Golem Girl: A Memoir (Riva Lehrer)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Although I have always been drawn to the visual arts, I have never had much interest in portraiture. It is probably a combination of an aversion to watching those in power honor themselves and the static feeling of the portraits themselves. Nevertheless, I have admired Riva Lehrer’s work for a number of years, so when she was speaking at Haverford College three years ago, I went to hear her speak about her work. Sitting in the library boardroom under the gaze of its founding fathers and listening to Lehrer speak, I learned more in one hour about portraiture than the total of what I had known, to date. It completely transformed my way of looking at the presentation of individuals in painting. Thus, when I saw that Lehrer’s memoir, Golem Girl, had been published, I was eager to read it.

Like portraiture in visual art, memoir is a way of representing oneself. As Lehrer says when she first makes the decision to paint disabled bodies other than her own, “Disability is about variation, I had to depict bodies as they actually were, otherwise the viewer would assume that nothing I depicted was real” (p. 251). On the other hand, Lehrer has a great deal of material from which to select, and life writing is all about choosing what to include, what to exclude. In thinking about the trajectory of her story and what she wants it to tell, Lehrer puts her choices to good advantage.

Part 1 of Golem Girl is both a traditional recounting of childhood in the manner that readers have come to expect in disability life narratives and an homage to Lehrer’s mother Carol, with whom she had a complex relationship. This section of the book ends at page 168 with her mother’s death. In a chapter called “Armagededdon,” Lehrer highlights this rupture in her life through a dramatic shift in prose form; clutches of staccato sentences jump without transition, reflecting her state of mind.

With Part 2, Lehrer moves on to her development as a disabled artist. Two factors make this especially important reading. The first is the way that Lehrer’s development recapitulates the experiences of so many of the cutting-edge artists, poets, writers, and scholars who set the stage for the rich array and diversity of disability arts and studies today. The second is its introduction to so many of the people involved in those changes, through Lehrer’s recounting of her interactions with them in creating their portraits. Part 2 could easily serve as a primer for those encountering disability culture, for the first time.

If there is a watershed moment in the book’s second part, it comes in Chapter 45, “Chicago, Winter 1996,” when Susan Nussbaum invites Lehrer to join the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective. Prior to this meeting, as an artist, Lehrer had struggled with the representation of her own body on canvas, and the story that accompanies these efforts might be considered a bildungsroman. With the meeting at the artists’ collective, Lehrer enters new territory; finally, she feels herself to be among people with whom she can truly be at ease.

What emerged from this meeting was Lehrer’s decision to turn to portraiture to represent disabled people. As Lehrer says, “The faces of the Renaissance paintings belong to the wealthy, privileged elite of their time, but the Collective members were my elite.” (p. 246) Her first attempt at these portraits–which would eventually result in her now-famous Circle Stories series–was with Jeff Carpenter. Immediately, Lehrer faced several personal challenges, as painting realistic work was one of her weaknesses as an artist. Yet, she knew that in painting Jeff, “He had to be convincing, or the whole point of doing his portrait – of disability portraiture – would be lost.”  (p.252)

Moreover, disabled people in her group all had a lifetime of being stared at, and she needed to find a way of turning those negative experiences into something affirmative. It was crucial that people were given control over how they were portrayed:

So I started by listening. A portrait begins with days, even months of conversation. We spoke honestly about the relationship between our bodies and our work, after which I’d go home and make thumbnail sketches based on what my subject said. We adjusted the sketches again and again until we agreed on an image. (p.253)

This became Lehrer’s signature technique.

As she took these portraits back to the Collective, they were exceptionally well received. Nevertheless, in 2002, when invited to give a lecture on Circle Stories at a Queerness and Disabilities Conference at San Francisco State University, she met with pushback that she had not expected. Her work was attacked for being too white. She had not included People of Color among her portraits. Lehrer’s experience represents that of many pioneers in work on disability who were at first praised for what they accomplished, then criticized for what they did not do.

On a small scale, I related to Lehrer’s experience. My own work in disability literature began as an effort to promote the work of a group of poets with visible physical disabilities who did not see themselves in the poetry they read. These efforts eventually resulted in the creation of Wordgathering, which led to the publication of the anthology, Beauty is a Verb. While the anthology was recognized as groundbreaking and generally praised, it also met with immediate criticism for not being inclusive enough. Virtually every accomplishment can be diminished when looked at retrospectively. One of the benefits of reading Golem Girl is that it puts into perspective the way that innovation actually develops, from the ground up, through much trial, error, and serendipity, not from a top down schema.

