УУ HEN she was a girl, laura and her friends rode their horses through the Pennsylvania countryside, rode Western and bareback, rode through woods and cornfields. The woods seemed to belong to no one. The cornfields churned around them like windswept lakes. They galloped through the afternoons till it was time for dinner. Her father was a truck driver. The family, with five kids, lived on a scrap of farmland with a pond, a few cows, some corn.
She had an implausible dream It was something she kept to herself. She wanted to be a psychiatrist, dreamed of it even before she reached high school. “Oh gosh,” she remembered decades later, “I always thought that the way we think and behave is so fascinating. It is so complex. I thought what a great thing to be able to do, to figure that out. Every kid growing up knows what a doctor and a lawyer is, but to me it was just like, who would want to be a doctor or a lawyer? I want to be a psychiatrist—wouldn’t that be intriguing! In high school I would go to the library and read. Some Freud. A lot of self-help books. Some Jung.”
No one in her family had gone to college. Few of the girls she spent time with had plans to. She knew her family couldn’t afford it. She didn’t think she was smart enough, anyway. She was fast in her typing course, fast and accurate; she figured she’d be a secretary. Behind psychiatry, her second fantasy was to be a model. People said she should be. She had a cascade of blond hair, full lips, eyes that were a crystal blue. But she knew she was too short. She thought: I’m going to get married and work in an office, because that is realistic.
In her junior year, she started going to parties with a good-looking, weed-smoking senior. He’d been staring at her from the end of one of the long tables in their home economics class. They married as soon as she graduated. He joined the Air Force; she got pregnant. She followed him wherever he was stationed, from Delaware to England to Texas, caring for their son, sometimes babysitting for extra money, sometimes working at the PX on base. In San Antonio, she found a job as a secretary for a company that made eyeglasses. About college and psychiatry, she felt the way she always had: “That is for other people. That is somebody else’s dream”
One wet Friday morning, as she drove to work, her Mustang ran out of gas on a highway that looped around the city. The pavement was slick, and the traffic was stalled.
a thousand and more miles away, in Manhattan, Ron sketched scenes that sold liquor: couples falling in love, parties at the beach, gatherings in a loft, excursions on a yacht. He was in advertising, an art director; he conjured billboards and posters. He created the concepts and, with a photographer, cast the models. He searched for young women to fill his tableaux of love, of high spirits, of sophistication, women who would infuse any viewer with longing and envy.
He had grown up in Queens, in neighborhoods of small apartment buildings and little clapboard houses with dormers and low stoops. In backyards of concrete and on the pavement of the street, he and his friends had sprayed one another with water guns, played stickball and roller-skate hockey. They drew giant chalk squares with numbered boxes and dead-man zones for games of skully—they knelt on the asphalt and flicked their bottle caps till their mothers, leaning out from windows and shrieking their names, called them home for dinner. La-Guardia Airport was close by. The gates and runways were unguarded; they staged war games throughout the terminals and on the tarmac.
But one afternoon he found himself riding his bicycle furtively along tree-lined streets. He sped around corners with the sense that everyone, every adult and everyone his own age, was staring through the back of his head, seeing what he was imagining. At the library, he jammed his red one – speed into the rack, and, eyes averted, he stepped past the librarian and sidled between the dark woodentables.
about that Friday morning, Laura told things this way: “I said good-bye to my husband while he was sleeping in bed, and I left the house and got into my car. I was in a hurry, and that gauge wasn’t very accurate. So I was like, I think I have enough to get to work, I should be all right, I’ll get gas on my lunch hour. Everything was backed up on the freeway. My engine died, and I pumped and cursed and got it going again just long enough to steer onto the side. I got out, and this lady, this rich, classy lady, pulled over in a Lincoln. She told me she could take me to the nearest station, which was right off the next exit. The man inside told me to leave a three-dollar deposit for the can.
“The lady was really friendly. She said she would take me back. She dropped me off, and I thanked her, and I walked around to the side of my car where the gas tank was. The traffic was moving along by then, and I realized it was too dangerous, because I was standing slightly out into the lane. I hesitated. I knew it was too dangerous, but I didn’t know what to do. I hesitated for that second, having those thoughts, and then I got hit.
“All I remember is being thrown through the air. And then when I woke up I heard all these people around me, and I was laying there on the side of the road, and I was trying to get up, and they were like, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’ and I was thinking my legs were broken, in my mind my legs were broken, and I grabbed onto a lady’s coat, and I said, ‘Please help me.’
“She told me an ambulance was coming. I really didn’t know what had happened. They put me in those inflatable things so you don’t bleed to death. And then I was in the emergency room, and the doctors were coming in, and they were touching and twisting my legs, and I was saying to myself, I was struck and my legs were broken, I was struck and my legs were broken. They kept twisting. It seemed like forever, like hours and hours. Oh my gosh I was in such pain. Why were they doing this? It went on and on, and I never looked down, and then one doctor stood over me, and he said, ‘I need to tell you that your legs were severely crushed, and you need to go into surgery right away. ’
“They put a mask over my mouth and told me to take three breaths. That was it until I woke up again. And then I would not look down. The doctors said I almost died. They said they had never seen anyone’s blood pressure fall so low and still live, that it was a miracle I was still there, if it had been any longer I would have bled to death I couldn’t even look. Everything was a fog. I was so heavily medicated I would go in and out of consciousness. I remember somebody saying, ‘I cannot believe she has no other injury or trauma on her body.’ All I had was a couple of stitches up here on my head and a black-and-blue mark under my eye. Nothing else was wrong. They did all the tests they could, and there was nothing.
“I never watched them change the dressings. They said, ‘You’re going to have to do this yourself,’ but I wouldn’t pay any attention. They did it twice a day, and I would shut my eyes or keep them somewhere else in the room They had told me right away after the surgery, but you can’t grasp that. You can’t one day be walking and the next—you can’t accept it. You can’t face it. You know it intellectually, but you block it off. For two weeks I never once looked down.
“They had told me they couldn’t save them, but the first time I acknowledged it was when they sent me to rehab, because I had to get out of bed. Yet even still, even though I knew it was true, I was so drugged up it was almost a dream
“And I remember Scott—that’s my son—asking, ‘Will Mommy’s legs grow back?’ and my mom saying, ‘No, honey, they won’t.’ He didn’t say anything. And I remember lots of people there; the guy who drove the ambulance and someone who saw the accident came to see how I was doing. I remember the look on my husband’s face. And I remember all the flowers, so many flowers they overfilled the room. I wished I had died. I thought, Why didn’t they just let me die? Because one morning I was walking, and when I looked down my legs were gone.” later Ron would wonder if he’d been made an unknowing subject of a secret army experiment. He would warn himself he was being paranoid, then wonder if he was being perfectly rational, given the sorts of things the army and the government were capable of carrying out. He saw himself, too, as suffering from what he called “the Godzilla syndrome”—radiation from nuclear testing had skewed his psyche.
But on that boyhood afternoon when he made his swift way past the librarian, he was simply terrified. He picked out the volumes of the encyclopedias and piled them on a table.
His first crush had come years earlier, when he was five years old. The woman ran a clothing shop with her sister, a few blocks from his home. Walking with his mother, he tugged and schemed daily to steer her in that direction. Whenever he succeeded, he gazed between the dresses and bras in the window to glimpse his first love. She had black hair and wore stubby black shoes—like a nun, he thought. One of the shoes, with a higher heel and thicker sole than the other, was built to compensate for a short leg.
It was the leg, a consequence of polio, that mesmerized him. By the time of his trip to the library, Ron had taken to erasing or scratching out limbs on pictures of women. In the encyclopedias he hoped for something less makeshift, less messy, more real. He chose the volumes holding articles on amputation. He picked, too, the ones that included polio and any other crippling disease he could name. He searched for articles on rehabilitation, thinking that this subject might provide the photographs or illustrations he’d anticipated. But, except for a picture of an iron lung, he found nothing. The images had been razored out. It was his first clue that he wasn’t completely alone.
