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Golem Girl

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Member Reviews

Some memoirs of people with disabilities can come off as "inspiration porn" but this is not the case with Golem Girl. This was a wonderful memoir of a woman with spina bifida who was told from the start or her life (and beyond) that she was broken, unfixable, and wouldn't be able to accomplish anything. Hers is the story of resiliency, strength and outstanding creativity that can and will motivate those who hear this story.
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It's so wonderful to see more stories and memoirs like this being published. As someone with a disability and chronic illness (but not spina bifida) I can speak to how healing it can be to see ourselves in literature. And even more importantly when it isn't inspiration porn, something many stories like this can tend to be. Highly recommend anyone, able-bodied folks especially, reading this to get a glimpse into Lehrer's life.
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Review as it was left on Goodreads: I was very happy to receive an advanced reading copy of Golem Girl. In this sprawling memoir, Riva Lehrer describes her rollercoaster of a life as a queer, Jewish woman with spina bifida. This was a deeply personal insight that went beyond what I expected. Lehrer juxtaposes her existence as a medical miracle to the dark reality of life with a disability. Her words were as vivid and brilliant as her art—her sharp wit and dry humor don’t let up for a minute. I appreciated the amount of medical and political information that Lehrer included. It was fascinating to see the changes through the decades on how the concept of both disability and queerness has shifted. My only qualm was that the concept of a golem seemed to have been shoved in as an afterthought as if she had written the entire thing then went back to add it in. I was surprised that it was the title of the book because it hardly comes up. Other than that, if you are a fan of memoirs and interesting lives, I fully recommend this one.
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Golem Girl is the memoir of Riva Lehrer, born with spina bifida at a time when that was considered a death sentence. It explores her own life as well as the way those with disabilities are seen in society. She shares several examples of how disabled people are seen as “monstrous” within the medical community (ex: the word “teratology,” the study of birth defects, comes from the Greek word teratos, which means “monster”). She also weaves in Jewish folklore and tradition. For example, she was born to an Ashkenazi family and was given a long name to confuse the angel of death. This book really made me think, especially near the end, about how disabled people navigate the world differently than able-bodied people.
There were several times when my heart sank and I felt what can only be described as discomfort. Near the beginning of the book Lehrer talks about the outlook for babies born with spina bifida in the late 50’s. Most of them die before the age of two and doctors don’t do much to help them. She mentions a specific doctor who believed that disabled children would never have a decent quality of life and should be left to die. Lehrer was able to relay these “medical ethics” in ways to illustrate the absurdity of the claim as well as humanizing herself and other disabled children. But there are also triumphant moments, like when Riva’s mom stood up to social workers.
Something I really appreciated about this book was that Lehrer didn’t dumb down the science of spina bifida. She presented it as an authority on the topic but in a way accessible to those with little medical knowledge. She gave the proper medical diagnosis, and then went on to explain what it means without using uncommon medical terminology. This made the story easy to follow.
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Golem Girl
By Riva Lehrer

A wonderful memoir about a woman born with spina bifida who was pretty much told there would be no hope for her chronic disease as she was broken and unfixable. With her mother's grace she was provided with education and a provided life, nurturing her artistic talents and abilities. Overall, this was a heartbreaking story yet uplifting that gives hope and inspiration to many. As a person that works in the medical field, I do enjoy a story of resiliency, strength and one that can motivate others with similar issues.

A great read I thoroughly enjoyed.
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Riva Lehrer on Disability, Making Art, and Getting Rid of the Explainy Voice
by Lisa Peet

"Golem Girl: A Memoir" by Riva LehrerThe Golem is a standby of Jewish folklore; Hebrew for “shapeless mass,” it has been brought to life by contemporary writers from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Alice Hoffman. In her memoir Golem Girl, published in October by One World, Riva Lehrer offers it as a disability archetype, and more—from dust and mud, a shapeless mass breathed into life as something magical.

