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The whole truth

Poster Child A Memoir Emily Rapp Bloomsbury: 240 pp., $23.95

January 28, 2007|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist, editor of the anthology "In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness" and host of the radio program "Open Books" in Chicago. Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

WE toss the phrase "poster child" around with unexamined irony. She's the poster child for procrastination, we say. He's the poster child for pharmaceutical abuse. Easy, smug humor. Few of us think about what life might be like for an actual poster child, who helps raise awareness and funds by becoming an ambassador for a charitable organization. The March of Dimes, a venerable group dedicated to preventing premature births and birth defects, is famous for its poster children, and Emily Rapp was perfect for the role.

The redheaded daughter of a nurse and a Lutheran pastor, Rapp was 6 in 1980 when she was chosen to represent the March of Dimes in Wyoming. Smart and cheerful, she basked in all the attention as she was photographed playing, jumping and climbing. "I showed off my sleek wooden leg as if it were the latest fashion accessory," Rapp reports. She was born with a congenital bone-and-tissue disorder called proximal focal femoral deficiency, and this caused her left leg to be undeveloped. Beginning at age 4, Rapp endured a sequence of traumatic operations, during which much of the leg was amputated in preparation for the fitting of a prosthesis. Each procedure was followed by a long, brutally uncomfortable and foul imprisonment in a body cast. Rapp's precise and forthright descriptions of her exhausting physical ordeals and complex psychic wounds are simultaneously harrowing and fascinating, and they foster a strong bond between writer and reader.

One drolly macabre aspect of Rapp's story of the triumph of mind over body is her impeccably matter-of-fact accounts of many frustrating visits to prosthesis shops -- shockingly filthy, oddly disreputable holes-in-the-wall in seedy Denver neighborhoods. Unfazed, at least to the casual eye, young Emily, usually the only female client, works the room, hopping around on one leg and befriending war veterans who lost their legs in combat, men she describes as "regal and honorable: kinglike." The uninitiated reader will learn more about how artificial legs are made, adjusted and worn than one can imagine and be appalled to discover that the business of prostheses was positively medieval during the Reagan era.

Not only are the wooden legs heavy and fastened crudely and uncomfortably around the waist, but Rapp also can't find any that are designed for girls or women. The bulky devices creak and rub, and yet Rapp is irrepressibly athletic: She runs, skates, swims and dances; she loves downhill skiing. She is also an outstanding student -- in short, a fervent overachiever, in keeping with her poster-child status. During her reign, bubbly and positive, she makes numerous public appearances, giving peppy speeches. Rapp writes, "I explained myself away with a great deal of youthful zeal and confidence. 'I was born with a different body,' I said, 'but it hasn't stopped me. If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.' " She likes being inspiring and "fantastic." She feels "special, interesting, extraordinary, and better than the average girl." She thinks she can more than make up for her missing leg with high energy, charm and accomplishment.

But as Rapp enters the tunnel of adolescence, it becomes clear that her zestfulness won't cut it. What is needed is physical beauty. After years of denial, she is finally forced to confront what others see when they look at her. Rapp concentrates her teen misery into the tale of one excruciating summer night in 1990. Her family has moved to Nebraska, a place she dislikes. Always careful about concealing her leg, Rapp can't resist the black miniskirt a glamorous friend casually offers to lend her. Seated in the backseat of the car on the way to a kegger, Rapp realizes with, literally, sickening clarity just how dreadfully wrong her outfit is. She has never felt more hideous and alone.

Microscopically rendered, this wrenching scene will resonate with anyone who has ever felt despair over her appearance, however innocuous her perceived flaws. As Rapp wryly observes, "In joining the trend of girls' obsessions with their bodies and adopting pathologies around food, I was in fact making myself more normal than I'd ever been before." Determined to make herself more attractive in an attempt to shift attention away from her artificial leg, Rapp adopts a punishing exercise routine matched by minuscule allotments of food.

Away at college and equipped, finally, with a state-of-the-art prosthetic limb, Rapp bravely opts for a year abroad in Dublin. There she feels liberated and confident. Convinced that travel is key to her happiness, she applies for and receives a Fulbright scholarship, and she chooses to go to Seoul, South Korea. And it is there, so far from home, that "the poster child for strength and determination" comes spectacularly undone.

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