The clue didn’t have much effect. As a teenager, he went out with the normal in body, while his yearnings were for the disabled. One of his father’s favorite words seemed to be “gimp”; he certainly wasn’t going to open up to his parents. An older girl, legs in braces—another polio victim— propelled herself through the neighborhood on crutches. He knew when she would be coming home from school, knew where she lived. He made sure to cross her path, to pass by her house; he never approached her. And a girl with cerebral palsy went to his own school, where each day she was tormented, called spastic and “Judy Cooty.” He tried to defend her, but that was all. For dates he chose the kinds of girls his friends desired. Pressed against them, “I closed my eyes and imagined that they didn’t have a leg or an arm.”
He went to college, studied to be an architect but immersed himself in fine art, married a woman he’d met in a drawing class, felt profoundly allied with her, loved the fact that as they walked through the Louvre they both revered Gericault over da Vinci, the Raft of the Medusa over the Mona Lisa, but blamed her for the feeling that there was nothing profound—that there was almost nothing at all— between them in bed. Soon they divorced. And meanwhile he began his career in advertising, his celebration of quotidian beauty, his evocation of Everyman’s ideal and elicitation of Everyman’s longing. He drew and cast and produced perfect scenes populated by perfect women, who could stir in him no wanting, whose beauty to him was abstract, who made him feel dead.
beneath the wish to die lay determination. Laura was driven by devotion to her five-year-old son, “the cutest blond-haired curly kid you ever saw.” And she was driven by the staff. They seemed to have only one focus, to be capable of only one concern: to get her onto prosthetics, to get her walking, to fit her back inside her life. In the rehabilitation rooms of the hospital they strapped her to weights, pushed her to strengthen her upper body, taught her to understand the movements her legs could still perform. Both legs had been amputated about ten inches below her hips.
Almost half her body had vanished. She felt alone not only in the world that she knew awaited her but even within the hospital walls. She was surrounded, at rehabilitation, by patients at least twice her age, victims of stroke and degenerative disease. “I’m twenty-five years old,” she recalled thinking. “How many years do I have to live this way? How many years are left? How am I going to raise my child? How am I going to walk? How am I going to have sex? Who is—All this stuff is running through my head every day from the minute I wake up, and every morning it’s, ‘Eight o’clock! Get your mat!’ I’m crumbling inside, I’m crushed to the very core, and they’re saying, ‘Eight o’clock! Get your mat! Eight o’clock! Get your mat!”’
There was no psychological counseling to speak of. She heard no answers to most of the questions that woke and whispered and screamed with her own waking, nothing beyond meaningless reassurances from those who knew her: she was strong, she’d always had spirit, she would get through this. Through to what? What did “through” mean? This wasn’t temporary. She wasn’t traveling backward in time. Could she? Was she? Are Mommy’s legs going to grow back?
She obeyed the eight o’clock orders, wheeled herself to rehab. Prosthetics were made and fitted; she steadied herself on the parallel bars. “‘Pick up your right leg slowly,”’ they instructed. She picked it up, put it down. Sensation traveled to her stump. “‘Pick up the foot again.’” And it was as though there were a foot—vaguely. The prosthetic communicated, dimly, to what remained of the limb. She registered the surface underneath, its degree of hardness, flatness, reliability.
But this was not the ad that ran on TV, the one with the silky playground basketball player lifting off for a jump shot on his artificial legs. His amputations were below the knee. For ease of adapting, for fullness of function, for balance and mobility, the player’s body was closer to whole than it was to
Laura’s. And there was nothing magical about the prosthetics she’d been given, nothing bionic, little of what people imagined science could offer. It wasn’t that she’d been given anything substandard. It was that the miraculous didn’t exist. The legs were limited in what they could be commanded to do. Technology couldn’t replace muscles and nerves. It could allow for bending but it couldn’t replicate the complexity of a knee, and it couldn’t provide anything more than crude control over the artificial joint.
“I would give anything in this world for my legs back, except for my son,” she wrote in her journal. The journal came with sketches and sayings on some of its pages. In one of the drawings, a nude goddess, whose body appeared to end at the knees, was borne aloft by a population of devoted, unclothed worshippers. One of the aphorisms went like this: “In truth we talk only to ourselves, but sometimes we talk loud enough that others may hear us.”
She didn’t talk loudly, not when it came to the questions that whispered and screamed. She just held herself upright on the parallel bars. She just picked up a foot and put it down, repeated and repeated this, then did the same with the other. She took a step. She took two. She made it to the end of the bars. There possibility ended, as though she had come to the edge of a cliff. There life itself seemed to end. Capability, what meager ration she now had, was cut off.
She managed to turn around. A step, another, a third, a fourth. To the end, the cliff, and back again, hands clinging on, hands for balance, hands to keep her from falling like a plank, hands like a baby’s on furniture as it learns to walk, but she without a baby’s future, she with this body—was this a body?—forever. Her son was sometimes there visiting, watching. Thinking back to that time, she couldn’t remember what was said between them. It seemed they hadn’t spoken at all. “Maybe there wasn’t a lotto say.”
A doctor had complimented what existed of her thighs: the fitting of prosthetics wouldn’t be difficult. But the fabricated limbs cut agonizingly into her groin. They had to be reshaped. Then the swelling of her stumps went down. More fitting, followed by more pain, more rounds of adjustments. And all the while, despite the pain, she stepped back and forth, back and forth along the parallel bars, exhausting herself so completely that sleep came by six o’clock.
She woke to the same truths that had dominated the day before, the same long void when she looked down, the same long void of years in front of her, woke eventually at home when she was discharged. A visiting nurse taught her to use a portable toilet until she could lever herself onto the regular one. Within two weeks she taught herself to pull and writhe her body into and out of the tub, so her husband no longer had to lift her in and out. Having mastered the dogged movements of a walker, she tried crutches in their driveway. To keep her upright, her husband walked behind her, bracing her with a strap.
He wheeled her, one night, into a bar where a friend of theirs was performing. “The band was real good,” she recounted in her journal. “We ate tamales and drank beer. I was watching everyone dance to the country music Rusty sang, and I felt I would give anything to be up there on the dance floor. It hurt me to see everyone dancing. I cried the whole way home. It felt like someone tore my heart out.” On a later evening, for her husband’s birthday, when she could approximate a walk on her prosthetics, they went to another bar to hear another band. As they were leaving, making their drunken way across the parking lot, one of her legs fell off.
“He never talks about my accident,” she wrote. “We seem to not be able to communicate. I think he is keeping it all bottled up inside. I guess it’s the military way or else he doesn’t have any feelings.”
He had always liked to stay out with his friends, on his own and late; now he stayed out more often and later. And there were nights he didn’t keep things to himself at all. He blamed her for what had happened, for being careless, for letting the gas tank go empty, for stepping around to the side of the car. After a night of drinking at their house, with her mother visiting along with friends from his tour in England, he took a rifle from a closet. He declared that he was driving over to kill the woman who had done this to her. They had the police report, knew her name and address. The woman had never so much as called; she’d never even sent a card. Rifle in hand, he raged until their guests restrained him
There was sex. But it was she, as much as her husband, who avoided it, couldn’t bear it. She was a woman whose prosthetics sometimes farted out pockets of air as she stood up; a woman who rode to her sessions of physical therapy on a special bus filled with retarded children; a woman who was stared at constantly; a woman who was told in a kindly voice by her neighbor at the mailboxes, “I don’t know if I could deal with that”—with having Laura’s body, with being what Laura was.
Laura asked to see her X-rays. “I want proof,” she confided in her journal, “that the doctors had to do what they had to do. I know it will really hurt, but I want to see it for myself. Maybe it will help me accept.”