Lehrer was born with spina bifida in the 1950s, a time when chronic disabilities often consigned children to institutions. Instead, her mother—a former medical researcher—made sure she had a formidable education, a rich life, and the medical care she needed. An artist from an early age, in college Lehrer was hooked into disability and queer politics and advocacy, and how these could converge in her own work: “One of the only epiphanies I’ve ever really experienced,” she explained. “It was like falling in love with an entire country.”

Lehrer has gone on to a rich career as a portrait artist and a teacher, exhibiting widely and holding instructor and lecturer positions across the country; she’s currently on faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and instructor in the Medical Humanities Departments of Northwestern University. Golem Girl, her first book, is a deeply kind and exhilarating look at where experience, belief, vision, and compassion meet—and why. Bloom’s Lisa Peet had the pleasure of talking to Lehrer in November about how, exactly, that works.


Lisa Peet: First off, how are you doing during this strange time of COVID?

Riva Lehrer: I am, as far as I know, still alive. When this first hit, I was terrified that I was going to start losing friends, because so many of my friends are disabled. But what ended up happening, so far, is that we all took it really seriously, and we weren’t the people out there wandering around doing risky things. Most of us deal with medicine on a regular basis, and if we didn’t believe in the reality of science, how many of us would still be here?

The hardest thing, and I just wrote an essay for the Times on this—I’m a portrait artist. For 30-something years I’ve had people in my studio, or I go to them, and they pose for me. They’re very long, intimate sessions, which mean the world to me. And I can’t do any of it. I’m trying to figure out what my life can look like. The essay is about having face hunger, about not just losing the faces of other people but losing my own. I’m 4’9,” I walk with a limp, my spine is curved, I’m unusual-looking, I’m now 62, and I’ve always used my face as a way of mitigating or managing how people react to my body. Now when I’m out in public, I don’t have a face anymore [because of having to wear a mask]—I’m just this body, and people react to me differently.

LP: How have you been dealing with the lack of in-person contact in your work? So much of it is collaborative.

RL: I’m about to start a portrait of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who’s one of the top people in disability studies and bioethics, and to do that I’m hiring a photographer in San Francisco who is going to do reference photos. I hate working that way—it’s both technically and emotionally unsatisfying. But I don’t know how long [the pandemic] is going to last, and it feels important to do this because I’m going to be documenting what we’re all going through, which is yearning to see people—being blocked from seeing them, trying to understand what a relationship is from a distance through technology, having our memories of the faces of our loved ones now be flat and framed in glowing squares. It feels appropriate at the moment not to give up, because this is the moment where we’re all trying to see faces.

LP: You talk in the book about your creative process—the politics and advocacy behind it, your thoughts on the bond between artist and subject, and your struggles to get it right. Does writing about making art come naturally?

RL: I’ve been teaching at the university level for more than 20 years. And when you are teaching visual art, especially once you start working with upper-level students, the thing you have to learn to do is to take information that’s completely nonverbal and verbalize it. It’s a long process of learning how to use language to talk about something that isn’t language—so that was good training.

Most of my work is narrative, especially the stories of other people. When I do artist statements and I’m putting down information about self-portraits, I almost always just say “self-portrait,” but when I’m talking about the portrait of someone else, I try and condense something about who they are. It’s a mixed experience, because part of me sometimes wants people to have no information and just encounter the image. But because I feel an obligation to my collaborators, the point is communicating their presence in the world. I’m always involved in something visual that I have to turn into a story of some kind.

LP: When did you decide to write a memoir, and why now?

RL: It started out kind of as a document. I had arranged with my family to be my executors, and I thought if anyone wants to find out about my work, there should be a coherent document that my family can use. I started writing that, putting together lecture parts and stuff that I had done. [With] the lectures, at times I would use very personal stories to make a point, and people liked them. So as I was gathering the stories of these other people, my story kept getting dragged into it.

