The young Leonard Kriegel’s dreams of baseball glory — not to speak of a normal life — were steamed away at age eleven in the daily hot-water immersions that failed to restore the use of his legs, which were paralyzed by polio. The virus that struck this country in 1944 sentenced the Bronx boy to life in a wheelchair or on crutches, and transformed a hopeful home-run hitter into a writer and teacher determined to challenge the limits of his condition. In robbing him of his ability to run or even walk, Kriegel says polio in return gave him “a writer’s voice” and taught him “how to see and what to look for.”
Inspired by a love of books and the sound of sentences, and fueled by rage at his physical loss and a fiery commitment to speak the truth of his condition, Kriegel has fashioned a powerful body of work, from his memoir The Long Walk Home to his most recent book of essays Flying Solo: Re-imagining Manhood, Courage and Loss (Beacon Press). His novel Quitting Time tells the story of a Jewish immigrant (like his parents) who becomes a labor leader, while essay collections like Falling into Life, On Men and Manhood, and the semifictional Notes from the Two-Dollar Window speak of his experiences growing up in the Bronx, his passion for literature, and his life as a “cripple” — the word he proudly insists on as a label for his condition.
A Ph.D. in American studies, Kriegel had a distinguished academic career before retiring from his position as professor of English at City College of New York, where he’d also served as director of the Center for Worker Education. He has been married for forty-two years to Harriet May Bernzweig, vice-president of public affairs and marketing for the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged. They are the parents of two sons, both writers. (“Writing is the family disease,” Kriegel says.)
When I met Kriegel at Columbia University in 1955, I thought he must have been a fullback or a wrestler who had been injured in his sport — how else to explain such a big, broad-shouldered, muscular guy propelling himself around rooms with seeming recklessness on a pair of clanking metal crutches? He filled the room not only with his size but with his energy, his enthusiasm, and his voice — like a tank commander with a Bronx accent. By then, Ernest Hemingway had replaced ballplayer Hank Greenberg as Kriegel’s hero, and writing good sentences, rather than hitting home runs, was his highest goal.
I saw Kriegel only occasionally over the years, but we followed one another’s work, and last year I invited him to speak at Florida International University in Miami, where I teach in the graduate writing program. He is now in a wheelchair instead of on crutches, but his energy and zeal are undiminished, and he gave a stirring reading from his new book, Flying Solo. Last spring, on a visit to New York, I interviewed him in his Manhattan condominium, where he lives except for winter stays in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Wakefield: You’ve written that you owe your survival to “the idea of what it meant to be a man in 1944.” What did it mean then, and why do you owe your survival to it?
Kriegel: When I got polio at age eleven, my frame of reference was the war, meaning World War II, of course. I conceived of being in the hospital and undergoing all those treatments and exercises as a kind of battle — especially at first, when there was a lot of pain. My heroes at that time were war heroes, men who showed courage despite injury or threat of death. For example, Barney Ross, whom I first knew about as a boxer; he was a combat hero on Guadalcanal, and he came back all shot up and kissed the ground. There was a song called “The Ballad of Roger Young,” about a soldier who stood off an entire Japanese troop in the Solomon Islands. As a kid, I read the paper every day and charted the battles from the maps showing troop positions. I turned my illness into a kind of battle. The idea of manhood in the forties meant that you didn’t run from battle; you didn’t flinch. You stood your ground and did your duty, for your country, for “freedom,” for something bigger than yourself.
The idea of dying in defense of virtually anything seems outdated now — partly because of Vietnam — but in the forties it was a part of the culture. I had a friend who was wounded badly in the Battle of the Bulge; he wore a built-up shoe and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He told me he’d lain in a field for two days, and the one thing that had kept him going was his determination not to shame himself. Since death is inevitable, it seems to me the important thing is to die without shaming yourself — to try to live as well as you can, while you can. As I grow older, I still find great value in this.
I don’t see how men will be saved by sitting around campfires and crying in groups. The idea that we’re going to be saved by becoming more lachrymose to me seems absolutely wrong. I prefer the idea that you should hold back your tears. Why don’t we give that another chance? To think that somehow you’re going to be liberated by blubbering is ridiculous.
Wakefield: What other sources, besides the daily paper, reinforced this image of manhood?
Kriegel: It was in the movies of the time, of course, and just as important — maybe even more important then — on the radio. There were radio heroes like Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy.
