Standing in the Mütter Museum of medical oddities, contemplating a neat row of jars, each containing a malformed fetus with spina bifida, Riva Lehrer realized just how easily she, too, could have ended up a specimen in a bottle, an object of curiosity, pathos, and, yes, revulsion. "Their spinal column failed to fuse all the way around their spinal cord, leaving holes (called lesions) in their spine," she writes, in a New York Times essay so scarifyingly honest it feels like self-anatomization. "Some extrude a bulging sac containing a section of the cord. These balloons make the fetuses appear as if they're about to explode. This condition is called spina bifida. I stand in front of these tiny humans and try not to pass out. I have never seen what I looked like on the day I was born."
Born with Spina bifida, the survivor of scores of surgeries, Lehrer is "less than five feet tall." She writes, "I have a curved spine. I wear huge, clunky orthopedic boots." Yet as she notes in her Times essay, she no longer winces at her own reflection. Through her stunning, photorealistic portraits of people with disabilities—people like Mat Fraser, a.k.a. Sealo the Seal Boy from American Horror Story; Nomy Lamm, born with one leg smaller than the other; Lynn Manning, a blind actor and 1990 World Champion in Blind Judo shown brandishing his white cane like a katana—she has come to see "disabled bodies as unexpected and charming and exciting. Each one stretched the boundaries of what it meant to be human. They made the world big enough to include me"— and the rest of us into the bargain. Riveting, moving, powerful, profound, her essay as well as her art recall the well-known quote from the Roman playwright Terence: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto" (loosely, "I am human, and nothing human is alien to me").
"Theresia Degener," by Riva Lehrer.
A gallery of Lehrer's astonishing work is online, at her site, here.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He has published widely on media, technology, pop culture, and American mythologies. His latest book is the essay collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is writing a biography of the artist and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey, due out from Little, Brown in 2018.
Top image: Riva Lehrer, "66 Degrees," 2016. 24″ x 36", acrylic on wood panel. All rights reserved.