DATE January 16, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Historian Thant Myint-U talks about Burma and his new
book, "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Burma was once known as an exotic Buddhist land with few of the worries of the
20th century, but it's now a failed state famous for nightmarish 21st century
ills. It has the longest running civil war in the world, 60 years. The
country is now best known to Americans as the home of the 1991 Nobel Peace
Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi who has been kept under house arrest. These are
observations from the new book, "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of
Burma," by my guest, Thant Myint-U. His parents are from Burma and he's spent
several years of his childhood there. His grandfather, U Thant, was the
secretary general of the UN from 1961 to '71, and as we'll hear in a minute,
during U Thant's funeral in Burma, his coffin became the center of a political
fight between the government and rebelling students. Thant Myint-U has
followed in his grandfather's footsteps and worked with the UN in several
positions, including head of policy planning in the department of political
affairs and he served on UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and Bosnia.
Thant Myint-U, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your book and your
life, I just want to ask you a very basic question, and that is, you're going
to use the word Burma in our conversation as you do in your book. Why do you
choose to use Burma instead of the name the country was officially changed to,
which is Myanmar?
Mr. THANT MYINT-U: Some people prefer Burma for political reasons, and they
shy away from using Myanmar because it's the name that was given to the
country by the current military government. But for me, it's more out of
habit. It's slightly for esthetic reasons. I think Burma sounds nicer in
English. And also because Myanmar is actually an adjective in Burmese. It
means Burmese, rather than Burma. So as a Burmese speaker, it sounds to me
sometimes slightly strange to refer to the country as Myanmar rather than
GROSS: Your parents are both from Burma, but you grew up in New York and you
went to Burma for the first time when you were eight. And this was for the
funeral of your grandfather, U-Thant, who had recently served as secretary
general of the UN. And shortly after he stepped down from that position, he
died. So you and your parents went to Burma for his funeral. And his funeral
became the centerpoint of this huge violent confrontation. First of all,
protesting students, students protesting the military government, stopped the
hearse and seized the coffin. Why did they do that?
Mr. MYINT-U: It was a way for them both, I think, to show respect for my
grandfather who had been an important part of the last democratic government
in Burma in the 1950s. It was also at a time of rising inflation and I think
rising anti-government feeling, and it was a way of protesting the military
governments at the time. It wasn't something that we--my family had expected.
I think we had thought that there might be problems, but nothing like what had
actually happened. I think the student leaders were well-intentioned. They
had wanted very much to have a fitting public burial and ceremony for my
grandfather, but they did turn--it had turned after just a few days or a week
or so into something much more violent.
GROSS: What year was this?
Mr. MYINT-U: This was at the end of 1974. He died in November of '74, and
we left New York with his body to go to Burma a few days afterwards.
GROSS: So the students basically seized the coffin and took off with it.
What did they do with it?
Mr. MYINT-U: They--the government had wanted--the dictator at the time,
General Ne Win, had wanted as quiet a burial as possible, and they wanted my
grandfather to be buried in a very small private cemetery on the outskirts of
Rangoon. And this was seen as unacceptable by the student leaders that were
emerging at that time. And they took the coffin with the body and they had
wanted to bury him at the site of the old student union at Rangoon University,
which is where they were studying. And this was a place that had great
historical value to Burmese nationalism. It was a place where Burmese
nationalists had gathered and had made speeches and had organized in the 1930s
and 1940s, and it had been blown up by the Burmese military government in
1962. So they had wanted to bury him and to create a mausoleum for him at
that site. But quickly within a day or two, it had turned from this student
protest of several hundred, perhaps a couple of thousand students into a much
bigger anti-government protest that had attracted probably thousands if not
tens of thousands of other people as well. And it quickly become probably the
biggest challenge to the military government since they had taken over in '62
12 years before.
GROSS: And then your grandfather's coffin became like a football. The
military took it back? And then the students took it back again.
Mr. MYINT-U: Well, the military--there had been--there had been negotiations
that my family--my father and my uncles, my great-uncles--had tried to broker
between the student leaders and the military government, and the outlyings of
what they were discussing was some way for my grandfather to be buried in a
public mausoleum, that there would be some sort of public ceremony and there
would be amnesty for the student leaders who had started all this. But those
talks then broke down after a few days, and the government then lost patience
and forcefully took the body back in a predawn raid on the university that
left many students dead. We don't now exactly how many. And that in turn
touched off fairly widespread rioting and violence throughout the capital and
the imposition of martial law.
GROSS: So where was your grandfather finally buried?
Mr. MYINT-U: He was finally buried at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda,
which is the most holy site in Burmese Buddhism. And this was the place that
had been discussed between the students and the government and my family
during those few days of very tense negotiations. So I remember we were at a
hotel, we were staying at a hotel on the outskirts of Rangoon, and we were
phoned--or my parents were phoned very early in the morning, and my father had
to go out. The government had told them that they had seized the coffin back.
