Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007
There’s a lot of good news in Allen Rucker’s The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life (HarperCollins). It’s not that Rucker - who, at age 51 and without warning, developed transverse myelitis, a rare condition that left him paralyzed from the waist down - made a movie-of-the-week-worthy miraculous recovery. Nor does he see God, take the gold in the wheelchair Olympics, or declare his paralysis “the best thing that ever happened.”
But the self-described former TV hack eventually broke free from the understandable funk that comes with going from a life running three miles a day and making love to your wife in any position she’ll let you to being confined to a wheelchair and having no bowel control. He overcame his depression, and our sad-eyed staring, and accentuated the positive (no raking leaves, the best parking spots, the excellent view of women’s breasts when they lean down to talk to you at a cocktail party). What’s more, the author of The History of White People in America (with the actor Martin Mull) even managed to return to his first love, penning books, as he did in the form of a couple of bestselling companion books to the HBO series The Sopranos. Rucker also wrote one dynamite story about his own life.
So I’m just going to say it: If you read only one memoir about a paraplegic this year, make it Allen Rucker’s inspired, hilarious and somehow even breezy The Best Seat in the House. As Rucker explains, Best Seat is not just a book for what is by far the country’s largest minority - the 56 million people who have a disability - but for anyone who can relate to how “a life-changing event can affect you.” That’s a lot of us. If not now, then - let’s face it - eventually.
By divine timing, on the day he received a glowing review in The New York Times, SMITH talked to Rucker about his writing, his dislike of the word unfortunate, and why a wheelchair comedy tour with John Callahan is exactly what America needs now.
You’ve been in a wheelchair for nine years and writing all your adult life. What took you so long to do this book?
Within five days of becoming paralyzed, I started taking notes on the book. But I wanted my story to take its own narrative, and that took four or five years. And I also needed to have another hit - in this case, The Sopranos book - in order to be in the best possible situation with the publishing business. And I’m glad I waited, because I could tell the story in a different way than if I hadn’t.
You say in the book that you wrote all the time after you became paralyzed - emails, scripts, letters, this book.
In a period when I had no control over my emotions or anything beneath my waist, writing was the one thing I could sit around and do every day. When I was lying down in bed, I was just in bed, sleeping, not any different than you. But then I would get up and be paralyzed all over again - a harsh realization at the beginning of every day. So I felt powerless, and writing was empowering.
Raymond Carver is a writer important to me, and I mention him a couple of times in the book. One is a quote of his about the process of writing. “What delivers,” he says, “is being at your station, present to do the work.” In other words, writing is a kind of labor you have to dedicate yourself to, not a burst of inspiration or the realization of your “talent,” whatever that is. Like yoga or meditation, it’s a practice.
Your book is just 230 pages. Why so short?
That’s exactly the length of the story I wanted to tell. I don’t write in an Eastern style or a Southern style, I write in a Midwestern style, where we don’t mince a lot of words. That and my feeling that you gotta keep them wanting more.
Did the book start out so funny, or did you add a lot of the humor in the second draft?
The humor was absolutely first-draft stuff. Working with Martin Mull and others, like Harry Shearer in the early eighties, I learned a lot about writing comedy. So the book was always going to have that tone. What was gutsy for me was writing about my wife and my family and my bowel accidents. You can live a life in Hollywood for years and never write about yourself; you can protect yourself with jokes.
This isn’t an “epiphany” book, but you did change quite a bit.
The most important thing that I learned is that it’s not the end of the world to get paralyzed. Life is not fuckin’ over. People think it is - you can see it their eyes when they walk into a meeting. They think, ‘God, I couldn’t live like that.’ Most people think they couldn’t handle it - they’d be shootin’ up or never leave the house. And the point is that you won’t do that, you can handle it. Most Americans I know think they would fall apart emotionally and psychologically, that they would just become basket cases. Sure, some were already basket cases, and that would put them over the line. But most would deal.
Why do you think Americans have become so soft?
Because we haven’t been to war. Middle-class college people haven’t had to fight a war since WWII. Life by the fifties became easy, then they talked their way out of Vietnam. So we’ve got a lot of people who have never had any experience like war, and our lives got pretty soft. We may not be soft personally, but when we think about tests, we are. And Hollywood is full of the softest people you’ve ever met.
You don’t come across as a terribly PC guy. Yet in “Cripple Dos and Don’ts,” you rail against using certain words to describe, say, someone in a wheelchair. Is unfortunate really such a terrible way to describe a guy who can never walk again?