A doctor clipped up the images, clicked on the white light. “The knees were all broken in half,” she wrote. “The bones were all broken in half. There was a dark spot on the right one. He said the bone was missing when I arrived there. It must have been on the side of the road.
“To look at those X-rays realizing that those were my legs brought a feeling of such great loss. He told me if they had been his they would have come off. He said a vascular surgeon was called to see if they could be saved, and there was no way. Not only were the bones broken up but all the tissue and muscle and cartilage was ruined. He told me he would show me the photos, but I refused. Do not look back but move ahead now. He said you’re young and pretty and have a complete and fulfilling life ahead of you.”
Desolate, determined, exhilarated, she walked away from the X-rays. She walked away, clinging to his words. But they evaporated, turned fast to nothing. They were a trick, a lie. “I was disgusting. No man could ever want me,” she said. “My whole life I was told I was pretty. Now what do I have? Now that I don’t have that, now that I’m revolting, what do I have?”
for resilience she relied not on the doctor’s words but on a patient she saw in physical therapy. The woman was paralyzed from the waist down. Legs in braces and body supported by a therapist, she was walking—in a sense. But it was only an exercise. It was nothing she would ever do on her own. Her legs, Laura thought with a piercing satisfaction, were utterly useless. They would be that way forever, while Laura was capable of walking by herself.
for resilience this was what she had: “There are people worse off than me.”
A year after losing her legs, she overdosed on Valium and nearly succeeded in killing herself.
in Berlin, in the years between world wars, there was an artist who began in advertising. Hans Bellmer designed campaigns for household products and then, as the Nazis took power, gave up all commercial work and concentrated on building two female dolls, almost life-sized, made from papier-mache and plaster, metal and wood. The limbs could be bent and twisted. The heads could tilt and pivot. A second pair of legs could be attached to a central ball joint on one of the dolls. Extra breasts and buttocks and pelvises could be appended. Body parts could be removed.
He photographed his dolls in poses of distortion and dismemberment, then gave the pictures, in the form of a tiny self-published book, to his beautiful seventeen-year-old cousin, whose arrival in his life, not as a lover he touched but as the embodiment of desire, had inspired the invention of the figures, the arrangement and rearrangement, the taking apart and putting back together of what he had made, the capturing with his camera. The cousin managed to give the photographs to the French surrealist poet Andre Breton And Breton published them in his magazine, Minotaure.
It was the start of a career that took Bellmer to live in Paris and put him in a circle with Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp. His method was obsessive. His output was minuscule, his life impoverished. He drew, he made collages, but three decades later, approaching his own death, he was still working with one of his two dolls, finding new ways to transfigure the body he had formed. Next to the other artists in his group, he was unknown, invisible. But those who discovered him were haunted: he took them inside a more harrowing subconscious than the other surrealists seemed willing to confront.
A nude girl, both childish and fully developed, lies sprawled near the bottom of a wooden staircase. It is one of Bellmer’s dolls with a pink bow in her hair and high, prominent breasts. She seems, in the photograph, to have been pushed down the stairs; one leg is missing at the hip. And it looks like violence has been done to her before, that her other knee has been broken in the past: rope, crudely knotted, seems to brace it. An arm, too, has been severed. Shadows mottle her skin, and the bottom banister of the stair rail obscures half of her face. The fingers of her remaining hand peek from behind the banister—the fingers are both trying to grab on, to stop her fall, and waving, beckoning the viewer of the photograph, who feels himself to be standing in the shadows that deepen at the foreground of the picture. Bangs cover her forehead: she is innocent. Her chin rests between her breasts, and her mouth is slightly open: she is seductive. She looks, at once, as though she has been knocked unconscious and as though she is sleeping, sated. And she looks aroused, wanting. Her belly protrudes, and the uptilted slit of her vagina occupies the center of the frame.
“Fit joint to joint, testing the ball-joints by turning them to their maximum position in a childish pose,” he wrote in an essay that accompanied his first book of photographs, his words sometimes taking the form of instructions to himself—a howto for fabricating and disfiguring a doll. “Gingerly follow the hollows, sampling the pleasures of curves, losing oneself in the clamshell of the ear, creating beauty and also distributing the salt of deformation a bit vengefully.” His work was driven by the wish to explore his own—and the viewer’s—longing, but also by the ambition to expose the yearnings of the girl. “Don’t stop short of the interior,” he instructed himself. “Lay bare suppressed girlish thoughts.” His images should reveal, inside the figure, the violent battle “between desire and its interdiction.”
Another photograph is taken from behind. A sleeveless and flimsy undergarment, held up by a single shoulder strap, covers part of the girfs back. Her head is turned; her chin lies hidden against her right shoulder; her lips nearly brush the strap; she gazes at the camera. The back half of her head is gone, cut away. Luxuriant curls of hair grow from her open skull and fall profligately past her neck and down her spine. Her body is bare except for the undergarment, which reaches only to her waist. But there isn’t much body left. She has no arms. The socket of one shoulder is ragged. The flesh of one leg has been stripped from the limb itself. The other leg has been replaced by a twig-thin mechanism with a joint at the knee that looks like a minimalist prosthetic. The round buttocks sit atop these legs, voluptuous. A bit of their paper skin is cracked and eroding, making them look somehow all the more sensual and obscene, all the more provocative. The surface of her face is cracked and scratched as well. A bruise adorns the corner of one eye, and she gazes back out of that corner, fearful, inviting, anticipating that the viewer will approach her, assault her, take her from behind. Her shadow blackens one wall. The walls around her are tight. She is wedged into one corner of the room. Even if she wanted to escape, there would be no way.
There are those who have seen Bellmer’s art as a reaction against Nazism, who have decided that his portraits of the female body were meant as a protest against Nazism’s reverence for physical perfection. Yet he scorned all political and moral aims. “Pulp writers, magicians, and confectioners used to have that secret something, that beautiful sweet which was called nonsense and that brings joy,” he wrote, aligning his aesthetic with theirs. “They dispensed with that unhappiness normally associated in my experience with useful intentions, and revealed the mysteries of roads less traveled by.” For Bellmer, the sweet and the harrowing—inseparable—were the path to revelation.
The doll, doe-eyed, leans back against a wall, oblivious to the fact that the skin of her stomach has been torn off, uncovering the hollow within, as though she has been disemboweled. Both arms are gone from their sockets. A leg has been lost. The doe eyes gaze slightly upward, unalarmed, receptive. The nose has a cute curve.
The doll, in another image, is reduced to the head and chest, nothing below that, and rests on the edge of a decrepit washbasin. Doe eyes have been replaced by wide, blank eyeballs. Her bangs are a pair of wispy spikes. The scalp is balding. Four perfectly spherical breasts protrude from the upper torso: two from the shoulders, one from the center of the chest, one from the side of the ribcage. The invitation, the terror, the innocence that animate the faces in the other photographs are absent. All expression is absent. Not only the eyes but the entire face is vacant. The girl is ravaged, dead, resilient only in the sexuality that is so aggressively present in the four breasts. The way her halftorso sits balanced on the rim of the chipped basin makes her look all the more assaulted, abandoned.
Yet beauty infuses the picture, just as it does all the others: the beauty of starkness, of the interplay between the texture of walls and the texture of flesh, the beauty of things seen in all their mute strangeness, the beauty of the bewildering, never explained but always illuminated. A doll, headless, with two sets of legs and groins, sprawled on a mattress in what seems to be the aftermath of making love to itself; a doll, headless, with two sets of legs and groins, sprawled on a field of dry grass in what seems to be the aftermath of rape; a doll without arms and only half of one leg suspended high in a tree, the photograph taken from below so that she floats, ethereal, in a blanched sky; a doll diminished to several distorted buttocks, nothing more, and cast in gold—all are suffused by the light of Bellmer’s ardent focus, his thrall, his love.
