When I was in high school, all of my friends took driver’s education. It was 1976, fourteen years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would require public schools to provide full access to disabled and nondisabled alike. I was sixteen, many years before my awareness of myself as a disabled person would begin to blossom. I sat out driver’s ed during my high school years.
Besides Mrs. Green, my elderly next-door neighbor who had polio when she was a child, I did not know anyone who was disabled. And all I knew about Mrs. Green’s disability history was that when she was much younger she had rigged up a system of blocks and pulleys, her own primitive version of hand-controls, which enabled her to drive.
Four years later, at the beginning of my senior year at Brandeis, I was having trouble with my right knee; I knew it was time to learn to drive. I located a driving school in nearby Brookline that gave driving lessons on hand-controlled cars. When I went into Boston to take my driver’s permit written test, I sat in a McDonald’s across from the old Boston Garden, waiting for the test to begin.
In that MacDonald’s on that October day over thirty-four years ago, I was reading Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. Reading the title poem, I halted at its last line in which the poet/speaker states that in her metaphorical underwater exploration she carries with her "a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear." I had begun to write seriously, or what I then thought of as seriously, the year before during my year studying abroad in London and Cambridge. Reading these words, as well as the other poems in Rich’s book, would be the catalytic event that moved my writing closer to what I wanted to write: a book in which my name, my experience, did appear.
I attended a reading Rich gave at Brandeis later that fall. After the reading, I lined up and waited to have her sign my copy of Diving into the Wreck. When it was my turn, I shyly handed the book to Rich. Softly I told her, “You’re my inspiration.”
By 1986, I was living in San Francisco. M.F.A. in hand, I was entrenched in the growing gay and lesbian community of writers. That year, Rich’s Your Native Land, Your Life was published. In her “Contradiction: Tracking Poems,” I noticed Rich was writing poems about "physical pain.” At the time, I thought these poems only metaphorically alluded to a physical disability. But attending a Rich reading in the Bay Area, I noticed the presence of her plain Lucite cane. I learned that Rich was, in fact, disabled due to severe arthritis.
For an epigraph to Diving into the Wreck, Rich had quoted George Eliot: "There is no private life which is not determined by a wider public life.” Now, not only was Rich writing about a familiar place I had yet to name for myself, that place where the personal cannot be distinguished from the social, where the cultural becomes the political, but also what had always spoken clearly to me in a homosexual context, now began to resonate regarding disability.
As I was exploring my disability experience in my work, I was also beginning to meet and become friends with other people who lived with physical disabilities. As fate would have it, I did so living in the Bay Area, so my new friends just happened to be leaders of the disability rights movement. Slowly, I began to become aware of other writers, such as Anne Finger, who were writing with disability as the focus of their work, as well as some nondisabled writers who, like Katherine Dunn in her novel Geek Love, turned the world upside down, making disability the norm or counterbalanced the preponderance of negative stereotypes of people with disabilities.
But it wasn’t until 1994, when I was invited to participate in the historic chatauqua on disability and performance, organized by Vicki Lewis at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, that I was confronted with the collective force of what is now called "disability culture." It was at the chautauqua that I finally met Anne Finger (we had previously talked on the phone), Susan Nussbaum, Katinka Neuhof, and others who would eventually form the core of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out, the anthology of writers with disabilities I edited.
Staring Back was published in 1997. In the anthology, I included four sections of “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” by Adrienne Rich. Lines from these poems seemed to state the intention of Staring Back so clearly:
The problem, unstated till now, is how/
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured un-grieved-over. The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
In order to obtain permission to include her poems, Rich’s publisher asked me to provide the introduction and table of contents for the anthology. I dutifully sent along the table of contents. But I had yet to write the introduction. In its place I sent reviews of Rich’s work that I had published over the years. In less than a month, I received a postcard from Rich telling me she would be granting the permission for her poems to be included in Staring Back.
As a thank you, I sent her a copy of Anesthesia, as well as my memoir, Body, Remember, both of which has recently been published. When Rich read at a local university (by then I was living in Northampton, Massachusetts) I introduced myself to her. She knew who I was. Graciously, she told me that, having read my books, she truly owed me a letter.
A few years later, about to publish Desert Walking, my second book of poems, I wrote to Rich to ask permission to use a line from one her poems as the book’s epigraph. Quickly, I received word from her granting the permission. In her letter, she wrote about just being in New Mexico, so the title of my book, as well as the line from her work I wanted to use, seemed like a continuation of her time in New Mexico.
Recently, I had taken a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon with a group of disabled people. When I wrote to Rich I had told her about the trip. In her letter, she told me she envied and admired my travels. She wanted to know more about the trip. She also mentioned wanting to take a trip to see the cave paintings at Lascaux, a trip she was told she could physically manage.
I wrote back with details of the Grand Canyon trip. I also included a copy of Desert Walking. It took a while to hear back from her. When I did hear from her it was through email, a surprise since she hadn’t had email up to this time in our correspondence. In her email she mentioned she had been traveling and her mother had died. She was using email because she didn’t want to further delay her response. Rich kindly told me she admired Desert Walking: “it is honest and courageous and all that I associate with you; but the poems are also, and most importantly, very beautiful. I am honored that my words are part of this.” The impact of her saying this, coming from the writer who had inspired me to write when I was an undergraduate, has never lessened.
In 2005, after time on a grant in Japan, I was living in New York City. A friend and I went to hear Rich read at the 92nd Street Y. When she entered the stage, I noticed she was moving much more slowly than I remembered her moving. I was just as taken by her reading as I had been when first hearing her read at Brandeis.
After the reading, my friend and I lined up. I wanted to speak to Rich, if only briefly. After our long wait, we finally reached where Rich sat signing books. Seeing me, she stood up. She took my hand in hers.
“How are you?” I asked.
“As you could see, I’m not moving as well as I used to. But, I’m okay. In this, you are my inspiration.”
I was glad my friend was with me as witness. I could not believe what I had just heard. The writer who I most admired had just said to me the same words as I had said to her over twenty years ago. Somehow, over the years, my brief exchanges with Adrienne Rich had come full circle.
A few more years passed. When my next book, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, was published, I sent Rich a letter and a copy of the book. In a matter of weeks, she replied, once again with praise for the book, telling me how much she learned from it. By now, not only was it clear that, years ago, it was by reading Diving into the Wreck in that Boston McDonald’s before taking my permit test, I had truly learned to drive. More importantly, I now had created a body of work, a book of myths in which my name, finally, does appear.
Kenny Fries is the author of The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, which received the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He is the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. His books of poems include Anesthesia and Desert Walking. He has been a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Scholar to Japan, and received a Creative Capital grant for innovative literature for his new book, In the Province of the Gods. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College. Visit his website at www.kennyfries.com.