No, it’s not so terrible. But let’s put it this way: If you were very close to your father and your father died, people would say that your father died and it’s affecting your life. But in 10 years, people won’t look at you and think, “Too bad about this poor unfortunate, struggling, damaged guy.” The whole thing is that paralysis is like a stigma that you carry with you. It is something that happens to you, period. Like losing your hair or growing a potbelly. It’s unfortunate that it happened, for sure, but it doesn’t make you an unfortunate person for life. I don’t think of myself as unfortunate, damaged, or stigmatized - except by people who label me as such. All I want is that the next time you meet a guy in a wheelchair, don’t think of him as a guy in a wheelchair. Just think of him as another guy. And if later you wanted to ask him about the wheelchair, then fine.
You mention Black Like Me as one of your influences. Are there other among what you call “disease-cum-memoirs” that inspired you when writing the book?
My favorite books all had some influence, and most aren’t disease books. This might sound pretentious, but I read Madame Bovary 100 times. I love Raymond Carver and Joan Didion. I love Kurt Vonnegut’s terse Midwestern comedy writing. My favorite memoir, or right up there, is Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. I had never read any cripple memoirs, and this friend of mine brought me Moving Violations by John Hockenberry and Ron Kovics’s Born on the Fourth of July. And I was inspired to write a funny cripple book by John Callahan. I was writing jokes about paralysis for TV shows, and Callahan was writing the same type of jokes in his book. So I figure, fuck it, I can do this.
I thought of John Callahan immediately upon reading your book. Have you talked to him? Ever thought about doing a wheelchair comedy tour?
I like that idea. I should probably get in touch with him.
You have a lot of reverence for Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox and others who can raise millions in a minute. But you also write about wanting to be a role model for the “regular guy” with a disability - the guy who doesn’t want to play rugby or dance or go bowling. Are these ideas at odds?
We create the cripple as hero, and that’s not a healthy frame of mind. I don’t think Christopher Reeve saw himself as that. It’s not heroic to be crippled. It’s not a plague, either. It’s just not a ticket to sainthood. It’s not your identity; it’s just something that happened to you. I don’t go to bed saying, “You’re a remarkable person, Allen, for getting through this thing.” You may need that hero stuff to feel like you’re the kind of guy who can get through it, but then you got to drop it. You’re not a hero, not a victim, so get over it.
I kept waiting for the big “aha! moment,” but it never came, which I found refreshing.
The minute something like this happens, you’re waiting for the aha! moment. And I never had an aha! moment. I can guarantee you that the clouds didn’t part and a ray of warm sun didn’t come down upon me, and the right hand of God didn’t reach down and pat me on the head. The evangelist Oral Roberts claims he once saw a 900-foot Jesus who told him the way. I kept looking for an apparition like that - even a 500-inch Jesus would’ve been fine with me. Believe me. I was looking for it, but it didn’t happen.
To think that you’re almost required to have an aha! moment when you become deathly sick is total bullshit. And then people almost feel disappointed when they don’t have one. I think the change that happens in the wave of an event like this happens on a cellular level, on an unconscious level - and not in a predictable way.
We romanticize disease and impairment in this country, and that’s not healthy. Too many bad TV movies, I guess, about triumph over adversity. There’s a romance about disease - that it’s somehow going to lift you up, and that largely doesn’t happen. If you are fed the belief that suffering is going to make you more heroic or closer to God or an all-around better person, you’re probably in for a big letdown. I was smart enough to realize the upside of things, and take advantage of the immobility to learn to write better.
FDR pops in and out of the book. He seems to be both a role model (his work with polio) and a disappointment (masking his immobility).
He’s in no way a disappointment, at least to me. If he had been up-front about his polio, he would have never been elected president. The fact that he hid it is a sign of the times, not any shame on his part.
The Emmy-winning HBO movie Warm Springs, beautifully written by Margaret Nagle, depicts the period between the time FDR contracted polio and when he reentered public life. It took him six or seven years to work through it. He spent a long period hanging out in the Keys and getting drunk on a regular basis. He then decided to “cure” polio - and himself - and set up a retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. He never found a cure, but at least according the movie, he found his humanity. All the poor people with crippled children who came to Warm Springs looking for help changed his view of the world. He realized he was just like them, only luckier. He stopped whining and got back to the business of improving people’s lives. From all appearances, he did a good job.
Book tour. I’m not going on the, you know, Mitch Albom book tour, but I’m doing a few cities.
What’s your six-word memoir?
Alas, a farewell to legs. Next!