Imagine being a 13-year-old in the hands of a “large, stubble-faced man who was smoking a cigar. [ . . . ] a man who would spread his tobacco-stained fingers on my torso, breathe his sour breath into my face.” Sounds like a child about to undergo a nasty ordeal. Though it’s not what you may be thinking, Patricia Horvath did, in fact, experience this ordeal after being diagnosed with scoliosis, “a double, S-shaped curvature of the spine.”
In the above scenario, she’s being fitted for a brace. He “wrapped my torso in gauze then strapped my head into a sling. He hoisted me up with a pulley until I was hanging by my chin, my toes barely touching the grimy floor.”
Horvath, in her forthcoming memoir, All the Difference, powerfully portrays the challenges her disability imposed. The impetus for writing these experiences came at the urging of Horvath’s writing group after she shared a story she was working on. Though that particular story wasn’t published, she’s had numerous other stories and essays appear in literary magazines and anthologies. These days, she teaches creative writing and literature at Massachusetts’ Framingham State University, and she’s an editor at The Massachusetts Review.
But when Horvath was in sixth grade, she was “shy, uncoordinated, a socially awkward girl [ . . . ].” She states, “my lack of coordination was on display every single day. I felt this distinction keenly [ . . . ] during the annual Presidential Fitness Test.” Lyndon Johnson was President then, followed by Richard Nixon. “I couldn’t picture either of them [ . . . ] mastering even a single cartwheel, let alone the entire test.” Horvath found her solace in books, and spent weekends and school holidays reading in her room.
Even after her scoliosis finding, she kept growing taller, gaining two inches between grades seven and eight. It was then she met the aforementioned brace. By the time she was 15, spinal fusion surgery was in order, followed by a plaster cast. “Layer after layer was smoothed onto my back, neck, and thigh. I could not see anything, but could hear the slap of bandages, feel them hardening to a crust. [ . . . ] bit by bit I was entombed.”
Her final cast was a lightweight fiberglass one she wore for three months: “For the first time in nearly three years my head and neck were free. I could not yet move them, nor sit up, but I stared at my neck in the hand mirror, imagining how it would look adorned with necklaces, silk scarves, [ . . . ].”
Throughout Horvath’s years of pain, confusion, embarrassment, and taunting by other children, the one constant was her mother Maureen, whose unrelenting compassion stands out in the book. Horvath’s father was frequently absent. Her mother’s second husband was domineering. But all was not gloomy during Horvath’s teen years. She learned to smoke pot and drink homemade wine at a friend’s house. While recuperating from spinal fusion surgery, she met a boy who was hospitalized for stomach surgery. They struck up a friendship that lasted on and off for years.
When Horvath went off to college, and after years of their lives being “so entwined,” Maureen had a hard time with the separation. Horvath writes that her mother assumed they’d live under the same roof: “I’d be the companion who compensated for her bad marriage even as I was part of the reason for it.” Note that this memoir is dedicated to her mother.
I was quite taken with All the Difference and found it hard to put down. But I kept looking for dates or even years to be identified so I’d have a better timeline on what happened when. I did get occasional clues along the way: who was President at the time; a reference to Twiggy, a teen-aged model in the 1960s; and mention of Peter Frampton’s song, “Baby, I Love Your Way,” from 1975.
In a chapter near the end of her memoir, she asks herself a question that keeps readers thinking: “What am I now? Formerly disabled? Healed? Reformed? (Literally, yes, I suppose this is so; I have been re-formed, [ . . . ] No one points, stares, yet I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m ‘passing’ for able-bodied.”
Today, as part of her curriculum at Framingham, Horvath teaches a course titled Disability in Literature and Culture and finds time to give readings at numerous venues. Additionally, as she wrapped up writing All the Difference, she was preparing for a charity walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and back again. My thought is that she may lay to rest her feeling of “passing,” and instead, keep giving us more of her remarkable, compelling writing.