Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It
(Abrams Press, 2023)
Greg Marshall was nearly thirty when he found out he’d had cerebral palsy for his entire life. Told as a child that he had “tight tendons”—one of several phrases he would repeat when questioned about the way he moved—in Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It, Marshall explores the winding road to becoming aware of his diagnosis.
Marshall’s mother, who wrote an inspirational newspaper column called “Silver Linings” in the chain of community newspapers Marshall’s father owned, mythologized Marshall’s disability from the time he was a child: “He could have chosen to go through life concentrating on all the things he can’t do,” she wrote in one column. “Instead he focuses on what he CAN do.” As Marshall rereads his mother’s column with years of hindsight, her many references to her son’s disability begin to seem to him like “a study in maternal deflection and misdirection.”
Out of this misdirection comes Marshall’s childhood perception of his (unacknowledged) cerebral palsy as something shameful. He’s hesitant to wear shorts, is self-conscious when walking in front of others, and refuses to see what he has in common with another girl in his class who walks with a limp, even when she tries to connect with him. When he joins a children’s acting troupe called Up With Kids, with a cast he describes as “in no better shape than the population I hung out with at physical therapy,” Marshall tells himself that he’s different from them—that he’s the real actor in the group. “I was in Up With Kids because I was a rising star,” he insists to himself, “not because something was wrong with me.”
Leg is one in a recent raft of disability memoirs, including Chloe Cooper Jones’s Easy Beauty, Andrew Leland’s The Country of the Blind, Jaipreet Virdi’s Hearing Happiness, and John Cotter’s Losing Music. Most of these books reach outward, situating the author’s experience of disability in history; philosophy; developments in science, medicine, and technology; or the discovery of a disability community. I’ve generally gravitated toward this type of memoir, which has allowed me to connect to something larger despite knowing no one else with my particular disability. But Marshall’s book, in staying so firmly focused on his specific experience, offers a different kind of solidarity. Though I don’t have cerebral palsy, I cringed, gasped, and smiled in recognition of some of Marshall’s childhood experiences: the questions from others that he was never sure how to answer, the discomfort at being observed, the self-delusion that nothing about him is different from his peers. Even Marshall’s search for others who might share his experience, without knowing exactly what it is he’s searching for. And I laughed out loud at his interpretation of Dorothy’s struggles in The Wizard of Oz, my own favorite movie as a kid, as “orthopedic.” It never occurred to me before, but perhaps I too felt something familiar in Dorothy’s journey across the varied terrains of Oz, the hurdles presented by something as simple as a pair of shoes.
Many of the stories Marshall tells in Leg have nothing directly to do with his cerebral palsy—several chapters cover his mother’s cancer, his experiences as a caretaker for his father, and losing a boyfriend to AIDS, and some simply convey the endearing chaos of growing up in a large family. But as he relates stories about his siblings, coming out, and taking care of his father after his diagnosis with ALS, Marshall’s disability pervades nearly every experience he describes. He worries about how his cerebral palsy symptoms will affect his romantic relationships. He looks for mirrors in the medical conditions of his family members, even suggesting a diagnosis for his younger sister in the hope that she’ll have an easier time than he did if she’s given language to describe herself.
Recording conversations with his father as he declines due to ALS, Marshall asks questions that are as much about himself as about his dad’s health: “Dad had a condition that couldn’t be pushed aside or minimized and in asking about his struggles I was hoping he would tell me about mine,” he writes. “What I wanted was recognition, for the silent part to be said out loud, not dwelled on or pitied but explored.” He gets some of that recognition from his father before his death, and later from his mother, but the in-depth exploration is left for Marshall to do alone.
When Leg ends—with Marshall’s wedding and his decision, after an initial hesitation, to walk down the aisle in front of the guests—he is beginning to reconsider his past in light of the discovery that he’s had cerebral palsy all along. Leg reads like the result of that reconsideration, an answer to many of the questions Marshall was unknowingly asking his family as he recorded his father or suggested labels for his sister. Abandoning the obfuscation with which many of us learn to talk about disability is hard, even when the only people we’re convincing with our vague wording are ourselves. But in Leg, Marshall makes a convincing argument that becoming more open is also a path out of shame. We need as many writers as possible who, like Marshall, are willing to say the silent part out loud.