They showed him and my great-uncles my grandfather's body so that they could
be witness to the fact that he was now being reburied at this new site. But
we only learned later in the day of the violence that had taken place at the
university just that morning when dozens of students had tried to protect the
coffin to the very end and were probably killed, gunned down by the government
forces who took over the campus at the time.
GROSS: Well, after your grandfather's funeral, your family was told to leave
the country. But you and your parents moved back to Burma when you were how
Mr. MYINT-U: Well, we moved to Bangkok when I was 12 years old, and we--I
went to school in Thailand, but I--we spent most of our summers, or many of
our summers and holidays in Rangoon. So I spent a lot of my time between 12
and 17 living in Thailand but traveling very often to Burma and spending
GROSS: In 1988, you went to live in a Burmese rebel base camp. What was the
camp and what were you doing there?
Mr. MYINT-U: In July of 1988, there had already been some sporadic
anti-government demonstrations, mainly in Rangoon, and these were starting to
grow in both size and intensity, but it was only in the beginning of August
1988 that they became something like a real challenge to the military
dictatorship and the demonstrations grew into tens of thousands of people
taking to the streets, and the military dictator at the time, General Ne Win,
in an unprecedented speech to his own political party, said that Burma should
perhaps consider a return to a multiparty, meaning a more democratic form of
government. And this only energized the demonstrations, and soon hundreds of
thousands of people were taking to the streets.
I was at the time working as an intern with the UN in Geneva, and I, like,
everyone else of my generation, I was 22 then, was very excited by the
prospects of some sort of revolution, a revolutionary change in the country
that would make the country democratic and send it on a much better path to
the future. But by September, the middle of September, these demonstrations
were very brutally suppressed by the Burmese army. And hundreds, at least
hundreds of people were killed in Rangoon as a consequence. And thousands of
Burmese students who had been leading many of those demonstrations left
Rangoon and fled to the Burmese-Thai border, which is a huge 1,000-mile long
border, into areas that were run by ethnic rebels who had been fighting
themselves for autonomy from the Burmese government for decades. And, all of
a sudden, you had thousands of these students living amongst thousands of
They weren't refugees. They weren't necessarily fleeing because they were
afraid of what was going to happen next in Rangoon. There was an element of
that. But they were hoping that they could regroup, that they could get arms
and support, perhaps, from the United States or from others. Perhaps they
could get training from some of these ethnic rebels, and then they would go
back and fight the Burmese government who had just killed dozens or hundreds
of their friends and colleagues. And I couldn't get back to Burma in time for
the demonstrations in August. I was trapped in Bangkok because the airport
was shut down at the very beginning of September. But when the students who
are exactly my age came out to the border and were in a string of these jungle
camps for weeks, I immediately went there and met many of them.
I stayed there for several months on and off over late 1988 and '89. And many
of them were interested again in a sort of violent overthrow of the government
and training to be soldiers to overthrow the government. I was there because
I think I shared with them their analysis of what had happened. I shared with
them a desire to see political change. But, in the end, I didn't share with
them their sense that a violent revolution starting with an insurgency on the
border was the answer, so I eventually left.
GROSS: What--why didn't you think a violent revolution was the answer?
Mr. MYINT-U: Because you had an army in Burma that was, even at that time,
was 200,000 men who were very much in control of the situation. I didn't
think that anything other than a major power of the United States or some
other country actually in a Cold War-style building up a huge army on the
border would be able to topple the government. And one, even in 1988, it
would've been impossible, I think, to get the United States or any other
country, any other major country to fund and arm the kind of insurgency that
it would take to topple a 200,000-man army, which had been fighting--it was a
very tough army--that had been fighting for decades already. And, second,
even if it were possible to challenge the army by building up another army of
100 or 200,000 people, it would've plunged Burma into a very long civil war.
I thought there would be other and better ways of trying to change things than
GROSS: My guest is Thant Myint-U. His new book is called "The River of Lost
Footsteps: Histories of Burma."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Thant Myint-U. His new book about Burma is part-history,
party-memoir. It's called "The River of Lost Footsteps."
You know, in 1988, the period that we're talking about right now, the dictator
in Burma, Ne Win, he believed in astrology and, apparently, some of his
rulings were based on these like mystical visions that he'd have. Like
deciding to abolish the currency and replace it with a new one in which all
the notes were divisible by nine and decreeing that the Burmese had to switch
over night to driving on the right side instead of the left side. Was--like,
what impact did it have on Burmese culture to have, you know, a dictator who
also thought he was having visions and would make these, you know, kind of
bizarre changes based on that?