As Lehrer’s art was progressing, so was her spina bifida. In chapter forty-nine, “Theater of Blood,” perhaps the books’ most stylistically impressive effort, Lehrer recounts an operation that she did not expect to survive. At forty, having already endured 43 surgeries, she found herself having to choose (or not) to have an experimental procedure–with a very small window of time for reflection. This operation kept her in the hospital from April through June of 1998.

In describing awakening from surgery six days later, Lehrer switches from prose to poetry:

I wake up

I am                                       nothing

someone           empty


It is with this experience of rising from darkness after having been opened up, organs manipulated and removed, that she identifies with Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel’s creation, saying, “This Golem has been hollowed out.” Lehrer’s description of coming back into being is a memorable one: “I/she watch my/her/some self being reconstructed.” (p. 259)

Next to her association with the Chicago Disabled Arts Collective and the emergence of The Circle Stories series, possibly the biggest influence on Lehrer’s art came in 2001 with her appointment as Visiting Artist at the Gross Anatomy Lab of the University of Chicago’s Medical Humanities program. Though Lehrer had plenty to criticize about individual doctors during her youth and those medical practices that made disabled people the subjects of a medical gaze, she was never on a vendetta against surgery itself.

When I was granted a turn with the scalpel, I was blown away. I knew that surgery was a physical process…but the exertion needed to separate muscle and tendon was astounding. I appraised my scars with new respect. (p. 332, emphases in original)

Working with the varied cadavers in the lab reinforced for both her and the students the thin line between normalcy and variation.

By 2006, Lehrer was curating Bodies of Work, the exhibition with which she is perhaps most closely associated. As with her previous successes, this endeavor did not free her from a plague of misfortunes, many of which continued to influence her work and ability to work. Nevertheless, her work continued to evolve. One of the most interesting projects is her Risk Pictures series. It is aptly named. In Circle Stories, Lehrer found the need to be more collaborative in the process of planning and discussing the portrait.  In the Risk Series, she goes much further in relinquishing control. After painting a subject for two hours, Lehrer leaves the studio for an hour and asks the person being painted to make any changes they want to the portrait.

An important concept that emerges from all of Lehrer’s work–as much from the anatomical drawing she had students do in the Gross Anatomy Lab as from her Risk Pictures–is that of leakage. Leakage is Lehrer’s term for the part of the artist that inevitably leaks into the portrait that they are painting so that a total division between the artist and the person being portrayed is impossible. She notes, “My attempt to see you will always risk blurring you with me.” (p. 353, emphases in original)

Lehrer ends the narrative portion of the book with a recounting of the legend of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and the Golem drawing from her own Jewish heritage to reinterpret her life as the Golem of her title. However, one of the most valuable sections of the book remains, “The Portraits.” This appended section includes 22 of Lehrer’s portraits together with comments related to their genesis. These comments vary in length from a paragraph to several pages and encompass both Lehrer’s own observations and communications from the subjects of the portraits. Each commentary also contains a website linking to further information about that person.

If the story of Lehrer’s life, the incredible portraits, her insights into disability and art, and her introduction to a pantheon of important figures in disability were not enough to make this a necessary book, Golem Girl is also a pleasure to read. While generally chronological, chapters tend to center around a certain theme, collapsing time and saving non-essential events for other chapters. Those chapters in which some kind of realization or revelation emerges tend to end in a sort of exegesis that distills what Lehrer learned from that episode in her life. In a very real sense, readers learn along with the author. Those with no background in disability literature have nothing to fear from Lehrer’s text.  Aside from a few art terms, there is nothing erudite to keep the non-academic reader with curiosity about Lehrer’s  life and work from diving right in. In fact, it is written with us in mind.

Title: Golem Girl: A Memoir
Author: Riva Lehrer
Publisher: One World
Date: 2020

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About the Author

Michael Northen is a past editor of Wordgathering. Along with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, he edited the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability; with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, he edited an anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both books are from Cinco Puntos Press).