In middle age, Bellmer began an affair with an artist and writer fourteen years younger, Unica Zurn. She became his model and muse, a living doll. In a double-sided drawing, done in thread-thin white lines on black paper, Zurn stands, wearing a suit whose modest skirt reaches below her knees, with her hands folded demurely in front of her pelvis. That is the image on one side of the paper. On the reverse side, she is down on all fours, her skirt short and pleated. She wears striped socks and Mary Janes—the girlish shoes he often put on his dolls as he posed them The drawing holds a single element of collage, a pink hair bow. Her face, turned to the side, almost grazes the floor as she peers at a child’s glass marble, her fingers poised to touch it. The marble was symbolic to him: “a view of its interior allowed one to observe the frozen ecstasy of its spirals.” On hands and knees, both animal and child, Zurn gazes into the spirals of her own erotic being, transfixed and tempted to go further.
For a photograph, he bound her torso and buttocks tightly, asymmetrically, over and over and over with twine. She curls on a bed so that, from the back, her head, arms, legs are all out of view. What’s left for the camera are uncanny, anarchic risings of flesh extruding around the string, a crazed flowering of flesh, an abstract sculpture made from the most figurative of objects, the human body, an attempt to reach beneath the conscious to the unnamable.
But while she was model and muse, Zurn had her own voice. Her novella Dark Spring was, she said, “the erotic life of a little girl based on my own childhood.” Ten and eleven and twelve years old as the story unfolds, the girl fantasizes about kidnappers binding her fiercely and raping her with a knife, penetrating her with the blade. She is “honored” by all they do.
“Scenes of madness, of torture, of ecstasy were drawn by Bellmer with the sensitivity of a musician, the precision of an engineer, the brusqueness of a surgeon,” Zurn declared. “If we watch him at work, his hand seems weightless. One wants to know if it is tense against the paper, or if this pleasing line is a piece of sorcery from the void…. Whoever is sketched by him shares with him the abhorrence of self. It is impossible for me to render him greater praise.”
The girl and her violent fantasies, the adult and her urge to be annihilated through her lover’s art —Zurn was the proof, in blood and muscle and brain, of Bellmer’s vision of eros. But neither character nor author, it seemed, could survive the desire they had opened up in themselves. At the novella’s end, the girl kills herself, and soon after the book was published, Zurn committed suicide exactly as her character does: jumping from a window, destroying her body on the ground below, leaving herself broken like one of Bellmer’s dolls.
on his lunch hour, between sketching scenes to sell liquor and hiring conventionally pretty women to inhabit them, Ron walked the city with his camera. Manhattan seemed a dreamscape dominated by the vertical: not only the buildings but the crowds of pedestrians formed a world that was relentlessly straight up and down. “A disabled person,” he said, “is a break in that strict verticality, a diagonal in that mass.”
He sought out the diagonals to photograph, taking the images, at first, covertly, aiming his lens swiftly on the streets. In one picture, a woman propels herself along the sidewalk amid a stream of shoppers, propels herself partly on legs with braces, partly on crutches. Her bare muscled arms in a sleeveless dress, her in-twisting feet in elegant shoes, her slender hips thrust outward by her skewed stride, her chest leaning, almost lunging far forward of her legs, the angles of body parts accentuated by the straightness of the crutches—the entire effect is of a mime or a dancer expressively bent, except that this figure is more bent and expressive than a healthy body could ever manage. She is sculptural: contorted, animated, allusive, mesmerizing.
Another photograph captures a crippled woman through eyes other than his own. His quick focusing and clicking was meant simply to record the woman as she maneuvered herself off a curb on crutches. But without intending to, he included in the frame an onlooker standing behind his subject. Ron’s lens focuses in one direction, reverently, on the woman making her way off the sidewalk, while the bystander stares in the opposite direction, her eyes angling downward at the subject’s lower legs, at the deformation or absence that is cut out of the frame, that the photograph does not reveal. The bystander’s gaze is far from reverent. Her fingers touch her lips in horror.
His first love after his marriage came through his camera. He approached Elise on a crosstown bus, asked if she would consider posing. As a child she’d been one of the last in her hometown to contract polio. She’d been out of school, not feeling well, when the vaccine was given, and her parents had never bothered to have her inoculated. Now she was studying for a master’s degree in social work. Petite, with high cheekbones and a dimpled chin, a small lush mouth and long lush hair, she wore steel braces on both useless legs.
He photographed her only once in almost a year. They spent their time enmeshed in each other’s bodies, she comfortable in hers because he was so ardent with his, and immersed in debating the merits of his mainstream ambitions versus hers, after she graduated, to rehabilitate prisoners. She lived in the East Village, in her sister’s apartment, on a block that served as a base for the Hell’s Angels. A few of the gang surrounded him early on, grabbed him, asked if he was seeing Elise. “You mess her up and we’ll kill you,” one of them warned. Ron photographed her only once, because her face was almost always bruised, an eye sometimes black. Her husband beat her.
Though she stayed with her sister, she and her husband were still involved. Ron saw her when her husband traveled. Her husband never discovered the affair; the beatings weren’t on Ron’s account. Ron never knew the reason, knew only that Elise tolerated it, allowed it. He thought she believed it was what she had coming, as a cripple, that she believed she could do no better, felt she was lucky to have a husband at all. But he never tried to convince her to divorce, to be with him. Later, after they had drifted apart, he was desperate to find her, see her, persuade her. He called, but the phone was disconnected. He went to the apartment; the Hell’s Angels told him the sisters had moved away. He assumed Elise was still married, but he kept searching. He tried to locate the sister. He called the bureau of prisons in Elise’s home state, where he guessed Elise might have gone, and begged for a list of their social workers. He hired a private detective.
During their time together, he said, he had fallen for her “in a way that went far beyond my fascination.” The word—“fascination”—was the term men like Ron sometimes used, men drawn to the disabled. “The attraction,” he remembered, “became this wonderful overlay to what we had.” They had opened up to each other, she released by the improbable direction of his desire and he by holding, and being held fiercely by, a figure from his dreams. But he hadn’t been ready, and his dream had disappeared, and the private detective could not find her. He hadn’t been ready at all, not to be permanent and public with a woman who looked like she did. He was barely willing to admit what he wanted to himself. Clandestine, ashamed, his ambivalence seemed to have affirmed her shame, her feeling that her husband was her due. With her braces, her beauty, her black eyes, she was gone.
He went to two psychologists, and in their offices avoided the subject, the elemental aspect of himself, that had driven him to seek their help. With the first therapist he filled the sessions with the failings of his ex-wife. But the second seemed to intuit his evasions. He asked about the camera Ron always carried, wondered what he took pictures of. “And?” the therapist pressed gently. “And? And?”
He persisted until Ron confided everything, then asked Ron if he hurt anyone, if he hurt himself. So there was, the psychologist advised, no reason for self-reproach, no reason for reluctance. It was far from that simple. Yet the therapist’s logic began to unburden him as he went on photographing and sleeping with women he met around the city.
Katherine had hooks for hands and one prosthetic leg—a pornographic fantasy, but there wasn’t much between them in bed: “She would never take off her nightgown. She was a lot more inhibited about her body than Elise.” It was her determination that enthralled him. She wanted to become an occupational therapist, but to be certified she had to lift an impossible weight. She went to court, proved the requirement unnecessary and prejudicial, got her license, and started her career. He remembered, too, the way she ate olives with pits when they went to a favorite Greek restaurant. “Not an easy thing for anyone to do gracefully,” he laughed. “But somehow she did.”