Wakefield: Yes, and there was Don Winslow of the navy, Hop Harrigan, America’s ace of the airways, and even Front-Page Farrell, a fighting reporter. I hurried home from school every afternoon to listen to them.
Kriegel: And the theme of all those programs was behaving with what was then called courage — doing what you were expected to do despite the obstacles.
Wakefield: But now “being a man” is, in your words, an “old idea that hasn’t fared well.” The very idea has become laughable. When and how did this happen?
Kriegel: It began in the early sixties as a reaction to Vietnam and the whole John Wayne persona, which is basically a caricature of manhood. It’s fascinating that, as a country, we don’t remember Audie Murphy — a real-life hero of World War II — but everybody remembers John Wayne, who chose to stay in Hollywood and play heroic roles in movies rather than play a real role in combat, as some of his fellow movie stars did, like Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable. There was even a debate about whether Audie Murphy deserved to be on a U.S. postage stamp, whereas John Wayne was readily honored with one.
I think disdain for the idea of manhood grew toward the end of the sixties and into the early seventies. It was an inevitable part of the questioning of gender roles, much of which was very healthy. But it made the traditional idea of manhood into something laughable. Insofar as it’s still around, it’s almost been caricatured out of existence. There’s nothing real, for example, about someone like Sylvester Stallone. So the old idea of manhood — that having courage and overcoming obstacles is noble, or at least a serious goal — is gone, and I don’t know that what has replaced it is particularly valuable.
Wakefield: What do you think has replaced it, and why isn’t it of value?
Kriegel: For one thing, I don’t see how men will be saved by sitting around campfires and crying in groups. The idea that we’re going to be saved by becoming more lachrymose to me seems absolutely wrong. I prefer the idea that you should hold back your tears. Why don’t we give that another chance? To think that somehow you’re going to be liberated by blubbering is ridiculous. I don’t mean you should hold back all your emotions, but there used to be a time in this country when everybody had a private life. Now if you sleep with your mother, you’re supposed to go on TV and talk about it. It’s not enough to defy conventional mores — you’re supposed to get up on a rooftop and shout it for all the world to hear.
Wakefield: Is there anyone today who exemplifies the kind of manhood that was helpful to you when you were growing up?
Kriegel: I like the way Christopher Reeve has dealt with the injury that paralyzed him. He’s taken a lot of flack from spokespeople for the handicapped, because he insists he’s going to beat his condition and overcome it. But I feel nothing but admiration for him. That’s what you were supposed to think. Even if you were told you couldn’t do it, you were supposed to throw yourself against that obstacle — whether it was a condition or a person or whatever else.
Wakefield: What would these critics prefer that Reeves do?
Kriegel: I think he’s supposed to “accept his condition” and glory in the fact that he can’t move. It gets to be a little ridiculous. Why should one embrace immobility? You may not be able to do anything about it, but you should at least be allowed the pleasure of hating it and trying to do something — even personifying it.
Wakefield: That reminds me of Rick Fields, the writer and former editor of Yoga Journal. He battled cancer and wrote a book of poems about it called Fuck You, Cancer.
Kriegel: Yes! That’s the idea.
Wakefield: What role did Hemingway play in shaping your idea of manhood?
Kriegel: The idea I got from reading Hemingway — which I also got from reading Shakespeare — was that it was better to struggle against adversity than simply to let it roll over you. And that there was a certain nobility in the struggle. Hemingway taught me this, and he also taught me that chances were you were going to lose. Ultimately everybody lost, and you were going to lose, too — but how you behaved was important. I got the same message, in a different way, from Marcel Proust: after all the deception, his character Swann behaved with tremendous dignity in the face of a culture that was remarkably corrupt and self-centered.
Wakefield: I did an interview with the author Reynolds Price, and he said that in former times one of the purposes of literature was “to teach you how to live.”
Kriegel: I agree completely. It taught you how to live in a philosophical or spiritual sense — you derived your idea of good and bad from literature. When you were beginning to move out into the wider world, to leave home — whether home was New York or Indianapolis or Oshkosh — you wanted to know what to expect from the rest of the world, and to see that other people had faced what you were about to face. That’s what I got from Hemingway when I read him at nineteen or twenty. Also, because Hemingway often wrote about people trying to overcome injury or adversity, I learned more about living as a cripple from him than from any other writer.
Wakefield: You write about yourself — and want others to describe you — as a “cripple.” When did you first think of yourself as a cripple and begin to take on that identity?
