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Author Recalls Polio-Stricken Childhood at FDR’s Haven

July 31, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: To most older Americans, the reality of polio is at best a distant memory of parental fears. To millions of young people today, it’s nothing more than a needle or a pill. To thousands of others, though, polio was a terrible, long-lasting, crippling legacy.

Though polio has virtually disappeared in America, at its height in 1952, some 58,000 people were stricken with the sometimes fatal disease. It wasn’t until 1955 that the Salk vaccine began to end its frightening reign.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Former President of the United States: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt…

JEFFREY BROWN: The disease’s most famous victim was Franklin Roosevelt, who contracted it in 1921. For the rest of his life he was unable to walk without help. The one place he found solace from his ever-present pain was at a former spa in Warm Springs, Georgia. He was so taken with the supposedly curative mineral waters and spirit of the place that he bought it and established it as a center for the rehabilitation of polio victims, many of whom were children.

In her memoir, “Warm Springs,” author and novelist Susan Shreve tells of her own two-year stay there beginning in 1950 when she was 11 years old. Stricken by polio as a baby, she went to Warm Springs for surgery and rehabilitation, which was eventually successful. We talked recently in her Washington, D.C., home, and I asked her first what it felt like when she arrived with all those kids around.

Describing Warm Springs recovery

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE, Author: I think it sort of felt like a camp. There was a lot of surgery. I went there for surgery. That felt like a hospital. But it was a place that is beautiful. It was copied by Roosevelt after Jefferson's designs for the University of Virginia, so it's all around a quad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the subtitle is, "Traces of a Childhood." And this word "traces" actually has an important meaning for polio victims. Tell us about that.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: It does. Traces are what is left after the polio virus has generally paralyzed the nerves, that's what it really affects, but the muscles don't work. And if there's a little life left in a muscle, then the sense is that you can revive it. And that's what people went to Warm Springs and all over the country in polio hospitals, were looking to...

JEFFREY BROWN: Kind of looking for a sense of traces, which means hope, I guess?

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Hope is really what it translated to. And we had a sort of fight song, "Put another muscle in where the quadriceps have been, 'cause we know we'll never win with traces, traces, traces."

JEFFREY BROWN: The fight song of Warm Springs?

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: The fight song, that's right, exactly. And that's really what I went to Warm Springs for. And it worked to a large extent, but I think that everybody always had a sense that there was hope they could get better, that it was never the end of the road.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's striking, of course, in reading your memoir because so many of the victims are children that this was a place for children, what all that entailed.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Exactly. I think the thing that we all felt there were that our lives were normal. When I went, I went with a sense of these were going to be my people, because I had been a slightly crippled child in the real world, and I was going down to this place where everybody was going to be just like me.

In fact, they were really very crippled children, many of them unable to sit up. And it was quite a striking situation for me to go to this place and find such optimism among them, which there was.

Roosevelt's struggle with polio

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain this idea of normal to me in such an abnormal circumstance. I mean, I'm thinking of -- Roosevelt himself famously didn't want to be photographed, didn't want it known that he had polio, that he was paralyzed. How did it feel for you in the sense of being normal, abnormal, a normal 12-year-old, as you were, or a crippled child, as it was defined back then?

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: I think the children made a little world for themselves, that children always do when they are any place. At the same time, there was, with Roosevelt and I think with most polios, a sense of hiding it in the real world, of shame involved.

I think for Roosevelt, it was really that he could not be viewed as a strong leader if he were in a wheelchair. And, therefore, he did everything to conceal that. His advisers suggested that, but I think he really bought into it with total conviction.

To me, one of the fascinating things that's true of all polio patients, but of him in particular, is the fact that the country accepted this illusion. It was an illusion. We all knew he was in a wheelchair. But they accepted the fact that he was a leader. I think it made him human, and at the same time we pretended he could walk.

JEFFREY BROWN: You describe in your own case what I'll call a negotiation with your mother, a kind of silent negotiation, I think, over how to define whether you were a normal child or what you might become.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: My mother, I think, had a very strong sense that with work I could become a normal child, and so she worked constantly with me and was actually very tough with me. She was a very sweet woman, but she expected a lot of me. And she was also very imaginative, so she made the hours of exercise that we did a part of a game, a part of a show full of drama, but always the expectation was that I could return to life -- in fact, life as usual -- in an ordinary setting at home, as a fully formed, walking, athletic, young woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you responded to that...

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: I believed it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You believed it.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: I believed it. I had a capacity to believe just about everything she said.

Writing the memior

JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you finally decide that you wanted to write this book and go back at least to look at your life then?

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Warm Springs began to seem like a phenomenon to me, and the fact that I was between the ages of 11 and 13, that this epidemic had been essentially eradicated in the United States, but that it was such a powerful moment in the health history of this country, the first major public health initiative, partially because of children, I think, that everybody got behind it.

But it was also where I learned everything and without the supervision of my parents. You know, I was in those pre-adolescent ages where you discover sex, religion, race, all of the things that you begin discovering. There was learning...

JEFFREY BROWN: What all of that meant, right?

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: What all of that meant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Coming into adolescence...

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and you write about your fascination with the boys, trying to get into the boys' ward all the time.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: We were kept separated because we were in two different wards, but of course we couldn't be separated, because everybody was interested in our medical, our health, but not particularly in what we did all day. And there wasn't a lot to do all day, so we had to make it up. So I spent a lot of time trying to get into the boys' ward.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was not long after your time at Warm Springs that a polio vaccine came out and changed the world, in terms of that fear that had been out there. What about for you, though? Did those years -- did the fact of having had polio define who you are?

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: I certainly think it influenced who I am. It is the only thing I've ever known, though. It wasn't as though I was 10 years old and then got polio and got stopped. So it was my life. But I think the other thing -- and it's said of polio patients all over, it's been written about in books -- I don't quite understand why it is -- but they are generally fearsome, stubborn, and don't look back.

JEFFREY BROWN: A kind of a profile of people...

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: It's kind of a profile, as though it comes with the virus.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is called "Warm Springs." Susan Shreve, nice to talk to you.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Nice to talk to you, too.