Thursday, October 14, 2004

My Christopher Reeve Story

I was in the book biz back when Christopher Reeve's autobiography was published. At the CBA Convention that year, there was a great deal of buzz about his possibly attending. During one of countless martini breaks (there's nothing like a bookseller's convention to get the gin flowing by the gallon), I spoke with a guy from Random House who quietly admitted he was just one person of many responsible for making sure Mr. Reeve's forthcoming visit was a smooth one.

"Will he be signing his book?" I asked. The guy stared at me; I cleared my throat and apologized for my distasteful sense of humour.

"Oh," said he, "I've been asked that very question in all seriousness. And when I try to point out that the man is quadriplegic, people still say, 'Well, doesn't he write with his mouth? Couldn't he at least leave a thumb-print?'"

We talked some more, and I found out just what a logistical nightmare this visit presented. Given Reeve's sensitive physical condition, a route had to be charted in advance that guaranteed his motorized chair would experience no bumps whatsoever. Apparently convention centres, for all their slate-like anonymity, are surprisingly difficult for someone in his condition to navigate.

Despite my conversationalist's gin-loosened tongue, there was no getting him to say when Reeve would arrive. They didn't want a mob on their hands, so it was to be a surprise. Sure enough, sometime later the murmur on the convention floor grew louder, and people converged. Christopher Reeve rolled in, smiling magnificently. I watched as people applauded and wept without pause.

The depth of people's emotional response surprised me, and when I'm not careful it surprises me still. It took me a while to tease out why I wasn't as profoundly moved as others obviously were, but strange as it might seem, I think it was due to my religious background. I had already met with and heard the stories of other quadriplegics. In fact, there are quads and other people with significant challenges who can and do maintain a decent living working the speaker circuit in Christian circles, evangelical or otherwise. These people present their stories to an audience that is receptive for political reasons, yes, but also for deeply personal reasons. A quadriplegic can embody our darkest fear, but also our deepest hope - that no matter what our condition, our humanity still retains and will be accorded the highest value.

The current media environment devotes some energy to "human interest" stories, but I think the emotional response I witnessed was an indication of just how rarely we encounter stories of human depth. Christopher Reeve managed to become one of those stories, and to have his story conclude, as they all must, is something to be mourned. But a larger tragedy occurs if it is forgotten and buried in the distracting chaff being sold to us as "reality." I hope that doesn't happen, because clearly the public needs his story - and others like it.


Scott said...

And a fine Christopher Reeve story it was -- nicely done. I too am fascinated by these mass displays of weeping over the death a celebrity. I think you hit the nail on the head with the notion of people being shielded from 'depth' -- an event like Reeve's death is like a dam breaking, a dam that needn't have been there in the first place.

I remember feeling really weirded out by the Princess Diana mourn-a-thon until it occurred to me that her charity work was the lens she was viewed through. Unlike the rest of the royal family, Diana tried to use her celebrity to affect positive change and people loved her for it. (Personally, I always saw it as a sort of duty, agreeing with Paul Newman who once said, "What's the point of being famous if you can't yell about things?")

Christopher Reeve did that and earned much respect through his struggle and, now, grief over his passing. We make the mistake of making people like Princess Di symbols of hope -- when they die, we feel we've lost something deeper.

Whisky Prajer said...

Diana ... hmm. Frankly, I still feel weird about her, for a couple of reasons. She was one of those celebrities who never - never - left the headlines. It became a challenge to avoid her public story; consequently, I knew more than I cared to about her - unlike Reeve, who remained chiefly in control of his public image, to worthy effect. I think Paris Hilton is in some ways a contemporary comparison to Di: a remarkable absence of substance, an aesthetic that is questionable at best, a stunning inability to choose wisely in matters of the heart all conspire with my stunning inability to escape her media presence (I consider it nothing short of a miracle that a Diana sex-video hasn't yet been unearthed).

Of course, as you might correctly point out, the charity connection isn't there. But Ms. Hilton is young, and it's likely only a matter of time before we see her introducing the Dalai Lama to the students of Berkley.

But here's the other unsettling aspect to Diana: I found myself genuinely grieved to hear of her death. Not enough to contribute flowers and a teddy-bear to the international heap, but it did seem truly sad to the core. Young, beautiful, demonstrably conscientious about her charity work, now dead - that was certainly a good deal of it, but it was also so very sad to see a woman with an already tenuous grasp of motherhood taken from her children.

Scott said...

Diana sadness -- me too, though my take was, of course, somewhat harsher. My initial thought was, "Out of all the useless royal family, why her? Why the only one who tried to do something vaguely productive?" And yes, I did think of her kids next, so I'm not a complete creep!

Whisky Prajer said...

"Complete creep?" Perhaps not, but I'm still rooting for that pencil-thin mustache. Speaking of which, do you not hear the world clamouring for your review of that new John Waters' pic?