Kriegel: I got polio when I was eleven, and until I was seventeen, I couldn’t admit to myself that I was never going to be a major-league ballplayer. I had a very vivid fantasy life. Then one day, a month short of my seventeenth birthday, I was looking out my bedroom window watching my friends and my kid brother playing stickball, and I suddenly realized that I would never play ball again, because I was a cripple, and that’s not what a cripple did. I sat up in bed and began pounding my fists on the windowsill and weeping with rage. I slammed my fists down until my knuckles were raw and bloody.
My anger that morning was cleansing. From that point on, I accepted the fact that I was a cripple — and that, as a cripple, I was as responsible for my own life as anyone else was for his. I decided I would make this condition a part of myself. You have to accept your limitations before you can consciously set about trying to overcome them. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s young Gatsby, I made a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish and what it would take to do them. I remember being upset that I couldn’t learn to fly an airplane. Back then, you had to control the rudder with your feet. Now they have instruments that enable you to control the rudder with your hands, but I would no more try to fly today than try to swim the Atlantic; the very idea terrifies me. Until I was well into my thirties, however, I had to try everything. Sure, it was a form of compensation — even overcompensation — but that didn’t take away the satisfaction of having done something I wasn’t supposed to be able to do. I’m not saying anyone else has to do the same, but for me it worked.
Wakefield: And using the word cripple was part of that acceptance and challenge?
Kriegel: Absolutely. I don’t object to the words handicapped and disabled, but they seem softer, more abstract than crippled. The term that really offends me is “differently abled.” When I hear somebody say that, I want to take my crutch and wrap it around his head.
Listen, you have to earn the right to call yourself crippled. You earn it by trying to stand that word’s definition on its head. “Differently abled” doesn’t mean a damn thing. There’s a fundamental difference between having braces on your teeth and braces on your legs, and it’s nonsense to pretend otherwise. “Differently abled” abstracts from illness. It takes away your need to do something about illness; it takes away the idea that you can confront your condition with courage and dignity, giving meaning to your pain without wallowing in it.
You have to earn the right to call yourself crippled. You earn it by trying to stand that word’s definition on its head. “Differently abled” doesn’t mean a damn thing. . . . [It] abstracts from illness. It takes away your need to do something about illness; it takes away the idea that you can confront your condition with courage and dignity, giving meaning to your pain without wallowing in it.
Wakefield: I once used the word crippled in a book review for the New York Times, because the author whose book I was writing about used the word, but the editors told me I had to change it. Have people ever asked you to use another word for your condition?
Kriegel: Yes, and I’ve argued the point. I think crippled is the best word because it’s the most accurate. As a writer, I think language is supposed to be strong and definitive, and should speak of what is. Even the sound of crippled tells you something. It has a harshness about it that speaks to the condition. The writer’s job is to communicate an experience, and when you abstract from it with terms like “differently abled,” there’s no way you can communicate the pain of not being able to use your legs and the rage that is an inevitable concomitant of that pain.
Wakefield: You have written that the greatest challenge you faced as a young man was how you could have sex as a cripple.
Kriegel: Yes. I don’t know what it is like to have what many people would call “normal sex” — with a man on top of a woman. You can’t do that when you don’t have the use of your legs. One of my persistent fantasies was to have sex outdoors, by the ocean, in the sand. But you can’t do that either if you’re a cripple. It used to drive me nuts.
Wakefield: When you were a teenager, was there anybody who gave you any hint of what to do sexually?
Kriegel: No. Today, there are all sorts of books and videos, but at that time you basically had to explore for yourself. The only way to find out even about “normal sex” was by watching what we used to call “French flicks.” Somebody would get hold of a dirty movie, and that’s where you learned.
Wakefield: And nobody told you what to do if you were on crutches.
Kriegel: Not at all. You went ahead, but it was a tremendous risk. Norman Mailer writes somewhere that the fear and anxiety around sex is much greater for men than for women, because there is the whole expectation of performance. The man has to perform. Well, imagine facing that responsibility without the use of your legs. On the other hand, the triumph was all the juicier if you succeeded.
In college I found a way of walking on crutches that was attractive to women. I set about lifting weights and developed my upper body until I was a bull — and it worked. So in college, I had fairly strong relationships with women. Another insight I got from Hemingway was that you could take absence and somehow make it positive. You could take what you lacked and somehow make it an attractive part of yourself. That was the challenge.
Wakefield: What made you want to be a writer, and when?
