Received and Recommended

Patricia Horvath. All the Difference. Wilkes-Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2017.

This beautifully written, thoughtful memoir by a writer whose fiction has appeared in several issues of Confrontation, focuses on Horvath’s adolescence and specifically on her physical abnormality since childhood—caused by scoliosis—which eventually sends her, at thirteen, to Yale University Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut, where her spinal column was fused and bones were grafted (her bones had always betrayed her, she writes). A nearly year’s-long hospital confinement in two different body casts followed, during which she could move only one leg (a bit) and raise her arms, from a prone position, straight above her head. The head itself could not be moved.

This would be a dreadful thing for anyone to endure, but one might think it would permanently warp an adolescent girl’s body image (given the extreme self-consciousness about all aspects of the female body at that age) and in addition severely impair her social life and psychological development, and thus have long-lasting negative impacts on her future. None of this happens, quite remarkably (though there were consequences, as the allusion to Robert Frost in the memoir’s title suggests). Remarkably, too, there is not a sentence in Horvath’s book that hints of self-pity or lashes out at a fate or a God for the injustice and pain of her circumstances. Though she was never a popular girl—her physical ineptitude, her inability from a young age to do many of the things other children did, assuring her “outsideness,” her Otherness—her small circle of friends nonetheless stuck with her even when she could not give much back. Naturally she couldn’t attend school for some period; luckily, she had always been an “indoors” girl, a lover of books. Her mother, during Horvath’s prolonged experience of helplessness and patience (what else was there to do but wait?) is a constant and nurturing presence in the memoir.

The experiences she had as an adolescent also seem to have given her a wisdom most people learn only later. Here, Horvath captures what visitors to patients in hospitals feel: “. . . the anxiety and helplessness of seeing a loved one suffer—seeing, by extension, themselves. . . . The patient is a powerful mirror. There’s nothing like a hospital to make someone, even a teenager, aware of mortality. The visitor thinks, There but for the grace of God, yet knows that this is false. There but for the time being. The relief of walking away, through the revolving doors and into the cold night air, comes as a shock. Years later, visiting a friend with AIDS, I would go straight from hospital to restaurant, to binge on sushi and martinis.”

In a few sentences: death waiting in the wings for all of us, and the stubborn resilience of the living. Horvath’s short memoir is full of pleasures of this kind.

From Confrontation 121, Spring 2017.