DSQ > Winter/Spring 2007, Volume 27, No.1-2

Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio by Anne Finger effortlessly blends autobiography and critical history to examine the changing narrative of polio and its effects on "self." Finger's premise is that polio is more than a virus; it is a disease with a social history, a story that mingles with the stories of people with polio and their loved ones.

Using medical texts, newspaper accounts, and other life stories, Finger traces the shifting narrative of polio. Outbreaks of what seems like polio can be traced back, at least, to ancient Greece. Finger argues that at the turn of the 20th century, "infantile paralysis" emerged from the amorphous field of maladies, identified and named "polio," in large part because of the new science of epidemiology that aimed to track, catalogue, and ultimately end such enemies of public health. The increased sophistication of medical science, the advent of epidemiology (combined with a mass media that could spread the news of outbreaks), and the general expectation that children would survive childhood created the beginnings of a polio narrative proper. Nevertheless, old notions of illness as a stigmata marking moral decay persisted in the early 1900s so that the first few rounds of the battle against polio were also aimed at poor immigrants in the inner cities. Thus, in the early fight against polio multiple meanings overlapped, as racism, ethnocentrism, new understandings of biological pathogens, and Victorian sensibilities collided.

In the public imaginary, the story of President Roosevelt's battle with polio helped solidify the disease as something that could affect anyone, yet be overcome with hard work and the help of medical science. FDR stood as a representation of "overcoming" the disease and winning. Finger also details other public figures that were integral to the fight against polio, such as Sister Elizabeth Kenny and Dr. Haven Emerson — personalities that helped shape the polio narrative.

Because the cultural narrative of polio affects the ways in which individual lives are imagined and experienced, Finger's personal story is woven throughout; however, the words of other people with polio are regularly included so that readers understand the variety of polio experiences. Finger contracts polio in 1954 at the age of three, just a few years before the Salk vaccine is discovered and the "end of polio" declared. Like other "polios" born into this victory, she spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to fully recover — "just like the President!" Her family, equally affected by the polio narrative, even digs a pool for therapy in their backyard. Such stories emphasize the impact of the cultural history of polio on individuals.

Much of Finger's personal story details her childhood. In places where she was too young to clearly remember — or events were too painful — she spins her story from fragments of memories. Towards the end of her narrative, Finger explains how she came into contact with the early disability rights movement. These activists helped her resist the dominant polio narrative of "overcoming" and adopt a "disabled" identity. Finger finally begins using a wheelchair instead of forcing her body to walk, easing some of the fatigue and pain. Although she never "overcomes" polio, Finger succeeds at integrating the disease, its social history, and cultural meanings into her own.

Thus, Finger's title of "Elegy" is a cleaver tongue-in-cheek play on the belief that the epidemic has "ended." It is alive and well in the global South and in countries such as the U.S. where polio survivors are now dealing with the myriad of symptoms of "post-polio syndrome." The "death" the book commemorates is more akin to the fake death of the monster toward the end of the horror film. Everyone believes it is dead. The music is peaceful and the survivors embrace and congratulate each other. But in the final shots the calm is violently broken when the monster's hand rises out of the grave.

Ultimately, Finger's choice of combining autobiography and cultural history offers a valuable resource for Disability Studies theory that examines the relationship between personal and social narratives of illness. Such a tactic also avoids the criticism that autobiography individualizes disability. After all, as Finger acknowledges, this is not only her story.

Copyright (c) 2007 Sarah Smith

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)