This book is an autobiographical account of an abrupt and painful injury that completely transforms the author’s life. Berger in 1985 was a healthy woman who enjoyed ice skating and canoeing, a published poet, wife, and mother of a toddler. She bent over one day to pick up her daughter and felt a tearing "within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine." No longer able to run, walk, or even sit, she is forced into a life spent lying down.

Hers is now a world of boundaries and barriers--physical, psychological, and societal. The book chronicles her struggle to parent her child (they make gingerbread creatures lying down on the kitchen floor), to relate to her husband (she has to deal with the constant feeling of being the recipient of his care), to live with pain, and to regain her mobility.

Because hers is not a visible injury and because she must frequently lie down in public places or use her carry-along lawn chair, she suffers the stares and scrutiny of people who cannot pigeon-hole her into a tidy handicapped-wheelchair category. After seven years of physical therapy (she calls her therapists "angels of attempted repair ") she is able to walk and drive, though she is still limited in activity and lives in fear of re-injury.


Rather than being a strictly chronological account, much of the book focuses on the varied emotions and experiences, such as loneliness, that accompany such a transformation in life. The author refers to The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry (see this database) as helpful in explaining the interiority of pain and the difficulty in communicating what one feels within one’s body to another person.

In many places the book is a cry of anguish and despair. The effect of the injury on her family is particularly poignant. Here is a mother who loves her child completely and profoundly, yet cannot provide the simplest physical acts for her, nor protect her should a catastrophe occur (she details an episode in a pool where she cannot move quickly to rescue her daughter--fortunately another parent helps immediately). Her relationship with her husband seems more complicated and is not always rosy.

Reynolds Price’s autobiographical account of his struggle with spinal cancer and paralysis (A Whole New Life, annotated in this database) offers many parallels and contrasts with this book. For example, the lines between prose and poetry are blurred in Berger’s book--much of her writing is lyrical--whereas the poetry that Price includes in his book is distinct from the rest of the writing. The focus of the two books is different as well: for instance, Price includes issues of mortality and the effects of his powerful spiritual vision.


Houghton Mifflin

Place Published

New York



Page Count