James Tobin - Simon & Schuster, 2013
Part Two: "He's Through"
For this second book club installment, looking at Part Two of “The Man He Became”, I’ll highlight the themes of Part Two, roughly in order, along with some of examples and ideas that stood out for me.
1. Tobin looks at the social status and stigmas of disability in the early 20th century.
Some of the prejudices were familiar, but some were new to me. For example, I had never heard of the association at that time between syphillus and paralysis. I found it fascinating that Polio was linked ... incorrectly ... with “dirty” immigrant children and their neighborhoods. Tobin traces the evolution of peoples’ ideas about disability from cruel and superstitious beliefs to more compassionate and scientific ideas … while noting that in the 1920s, there’s nothing yet like a positive view of disability or a “disability rights” perspective.
2. Roosevelt and his circle refine the scope of what “recovery” means.
At first, it means total recovery. Then, walking without crutches or with only a cane. Then being able to navigate essential functions and rituals normally enough to be viable in politics. They really do seem to have adjusted and readjusted their take on Roosevelt’s disability as his condition and long-term prognosis changed.
3. Competing visions of how Roosevelt should spend the rest of his life.
Should he gve up entirely and be bedridden? Will he retire to Hyde park and spend a pleasant life of favorite diversions and light duties managing his estate? He could live an interesting and useful life dabbling in local politics and writing. Or, could he return to big-time politics and his Presidential ambitions? Eleanor didn’t believe early on that he’d ever reach high office again, but felt it was best for him to stay in politics. That sounds like a surrender, but this led to the groundwork being laid for a later rise to the Presidency.
4. Advanced therapy theories and techniques include both the traditional "medical model” and the idea of adaptation for the most fully functional everyday living, whether or not the dream of a “complete recovery” is realized.
I’m impressed that the doctors and therapists aren’t fanatical about Roosevelt walking again, or encouraging total devotion to therapy. Dr. Draper’s unorthodox views probably helped. Roosvelt’s medical team crafted a mixed goal of physical improvement and practical adaptation.
5. Not hiding the truth, but controlling the narrative, both personally and politically.
Tobin continues to paint a picture of improvisation, in which there was never a grand plan to hide the disability, but efforts at various stages to give people the most favorable impression, and to recast what disability meant to people, at least in Roosevelt’s case.
6. Tobin looks at how wheelchairs and crutches were viewed in 1920s society, and the perceived overlapping of illness, weakness, and disability.
Wheelchairs and crutches were symbolic of illness and dependence. Most wheelchairs weren’t designed well for many environments. Early on at least, Roosevelt only used a wheelchair for point to point mobility, not so much because of stigma, but because of poor design. Disability and illness overlapped in peoples’ minds, but not completely. There was a narrow margin of disability that people could interpret as something other than illness. This is the conception of active, productive disability that key people on Roosevelt’s medical team understood and quietly encouraged.
7. Roosevelt reintroduced to politics suit other people’s purposes, but with unexpected results.
Roosevelt was asked to nominate Al Smith, and later to run for governor (he refused the first time) in order to help Al Smith in his quest for the Presidency. The Smith people saw him as an ally from a different camp, and as someone who had political juice, but no power … a potent symbolic figure, but not a threat. So, they inadvertently raised up someone who ended up achieving what Smith couldn't.
8. Roosevelt’s Democratic Convention speech to nominate Smith starts to transform how people process Roosevelt’s disability.
This might be the pivotal moment of the book. Within the span of a single speech, observers went from pity and sadness to admiration and thinking the unthinkable. Tobin recounts beautiful descriptions by Frances Perkins (who would later be Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt). I loved the moment when Roosevelt asked a Pennsylvania delegate standing hear him to “check the podium” to confirm that it was nailed down. The event was somewhat romanticized as time went by, but it does seem true that as the onvention broke down and deadlocked, some people seriously saw Roosevelt as a viable alternative candidate. Afterwards, people certainly said that he’d be a contender in 1928, “if you can get right”.
9. Persistence of the idea that he will have to walk again in order to succeed.
Roosevelt landed on the idea that he could still be President, but he would first have to be able to walk without crutches. This became his criteria, and so far it seems like he thought it was possible, which enabled him to keep on both with his physical therapy and his political activities. At this stage, pursuing both goals in parallel seem in retrospect to have been genius, but of course, at the time it was just another hopeful improvisation. Nobody knew if it would work.
10. Tobin describes the roots of Roosevelt’s dual approach to his disability … private attention to it, public reticence and diversion.
It was a time when “reticence” and privacy were more prevalent for everyone. Tobin provides more insight into the stigma of disability, which was in part a side effect of a general taboo against anything to do with the naked, unprotected, or damaged body, Tobin suggests that part of the excitement at the convention was that by speaking and showing himself publicly, Roosevelt was breaking taboo. At first people felt some revulsion, but then a weakening or breaking of the taboo itself. Roosevelt was a particularly private, “opaque” man, even for that time. I was struck by Roosevelt’s frequent use of the made-up word, “Infradig” … meaning things not to be talked about. Anything to do with his disability was “Infradig” in normal conversation. There were two exceptions ... he would discuss his condition with medical professionals and with other people who had Polio. Tobin here starts to mention letters Roosevelt exchanged with other people who had Polio … people from all walks of life, who had nothing in common with him except Polio. I was enormously moved to read that this exceptionally private man was so open with details of his life with people he barely knew, because he sought their advice and, eventually, began to offer his advice to them.
11. Roosevelt learns from trial and error, and starts to take control of his recovery.
Roosevelt is at first totally committed to therapy. Eventually, he becomes distracted and a bit diluted by other pursuits. He accidentally discovers that heat and sun help, as well as swimming. He never rejects medical advice, but becomes less dependent on it. Roosevelt starts to seek medical advice he agrees with. Also, he starts to contributes his own study and observation of Polio and its treatment. Without getting too far ahead of things, it sounds to me similar to how he approached the Presidency … listening to the best advice, but also following his own instincts, and above all TRYING STUFF.
12. At the end of Part Two, Roosevelt starts his association with Warm Springs.
Favorite quotes from Part Two:
“Hell, it’s not legs we want in the White House, it’s brains!”
“Wheelchairs were not for people who were leading normal lives. They were for sick people, in hospitals and sanitariums. With an attendant always standing behind him, the man in a wheelchair was by definition not an independent human being who could care for himself.”
"To stand was an act of manhood," Tobin quotes extensively from Emily Post about all the occasions when etiquette demands that a man stand. "Roosevelt could do none of these things."
Next Saturday, February 16, we'll finish "The Man He Became" with Part Three: "Resurrection"