And something came up and I thought, I should ask somebody in my family about that—I’m not sure what actually happened. I can’t remember what it was. But whatever answer it was that I got, it was something I had no idea about. So that led me to try to talk to the older members of my family before they weren’t around anymore, and that’s when I started finding out a lot of stuff about my mother. That’s what really got things going.

I talk about being constructed by medical people and by my mother, but if I had never gone [to my first meeting of the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective], if I had resisted going and told Susan [Nussbaum] No, forget it, my life would be completely different. As I started writing, it got really clear to me that what I was trying to do was write a book about how we treat each other as embodied beings, and how we pressure and manipulate each other into conforming so that our own anxieties are set aside. That’s more important to me than the story of Riva Lehrer. I’m not that interesting. But I think that some of the experiences I’ve had can help people think about their own embodied lives, and those of people around them, and maybe have a little bit more freedom, or at the least self-knowledge.

LP: I would really like to see this book, with its wonderful vein of radical body acceptance, in the hands of teenage girls (and probably boys) everywhere. But who were the readers you were thinking of when you were writing?

RL: That was tough. If I had written this just for people with disabilities it would be a completely different book. I knew I was writing both for a general audience and for people in my community— including people in the queer community, not just the crip community. I would write it for the general reader, but then I would nod as much as I could to the people in my own community so that it wasn’t just what we call Disability 101. There’s a fair amount of 101 in there—there was no way around it, like the chapter about [disability] language. I couldn’t not put that in, partly because it was such a transformative thing for me, making the point that you get a different set of words and holy shit, your perceptions just turn inside out.

LP: You’ve been making art ever since you were young, but have you always written?

RL: No, not like this, though I’ve been writing lectures for 30 yrs. That was actually one of the hardest things about writing this, because there’s an explainy voice in my head when I sit down to write, and I didn’t want that. I wanted story voice. Finding story voice took me quite a long time.

I had a good initial editor, Goldie Goldbloom. Goldie’s fantastic, and I did a few private sessions with her and then I took a couple of group workshops, and I read a lot of memoir and memoirish stuff to think about when I cared about a story and when I didn’t. It took me 6-1/2 years, and if you saw the early versions it would make your head hurt. So I was not writing like this out of the gate.

It was interesting—I started to hear a noise when it was bad. I would hear this noise in my head when I would reread something, almost literally like a warning bell, except more like a bunch of broken bells all going off at once. Not literally—I wasn’t having audio hallucinations—but it was close to that. And I started to trust that, that when I started to reread something and I felt like that noise was coming up, it was a problem.

LP: How hard was it to pitch the book?

RL: I’d been invited to apply for a MacDowell [Colony fellowship]. I thought, I’ve never had time to write more than maybe a couple of hours a week—I wonder what it would be like to have several weeks where you’re just writing? At the same time, I was invited into a really prestigious studio program here in Chicago, and I had to make a decision. If I did the studio program it was a two-year commitment, and I knew I’d never do the book then. So I asked them if we could delay for a couple of months to let me go to MacDowell.

Toward the end [at MacDowell] I did a reading of an early version of the Winter Walk chapter, about mom’s surgery. I told people about being invited into the studio program, and I said, I need you to be really, really brutal and tell me if I’m basically a hobbyist—that’s OK, I’ll go do the studio program, this has been amazing, I loved meeting you all. I had no perspective. So I did it, and everybody was like, No no no no, you have to write this, which I had not expected. In the middle of all that Rosemarie, whose portrait I’m about to start, called me because Peter Catapano at the New York Times had been doing this series of people writing on disability for the op ed pages, and said, I want you to write an essay.

So the essay goes out. And unbeknownst to me, my best friend, Audrey Niffenegger, sent it to her agent without telling me. Her agent, out of the blue, calls me and says he really loves this, and it says at the end I’m working on a book—is that true? And I’m like, Kind of?  It took us about six weeks to put together a book proposal. I didn’t even know about book proposals. It didn’t even occur to me to look for an agent. He sent it out to his people and it started to go to auction, and then there was a pre-empt by One World. It was all a shock. When he called me, I was teaching a class at the School of the Art Institute—we were over at the museum. I pick up the phone and he tells me what they paid for the book, and I passed out in the gallery of European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. I woke up with my largest male student holding me, going, Are you OK?