Mr. MYINT-U: Well, General Ne Win, by the later part of his rule, by the
late 1970s and 1980s had become increasingly arbitrary. Had become strange in
terms of the policy decisions that he had made. Like the ones that you had
just mentioned, but he's, in general, a very enigmatic figure. I mean, I
think he changed a lot, also throughout his life. In the late 1940s and '50s
when he was head of the army, he was a very tough professional soldier, and he
had--he led the Burmese army at a time of civil war against many communist
rebels throughout the country, as well as ethnic rebels. And when he took
over in 1962, he instituted two sets of policies that have proven to be
disastrous. One, he overthrew the democratic government and imposed a lasting
military dictatorship. But, second, he chose to nationalize all businesses,
kick out all aid programs and essentially isolate the country almost
completely from the outside world in terms of trade investment towards them
and everything else. And in a way, some of these more arbitrary decisions
later on about the currency, his dependence on astrologers and a lot of his
decisions were not as important as his really basic policy decisions that he
made at the very beginning. He also expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic
Indians from the country in a similar way to Idi Amin in Uganda not long
afterwards. And that was also disastrous because the Indians in the country
had been a big part of the business class of the country as well.
GROSS: The protests of 1988 that we've been talking about are--is at a time
when Aung San Suu Kyi makes her first public address, and she in 1991 won the
Nobel Peace Prize. She was placed under house arrest before that. Why was
she placed under house arrest?
Mr. MYINT-U: She had emerged by that time as clearly the leading spokesman
for the pro-democracy opposition in the country. She had always, I think, had
a sense of responsibility towards the country, even though she had lived
outside since she was very young in India and then in the UK and then in
Bhutan for a short time. She was accidentally in Burma at the time of the
1988 uprising, the time when I was in Geneva and trying to get back into the
country, because her mother was very ill and she had gone back to look after
her. And during the demonstrations, a lot of the students, because they,
themselves, had no clear leadership, many of them were carrying portraits of
her father, General Aung San, who was a great Burmese nationalist leader in
the 1940s. And they had tried to--they had encouraged her, as well as many
other slightly older people, to join the movement and to help lead them,
having taken things that far. And she gave a speech at the--near the
Shwedagon Pagoda during these demonstrations, and it attracted an enormous
crowd and she quickly emerged as a very popular figure.
And after the government cracked down and ended the demonstrations in
September of 1988, they did allow her and many others to form political
parties and her political party, the National League for Democracy, quickly
became the most popular political party in the country. And her criticisms
not just of the military government but of General Ne Win in particular,
became that much more vocal, and she was put under house arrest, I think it
was in July, June or July the following year, 1989, but only after nine months
of campaigning, traveling around the country, setting up this party. And the
government continued to allow her political party to campaign up to a point.
There was a lot of harassment, a lot of intimidation, and they held what were
more or less free and fair elections in May of 1990. And I think to the
surprise of many in the military, despite the fact that she was under house
arrest, despite the harassment and intimidation that had taken place, the
National League for Democracy won slightly over 60 percent of the vote and
over 80 percent of the seats in this new assembly.
GROSS: What's her status now in Burma? Is she still officially under house
Mr. MYINT-U: She's under house arrest. She's been under house arrest on and
off since 1999. There have been periods in which the government has freed
her, allowed her to travel the country. Allowed her to meet and organize her
political party. And there have even been times where the government has
entered into negotiations with her, to try to find a political settlement.
But then there have been many other times in which she's been under house
arrest. She's now under house arrest and virtually cut off in terms of any
sort of contacts with the outside world. There's been other times where she's
been under house arrest but able to meet with family and to take visitors, but
that's not the case right now.
GROSS: Now in your book, you say that you think that because she's so well
known, it's kind of reduced the conflict in Burma. The good guys represented
by her and the bad guys represented by the military dictatorship. What's
simplistic about that?
Mr. MYINT-U: There's a myth of Burma and the myth of Burma is that
everything in Burma is OK except for the military government at the top. And
that if in some way you could peel off this layer at the top of army generals,
then in general you've, you know, in other ways you have a nice Buddhist
society of--that's otherwise at peace and that would be able, immediately, to
govern themselves through democratic institutions. And that's completely
wrong. Burma, since 1948, as I've mentioned, has been at war. Burma's one of
the most impoverished countries in the world.
Burma, because of the military dictatorship over the last 40 years, has seen a
complete withering away of all other state institutions. It's not like
Pakistan or some other countries where you have a military government at the
top, but then you have a civil service, a judiciary, other institutions.
There's--you can't--there's nothing to peel away. That--the military is the
state. So you have to transform that state, and I think part of that
transformation of the state has to be through a lessening of Burma's isolation
and addressing the central problem of resolution of the armed conflict. I
think the wrong paradigm in Burma is to think of it like--to think of it as
Czechoslovakia 15, 20 years ago where people take to the streets, there's some
sort of uprising, the government gives a way and then you have a new
democratic government. In Burma, that transition will be much more complex.
So I think we need to take a much more complex picture of what's possible in
the country right now.
