The Horizontal Woman: The Story of a Body in Exile

The Horizontal Woman: The Story of a Body in Exile

by Suzanne E. Berger
In the mundane act of picking up her child, Suzanne Berger incurs a severe back injury that leaves her suddenly and dramatically disabled. In this dazzling memoir, Berger charts her course from this almost completely horizonatal existence to partial mobility and finally to tentative uprightness and walking.


In the mundane act of picking up her child, Suzanne Berger incurs a severe back injury that leaves her suddenly and dramatically disabled. In this dazzling memoir, Berger charts her course from this almost completely horizonatal existence to partial mobility and finally to tentative uprightness and walking.

Editorial Reviews

James Marcus

Several years ago, Suzanne Berger bent down to pick up her child in a parking lot. Feeling the sensation of something tearing at the base of her spine, Berger toppled to the asphalt and was rushed to an emergency room. Her diagnosis -- "rotated hypermobile sacrum, tilted up, with severe damage to connective tissue" -- doesn't do much to clarify this freakish physical event. But Berger spent the next six years on her back, too immobilized even to sit up in a wheelchair.

Horizontal Woman is her impressionistic account of a "life lived lying down, a kind of exile." She describes the modifications to her house, the hours spent in aquatherapy and the ingenuity required to perform the simplest tasks. Her mortifications are endless and heartbreaking. Even her sex life -- the little that remains of it -- is supervised by the doctors, who give her an instructional pamphlet with "eight well-executed drawings of couples who look as graceful as the Flying Wallendas." Yet Berger is no less interested in what we might call the metaphysics of debilitation. "Who was I to myself now, without my usual capabilities, my usual physical being?" she asks. "How could the demanding old self, with its responsibilities and sensual preoccupations, coexist with a refusing body?"

She agonizes, too, over the linguistic imprecision that makes it almost impossible to write about pain in the first place. In this case, though, she needn't have worried. The author of two volumes of poetry, Berger has brought a kind of grimacing lyricism to bear on the subject, and the results are painfully lucid. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While bending down to pick up her infant daughter, Berger suffered a freak spinal injury that kept her flat on her back for seven years. Initially, use of a wheelchair was impossible, because sitting up for more than five minutes was too painful. Through courage, determination, rehabilitation therapy and the support of her husband, she learned to walk again, and this intensely lyrical, introspective, deeply moving journal charts her triumph over years of confinement, isolation, depression and outpatient treatment. A Pushcart Prize-winning poet and freelance writer, Berger sensitively records her life's cataclysmic changes. As friends deserted her, she coped with chronic, grinding pain, cooked while supine and worried about instilling fear and panic in her growing daughter. Those affected by sudden injury will find her story inspirational.
Library Journal
Berger, a poet and writer of nonfiction, sustained a severe back injury while lifting her child. She was unable to sit, stand, or walk for several yearshence the title. Here she writes of the unusual perspective she developed on the world: chopping vegetables while lying on the floor and watching her child's school play from a mat near the stage. She describes chronic pain; feelings of anger, guilt, and inadequacy at being unable to participate fully as a wife and mother; the slow rehabilitation process; and her eventual return to mobility. Although intensely personal and very well written, this book is less compelling than Lois Keith's What Happened to You? Writings by Disabled Women (New, 1996). An optional purchase.Barbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., Cal.
June Vigor
One ordinary autumn day, Suzanne Berger bent down to pick up her toddler and couldn't get up again. Without warning, something in her lower back had torn, and her life would never be the same. Berger, a prizewinning poet and nonfiction writer, has compiled 28 short but powerful essays into a travelogue of her nine-year journey into the world of disability and back again. Because her injury made sitting painful and walking nearly impossible, she spent the better part of seven years lying down--on the floor, the backseat of the family car, a portable lawn chair while teaching university classes. In stream-of-consciousness fashion, she relates her struggle to stay connected with "normal" society while sinking into bitterness and despair (told by a meditation instructor to pick a two-syllable mantra, she selects the "f"-word and "you"). Fiercely personal and yet touching a universal chord, this book will be prized by disabled readers for its eloquence and by the people who care about them for its honesty.
Among the plethora of recent psychological memoirs, Berger's stands out by virtue of its focus, a physical disability that requires the poet to literally see the world horizontally. The story moves from the point when Berger bends down to pick up her child and finds she cannot stand up anymore, advancing through years of physical and psychic adjustment that demand she reevaluate, literally, her position as mother, wife, writer, and participant in a world that values mobility and health above compassion. The writing is particularly beautiful, imbued with poetic insight and vision. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
A woman with a temporary but grievous disability reveals with bitterness, insight, and humor what it is to be immobile and horizontal in a world of the mobile and vertical.

This first book of nonfiction by Berger, an award-winning poet (These Rooms and Legacies, not reviewed), is filled with the vivid images one expects from a writer with a poet's eye. While in the prime of life she suffered a sudden, severe injury that left her unable to sit or stand for more than brief moments. In mostly short essays on disability, personal relationships, isolation, confinement, and recovery (the piece on aquatic therapy appeared in slightly different form in the "Hers" column of the New York Times Magazine), she tells of her success at making Christmas cookies on the kitchen floor, of a disastrous evening at a theater that could not or would not accommodate the lawn chair she planned to recline in, of her inability to attend a family funeral, of checking into a rehabilitation hospital that she believes may be her last hope. Although she touches on various aspects of her daily existence as a disempowered woman, the central theme is her struggle to be a good mother to the daughter who was only a toddler when disaster struck. She shares her fears about not being able to protect her child from harm, her feelings when she is left behind on father-daughter outings, her joy at finally being able to take her daughter on a simple shopping trip. In the final chapters, ten years have passed and Berger is once again vertical, but it is clear that the horizontal woman she was is forever a part of her persona.

Although Berger is a skilled writer, her overuse of italics for emphasis suggests that she doubts her own ability to communicate adequately. She should have more faith: This is a moving testament.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.59(h) x 0.90(d)

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