Melinda he met on the street while walking after lunch. She was with a friend who assumed that Ron, intruding himself and explaining that he wanted to do a portrait, was really interested in her. Melinda was, after all, just a paraplegic in a wheelchair. The friend volunteered that she had always wanted to be a model, that it would be great if he could take some head shots. He did a session for both of them, gave the pretty would-be model the pictures she needed, then focused his lens on the woman who entranced him
Sylvia was South American, an accountant with a serene oval face, a close-mouthed smile, lustrous black hair. She sobbed uncontrollably after she and Ron first made love. Her legs, wasted by disease, could support her only with a lattice-work of steel bars and leather straps. She lived alone in a hotel, never spoke of family or friends, and when she visited Ron’s apartment always tuned the radio to an oldies station. She wanted the love songs of earlier decades, the serenades of doowop. One day, when he called her, the woman at the hotel’s front desk, who usually took his messages, asked him to come over. She told him, when he arrived, that his girlfriend had killed herself.
Elizabeth was the valedictorian of her Ivy League class, and Ron happened to hear her commencement address. “She was about as close as I expected to come to the ideal woman,” he remembered. “She was smart, she was cute, and she had no legs.” That evening after the graduation, he called the dorms, reached someone who knew her, learned that she had already left for the summer. But he was told, too, that she would be back for law school in the fall. He phoned her then, praised her speech, persuaded her to go out on a date. She met him at the campus gates with three of the university’s football players standing beside her wheelchair.
The campus wasn’t wheelchair-accessible, and a squad of athletes was assigned to carry her up stoops and bear her up flights of stairs. In this case, though, they were there for protection. What kind of creep or lunatic would want to date a woman with no legs? But when she met him, he seemed safe and sane enough. She told the players they could go. He wheeled her out the gates.
She had grown up in small Southern towns with an affliction that shortened her legs and froze her joints at the ankles, knees, hips. Twenty-some operations by the time she was thirteen—surgeons breaking bones, cutting tendons, reattaching ligaments—didn’t bring mobility to her legs. Then a doctor suggested amputation; her real legs would never be any use to her, but she might walk with prosthetics. She went through another surgery, woke with her legs removed, and never could train herself to walk well on artificial limbs. She told Ron she didn’t regret the amputation. She said that whenever she saw paraplegics with their legs, she thought only of their stupidity—they were burdened with so much meaningless weight.
Intellectual, imperious, self-sufficient, she captivated him, and after a few months together, he tried what he never had with any girlfriend. He possessed, by then, a degree of self-acceptance. The psychologist had helped, and so had finding a group of similar men, who called themselves “devotees.” They met, as a kind of support group, at the home of a former Korean War pilot who had lately befriended a veteran of the Algerian resistance. She’d blown off her legs while trying to blow up a French building.
What he tried was telling Elizabeth about his desire for the disabled and above all for amputees. She seemed incredulous, rapt, then grateful, released. She posed for him in ways that alluded to the erotic power she’d just discovered. In one portrait, her abbreviated body sits draped in red fabric: her stumps, covered in sheer black nylons and partially concealed in shadow, might easily be overlooked. But on second glance they emerge: paired secrets, half-hidden parts, objects of shame and allure, transfixing.
They married after he’d carried her up the three flights of stairs to his apartment for three years. “My friends were like a Greek chorus. Charlie Crane, who I lived with for two years, who I worked with for fifteen years, who I traveled with all the time, was absolutely rabid. He just flat-out said, ‘Why would you want someone with no legs? I can’t go out with you anymore. I don’t want to deal with it, I can’t deal with it, it’s ugly.’ Charlie’s girlfriends, you could look through their heads, but
they were tall and skinny. They had long legs and big breasts and blond hair.”
Others kept their quiet distance and faded away. “They just didn’t want to be seen with her. It just didn’t fit the image they wanted.” And Elizabeth was adept at making them uneasy. She insisted on wearing miniskirts and on never wearing prosthetics. At a Christmas party, as she sat on a couch with her stumps protruding, someone asked if she would cover herself with a blanket. For the beach she chose bikinis, never anything that even intimated an effort to conceal. She liked Ron to carry her across the sand to the water, to put her down at the edge of the surf. And in a car one intoxicated evening, she sent shudders through his friends by vaulting herself from the backseat into the front, launching her body like some sort of tree-jumping animal.
“You have to develop the same thick skin they have,” he said about being with Elizabeth and the lovers who had come before her. “Society sees you like you’re driving around in a junk car. A woman with a disability is like that. Everyone stares. And everyone wants to ask, ‘Why are you with a defective person?”’ “when people hear we split up, they think, This happened to you, so your husband left you. But I was the one who filed,” Laura said. “He might have left me emotionally, but I was the one who filed for divorce. And that took a lot of guts. I had a son to raise and no legs and no education except a high school diploma and no one to be with. I was alone, and that was the way it was going to be. That was over.”
She moved back to Pennsylvania and found a government job as an administrative assistant. At night she found reassurance and self-revulsion with men she met in bars, men she felt would have her: “Losers—no job, no car, drugs, no money.” And she searched online, during all the idle hours her bureaucratic job provided, through the sites that came up when she typed in “disability.” There were nonprofits offering advocacy, businesses selling equipment, leagues organizing handicapped sports, groups fund-raising for Third World amputees, campaigns against land mines led by Lady Di. She read nearly every sentence, as though somewhere through the links she clicked on, somewhere in the flood of unfiltered words, would be a phrase of wisdom or a breakthrough of science that would change what was unchangeable.
Then she landed on an advertisement for models at a site run by Carol Davis Productions. “It was the first time I’d heard of it. It was, wow, this is bizarre. Maybe years earlier it would have been, this is perverse, disgusting. But it wasn’t that. I was intrigued. I didn’t understand. You mean they’re attracted to amputee women? And why wouldn’t anyone have told me about this? None of the physical therapists. None of the surgeons or prosthetists. It was weird to me, these men, but a million things were running through my head. I was kind of happy, excited. Maybe I wouldn’t have to be alone. I started checking other sites. What’s the psychological part? Is this an attraction like to large breasts or blond hair? Is this the same thing? How does a person get this way? Why was this? Did something happen to them in their childhood? And I was mad. I was pissed. How could I not have known about this? Every professional I had come into contact with hadn’t let me know.”
She sent a message to Carol Davis, who’d lost a leg herself, and they e-mailed back and forth. Soon Laura was being photographed and videoed: playing wheelchair basketball, swimming, operating the hand controls on the van she’d learned to drive, snorkeling, parasailing, trying to monoski. She was flying around the country for the shoots and taking in sixty thousand dollars for her share of the sales.
In none of the images was she dressed in anything less than a bathing suit. The porn on sites like Davis’s could look demure, even quaint—except that, for the customers, the points of craving were often on full display. Still, there seemed to be a difference between this and conventional porn. In some of the videos the models were fully clothed, their amputations covered; the images were simply of them confronting challenges. That was the attraction: Laura shooting baskets or attempting to ski. She mentioned, to a few friends, that she’d been doing some modeling.
“What kind of modeling?”
“Disabled-woman modeling,” she answered.
“Well, to show that we’re like everybody else, that we can be accepted as who we are.”
“That we can be accepted not just as disabled.”
“That we can be sexual.”
They wondered who the videos were for, and she explained that health professionals would use them for training. “But,” she forced herself to add, “there are also people, mostly men, who like women with disabilities, amputees especially.”
“Attracted to them.”
Her friends were open with their thoughts: that this was strange, that it was sick. They told her they worried about her self-esteem, worried that she was letting herself be used. One day Laura’s brother, who was a UPS driver, had a package spill open on his truck. The package held magazines bound for a devotee. They didn’t include any pictures of Laura, and he kept his discovery of the phenomenon to himself until one day Laura worked up her courage and asked him, as if casually, if he’d ever heard of such men. She’d never gone this far with her family. She’d never spoken about her modeling. She figured that her brother, the one she felt was the smartest of her siblings, would be the most sympathetic. He told her about the package. He told her it was revolting. With her family, that was the last time she raised the subject.