Kriegel: When I was sixteen, I developed boils on my legs, so I couldn’t strap on my crutches to leave the house. I’d always been a reader, but I read escapist fiction: fat historical novels, books like Captains from Castile. Then one day a customer of my father’s gave him three books to bring home to me. My father was a counter man at a delicatessen, and this woman liked the way he cut smoked salmon. She knew I was confined to bed, so she brought him these books to give me. They were — and still are — probably the most influential books I ever read: James T. Farrell’s Judgment Day, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
These books came to me as a revelation. They were not about swashbuckling pirates and fair maidens in low-cut gowns. They were about people I knew. Farrell’s character Studs Lonigan was part of my world. Until then, I thought if you wanted to be a writer, you had to write something like Captain Blood. When I read Farrell, I realized you could write about the world and the people you knew, and that those things were meaningful.
I knew many of Mailer’s characters, too; they were so thoroughly American. I can’t say I knew Wright’s protagonist, but I could identify with him. I remember the scene where he goes to the Memphis Public Library and has to lie and say he’s getting the books for his boss, because, as a black man, he can’t take them out himself. You read a scene like that, and you know the rage and the humiliation — and also the sense of triumph he must have felt when he got the damn books home.
Wakefield: I know you’re not a “believer” in any orthodox sense, yet you often seem engaged with the issue of faith in your writing.
Kriegel: I think there should be a category called “believing nonbeliever.” That’s how I classify myself. I’m a person who, on the one hand, yearns for faith, and yet, on the other hand, doesn’t completely feel it. I despise absolutism of any kind. I despise faith that’s self-righteous, and I despise those who are equally self-righteous in their denial of faith.
Wakefield: In one of your essays, you speak of being “fearful of the pull of faith.” Why?
Kriegel: That’s an attitude I have toward many things. For instance, I wanted to be a parent, yet the idea of being responsible for another life scared the hell out of me. There are any number of things you want and don’t want at the same time. People ask me, “How can you argue with a God you claim not to believe in?” I say, “The same way you argue with a God you do believe in.”
In 1969, I was driving across Germany with my family, and we stopped in Munich. The hotel where we stayed was on Dachaustrasse. I asked my wife to take the kids to the park while I drove up to Dachau alone. There was a monument there, and I thought I should say kaddish, but I couldn’t. The words just wouldn’t come.
Then, three years ago, in Washington, D.C., I went to the Holocaust Museum, which I’d been opposed to building, and I found the experience incredibly moving. I stayed for two and a half hours, and at the end I saw in a glass case a Raggedy Ann doll that had belonged to a girl eleven years old — exactly the age I was when I got polio. She’d been put on a train to the death camp, the exhibit said, but the train had had an accident, and she’d escaped. They’d hunted her down and shot her and left the doll there. At that point, I just broke down.
Reading that little story was like reading James Baldwin: You can read about the horror of slavery, but it doesn’t quite seem real. Then you read about this guy who goes to DeWitt Clinton High School and wants to be a writer, and the world is determined to make him feel like a worm, and he says, “I’m not going to feel like a worm. I’m not going to let them beat me down,” and you understand. Anne Frank’s diary has the same effect. I can’t imagine 6 million peanuts, much less 6 million people, but I can see this one girl and understand. There’s something very real about this adolescent girl who can’t stand her mother and is cooped up in a cramped attic. What made the Holocaust real for me was that one little doll in a museum. And I don’t even know how many members of my family were killed — only one uncle escaped, by fleeing to Russia. After I saw that rag doll and read its story, I went into the meditation room at the end of the exhibit, and I stood there and recited kaddish.
I claim not to believe, but when my father died I said kaddish every morning and night for a year. I think we all seek spiritually; I just can’t say that I’ve found. At the same time, I can’t say I haven’t found. I’m always balancing the secular and the spiritual in my work. I come down on the side of intense confusion. I wouldn’t call myself a believer but a man yearning for belief — which is why I also wouldn’t call myself a nonbeliever.
I might use the word agnostic, admitting to the possibility of God as well as to the possibility of accident. I would prefer it weren’t accident, but I can’t necessarily believe what I prefer. When I was growing up, being an atheist held a certain glamour. It was considered brave. There was something tough and defiant about it. But today, for me, being an atheist would be an embarrassment. One thing I insist on in my own writing is absolute honesty — it’s the only reason to write autobiographically. When either spirituality or nonbelief becomes smug, I can’t stand it. The two seem to me parallel states of officiousness. I’d rather live with doubt and hope.