LP: Are you working on something new?

RL: I am. Fiction this time. I’ve never done fiction before, so this is even stupider. I don’t know if I’ll pull it off or not, but I’m going to try.

LP: What are you reading now?

Some of my favorite writers are David Mitchell, who has become a friend. Richard Powers. My favorite semi-recent memoir is H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I used to read a lot of mysteries—now most of them really bore me, except I still love Tana French. I read Heavy, by Kiese Laymon, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin—that was great. I just picked up the new Susanna Clarke, but I haven’t read it yet.

I like books that take a genre and do something fresh with it. And I like books that take me someplace I haven’t been. Chris Adrian, I love him. Hilary Mantel, Lawrence Wechsler. Philip Pullman’s actually really influential for me, mainly because of my obsession with symbol and metaphor. One of the things I think about how that stuff works—I feel like you have to earn your symbolic structure and your metaphoric language. Pullman is somebody who understands how to earn your metaphors.

LP: In the book, you’ve done a great job communicating about where your art intersects with your disability and queer activism and your love of storytelling. I like hearing how that fluidity has entered into your writing—can you talk a bit about how your sense of narrative informs your art practice?

RL: One of the last installations I did, the painting of Carrie Sandahl in BDSM gear, I did at a museum where on one wall it was just [the portrait of] Carrie with two speakers. Her partner, who’s now her husband, came and taped every single one of our portrait sessions. Sometimes he was there and sometimes he just left the equipment. So we had hour after hour of our conversations, and the speakers were playing snippets. And there was a whole wall of documents that she and I had done separately, talking about the experience of spending an entire summer with each other, and about our experiences of embodiment, or pain, or sex.

And then in the far corner I took the chair and the heating pad and the footstool and the little rolling table, the physical setup that Carrie had sat on during our sessions. Our disabilities are not the same but they’re similar, so I was taking care of her physical needs very much in the way that I take care of my own. I wanted the presence of that comfort corner, the proof of the care I was taking of her, and the sense of intimacy—just this little chair with a bunch of pillows on it. It felt very homey. And for opening night, I had plates of the cookies that she liked to eat, and mugs of the tea that she liked. I wanted to pull our relationship into an equal place, along with the actual result in painting, so that anybody in there would be thinking about what it was like—not just to sit for me but to have that be such a long period of deep exchange. The person isn’t just sitting there like a houseplant. They’re talking.

What I value are the connections I make with the people. That’s the point of what I’m doing. What drives me crazy is that when you see a portrait in a museum, you just see this picture of a person and the artist seems to be gone, and the relationship certainly doesn’t seem to be there. For me, it’s the relationship that’s changed my life. It’s the exchanges I’ve had with people. You go with where you find your love.
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A heartbreaking and inspirational book that made me think, smile and moved me.
I loved how she writes with humor and how well she describes her story.
I think it should be read by a lot of persons.
I received this ARC from the publisher  in exchange for a honest review
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A good memoir should make you feel like you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes. "Golem Girl" had me celebrating Riva Lehrer's triumphs as well as mourning her losses. Lehrer leaves no stone unturned in this honest and moving memoir - from the time she's born with spina bifida to her career as a successful artist, the reader is able to take a step into her life (as painful and heartbreaking as that is sometimes).

I'm not sure if I fell in love with this memoir because of the similarities I share with Lehrer (a Jewish woman who has spent way too much of her life in hospitals), but I tend to think anyone who is interested in reading about the human condition would find something to love with this book. Lehrer touches on everything from failures of the medical community to the complications of a mother-daughter relationship to what it really means to live your life as a disabled person. I felt like I learned so much - not only about spina bifida but about what it must feel like to be treated as an 'other' because of a disability.

