts in finding new ways to do things when the old ways don’t work,” even when the world treats them “as disturbances, as threats, as frightening or pitiable creatures.”

  23. 4 out of 5

    Cmv

    4.5 This is the first paper-version book I've read in years and I couldn't have picked a better collection of words and experience and color to hold in my hands. An incredibly powerful memoir of living with a disability, coupled with this gorgeous artwork- leading to an incredibly resonating and impactful experience. I was totally hooked on this book from the first page and found myself reading into the wee hours with my tiny reading light precariously balanced to bathe these gorgeous portraits i 4.5 This is the first paper-version book I've read in years and I couldn't have picked a better collection of words and experience and color to hold in my hands. An incredibly powerful memoir of living with a disability, coupled with this gorgeous artwork- leading to an incredibly resonating and impactful experience. I was totally hooked on this book from the first page and found myself reading into the wee hours with my tiny reading light precariously balanced to bathe these gorgeous portraits in light. I especially enjoyed the first half of the book and the detail Lehrer uses to chronicle her childhood, her relationship with her mother and growing up living with a disability, I wished that the second half had the same amount of detail in describing how Rita developed into an artist. There seemed to be some gaps there and that was really my only quibble with this book. I admit that I had never heard of Riva Lehrer before discovering this Barbellion Prize winner (which I also only discovered through a StoryGraph Reading Challenge) but I am certain that anyone who comes across her words and her work will be richer for having had a glimpse into her experience.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Taylor Swift Scholar

    The first half of this book was an interesting and introspective memoir about a young artist growing up with spina bifida, but the second half was absolutely stunning. The way that Lehrer writes about her art is fascinating. I had never thought critically about what it takes to create a portrait of someone. I loved reading the mini-chapters at the end that are by and about people with whom Lehrer has collaborated on portraits. I love how she describes creating portraits as a process of collabora The first half of this book was an interesting and introspective memoir about a young artist growing up with spina bifida, but the second half was absolutely stunning. The way that Lehrer writes about her art is fascinating. I had never thought critically about what it takes to create a portrait of someone. I loved reading the mini-chapters at the end that are by and about people with whom Lehrer has collaborated on portraits. I love how she describes creating portraits as a process of collaboration and explains all of the emotional work involved for the artist to see someone, as well as for the subject to let them in and be seen. I was not familiar with Lehrer's portraits before, but I am so glad that I am now. Golem Girl also left me wanting to find more books on Disability Studies and Disability Culture. Again, particularly in the second half, there were so many asides about ableism, pain, and the relationship people have with their bodies that prompted me to think about each of these things differently and reflect on how much I have to learn.

  25. 5 out of 5

    a. a. d. wolfe

    I was very happy to receive an advanced reading copy of Golem Girl. In this sprawling memoir, Riva Lehrer describes her rollercoaster of a life as a queer, Jewish woman with spina bifida. This was a deeply personal insight that went beyond what I expected. Lehrer juxtaposes her existence as a medical miracle to the dark reality of life with a disability. Her words were as vivid and brilliant as her art—her sharp wit and dry humor don’t let up for a minute. I appreciated the amount of medical and I was very happy to receive an advanced reading copy of Golem Girl. In this sprawling memoir, Riva Lehrer describes her rollercoaster of a life as a queer, Jewish woman with spina bifida. This was a deeply personal insight that went beyond what I expected. Lehrer juxtaposes her existence as a medical miracle to the dark reality of life with a disability. Her words were as vivid and brilliant as her art—her sharp wit and dry humor don’t let up for a minute. I appreciated the amount of medical and political information that Lehrer included. It was fascinating to see the changes through the decades on how the concept of both disability and queerness has shifted. My only qualm was that the concept of a golem seemed to have been shoved in as an afterthought as if she had written the entire thing then went back to add it in. I was surprised that it was the title of the book because it hardly comes up. Other than that, if you are a fan of memoirs and interesting lives, I fully recommend this one.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    4.5 stars This book. I couldn't put it down -- I read it so fast that I may need to eventually go back and spend a little more time with it. I don't normally read/appreciate memoirs but this book pulled me in from the first sentence and wouldn't let me go until the last. It challenged me in so many ways -- some expected and some wholly unexpected. And her art. Oh, her art. How she uses her art and her history of disability...how she thinks about the relationships between artist and subject and ho 4.5 stars This book. I couldn't put it down -- I read it so fast that I may need to eventually go back and spend a little more time with it. I don't normally read/appreciate memoirs but this book pulled me in from the first sentence and wouldn't let me go until the last. It challenged me in so many ways -- some expected and some wholly unexpected. And her art. Oh, her art. How she uses her art and her history of disability...how she thinks about the relationships between artist and subject and how she, in many ways, turned that on its head with her collaborative process. We can never fully understand everything that goes into a piece of art but even a glimpse into her process made me rethink how I may view art in its many forms. The writing/organization of the book was a bit uneven at times and lacking in cohesion at other times. But obviously this didn't detract from the impact this memoir had on me. Winner of the Barbellion Prize and one I would strongly recommend to pretty much anyone.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Shannon (That's So Poe)

