Golem Girl

Golem Girl

by Riva Lehrer


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The vividly told, gloriously illustrated memoir of an artist born with disabilities who searches for freedom and connection in a society afraid of strange bodies

Golem Girl is luminous; a profound portrait of the artist as a young—and mature—woman; an unflinching social history of disability over the last six decades; and a hymn to life, love, family, and spirit.”—David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas


What do we sacrifice in the pursuit of normalcy? And what becomes possible when we embrace monstrosity? Can we envision a world that sees impossible creatures?

In 1958, amongst the children born with spina bifida is Riva Lehrer. At the time, most such children are not expected to survive. Her parents and doctors are determined to "fix" her, sending the message over and over again that she is broken. That she will never have a job, a romantic relationship, or an independent life. Enduring countless medical interventions, Riva tries her best to be a good girl and a good patient in the quest to be cured.

Everything changes when, as an adult, Riva is invited to join a group of artists, writers, and performers who are building Disability Culture. Their work is daring, edgy, funny, and dark—it rejects tropes that define disabled people as pathetic, frightening, or worthless. They insist that disability is an opportunity for creativity and resistance. Emboldened, Riva asks if she can paint their portraits—inventing an intimate and collaborative process that will transform the way she sees herself, others, and the world. Each portrait story begins to transform the myths she’s been told her whole life about her body, her sexuality, and other measures of normal.

Written with the vivid, cinematic prose of a visual artist, and the love and playfulness that defines all of Riva's work, Golem Girl is an extraordinary story of tenacity and creativity. With the author's magnificent portraits featured throughout, this memoir invites us to stretch ourselves toward a world where bodies flow between all possible forms of what it is to be human.

“Not your typical memoir about ‘what it’s like to be disabled in a non-disabled world’ . . . Lehrer tells her stories about becoming the monster she was always meant to be: glorious, defiant, unbound, and voracious. Read it!”—Alice Wong, founder and director, Disability Visibility Project 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984820303
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 282,110
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Riva Lehrer is an artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body. She is best known for representations of people with impairments, and those whose sexuality or gender identity have long been stigmatized. A longtime faculty member of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Riva Lehrer is currently an instructor in medical humanities at Northwestern University.

Read an Excerpt


The Latin roots of “monster” are monere, meaning “to warn,” and monstrum, an omen, or a supernatural being that indicates the will of a god. “Monster” shares its etymological root with “premonition” and “demonstrate.”

My first monster story was Frankenstein.

Though this first Creature was more James Whale than Mary Shelley. When we were little, my brothers and I would abandon the great outdoors and race inside in time for the Saturday monster movie matinee. Two hours of ecstatic dread. Of delicious nightmares in chiaroscuro black-and-white.

Every few weeks, it would be his turn. I waited for his graceless body, his halting gait and cinder-block shoes. I could recognize the operating room where he was born. I knew he was real, because we were the same—everything that made him a monster made me one, too. We had more in common than scars and shoes. Frankenstein is the story of a disabled child and its parent. It is also the story of a Golem.

Humans have told stories of magically animated creatures for thousands of years. Ancient religions from Babylonia and Sumer, to Mexico, Africa, and China, all assert that gods formed the first human beings out of clay. Enki and Prometheus are but two creators who formed a being and gave it life. These days, we have Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, but long before them, the Jews had Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and his Golem.

Golem (goylem in Yiddish) is Hebrew for “shapeless mass” and first appears in Psalm 139 of the Hebrew Bible, in which Adam is referred to as a golmi. Adam is brought to life by the breath—the word—of God, transformed from inert matter into vibrant life: the first Golem. The difference is that Adam becomes fully human, while Golems of legend never do.

Iterations of this legend date from as far back as the eleventh century, but the most famous version dates from sixteenth-century Prague. The Golem of Prague tells the story of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (an actual historical figure, known as the Maharal) and his creation of a living being made of clay. Golems wend through our stories, from Pygmalion’s statue to the Bride of Frankenstein to Mr. Data and Seven of Nine; from the Cylons to C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chucky the doll. And, of course, to Gollum himself.

While these are not all Golems, exactly, every creature is made of inanimate material that is shaped and awakened by the will of a master (and nearly every story is of a master—not a mater—a male who attempts to attain the generative power of the female body).