GROSS: You know, it sounds almost like there's a lot of pathology in Burma in
terms of the leadership and the wars there and what has gone wrong. And it
must be so much harder to fix a country or to create a democracy in a country
in which there has been so much pathology.
Mr. MYINT-U: Absolutely. And I think it's two things which I try to point
out in my book. One is a thing that happened very long ago in 1885 when the
British first took over the country and annexed it to the Indian Empire,
abolished the monarchy, abolished not just a system of government that had
been in place for a thousand years in many ways, but a whole court culture and
system of doing things was sort of wiped away almost over night. And, so
Burma completely lost its grounding in what had been a very long period of
political and economic and social development within a certain framework for a
very long time. That's the first. The second is, you know, the decisions
that the army took when it took power in 1962 in isolating the country.
And it's very hard to understand from a place like New York or a place
outside--many places outside Burma of how damaging that isolation from the
rest of the world has been in terms of the kinds of mentalities that have
grown up and the ways in which people have been completely cut off from so
many intellectual currents and ideas from the outside, as well as just the
poverty that--the economic poverty that that has caused.
So I think we need to think not in terms of a magic bullet or a quick fix or a
grand strategy towards democracy in Burma. I think we have to have a very
realistic appraisal of the situation in the country today and look at some
initial first steps, both in terms of human rights and political change, but
also in terms of economic development and humanitarian assistance and in terms
of ending the civil war, which has been, I think, the main plague on the
country since 1948.
GROSS: Well, Thant Myint-U, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Mr. MYINT-U: Thank you.
GROSS: Thant Myint-U is the author of the new book, "The River of Lost
Footsteps: Histories of Burma."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Writer Emily Rapp talks about her new book, "Poster
Child: A Memoir"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Emily Rapp is kind of famous in her Wyoming town when she was a
child. At age six, in 1980, she was chosen as a March of Dimes poster child.
The problem that put her on the poster was a rare bone and tissue disorder
that made her left leg misshapen and shorter than the right. At age four, her
left foot was amputated. Subsequent surgeries shortened her leg, which was
eventually replaced with a prosthetic. Rapp went on to become a Fulbright
scholar and the Philip Roth writer in residence at Bucknell University. She's
now a professor at Antioch University. She's written a new memoir called
"Poster Child." Let's start with a reading about her memories of the hospital
when she had her foot amputated.
Ms. EMILY RAPP: (Reading) "On May 26th, 1978, a few months before my fourth
birthday, I had the repeat osteotomy, a surgical incision into the bone to
control a deformity. And my left foot was amputated to ensure a chance for a
better fitting and more aesthetic prosthesis in the future. The nurses sang a
song from the musical "Annie" as the anesthesiologist fitted the clear plastic
mask over my face in the operating room and I began to count backwards slowly
from 10. I regained consciousness in the recovery room with my head over a
plastic bowl, vomiting. Recovery is a misnomer for this room, as little
recovery happens here. What happens instead is discovery. What's been taken,
what's been fixed. What's in a cast. Where does it hurt. I looked down at
my body. My left leg looked like a rounded bat-like object covered in
plaster. The foot was gone. I looked around, maybe it was nearby. Maybe in
the next bed. No. When I turned my head, the world spun a bit. When objects
were clear again, I saw on either side of me, beds with side rails holding
sleeping kids wearing casts that were slightly different from mine. When I
tried to sit up, I realized I could not bend at the waist. I put my hands on
my stomach, plaster there, too. I tried to shift my weight but could not. I
could not bring my legs together. I could hardly move. Now I was angry as
well as confused. `What's this?' I asked, batting at one of the nurse's arms
as she helped lift me onto a rolling stretcher. `That's your cast, honey.
You're going to get all better now.' I knew she was lying. I was trapped
again inside those walls of thick plaster. As the nurses wheeled me from
recovery back to my room and my waiting parents, I kept screaming, `Let me out
of this brick house!'"
GROSS: And that's Emily Rapp reading from her new memoir, "Poster Child."
Emily, did you know before that surgery that your foot was going to be
Ms. RAPP: My parents had talked to me somewhat about the fact that I was
going to have an operation and it was going to change my body, but they spoke
of it more in terms of what I was going to get and that was going to be a
prosthesis. And up until that time, I had been wearing a metal brace with a
kind of foot holster on the end to make up for the shortened leg. And it
wasn't that functional. So, it was short of pitched to me as an exciting
thing, like `Now you're going to get a leg and you're going to be able to move
and run and all these great things.' So they tried to be really positive about
it. And they were also--I was also given a doll that had one leg. And I
totally didn't understand what that doll was about, but people tried to use
visual aids with me to help me understand what was about to happen.
GROSS: What was the problem that you were born with that required these
surgeries and the amputation?
Ms. RAPP: I was born with a congenital defect called proximal focal femoral
deficiency, which is a long way of saying that one leg was shorter than the
other, and so at that time, the way to remedy that situation was to amputate
the foot and make a weight-bearing stump so that I would wear a prosthesis and
therefore have a sort of an artificial symmetry in my body.