    I adored this memoir! It was incredibly well written, very moving, and filled with such interesting personal and cultural history. I have a video review where I talk about it in detail, but basically I just couldn't put it down. The humor that Lehrer writes with and the way she gives insight into her life and experiences was top notch. Content Warnings: graphic depictions of bodily injury/surgery, medical malpractice, depression, suicide, death of a family member, ableism, fat shaming, miscarriage I adored this memoir! It was incredibly well written, very moving, and filled with such interesting personal and cultural history. I have a video review where I talk about it in detail, but basically I just couldn't put it down. The humor that Lehrer writes with and the way she gives insight into her life and experiences was top notch. Content Warnings: graphic depictions of bodily injury/surgery, medical malpractice, depression, suicide, death of a family member, ableism, fat shaming, miscarriage, addiction, involuntary sterilization

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ellen Margolese

    In a time where we as a society are becoming so much more aware of biases and systematic barriers that affect so many, Ms. Lehrer’s memoir is a needed addition to the literature. It is both an insightful and engaging memoir as well as and accessible (pardon the pun) introduction and exploration of the able ism in North American (and no doubt many others) society. Her discussion of the issues is interspersed with her various portrait series of significant people in her life, both disabled and non In a time where we as a society are becoming so much more aware of biases and systematic barriers that affect so many, Ms. Lehrer’s memoir is a needed addition to the literature. It is both an insightful and engaging memoir as well as and accessible (pardon the pun) introduction and exploration of the able ism in North American (and no doubt many others) society. Her discussion of the issues is interspersed with her various portrait series of significant people in her life, both disabled and non-disabled. This adds a wonderfully personal layer to the issues raised.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Erica

    An interesting memoir by an artist who has been active in the disability rights movement and tells about her experience as a person with a disability. The memoir is a lot about her art, and jumps around. There are stories where I want to know more, and people in her life who seem to just show up and disappear, because that's the story she wants to be telling, not necessarily the story I'm curious to know more about. An interesting memoir by an artist who has been active in the disability rights movement and tells about her experience as a person with a disability. The memoir is a lot about her art, and jumps around. There are stories where I want to know more, and people in her life who seem to just show up and disappear, because that's the story she wants to be telling, not necessarily the story I'm curious to know more about.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Becky Loader

    Lehrer is born in 1958 with spina bifada. She spends a good portion of her life in and out of hospitals, as she struggles to maintain her body. She is an artist who depicts life through her art, and Lehrer works through her body's treachery to live life. Inspirational and a great look at the creative process. Lehrer is born in 1958 with spina bifada. She spends a good portion of her life in and out of hospitals, as she struggles to maintain her body. She is an artist who depicts life through her art, and Lehrer works through her body's treachery to live life. Inspirational and a great look at the creative process.

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