Online, in amputee chat rooms, some of the women warned that devotees were stalkers, predators. She learned, too, how specific their preferences could be, that some wanted SAEs, single arm amputees with the amputation above the elbow; that others hoped for women like Laura, DAKs, with double leg-amputations above the knee; that some liked single left-leg stumps the best; that others dreamed of perfect scars.
Sometimes she agreed with her friends, her brother. It was sick. And it was frightening. And it was infuriating to think that men could have their favorites in this way, that they could choose between calamities that had wrecked women’s lives. But was a preference for a single arm really all that different from a preference for a certain color hair, a certain tone of skin or shape of face or type of body? And weren’t there creeps among men of all kinds?
“A big chunk of my life, I kind of wanted to be a model. But I wasn’t tall enough and all that, and it’s funny how it turned out. I lost my legs, and there I was. What it did for me, it made me feel good about myself.” beyond the comical thoughts of secret government studies and nuclear fallout, Ron wondered about scientific reasons. There were few studies, and their science was suspect. It was safe to say that most devotees had been drawn to the disabled since childhood, since before they’d felt the attraction as palpably sexual, that most were men, that there were gays as well as straights among them. It was safe to say that some were aroused, too, by the thought of being amputees themselves, but that this desire was probably a distinct paraphilia, one that enticed and tormented a few men to the point that they carried out their longings, cutting off their legs with chain saws or contracting with surgeons—there was a willing and well-known doctor in Scotland—to perform the operations. It was clear that, like Ron, most devotees were glad to have their arms and legs, and that many, like him, were attracted to women without limbs both by visually charged lust and by emotionally infused admiration for the way the women coped. And it was clear that no one had a clue about the desire’s source.
Was some sort of displaced castration fantasy involved? Or a not-so-sublimated wish to commit violence against women, to cut, to dismember, to destroy? Was there a yearning to play savior? A need for control? Ron had his own half-joking theory built on thoughts of evolution, of ancestral adaptation: his desire derived from the prehistoric savannah, where predatory animals had learned to recognize crippled prey as the easiest to catch and kill. “Am I the lion going after the lame antelope? How primitive is this? There’s so much that’s primal in our sexual nature. But when people say to me, ‘You go after disabled women because they’re easy to get,’ I have to tell them, ‘They’re not easy to get. Trust me. They’re much more reticent, very much more resistive. They’ve got this whole attitude: what do you want me for? And they’ve got this independence they’ve had to fight to achieve.’”
In the end, Ron didn’t believe that cause could be accounted for. Rather than talk about reasons, he preferred to quote the sixteenth-century philosopher Montaigne: “ft is a common proverb in Italy that he does not know Venus in her perfect sweetness who has not lain with the cripple.” The legs of the lame or of the amputated, Montaigne wrote, required less bodily “nourishment” and so left more sustenance for the genitals. The vagina was more “vigorous” in crippled women.
Krafft-Ebing had given a more simple blessing. After examining and taking the history of a thirty-year-old civil servant who yearned for women with a left-footed limp, women whose deformity would match that of a girl he’d played with when he was seven, the doctor wrote: “I enlightened the patient on the subject, and told him that it was difficult, if not absolutely impossible, for medical science to obliterate a fetishism so deeply rooted by old associations, but expressed the hope that if he made a limping maid happy in wedlock, he himself would find happiness also.”
But, for Ron, the words from past centuries were only somewhat more satisfying than the search for explanations. And what he wanted anyway, far more than psychology or history, was the revelation of art, a way to evoke his erotic vision in images. Then, at a Manhattan museum, he rediscovered Bellmer, whose work he’d first been staggered by in college. He confronted what the surrealist had called his “plastic anagrams,” the photographs of his dismembered dolls. Ron stood before the broken doll at the base of the stairs, the doll with two pairs of legs and groins in the aftermath of passion and in the aftermath of rape. Bellmer had been fascinated by anagrams, by the connections and meanings latent within words. Beil, the word for ax in German, became lieb, the word for love, he pointed out in one of his essays. And lieb in turn became leib, the word for body. He sensed the oracular in such rearrangements, truths of the human psyche lying dormant and waiting in plain sight to be found. Through his dolls, he felt he could do the same with the body. The body parts were the letters, and their violent reordering would reinvent the body’s language and unmask its messages and lead to a shaman’s wisdom.
Ron wondered if he could do the same without the dolls. Until he stood facing Bellmer’s photographs, his own were fairly standard portraits—flattering, sentimental—of women with disabilities. The braces and hooks and stumps gave the images an unsettling edge, but the abnormalities were treated discreetly, kept at an emotional periphery. Now a brazen impulse took hold. “I plugged into the sense of disarticulation in the dolls, the idea of plastic anagrams. If I could meet Bellmer today, I would ask why he used the dolls. Perhaps the answer is that he couldn’t deal with a human being. He was exploring elements of sexuality that people can’t normally handle. The dolls were symbolic. And by using dolls he could get away with making them young, putting them in that time of almost unfettered sexuality.”
Bellmer seemed to have traveled far on a journey toward something primitive, and the photographs stirred, in Ron, a barely articulate erotic understanding and artistic ambition. “The elemental body” was the phrase that came to him “There’s something about making love to a legless woman—there’s nothing in the way. It’s a clear path, it’s very primal to me.” There was an artistic depth he might reach, he thought, through the bodies that held such power over him
The first body he used belonged to a prostitute who went by the name Johnny Bardot. Until she’d been pushed in front of a subway, she’d been a madam at a high-priced bordello on the Upper East Side. Now she was turning tricks, working from a wheelchair on the streets west of Times Square. A friend of Ron’s delivered her to him
The friend, whom Ron had met through men like the Korean War pilot who had created a kind of community around their desire, was the sort of devotee who sent some amputees and their advocates into missions of warning and outbursts of rage. He traveled the world, searching for amputee women, and approached almost every one that he saw. The approaches weren’t impolite; he would have seemed a harmless player, Ron thought, had his target been women with all their limbs; instead he seemed almost criminal, striking up conversations in train stations and at prosthetics conventions. He noticed Johnny Bardot one night from his car, knew right away that Ron would want to photograph her, and set up a meeting.
Ron paid her for her time. He sold the pictures on a devotee Web site and gave her the profits, several thousand dollars. What he got in return was a living version of Bellmer’s dolls.
The photographs are at once visionary and political. In one—probably the most conventionally pornographic of the series—Bardot sits on an impeccably smooth gray floor. She wears a white corset that laces up the back. The stays cling to her body, which she kept in shape with a fanatical routine of modified push-ups and crunches. She looks back over one shoulder at the camera, her face framed and shadowed by her profusion of hair, which enwraps her cheekbones and chin and tumbles over her shoulders in loose curls of oak and gold. A white bow, a tribute to Bellmer, lies slightly off – center on her head, seeming to slide down the shimmering ringlets. She smiles minimally, seductively. Her lower body, the legs amputated close to the hips, is clothed in white stockings. Her back is arched; her ass, broad and round, is cocked toward the viewer and sits on the flawless gray surface. All is flawless, except for the absence of legs. Yet within the way of seeing dictated by the picture, within the aesthetic created by the gray that rises from the floor and forms, too, the backdrop of the image, so that Bardot seems to be posing in her own ethereal world—within the photograph, the absence of legs is not a flaw at all.
