Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Shell, Marc. (2005). Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 324 pgs. 20 illustrations. Cloth 0-674-01315-8. $35.00.

Reviewed by Richard C. Keller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This is an angry book. Part memoir, part cultural study, part historical analysis, the book aims to integrate the author's personal experience with polio into a wider history of the disease. The author contracted polio as a child in 1953, just before the Salk vaccine became available. One of Shell's arguments is that the celebration that surrounded the vaccine's development was premature and fostered a widespread cultural repression of the polio experience. The author's family participated directly in this denial. By never admitting to him that he had actually been infected, and by actively encouraging him to work past his resulting physical limitations, Shell's parents invalidated his suffering and contributed to the trauma of his post-polio existence.

The book draws extensively on this experience to illustrate what Shell calls the "aftermath" of polio. Celebrations of many patients' supposedly "spontaneous" cures from the disease, marked by increased physical capacity after an initial bout with paralysis, were as misplaced as the sense of conquest that followed the introduction of the Salk vaccine. Both denied a lingering presence of the disease in those who had been permanently disabled by polio and those at high risk for post-polio syndrome, a second swath cut by the disease several decades after the initial infection that has re-paralyzed many of polio's original victims. Moreover, these dual denials mirrored a wider repression in the culture, whereby polio was frequently depicted under erasure: Shell argues that films, literary works, and even wartime propaganda drew on polio's metaphoric power in order to play on pervasive fears of the disease and its harrowing persistence in the postwar era.

The book is most successful at the level of memoir. Shell is adept at conveying the deep sadness of an incapacitated child whose parents provide little solace. He writes movingly about the intersection of the compromised body with technology. A favorite toy during his convalescence was a mechanical crane that allowed him to grasp objects outside his reach. He developed an interest in photography shortly thereafter, the telephoto lens operating as a prosthesis that brought him closer to people and things while remaining in place. This leads Shell to a series of meditations on photography and cinema that are among the most imaginative elements of the book. As a technology that renders moving bodies still–and one that "prefers" the paralyzed body as its subject (p. 136)–photography is deep with meaning for the polio patient. Cinema resonates even more powerfully with the polio victim: its celebration of motion both reinforces the stasis of the paralyzed body and reinserts it into a medium of movement, and thereby "cures that stillness" that still photography demands (p. 136).

Yet the project is less successful when Shell considers his experience to be emblematic of a general culture of polio in the mid-twentieth century. While fear of the disease powerfully marked the American imagination in the period, Shell's assertions of polio's ubiquitous yet always repressed presence at times strain credulity. A poster denouncing the Nazi menace shows a swastika casting a shadow over a group of American children; this is for Shell a metaphor for polio's creeping assault on the innocent. The breathing of Star Wars' Darth Vader echoes the sound of the iron lung; the fact that Vader was voiced by the stutterer James Earl Jones reinforces an atmosphere of disability in the film. The most glaring example is his analysis of Rear Window. The film's protagonist is the wheelchair-using photographer L.B. Jeffries, who was injured while getting an action shot at an auto race. Yet Shell proposes an alternative interpretation. Jeffries's broken bones "both hide and reveal another condition, uncannily present in the film": the "submerged" condition of polio. When seeing the film in the 1950s it was perhaps impossible for Shell not to read paralysis through the lens of polio; indeed, it is plausible that the circulation of images of paralyzed children informed the film's imagery. Yet to insist that the film is an unconscious meditation on the disease is somewhat more than the evidence will bear.

The book thus reads most effectively as a primary source, a moving account of how one survivor sees the aftermath of polio in postwar culture. Yet too often, Shell presents his arguments as reflective of a wider history, with insufficient evidence to back his claims. For example, in his arguments that FDR was far more open about his disability than many have acknowledged, his principal evidence is drawn from Dore Schary's 1958 play Sunrise at Campobello–a useful document, but hardly a definitive source. While many will thus find Shell's reading of polio and its metaphors fascinating, empirically minded critics will wish for more substantial evidence. Such lapses mar what remains in many ways a poignant memoir and cultural analysis of two tragedies: both polio's ravaging of the body and its physical and emotional aftermath.