GROSS: And the size of the prosthesis, the length of the prosthesis could
change as you grew.
Ms. RAPP: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: What are some of the other surgeries you had to have as a child?
Ms. RAPP: I had the amputation, and then I had a fusion of my knee, of the
original knee so that it wouldn't sort of break when I was walking because I
kept falling over. And my doctor referred to this knee as my football knee.
You know, it would just sort of bend inside the prosthesis, and if you can
imagine, that creates a really unstable sort of basis to walk on. So they
fused it so that I would have like a stiff lever to move the prosthesis with.
And I had several hip surgeries and then the osteotomy, which I mentioned,
which is a controlled fracture. It's the way of sort of controlling a
deformity. And a lot of these operations I had twice, which is why I ended up
having so many because they either didn't take the first time or you fall off
a bench at school and broke something else. So it was more than it needed to
be, in essence.
GROSS: It kind of sounds like torture.
Ms. RAPP: Actually, you know, being in the hospital as a child, especially
very sort of attention-seeking, vain, little girl was sort of fun. I mean,
people paid a lot of attention to you and you got presents and your brother
couldn't tease you and you got to eat whatever you wanted. So it sounds a
little bit silly, but I actually enjoyed being in the hospital a lot of the
GROSS: In 1980 you became a poster child for the March of Dimes.
Ms. RAPP: Yes.
GROSS: For the Medicine Bow chapter of Albany County, Wyoming.
Ms. RAPP: Wyoming.
GROSS: Would you describe that? I mean, you were literally on a poster.
Ms. RAPP: I know.
GROSS: Would you describe the poster and what your picture was like, what the
Ms. RAPP: The poster is very 1980. So it's not a gorgeous-looking poster
and it just says on the top, `Prevent Birth Defects.' And then it says `March
of Dimes 1981 Mothers March.' And it was a picture of me with like a few
missing teeth in the front wearing pigtails and a velour blue sort of
jumpsuit, and that's it. And then it has my name and the chapter, the chapter
GROSS: So how was the poster used, and where did you run into it?
Ms. RAPP: Well, it was actually all over the walls of my school. So I ran
into it every time I was, you know, going to the bathroom or walking to choir
or walking to gym class. And it was in community buildings, in stores, in the
church, it was everywhere in this, you know, small town where I lived, so I
ran into it quite a bit.
GROSS: How did it affect you and your body image to have all these pictures
of you whose job was to call attention to what set you apart, physically, from
Ms. RAPP: Hmm. At the time, you know, I didn't care. At the time, I was
just excited to have attention. I think most kids--I mean, I know some other
poster children and we talk about this. It's like, you feel like so special.
You feel so singled out, and you don't really care what it's for because at
that point, it doesn't really matter that your body is different. I mean,
you're a child and your body is what it is. And interestingly enough, I
never--I never felt disabled as a child, actually, which seems completely
silly when you read the book and read about all of these surgeries, but I was
just--the leg was just something I had to sort of put on in order to catapult
myself into the world like the hyperactive kid that I was. I do think that
being a poster child turned me into kind of a brat. And in fact, my mom
sometimes refers to this book as "Poster Brat" instead of "Poster Child"
because she said that after that, I was even more of a precocious nightmare
than before, so.
GROSS: You know, some of the posters for people with, you know, birth defects
or, you know, other health problems...
Ms. RAPP: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...some of those posters, the purpose of them seems to be so that
people who don't have the problem depicted in the poster can look at it and
say, `There but for the grace of God go I.'
Ms. RAPP: Mm-hmm. Oh.
GROSS: And you feel so grateful that that's not you or that's not like your
Ms. RAPP: I know.
GROSS: You're so relieved that you don't have this like defect.
Ms. RAPP: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: That you give money, in a way to almost ward off, you know.
Ms. RAPP: Yeah.
GROSS: You know what I mean?
Ms. RAPP: It's awful.
GROSS: You're grateful that you don't have it and you're almost
superstitious. Did you feel that when you saw yourself on the poster? Did
you ever feel like people were going to look at you and say, `Oh, thank God
that's not my daughter.'
Ms. RAPP: No. I mean, no. Now, of course, I absolutely realize that and
you know, it's interesting that phrase, `There but for the grace of God go I'
because, you know, that's used with all kinds of people in this culture. When
people see someone who's homeless or they find out that somebody lost a loved
one, they say, `Oh, that just puts it into perspective.' And you know, it's
not very comfortable to be on the other end of that and be sort of the
reflection of somebody's worst nightmare, you know?
Ms. RAPP: I mean, to be someone's mirror, it's really uncomfortable, and so,
of course, later looking back at that, I'm like, `Oh.' And I've talked to
other poster children, and we're just like, `What were our parents thinking?'