"Golem Girl" covers so much ground because Lehrer has lived such a full and amazing life. Every time she moved on to describe another chapter in her life I was expecting to not be as interested, but every section still held something of great value for me. It's also such a treat to have many of Lehrer's art pieces included in the book. This made the text feel even more alive to me. Overall, this memoir left me viewing the world differently after I was done - and what better thing can you say about a book!
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Golem Girl is portrait artist,  Riva Lehrer’s recently released memoir. 
In 1958, Riva’s birth was considered nothing short of miraculous. Her mother had had several miscarriages. To deliver a living baby was a literal gift from G-d. It did not matter that Riva was born with #spinabifida. Most babies born at this time with this embryonic complication did not survive. In fact, Riva spent the first 2 years of her life in the hospital, and once released, her childhood was a continuous series of operations, to fix her body. 
Riva, unlike other Jewish kids her age, went to a public school instead of Hebrew school; a waste of time for a girl who would never marry, nor have children. 
Riva describes herself as a Golem Girl-in Jewish literature a Golem is a kind of “monster” brought to life from a mass of inanimate material. 
Riva struggled through her childhood, and well into her adulthood, trying to find and understand herself, and a purpose for her life. 
It was only when she stumbled upon a group of artists who were building a Disability Culture, that Riva found her own path. She put her skills in drawing to work, and began drawing portraits of these artists. Her process involved interviewing them to understand how they felt within their own skins. The book contains full color inserts Riva’s work. 
Riva’s ability to find meaning in her life was complicated with continuous health challenges. Her story is so inspiring. On a recent zoom, she spoke of how the pandemic is affecting her work. She can not work in her small studio (social distancing rules). 
I really enjoyed reading Golem Girl  I received an e-ARC if #golemgirl from #netgalley in return for my honest review. #5🎨🎨🎨🎨🎨
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I didn't realize this one was not a kindle edition. I can't read on a screen so unfortunately I couldn't read this one.
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A Golum in Jewish folklore is an anthropormorphic being that is formed from inanimate matter. Lehrer is born with Spina Bifida and has always considered herself a Golum of sorts. She was born at a time when most doctors and families would make their child comfortable and let them pass from this world. However, her parents who had long awaited for a child spend their lives doing everything they can to save her.

Riva Lehrer, is an artist that transforms the page with her words. This is not the easiest of memoirs to read. Part 1 depicts a very hard childhood, with many surgeries, bullying, her mom’s pain and depression. Part 2 we get Riva as an adult, who is now exploring her art, sexuality and her continued illness.

This book is the story of one of the strongest woman you will meet. She is not perfect, and I loved her all the more for it. Art is not my wheelhouse, however, she does a wonderful job integrating the two mediums together. This is simply beautiful and I am so glad I go the opportunity to read this.

