In the 1940s, artist Riva Lehrer’s mother worked as a medical researcher in the then nascent field of teratology. From the Greek teratos, or “monster,” teratology is the study of birth defects. So in 1958, when Riva was born with spina bifida, which means “split spine,” her mother knew better than to accept the medical mainstream’s casual neglect. At the time, doctors didn’t operate on babies with the condition, and 90 percent of them died before the age of two. Indeed, as the term “teratology” suggests, they saw these babies as monsters. Riva’s mother insisted her daughter receive the medical interventions she needed to survive because she shared the radical views of her former boss—Austrian physician Josef Warkany—who believed disabled babies could grow up to live meaningful lives.
Lehrer proudly and playfully identifies with monstrosity. That’s why she gave her memoir the title Golem Girl. The book details her childhood memories of school, family, and friends, punctuated with stories of the numerous summer breaks that she spent recovering from serious surgery. The portrait painter sees herself in Jewish folklore’s humanoid lump of clay because, like the golem, her body “was built by human hands.”
Today, Lehrer is a professor at both Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches figure drawing. At Northwestern—where she instructs not art but med students—Lehrer created a course called “Drawing in a Jar.” She came up with several assignments after seeing preserved spina bifida fetuses (“my ancestors,” she calls them) at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In the class, she encourages future doctors to refer to their bottled subjects as “individuals,” rather than “specimens.” Then, she asks them to research the life of someone with the same condition.
In her artwork, in her courses, and in her memoir, Lehrer focuses on disabled peoples’ rich range of experience. While medicine fixates on the body’s imperfections, Lehrer teaches her students and her audience that disability is not simply biological: it’s socially defined, too. And she manages to make this point with tact, grace, and humor: after all, disabled people are often experts at mitigating the discomfort their presence sometimes causes. In one moving chapter, she recalls a rare moment in which an adult showed optimism for her future. Lehrer attended the Randall J. Condon School for disabled children in Cincinnati, which was a radical institution for its time. Across the country, most disabled students learned basic literacy and industrial skills, and were not guaranteed a high school education. But at Condon, they were taught academics, which is not to say the school adequately prepared them for the real world: as Lehrer puts it, Condon “would rather have offered ROTC training than sex education.” And in Home Economics, students learned survival skills—how to heat up Campbell’s soup—rather than how “to become wives and mothers,” as most girls did in the 1960s. One day, though, the Home Ec teacher surprised her class: they were going to learn to make an elaborate dessert, baked Alaska! Not knowing the dish had gone out of fashion a decade before she was born, Lehrer was “stupefied”: an adult imagined that she and her peers might grow up to one day host fancy soirees. It was a formative moment.
Today, Lehrer creates portraits of disabled people—hosting parties, falling in love, making art—chronicling the ingenuity and interdependence that impairment engenders. Her self-portraits have appeared on the covers of notable books like Lauren Berlant’s widely read Cruel Optimism (2011) and Tobin Siebers’s Disability Theory (2008). In 1997 Lehrer began a series of portraits depicting disabled people in the arts and academia. Titled “Circle Stories,” the series comprises portraits that are realistically rendered, yet incorporate symbols that help tell the stories of their subjects.
Throughout, Lehrer shows how Western medicine and concepts of beauty are sometimes one and the same. Some of the “cures” doctors prescribed were not meant to relieve pain, but to help her conform her body to a narrow norm. She had gall bladder surgery because she would have died without it. But she wonders whether surgeries meant to “correct” her gait were simply attempts to make her look less monsterlike in the eyes of the nondisabled. How different, Lehrer wonders provocatively, were these sorts of treatments from the one elective surgery she volunteered to undergo, what she calls “the great milestone of Jewish womanhood”—her nose job.