Golems are built in order to serve a specific purpose. Adam, it is said, was built for the glory of God. The Golem of Prague was built to save the Jews from a pogrom. Frankenstein’s monster was built for the glory of his maker, and for the glory of science itself. These Golems were not created for their own sake. None given purposes of their own, or futures under their control. Golems are permitted to exist only if they conform to the wishes of their masters. When a Golem determines its own purpose—let’s call it hubris—it is almost always destroyed. The

Golem must stay unconscious of its own existence in order to remain a receptacle of divine will.

Yet every tale tells us: it is in the nature of a Golem to wake up. To search for the path from being an It to an I.

In Golem stories, the monster is often disabled. Speechless and somnambulistic, a marionette acting on dreams and animal instinct. In Yiddish, one meaning of goylem is “lummox”; to quote the scholar Michael Chemers, from God’s perspective, all humans are disabled. The day I was born I was a mass, a body with irregular borders. The shape of my body was pared away according to normal outlines, but this normalcy didn’t last very long. My body insisted on aberrance. I was denied the autonomy that is the birthright of normality. Doctors foretold that I would be a “vegetable,” a thing without volition or self-awareness. Children like me were saved without purpose, at least not any purpose we could call our own.

I am a Golem. My body was built by human hands.

And yet—

If I once was monere, I’m turning myself into monstrare: one who unveils.

Table of Contents

Prologue xiii

Part 1

Chapter 1 Carole's Story: It's Alive! 5

Chapter 2 Cauda Equina 13

Chapter 3 Carole's Story: Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman 16

Chapter 4 Carole's Story: The Girl with All the Gifts 18

Chapter 5 Leprechaun 21

Chapter 6 We Have Always Lived, in the Castle 23

Chapter 7 The Island of Dr. Moreau 29

Chapter 8 Heidi 35

Chapter 9 Aerobicide 43

Chapter 10 House of Wax 51

Chapter 11 Have Fun Storming the Castle 58

Chapter 12 Gooble Gobble 62

Chapter 13 Body Parts 67

Chapter 14 The Cabin in the Woods 75

Chapter 15 Carole's Story: The Winter Walk 81

Chapter 16 The Abominable Dr. Phibes 85

Chapter 17 Attack of the Killer Tomatoes 95

Chapter 18 Vampire's Kiss 101

Chapter 19 The Changeling 111

Chapter 20 A Sweetness in the Blood 117

Chapter 21 Cissy Inventing the Pantheon 129

Chapter 22 I Was a Teenage Werewolf 131

Chapter 23 Curse of the Spider Woman 135

Chapter 24 Face/Off 140

Chapter 25 The Red Shoes 143

Chapter 26 There Will Be Blood 145

Chapter 27 There Will Be (More) Blood 149

Chapter 28 Friday the 13th 157

Chapter 29 Armageddon 161

Part 2

Chapter 30 The Birds 171

Chapter 31 Art School Confidential 174

Chapter 32 The Man Who Fell to Earth 176

Chapter 33 What Music They Make 184

Chapter 34 Shrek 189

Chapter 35 Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal 192

Chapter 36 The Haunting of Hill House 195

Chapter 37 Suspiria 199

Chapter 38 Gone Girl 205

Chapter 39 Graveyard Shift 210

Chapter 40 The Bride of Frankenstein 215

Chapter 41 The Tell-Tale Heart 223

Chapter 42 Picnic at Hanging Rock 227

Chapter 43 Nerve Endings 233

Chapter 44 The Picture of Dorian Gray 236

Chapter 45 One of Us 240

Chapter 46 Night Gallery 249

Chapter 47 The Woods 265

Chapter 48 I Know What You Did Last Summer 269

Chapter 49 Theater of Blood 272

Chapter 50 Phantom of the Opera 283

Chapter 51 Cat People 293

Chapter 52 American Horror Story 301

Chapter 53 The Pit and the Pendulum 307

Chapter 54 The Fall of the House of Usher 310

Chapter 55 The Invisible Man 313

Chapter 56 The Company of Wolves 319

Chapter 57 I See Dead People 329

Chapter 58 Invasion of the Body Snatchers 335

Chapter 59 Freaks 343

Chapter 60 The Skin We Live In 349

Chapter 61 Gollum 355

Golem I 364

Golem II 366

Epilogue(s) 369

TA Portraits 373

List of Illustrations 409

Resources 419

Acknowledgments 421

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