In Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature fashioned of clay and brought to life by magic, its Hebrew name suggesting something incomplete or unfinished. As so-called monsters and frequent heroes, golems illustrate the terror and the promise of embodied life, and as the governing metaphor for artist and professor Riva Lehrer’s penetrating and razor-witted debut, “Golem Girl,” they provide an emblem for the “search for the path from being an It to an I.”

The subtitle of this incisive tome is “a memoir” and the book certainly is that: a multifaceted account of Lehrer’s life from her birth in 1958 to the present. But so too is it a captivating social history of disability culture from the mid-20th century until now, showcasing the resourcefulness by which “disabled people are experts in finding new ways to do things when the old ways don’t work,” even when the world treats them “as disturbances, as threats, as frightening or pitiable creatures.”

Born with spina bifida in Cincinnati, Lehrer endures surgery upon surgery during her coming-of-age imposed by her loving Jewish family and the medical profession, most of whom believe that the only chance for such individuals to enjoy a putatively productive life is to become as much like abled people as possible.

Brainy and bodily, sexy and soulful, Lehrer’s writing exhibits the force of will needed to make one’s way in a culture where, “If it’s medically possible to push a body toward that social ideal, then we make it a moral imperative to do so.” Humor sharpens almost every page, as when she writes of her hospitalizations as an infant, “sometimes my surgeons didn’t even bother stitching me up between operations but simply tied me together like a Shabbos brisket.”

With vast ambition and the skill to match, Lehrer examines learning on every level — learning to live, to forgive, to create, to love, and to become a part of various communities: familial, queer, disabled and artistic. Her gaze upon the medical-industrial complex and a society that aspires to have its variant members “die of normal, and soon” spares nothing.

Admirably, she’s unafraid to turn that scrutiny upon herself. “I’d believed I could visit the world of disability while holding myself above it,” she writes. “I had no idea how ignorant I was. I had kept myself separate for so long that I knew nothing about the dearth of accessible housing, or how expensive independence was for anyone living on Social Security or Social Security Disability Income.”

Like a savvy curator, Lehrer leads her audience from incomprehension to understanding, from innocence to experience, building a messy arc full of stalls and setbacks, repetitions and revelations.

Packed with photographs of her own life as well as about 50 reproductions of her brilliant portraiture, this daring opus stands as a fittingly visual testament to the “radical visibility” she advocates as a teacher and a person — a beautiful meditation on monstrousness, bodies and the souls they contain.

 Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and, most recently, “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.”

 

Golem Girl

By: Riva Lehrer.

Publisher: One World, 448 pages, $35.