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
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.