Curving delicately at its end and sheathed in white, the right stump, the only one visible because of the camera’s angle, suggests the shape and perfection and allure of an egg—the stump is beautiful in itself. But the absence of legs also accentuates the sexual. Bardot’s posture—back arched, ass cocked—provokes thoughts of her being locked to a man’s lap, and the thoughts are not of strangeness; the thoughts are not repellent, not even remotely. It is easy to imagine that the experience of having her in this way would be far more primitive, more pure, more powerful than being straddled by a typical woman
In another photograph her deconstruction is as gentle as it is violent. Sitting in an antique chair whose legs draw elegant curves, she wears an old-fashioned white undergarment. The bodice is tight, the thigh-length skirt spreads in a bloom of crinoline. She faces the camera, her features almost completely obliterated by shadow, only a sliver of nose and half of her lips illuminated in a way that speaks of sadness and keen vulnerability and a longing for the touch of an exquisite, tender lover.
It seems she has found him She wears one prosthetic leg and extends it toward the viewer: toward that touch, that lover. A wide band of lace adorns that artificial thigh, and she offers it to the slow and tender man, the man who will, at every moment, treat her vulnerability as precious; she asks him silently to slide the lace down and off her leg.
She wants him, as well, to remove the leg itself. The other prosthetic already lies on the floor below the chair. He has taken it in his hands and taken it off and placed it aside. He has done this just as he might unlace or unbutton an article of her clothing and slip it away from her skin. Removing the first prosthetic is like the start of a deep undressing. Removing the other will be the completion. She sits within the bloom of crinoline with one leg gone and the other waiting. She asks him to go that far because he goes so softly.
Yet he is tearing her apart, tearing her limb from limb. That is the impulse lurking within his softness, and the result, no matter how slowly and gently he proceeds, is that one leg has been pulled off and the other is about to follow. This is their desire: his bringing destruction, her being destroyed, decomposing, taking on a more primal form This is their inexorable mission as they make love.
But unlike Bellmer’s images, the portraits of Bardot have a political purpose, a “usefulness” as Bellmer contemptuously put it, that accompanies the artistic vision. These are statements of enlightened outcry at the same time that they are invocations of darkness. They say: Look at this woman. She is an amputee, someone from whom you would avert your eyes, but she is beautiful, complex, as fully human as anyone you know. Look. Stare. Take her in. Allow her in. Allow her to be.
And in some of the pictures, the message is yet more bold. There is no plea to be seen, recognized, permitted her humanity. There is presumption and self-advertisement: I am splendid by any standard, and you will look, stare, want. For all her welcoming of destruction, the photographs proclaim a liberation, a refusal to be reduced, an exultant strength.
Johnny Bardot, whose real name was Janet, bought heroin with the money Ron paid her. She had always used. But now dependency deepened, addiction took hold, and sometimes she couldn’t be photographed when they had arranged to work. She was nodding out. Always she had assumed any pose he described. She had never protested; body and being had been pliant. Now she deteriorated to the point that she couldn’t perform Willingness became vacancy. The lens couldn’t find the life within her. And eventually she disappeared. But until then, she was much more than a model; she was an actress capable of embodying all the layers, all the contradictions he hoped to render. She poses, in one frame, with a pair of dark wooden crutches. She wears antiquated prosthetics that lace up along the thighs. One of the laces is loose, and part of the knee on the other leg is missing. Plainly the contraptions can’t work, but their leather and laces are beautiful, and she is determined to use them She leans forward and tries to rise out of a chair, to lever herself onto the crutches with her thick, muscled arms. Her head tilts almost coquettishly, and her oakand-gold hair tumbles to that side, but there is nothing coquettish about her effort. She is fragile and stubborn, helpless and self-sufficient, broken and complete. She is lovely, and it is hard not to fall in love.
the jazz club was down a set of difficult stairs, impossible with a wheelchair. The maitre d’ told him where to go, and he wheeled Laura down the block. At times, she didn’t wear her prosthetics, though she was proficient on them—they were awkward and exhausting. He wheeled her around the corner and through the front doors of an apartment building. They rode the building’s elevator down, navigated a basement corridor, entered the back door to the club’s kitchen. He wheeled her between the flaming stoves and mammoth refrigerators, between the chopping and sauteing, through the swinging doors and into the club. This, if you were in a wheelchair, was the only way.
After nineteen years, Ron’s marriage to Elizabeth was falling apart. “Not because we were a devotee and an amputee,” he said, “but because we were a man and a woman. Our marriage failed for the same screwed-up reasons that half of all marriages do.” He’d seen images of Laura on Carol Davis’s Web site, and Davis had relayed his request that she model. At the start, she was, for him, simply a replacement for Johnny Bardot. And he, for her, was someone to avoid dating. Intrigued as she was by what compelled devotees, and open as she was to the idea of their desire, she had decided she didn’t want to come any closer than conversation; she had told herself she didn’t want to be touched by anything more than a photographer’s lens. She bent her rule, she remembered, “because Ron was successful, a big-city person, intelligent, educated.” Hours before their evening at the jazz club, they’d finished an all-day shoot, a session with a modern dancer, an attempt to replicate the delicate lines of Degas despite the stolid thickness of stumps and the weight of prosthetics.
The bassist Ron Carter was playing that night. Carter’s girlfriend lived in Ron’s small building, but even without that, the musician might have recognized him—Ron was a regular at his gigs. Carter nodded and steered his band into “Blue Monk” as Ron wheeled Laura to a table. He knew it was Ron’s favorite. The bass climbed the song’s staircase of notes, skipping upward and then, distracted, stopping to dance on the steps before reaching the top.
At the shoot earlier that day, Ron had been “this neurotic photographer who was driving me insane,” Laura recalled. “Pacing back and forth in this loft he’d rented, pacing and yelling. He hated what the stylist was doing with my hair. He thought it was too severe. He’d never worked with her before, and he was freaking out. ‘What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?’ Over and over. Chaos. The costumes wouldn’t sit right. He was chain-smoking and swearing. No one could find the electrical outlets. And we were waiting for the dancer. He’d hired someone from the Dance Theater of Harlem, but at the last minute he had to go with the troupe to Washington to perform for the president, and we were waiting for his replacement. It was mayhem. Ron was not a human being.”
He became one as Carter plucked his bass, performing subtle, lilting acrobatics. And afterward, with the months of phone calls and e-mails between New York and Pennsylvania, Ron’s being a devotee put her off less and less. “We started to talk all the time, and I was thinking, This is so wonderful. He was the first man I could totally relate to. I didn’t have to hide any of my dreams. I was thinking, This is the neatest thing in the world. I could tell he was everything I wanted, a friend and a companion and someone who accepted me totally for myself.” She cut herself off as she spoke to me. “This is going to make me cry.”
She sat, her voice breaking, in the living room of the house they’d bought together a year earlier, five years after they’d met. It was a few minutes’ drive from downtown in a Pennsylvania city, in a community of quiet lanes and cul-de-sacs, of well-pruned shrubs and sloping lawns. The one-story house had a stone facade and a small swimming pool where, in the summer, Laura did laps to exercise her arms and “limblets”—the word she preferred to “stumps.” Inside, all was sleek and modern She sat on a square-backed couch, with her prosthetics off. Lately she had been learning to use a new pair. Their technology was more advanced; they would give her, eventually, a bit more agility. But the process would take half a year, and she swore that this was the last time she would put herself through it, no matter what improvements science offered. Her legs leaned, at the moment, against the wall in the bedroom she shared with Ron.
He rubbed her neck as her voice gave way. “When I met her, she was right on the cusp of things.”
“In his eyes, I was what he was looking for. But he was what / was looking for. I was coming out. I was changing.”
“It sounds kind of silly, but she was a bud about to bloom.”
“It’s true. It was like perfect timing. I wanted somebody responsible and worldly, somebody to talk to, somebody—not to take care of me but to be nurturing. And until Ron I never had a relationship like that.”
“She was out there alone.”
“I was striving, but I didn’t have any support. I didn’t have any self-esteem. Part of me knew there was something better inside me, but I didn’t have anyone to help me develop it.”
