PUSH - My Father, Polio, and Me
Published by Story Machine (previously Gatehouse Press) 2019
Independent bookshop Jarrold's Top Ten Reads of 2019
Longlisted for the Mslexia Prize 2014.
'Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.' Barbara Kingsolver Animal Dreams
They say that men are identified by their work and women by their children. But my father was identified by his wheelchair as was the family, and by definition, so was I.
Sarah Passingham had never seen her father walk, had never seen him stand upright even, and yet six months after his death, she finds herself running beside him. This experience inspires her to seek answers to previously forbidden questions about the years before she was born. Her mother responds by producing an archive of over 200 letters with the instruction that ‘someone should tell his story’. Instead, Passingham tells us her own story through discovering through the details of a series of family tragedies and shattered dreams how the family made choices about what to pass on to the next generation.
PUSH is a personal journey of an adult finally coming to understand what lay behind rigid behaviour patterns laid down in childhood, how the author can begin to break free of the restrictions of her father’s survival strategies, strategies that unwittingly became the script for her own life, and ensure she doesn’t perpetuate those restrictions on her own daughters. On the way she explores the legacy of disability, the unexpected consequences of the attempt to protect children from a past too painful to remember, and how the natural world has become so fundamental to her well-being.
PUSH is a book about identity, inheritance and loss, but fundamentally it is about family.
A personal comment: After spending my early years with my grandparents at Thelveton in Norfolk, which was more museum piece than family home, where horses still worked the land until 1964, and within a family that revered the past and was deeply suspicious of the future, I had always been curious about the years before my birth. Although there were copious family records of the decades, centuries even, up to my parents’ marriage in 1952, afterwards there were no photographs, and only a silent unease that had always deflected questions. It took another forty years, and my mother's bundle of letters, to discover the truth over mythology. And then there are otters. I really shouldn't forget the otters...
Why did I write this?
I was once told that polio wasn't 'fashionable'. Growing up within a family that had been totally informed by my father's polio, I should have been incensed but I recognised that I was simply being told, albeit in clumsy fashion, that polio was not familiar. Almost everyone under the age of fifty-five in the developed world has been protected from polio. And thank heavens for that, I say.
Once there was a dream that polio would be eradicated by 2012. Sadly that is far from happening and, since the millennium, cases have been growing year on year again around the world. It is a very real global concern that the WHO, the Polio Foundation and, especially, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all recognise, and I urge anyone coming to this page to learn a little more, care a little more and give a little more to help make eradication a reality.
My understanding is a very personal one. I think I always knew I would have to write about polio, but it has taken me twenty years of writing to reach beyond a family taboo that previously made that impossible. That, and the extraordinary generosity of my mother who made papers available to me and answered years and years of endless painful questions. I am profoundly grateful to her for her patience and trust.
Finally, I have to recognise that polio wasn't the only infectious disease to devastate my father's life, although it was the most obvious. He contracted TB as a result of a hospital-acquired infection, which prolonged his hospitalisation by four long years and certainly contributed to never regaining his mobility. TB is not, and has never been, near to eradication, in fact since 1993 tuberculosis has had global emergency status. It kills more people world-wide than any other transmittable disease. TB Alert is the UK's National Tuberculosis charity and here, too, you can learn, understand and get involved.
With thanks to Arts Council England and my mentor, Anna Reckin, for supporting the research and preparation of the first draft 2006 - 2008, my coach, Mary Mustoe who helped me believe my dream could be a reality, and Julia Webb, who mentored the production of a final draft.
Story Machine Productions present Push in dance and live reading. Nadenh Poan brings Push’s story to life in a stunning interpretive dance. The 40 minute performance is followed by a Q&A and conversation about polio, viruses and vaccination.
Push premiered at Norwich Science Festival in October 2019. It is available online or touring to science festivals, literature festivals, theatres, arts centres and schools when we return in 2021.
For more details, or to book the show, please contact Story Machine Productions