Horizontal Woman

This record of “life lived lying down” describes a kind of exile, the trauma of pain and disability when a healthy life is transformed in an instant by sudden accident. In the moment of bending over to pick up her child, an unthinking action performed thousands of times before, something in Suzanne Berger’s back rends. This invisible injury alters her role, her status, and her able-bodied self which she had always taken for granted.

Unable to stand or sit, Berger at first cannot even use a wheelchair. Condemned to a life on the sidelines, she rails against the loneliness and abandonment of the disabled. Later, able to sit and even walk for short distances, she encounters suspicion, sometimes hostility, from those who consider her “not disabled enough” or who find an unseen and nameless injury too hard too accept. Her oversized wheelchair, she discovers, is not necessarily welcome even where handicapped access is promised. Lying down in public places relegates her to the province of the mad, the homeless, and the derelict.

Berger’s sudden disability also strains her relations with family and friends. Caring for her family becomes a matter of rolling out cookie dough on the floor and looking out from a makeshift bed in the back of a station wagon as her husband and daughter skate. Eventually, however, there are small triumphs—sitting up in a restaurant long enough for a fifteen-minute meal, walking around the corner for milk, riding in a canoe, and joining a midnight swimming party.

With poetic precision, Berger gives expression to pain, rage, and grief. Recorded with passion, envy, and some bitterness, this memoir forces a confrontation with her worst fears: helplessness, abandonment, exposure to scorn, and the inability to care for loved ones.

Though painful at times, this is not a depressing book. Its main impact is to challenge our perceptions of and prejudices about disabilities. Berger’s testament elicits from us compassion, empathy, and understanding. This is a book which draws nearer together the worlds of the able and less able.