But they were probably thinking that maybe it would help us accept our
disabilities in a different way. I mean, my parents had no real way or
framework. They had never even thought they would have a child with this kind
of problem, and it took them so much by surprise. So I don't fault them for
making me the poster child by any means.
GROSS: My guest is Emily Rapp. Her new memoir is called "Poster Child."
We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest Emily Rapp has written a new memoir called "Poster Child."
She was a March of Dimes poster child when she was six. She had a congenital
bone disorder that required her foot, then her leg to be amputated.
Now in your memoir, "Poster Child," you write a little bit about the
difficulties of going through puberty, a period when appearance becomes really
Ms. RAPP: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So, did your artificial leg, your prosthetic leg present new problems
to you when you started to go through puberty and then when you started to
Ms. RAPP: It did create problems. I think I just realized suddenly that it
was no longer this fun toy. It was no longer a way of garnering special
attention. It was like a liability in the world of dating and being
attractive, and that's when I began to feel really isolated. I felt isolated
because I didn't know any other people that were with disabilities that were
girls and that were my age. I only knew Vietnam veterans. Those were the
guys with artificial legs that I knew. Those were my people. And so they
didn't really have much to offer me about going through puberty as a girl in
the 1980s, so I was isolated and I started to become really angry because I
didn't know how to deal with it.
GROSS: Oh, and it sounds like you became really obsessive about your hair and
Ms. RAPP: Oh, gosh!
GROSS: You became anorexic for a while, too.
Ms. RAPP: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, this is sort of not common, but
unfortunately, more common that you'd think. If you can't sort of meet an
impossible standard in society in one way, then maybe you can meet it in an
another. So for me, it was, `Well, if I can't have two legs, I'm going to be
the skinniest person in my class,' which at the time meant the most
attractive. We all know the obsession with thinness is, you know, raging out
of control in this country. And at that time, certainly it was--being skinny
was in. So I thought, `Well, that's what I'll do. I'll be the skinniest
person and no one will be able to be as skinny as me and maybe that will
somehow, you know, bring up my rank in the attractive category and sort of
overcompensate for this missing leg.' It's terrible logic, but when you're
going through it, it feels like it makes perfect sense.
GROSS: And were you rewarded in some way for being that thin?
Ms. RAPP: Yes, I was, in terms of attention. I mean, I've never ever gotten
so many compliments about my appearance as I did when I weighed about 95
pounds in high school because that was, you know, it was good to be thin. And
that's sort of shocking to me. When I look at those pictures, I think, `Oh, I
look like I need to eat like an enormous sandwich.' But, at the time, people
were like, `Oh, you look so great. You have such great cheekbone structure.'
And you know, and, of course, I ate those compliments up, and, you know, it
wasn't something that I could maintain. I mean it would be impossible to
maintain any kind of life of the mind on 800 calories a day. So when I got to
college, that kind of obsession fell away.
GROSS: You know, you write, "To remove the leg in front of a man was
unthinkable. The very thought of it sickened me. I had no sense of myself as
a desirable sexual woman as an amputee."
Ms. RAPP: Hmm.
GROSS: And I think that that's really easy to comprehend how you'd feel that
Ms. RAPP: Mm-hmm. Of course.
GROSS: You know what I mean? Because we're--most people are so
self-conscious to begin with.
Ms. RAPP: Of course.
GROSS: And then you add something like that, and that's even more
self-conscious. Was that something you were able to just kind of like put
behind you? You know, that feeling? Were you able to get past that?
Ms. RAPP: I was, yeah. And I think, you bring up an important point because
I think one of the great disservices that cultural stereotypes do to people
with disabilities is they make us asexual. They sort of rob us of any sexual
desire. And you can see this in depictions of people with disabilities in
movies with some exceptions, in literature and in society. And I think, you
know, we are sexual people. To say that we're not is to make us somehow
subhuman. And so in the process of claiming my sexuality, I had to somehow
claim my body, and it's, you know, of course, not something that, you know,
every day is a great day. It's a process, and sometimes I still struggle with
things like that, but, yes, I was able to put it behind me, but it wasn't
GROSS: What is the difference between the prosthetic you have now and what
you had when you were a child and first had your foot amputated?
Ms. RAPP: Oh, well, night and day is the difference. The leg I had up until
I was 20, I had the same sort of--I literally had a wooden leg with sort of
metal hinges on the side, and if you can imagine the way that a door would
swing, the bottom sort of swung freely. It wasn't on the hydraulic system, so
the motion was all up to me to sort of--to run the leg in essence. And it was
attached by a waist strap. So you would slip it on over the stump and tie the
strap around and like buckle it in front. And so it was sort of the oldest
model of a wooden leg. It's a very sort of rudimentary model. But it worked
for me. And then I met someone who had a hydraulic prosthesis, and that just
totally changed my world. I found a new prosthetist. I got a new leg and now
I have like a four-bar hydraulic knee that is sort of the hard--if you think
of a door, the harder you push against a hydraulic door, the more it resists.