Now she had graduated from college and was halfway to a master’s in social work. She planned to counsel the disabled. “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do I’m doing now. I wanted to own a house like this. I wanted to model. I wanted a college education. And I wanted to be a psychologist, and now, in a way, I’m going to be.”
She worked, as part of her master’s program, at a state-funded mental health center that helped patients to find the right kind of care. The center was part of a movement in the field; it was known as a “consumer organization”—the staff were or had once been mental health patients themselves. They knew what it was to be as lost as Laura when she’d overdosed on Valium and spent ten days in a psychiatric ward.
Everyone else in the squat building of small offices had their whole bodies. Yet Laura seemed by far the most stable. The unkempt director talked incessantly about the great psychologists she’d studied with, about the great athletic achievements of her adult sons, about her own “giant balls” in standing up to practitioners who refused to listen to their patients. The center’s secretary, a chiseled ex-marine in a pressed polo shirt, said repeatedly, quietly, methodically, “I have a car now,” as though to convince himself of his recovery from the desolation that had hold of him Another staffer wore her hair in a rat’s tail that dangled rakishly below her psychedelic skullcap. She had no top teeth and, openly lesbian, liked to flirt with Laura. “I love those photographs,” she said. “My wife and I are re-decorating, and I’m going to put one up, a sexy one; I’m going to blow it up big. Laura, when are you graduating? When are we celebrating? When are we going skinny-dipping? I want to touch those legs.”
In her office, Laura sat at a clutterless glass desk and took calls from the desperate. On the cork board behind her she’d tacked a poster of Ereud declaring, “I’ve changed my mind, don’t tell me about your mother…recover!” But with her clients she had unlimited patience. She listened for an hour and a half to a paranoid schizophrenic recounting a feud with his neighbor over a woodpile. Later she visited a lockdown ward of psychotics and tried to persuade the staff to take guidance from the patients on their treatment. This was her mission: caregivers should see patients as equals. The delusional man raging about the woodpile might well know what was best for his own care. She brought all she’d been through to her work, all the times she’d been dismissed as a cripple by the people in charge of her rehabilitation, all the times she’d been unheard, invisible.
Near the poster of Freud was a photograph of Laura perched on a kitchen counter in a short red dress. “I like that picture,” she said. “It’s saucy.” Home was decorated with large, framed portraits: of her, of Johnny Bardot. In one, Laura sits in a silvery-pink satin dress, leaning forward with an elbow on one thigh and her chin on her fist. Her half-smile hints at self-satisfaction, defiance. She spreads her prosthetic knees and pushes the satin down between them, flaunting, concealing, taunting. But the expression on her face is more powerful than the flirtation with the fabric. Eros assumes a different form than it does in the portraits of Bardot. The sensibility has shifted with the muse. Laura radiates intelligence. Self-possession emanates more than the desire to be possessed.
Laura stands, in another photograph, wearing a two-piece gown, bodice and skirt, from centuries ago. The scarlet material is trimmed in gold brocade. From her waist the skirt billows outward, broad as a spinnaker, and grazes the floor in a huge circle. It fastens in front by a series of cobalt buttons, and she is about to start closing it, but for the moment it gapes open: a vertical window, eight or ten inches wide, runs from her waist to the floor. The gold brocade lines the opening like a ceremonial decoration, a veneration of what lies within. But nothing lies within. Inside the vast regal tent of the garment is darkness.
Because of the lighting and pose, Laura’s body seems to end at the belly, to have no stumps at all. The opening exposes a pure emptiness. It is unclear how she is standing, what keeps her upright. The cavern beneath the skirt is illumined just enough to suggest that she isn’t wearing her prosthetics. She stands on no legs, suspended, magical.
And that magic, along with her strong jawline turned in profile, endows her with omnipotence. The cavern is at once a universe and a womb. The vertical opening is a vaginal slit, and to slip through it, to slide the body inside the scarlet walls of the tent, to wait inside while she fastens the skirt and encloses you, swallows you, would be to live out the primal fantasy of entering the vagina not only with the penis but with everything from the skull to the toes: to be ensconced, to be consumed. The photograph’s viewer, not its subject, is at risk of disintegrating, coming apart, deliquescing in the lightless world he has longed for, turning to liquid in the womb. Laura, with her half-body, will remain more than intact, more than whole.
she wore a ring with a white gold band and a diamond in a high setting. After six years together, they were engaged to be married. They were planning a honeymoon in Italy, including Venice, where, somehow, he would help her manage the city’s steeply arched bridges, its narrow and crooked stairs, its keeling pavement, its crowded alleys, its water taxis, and where, somehow, he would help her into a gondola that would take them gliding at night along the fire-lit canals.
Their lives were merged. She was his muse, who brought life to his dreams, and he had brought life to hers. They were merged “in the million ways that make up a relationship,” he said in their kitchen, as they prepared a Sunday breakfast of eggs and bagels for themselves and me.
“We have all the regular things that keep people together,” she added, wheeling herself around the island counter and setting the table.
“And like the cherry on the sundae is that she’s a double amputee, which brings me such happiness and pleasure and joy.” He spoke plainly, and she didn’t wince at his words. His attraction was an accepted fact between them, one they were accustomed to acknowledging, and though she didn’t smile at his praise and his gratitude, his way of saying that he felt extremely lucky to have found a woman he melded with so well and for whom he felt such desire, it wasn’t hard to imagine that she did sometimes smile at such phrases. Earlier that morning I had heard their voices across the hall in their bedroom I had woken to their laughter.
She put out butter and jelly, and he served the eggs, and we sat down to eat. They talked about the way some in the amputee community called the attraction disgusting. “If it’s disgusting,” Laura asked, “what are they saying about themselves?”
She mentioned an article we’d all read in a magazine for the disabled. It spoke of the ways that doctors and psychologists and physical therapists often compounded the shame of amputees by pushing them into prosthetics not so much for the sake of independence as to spare everyone else the sight of their disfigurement. The writer recounted the stay of a quadrilateral amputee in a rehabilitation center, where she was all but forced to wear purely cosmetic legs and arms, and to cover herself in loose, long-sleeved clothing.
In reply, Ron described the relief of a friend when Elizabeth, who never wore prosthetics, had been replaced in his life by Laura. And Laura talked about the different reactions she encountered during her day, depending on whether she had put on her artificial legs. Her words made me think of something else she’d once told me, that she was proud of her life and in love with Ron, but that the truth was she felt plagued by wondering if she could win a normal man. She knew that such thinking was perverse. She knew that it spoke of self-loathing, that normal was a worthless notion, that it held only the power she allowed it. She knew better, knew she should purge her longing, but couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t get rid of this desire.
Yet I had heard her laughter float across the hall from a master bedroom with leopard-print pillowcases and a leopard-print comforter, laughter that was light and warm, the laughter of being beloved. And then she had emerged, resplendent, wearing a man’s white dress shirt, to make breakfast with her fiance.
After we ate, they led me out from the kitchen into the garage. They showed me a contraption: two bicycles connected side by side. She didn’t have the balance to ride on her own, and a typical tandem, one rider behind the other, wouldn’t offer enough stability, either. He’d come across the side- by-side design in an old disability magazine, ordered the connector, and gone to a local bike shop for help in attaching it. But the device wouldn’t fit with any of the shop’s bicycles. Ron was about to give up when he wondered if using old-fashioned bikes might be a solution. He found a pair on eBay, and returned to the shop, where the mechanic, sympathetic to the project because his mother was blind, set to work again. And this time, all went smoothly. The contraption was perfect.
Suddenly Ron and Laura were peddling and coasting beside each other, flying through their own breeze, bound together, free.
There was only one problem Soon he was gasping for breath. He wasn’t as strong, wasn’t in her kind of shape. He needed to stop, to turn around, when she wasn’t at all ready, when she was barely breathing hard, when she was exhilarated. She wanted to go on and on.