Thank you NetGalley and One World for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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This is a big, ambitious memoir that goes beyond what you might expect.  Lehrer was born with spina bifida, which shaped and corralled her young life and echoes into the present.  The first part of the book, which documents her medical issues and treatment, is an easier read in some ways than the later parts, which explore ethical issues about different-ness.   She also describes her relationships.   Lehrer is  living a big life as an artist (suggest this would be best read in hard copy to appreciate the illustrations),  Thanks to netgalley for the ARC.  An illuminating read.
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This book is so much more than the story of a Jewish family in the midwest, affected by Spina bifida lipomyelomeningocele (SBLMM, or LMM). I loved reading this autobiography of Riva Lehrer, she is a phenomenal writer, her story is incredibly fascinating, and her body of artwork truly compelling. I had read about the Golem of Prague before, but Lehrer gives the story background, depth and context. I've read tons about Feminism and Intersectionality, but nothing I'd ever come across clicked the way this did for me. Lehrer writes brilliantly about family dysfunction and family lore, ideals of beauty, mother-daughter fraught relationships, and everything relevant to disability; she makes poetry out of a list of scars. She makes me indignant that Carrie Buck isn't a household name. I was thrilled with this book before I even realized she is an artist and that her ground-breaking work would make such a great impression on me. I learned so many amazing words of artistic or medical or Yiddish nature: gibbous, narishkeit, chazzer, buboed, scumbled, extravasate, useless eater, et al. This book is truly one that everybody should read.
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Riva Lehrer is a young Jewish girl from Cincinnati, who doesn't know a life without physical handicap. This memoir takes us from her birth with spina bifida through her adulthood and all the surgeries and interventions in-between. Lehrer recounts her life with humor and wryness- a winning combination. She allows us to see her as any girl, but also as those among us who want to be seen and treated as 'normal.'
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I was born with spina bifida about a decade after the author. I feel like I've looked for this book all my life. Spina bifida is much more common than you would think based on the representation of those with disabilities. I didn't expect such a comprehensive and honest look at her life. She might be a survivor, but it didn't have the "stink" of inspiration porn. I wish I had had this book sooner. So many of us from those years had nothing to look to for companionship on our life's paths. I will highly recommend it to others!
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This book is good and interesting though it was different than what I expected. I can see how she referred to herself as the golem girl and could relate on the pain/life issues as someone else with chronic illness. The book is equal parts eye opening, sad, and filled with promise. She grew up feeling different but still determined even though she seemed to be filled with some anger about all the surgeries to make her “normal” that didn’t work out quite right.
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**I received and voluntarily read an e-ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.**

In general, I've found Riva's works through the years to be interesting, so I looked forward to the opportunity to read and review this book.

I thought the title would have a larger impact on the work within. Unfortunately, pretty much any reference to the golem seems to be an afterthought that was shoehorned in so that "Golem Girl" could be used as a title.

I think it may just be the writing style, but I almost didn't finish this book.
Theoretically, reading about an artist born with spina bifida and their difficulties should make you feel sympathy and/or empathy for said artist, but I just couldn't connect with the author. Yes, she was born with disabilities and of course that's going to have an impact on her life, but it's not like she's the only person that it's happened to. Maybe it's because I've worked with people with disabilities for years, but Riva comes across as spoiled, absolutely unpleasant to read about, let alone interact with. Her book could use a strong touch by an editor if she wants to come across as anything other than unlikable.

Overall, rounding up from 2.5 give this a 3/5 stars.
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The background of this story is very interesting.  To read about an artist who was born with spina bifida and how her life was affected by her parents, her doctors, and then the artists who pulled into their world.  Reading about the challenges Riva faced because of her disabilities was touching.  However, the way she presents herself makes her appear as a demanding and unpleasant person with whom to interact.  I would think this would be a wonderful read for individuals who are struggling with physical disabilities of many kinds.

Thank you to NetGalley and One World Publishers for my advanced review copy.  All opinions and thoughts are my own.
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This was a fascinating autobiography. I am not an art aficionado and must confess I wasn't familiar with Lehrer, her work, or most of the people she referenced. Thank goodness for Google lol because now I know a lot more, and it's been an extremely interesting education. The book unfolds in segments that describe Lehrer's life from childhood through adulthood and how the presence of spina bifida shaped her and her art. It was an eye opening read - from the personal to the political - and the patient way she laid out the politics that surrounded so many of the critical moments and events in her life made the story all the more resonant. This was a fabulous read and if you, like me, read it on a black and white kindle make sure to check out her art in full color... The detail and color are amazing - black and white don't do them justice!
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Riva Lehrer is a young Jewish girl from Cincinnati, who doesn't know a life without physical handicap.  This memoir takes us from her birth with spina bifida through her adulthood and all the surgeries and interventions in-between. Lehrer recounts her life with humor and wryness- a winning combination.  She allows us to see her as any girl, but also as those among us who want to be seen and treated as 'normal.'
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