It's that kind of a system. So like the knee can lock out. I can control my
motion more. That kind of thing. And it's also held on by a suction system,
so there's no longer a waist strap, which was probably the most uncomfortable
thing about wearing the first wooden leg.
GROSS: So you can get around pretty well now?
Ms. RAPP: Yes. I mean, I can do what I want to do. I can, you know, be
active and do all kinds of different sports. You know, if I want to do it, I
can usually find a way to do it.
GROSS: You know, you've mentioned that when you were young, the only other
people you knew in your town who had limbs that were amputated were veterans.
Ms. RAPP: Right. Well, they weren't even in my town, actually. They were
in Denver, so there was no one in my town.
GROSS: Oh, oh, so a special clinic that you went to.
Ms. RAPP: Yeah. Yeah. There was no prosthetic clinic in Laramie, so.
GROSS: You said you almost envied them because they all had like a really
dramatic story about how they lost a limb and you didn't.
Ms. RAPP: Right.
GROSS: I mean, you lost your foot before you were old enough to really
comprehend what was going on, and there wasn't--there wasn't this kind of
dramatic war story or anything like that to tell.
Ms. RAPP: Right.
GROSS: You feel like in a way you substituted your book for that. Now you
have a whole memoir focused on it.
Ms. RAPP: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, the thing about the Vietnam vets that
was so great is that they gave me my first community of people with
disabilities. And they were so nonjudgmental. They were so fun to be around.
And I don't think honestly they quite knew what to do with me because I was so
up in their face all the time and, you know, forcing them to play games with
me and hopping around and, you know, I think they found it a relief to sort
of--to be with someone who was more playful about having a disability, where
for them it was attached to these sort of incredibly traumatic memories. But,
of course, it's such a six-year-old's logic to be like, `Ooh, I wish I had a
dramatic story.' You know, not having any idea what the implications of that
might be. But I really do, I have such love and respect for those guys. They
were so brave in a very different way than I had ever experienced before.
GROSS: Did you--have you gone through a lot of your life feeling that you
were at war with your body because your bones were growing unevenly and that
required the amputation and that required the leg prosthetic.
Ms. RAPP: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And I mean, it's like you're literally were at war with your body,
like doctors had to like cut off parts of your body over a series of
Ms. RAPP: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And once you start feeling that way, how do you stop? How do you make
peace with your body?
Ms. RAPP: Well, I don't know if I know a clear answer to that. I think the
easy answer is to say that you do every day. You have to say, you know, you
have to sort of reclaim that body every day and sort of be forgiving of it.
And I don't think I felt as a child at war with my body. Again, because I was
a child and I sort of just dealt with what was given to me. It was only later
in my life that maybe I felt the effects of that and began to feel like, you
know, why me? Why this? That sort of, you know, those feelings of pity which
I don't--those I certainly don't have anymore. But I do think that
it's--there's no easy answer to that question about making peace.
And people often ask me, `What was the moment when you finally accepted your
body?' And my answer to that is, you know, I have to do it all the time. It's
not--there was no switch that was flipped. And also being conscious of the
fact that my whole, you know, worries and self-consciousness about my body is
a reflection of my privilege as well. I mean, many people in other places
aren't able to, you know, sit around thinking about how they feel about their
bodies. And I'm also conscious of that, especially people with disabilities
around the world. So, I guess I would say it's a daily process.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. RAPP: Thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Emily Rapp's new memoir is called "Poster Child."
A Golden Globe last night is just one sign of Alec Baldwin's current
popularity. Coming up, our critic at large John Powers has some thoughts on
why Baldwin is connecting with audiences now.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Critic at large John Powers talks about the popularity of
actor Alec Baldwin
TERRY GROSS, host:
Alec Baldwin won a Golden Globe last night for his role as a TV executive in
the NBC comedy, "30 Rock." Our critic at large John Powers thinks Baldwin
deserves the recognition he's getting now and has some ideas about why Baldwin
has become so popular.
Mr. JOHN POWERS: Not so long ago, I wasn't alone in thinking that Alec
Baldwin had thrown away his career. Although extremely talented and almost
comically handsome, he quit his franchise role as Tom Clancy's hero Jack Ryan,
which he thought was beneath him, only to star in a series of flops like "The
Getaway" and "Heaven's Prisoners." Along the way, he'd come to be seen as a
prima donna, complete with a messy marriage to Kim Basinger and arrests for
punching out paparazzi, and political pronouncements that made him sound
desperate for attention. His real stardom was found in the tabloids. But
America loves a happy second act. And at 48, Baldwin is now one of our most
beloved performers. When he appears on "Saturday Night Live," the crowd
whoops with unbridled delight, and I whoop, too. Nothing makes me happier
than seeing Baldwin's name in the opening credits of a movie like "The
Departed" or "The Good Shepherd." He's gone from being a bum to a hero
celebrated in every newspaper and magazine.
