(TRIGGER WARNING: Child loss; trauma; bereavement)
A few years ago I read Emily Rapp Black’s 2006 US memoir Poster Child, a memoir about growing up after the loss of her left leg at the age of four. It seems to be out of print now, so I wish I had kept my copy. I remember being struck by her story, which resonated due to my daughter’s hemiplegia, which means she has lifelong struggles with her left side, and especially her leg, following a stroke just before birth. I don’t remember the writing being absolutely stunning though.
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, published this year, though, is an astonishingly well-written, angry, eloquent book about surviving almost unbearable trauma, about disabled identity, and about beauty and creativity.
What can all of us learn from Frida, no matter our embodiment?
This: Love and bodies come apart. Also, this: Art remains.
Emily Rapp Black was fascinated by Frida Kahlo when growing up. Kahlo’s story is well-known: she suffered polio as a child, which withered her foot, and at 18 she was involved in a terrible road accident that broke her spine, ribs, collarbone, pelvis, leg and foot and dislocated her shoulder. A handrail injured her vagina. She lived for almost 30 years after the accident, going through 32 surgeries and eventually losing her leg, as well as losing several pregnancies. Her suffering has been eulogised and fetishised: Kahlo is as famous for her suffering as for her art or for her arresting beauty.
Like Kahlo, Rapp Black is familiar with living with a dual identity, “passing” as “normal” from the outside, thanks to a prosthetic leg, but with a consuming physical difference. She pored over Kahlo’s journal, and describes later visits in adulthood both to the Casa Azul, the home that Kahlo shared with the sexually incontinent painter Diego Rivera (he even slept with her sister), and the show that came to London’s V&A in 2018, where Kahlo’s most personal items, both decorative and medical (and sometimes both) were displayed. I remember that London show, and the strange, faintly reverential atmosphere of passing through its under-lit rooms.
Rapp Black’s first child, Ronan, died from Tay-Sachs disease before his third birthday, an experience that was the topic of her second book, The Still Point of the Turning World (which I haven’t read, and don’t think I will). She quotes Kahlo, writing a year after her accident, in describing her own grief at her son’s diagnosis:
“A short while ago, maybe days ago, I was a girl walking in a world of colours, of clear and tangible shapes. Everything was mysterious and something was hiding; guessing its nature was a game for me. If you knew how terrible it is to attain knowledge all of a sudden – like lightning elucidating the earth! Now I live on this painful planet, transparent as ice. It’s as if I had learned everything at the same time, in a matter of seconds“
Rapp Black’s emotionally raw book meets the beauty and brutality of life head on. She is intimidatingly clever, quoting Kafka and Simone Weil, in an erudite, searingly honest but nevertheless very readable meditation on creativity, grief and disability. She wrestles with different aspects of her female identity, such as societal expectations of attractiveness (“being disabled means knowing that you are not somebody others want to fuck“) and motherhood (how to consider yourself a mother once your only child is dead?).
“I am not a … good or kind person, but a damaged and bitchy pregnant woman, still grieving, unkindly wishing on other women the kind of despair that comes from being invisible to the gaze of the other that I have so ardently dissected, criticized and, occasionally, been able to dismiss.”
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is published by independent non-fiction publisher Notting Hill Editions, and is expensive, at £14.99 at full price for 145 pages of text. However, it is also a beautifully produced little hardback, clothbound in red fabric, with thick creamy paper and some beautiful reproductions of Kahlo’s work. I don’t feel cheated out of my cash. The book would be a worthy winner of the second Barbellion Prize, awarded to a writer whose work deals with the experience of living with chronic illness or disability, the longlist for which is due to be announced in December.