And the reason for this change tells us something about pop culture. In
Baldwin's case, he became more popular because he became more human. He put
on weight, set aside the idea of being a leading man, and most important, he
dropped every shred of actorly self-seriousness. Unafraid to look silly, he
began having fun. And the audience feels that, even when he's in a serious
role. Although Baldwin often plays overbearing authority figures, he does it
with such obvious relish that we share his delight. He thoroughly deserved to
win the Golden Globe for his work as TV executive Jack Donaghy on "30 Rock."
Without him and his crack timing, the show's a dead duck. Here, Jack goes
after the show's lead character, she's played by Tina Fey, on the question of
(Soundbite from "30 Rock)
Mr. ALEC BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Lemon, do we have a problem?
Ms. TINA FEY: (As Liz Lemon) I have this whole Tracy-Josh thing under
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) What are you talking about?
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Nothing. What are you talking about?
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) You. You yelling at the crew. You trolling for
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Oh, it's a big misunderstanding. Jenna thinks that I want
to have a baby.
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) I should've known this was going to be a problem when
I decided to mentor a woman.
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) No, in fact, what I said was that my body is trying to
make me think I want to have a baby, but my body is not the boss of me, my
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) All right, if you insist upon going all Murphy Brown
on me, then let me give you a tip. Don't smother your child with affection to
compensate for not having a man in your life. Don't say `You're the only man
I'll ever love,' even babies know that's creepy.
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Of course.
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) Don't put little notes in their lunch bag that say,
`Mommy's watching you.' People find those things.
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) I bet you behaved yourself, though.
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) If your child is a terrific hockey player and a
gifted flutist, don't make them play the National Anthem on the flute in front
of their teammates.
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Your mother did that?
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) Now she wants to move in with me. I cannot live with
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Then be an adult and call her and say you love her very
much but that living together is not going to work for you.
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) No, no. You don't know my mother. This is a woman
who actually had a heart attack to prevent me from going on my honeymoon.
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Maybe her heart broke because she spent 20 years raising
you and you're a total ingrate.
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) That's exactly what she said. Is this what you want,
Lemon, to breathe life into another human being just to spend the rest of your
days slowly sucking it out of them?
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) No. That's why my brain is the boss.
(Soundbite of cell phone ringing)
Mr. BALDWIN: (As Jack) Speak of the devil.
Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Take a breath. Be nice.
(End of excerpt)
Mr. POWERS: Listening to this, you can tell Baldwin's having a blast. Now
it's hardly news that audiences like to watch actors who are having a good
time. Back in its golden age, Hollywood knew this by heart. That's why the
very quintessence of the movie star was Cary Grant, who exuded an incomparable
buoyancy, both on screen and off. Coming to fame during the Great Depression
and World War II, he embodied the supremely bearable lightness of being. All
that changed over the next decades, and the prestige of Grant's style began to
In the wake of "the method" and postwar prosperity, acting became a more
self-consciously serious business, with too many performers aping Marlon
Brando's sense of inner turmoil, while overlooking his playfulness. It became
an Oscar cliche that top prizes would go to those who emulated themselves in
their characters. Gaining dozens of pounds like Robert De Niro in "Raging
Bull," making themselves ugly like Charlize Theron in "Monster." Or suffering
grand eloquently in a whole slew of impeccable accents, like Meryl Streep
throughout the 1980s. But while we may admire such committed performances, we
seldom love them, as earlier audiences loved the work of Grant or Carole
Lombard or Jimmy Stewart. It's no accident that both Streep and Johnny Depp,
two voluminously gifted actors, have become more popular than ever now that
they're so transparently having a good time in movies like "The Devil Wears
Prada" or "Pirates of the Caribbean." Looser and more relaxed than ever,
Streep's Miranda Priestly is every bit as compelling a character as say, the
heroine of "Sophie's Choice," who's so hermetically sealed in Streep's
performance that we can't get inside her. And the same logic holds true off
the screen as well.
The reason George Clooney is today's best movie star, our closest thing to
Cary Grant, is that he let us in on his pleasure. He lets us know it's just
great being a handsome movie star who gets to act in movies of his own
choosing, own a house on Lake Como, play practical jokes on his friends and
find the UN eager to hear his political opinions. He's almost the opposite of
Sean Penn, who for all his gifts, is perpetually imprisoned in miserablism.
Penn seems to find acting a form agony and fame even worse. Audiences are
impatient with such an attitude, especially in a time of war and economic
insecurity. We don't mind if our entertainers have political opinions, but we
do want them to enjoy being entertainers. That's why we're so thrilled when
someone like Alec Baldwin decides to cut loose and have some fun. By
abandoning all pretense to being an important actor, he's not only made us
love him, he's doing the work for which he'll be remembered.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
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