Interview about Warm Springs on The Lehrer NewsHour


JIM LEHRER: Now, a memoir of polio and a very special place. Jeffrey Brown has our new book conversation.


JEFFREY BROWN: To most older Americans, the reality of polio is at best a distant memory of parental fears. To millions of young people today, it`s nothing more than a needle or a pill. To thousands of others, though, polio was a terrible, long-lasting, crippling legacy.

Though polio has virtually disappeared in America, at its height in 1952, some 58,000 people were stricken with the sometimes fatal disease. It wasn’t until 1955 that the Salk vaccine began to end its frightening reign. The disease’s most famous victim was Franklin Roosevelt, who contracted it in 1921. For the rest of his life he was unable to walk without help. The one place he found solace from his ever- present pain was at a former spa in Warm Springs, Georgia. He was so taken with the supposedly curative mineral waters and spirit of the place that he bought it and established it as a center for the rehabilitation of polio victims, many of whom were children. 

In her memoir, Warm Springs, author and novelist Susan Shreve tells of her own two-year stay there beginning in 1950 when she was 11 years old. Stricken by polio as a baby, she went to Warm Springs for surgery and rehabilitation, which was eventually successful. We talked recently in her Washington, D.C., home, and I asked her first what it felt like when she arrived with all those kids around.

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE, Author: It felt like a camp. I went there for surgery. That felt like a hospital as a lot of children did. But the place is beautiful, architecturally copied by Roosevelt after Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia. It’s built  all around a quad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the subtitle is, “Traces of a Childhood.” And this word “traces” actually has an important meaning for polio victims. Tell us about that.


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Traces are what is left after the polio virus has  paralyzed the nerves. but the result is the muscles don’t work. And if there's a little life left in a muscle, then there is the possibility that you can revive it. That’s what patients went to Warm Springs and all over the country in polio hospitals were looking to discover.


JEFFREY BROWN: Kind of looking for a sense of traces, which means hope, I guess?


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Hope is the translation. And we had a fight song, “Put another muscle in where the quadriceps have been, `cause we know we’ll never win with traces, traces, traces.”


JEFFREY BROWN: The fight song of Warm Springs?


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: The fight song, that’s right, exactly. And that’s really what I discovered at Warm Springs for. I think we all had a sense of hope for getting better.


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s striking, of course, in reading your memoir because so many of the victims are children that this was a place for children, what all that entailed.


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Exactly. In Warm Springs we felt that our lives were normal. I was eleven when I went to Warm Springs and had a sense that these were going to be my people, because I had been a slightly crippled child in the real world, and I was going down to this place where everybody was going to be just like me.

In fact, they were really very crippled children, many of them unable to sit up. And it was a striking situation for me to leave a place where I had been considered abnormal to a place where normal was far more crippled than I was.


JEFFREY BROWN: Explain this idea of normal to me in such an abnormal circumstance. I mean, I’m thinking of — Roosevelt himself famously didn’t want to be photographed, didn’t want it known that he had polio, that he was paralyzed. How did it feel for you in the sense of being normal, abnormal, a normal 12-year-old, as you were, or a crippled child, as it was defined back then?


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: The children made a little world for themselves, as children do. At the same time Roosevelt and I think most polios, there was a sense of hiding a disability in the world.  Certainly shame was involved.

Roosevelt did not believe he would be viewed as a strong leader if he were in a wheelchair.  He did everything to conceal that.

To me, one of the fascinating aspects of polio patients and certainly of Roosevelt in particular, is the fact that the country accepted the illusion that he was “normal”. It was an illusion. Everyone knew he was in a wheelchair. People embraced him as a leader. I think it made him human. At the same time the country pretended he could walk.


JEFFREY BROWN: You describe in your own case what I’ll call a negotiation with your mother, a kind of silent negotiation, I think, over how to define whether you were a normal child or what you might become.


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: My mother had a very strong sense that with effort I could become a normal child, and so she worked constantly with me and was actually strict with me. She was a sweet , mysterious woman, but she demanded a lot of me. Hours of exercises. She was also imaginative, so she made the hours of exercise that we did a part of a game, a show full of drama,. And always there was the expectation was that I could return to life – - in fact, life as usual — in an ordinary setting at home, as a fully formed, walking, athletic, young woman.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you responded to that…




JEFFREY BROWN: You believed it.


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE:. I had a capacity to believe just about everything she said.


JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you finally decide that you wanted to write this book and go back at least to look at your life then?


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: Warm Springs began to seem like a phenomenon to me. The fact that I was between the ages of 11 and 13 living without my family,  that this epidemic had been essentially eradicated in the United States, but that the polio epidemics it had been such a powerful moment in the health history of this country, the first major public health initiative. It was a disease that took a particular toll on children which I imagine is one reason everybody got behind searching for a cure which was done outside the government.

But  Warm Springs was also where I learned the world around me without the supervision of my parents.  I was in those pre-adolescent years when you discover sex, religion, race, all of the unsettling, complicated issues of life that you begin to explore


JEFFREY BROWN: What all of that meant, right?


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: What all of that meant.


JEFFREY BROWN: Coming into adolescence…




JEFFREY BROWN: … and you write about your fascination with the boys, trying to get into the boys` ward all the time.


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: We were kept separated because we were in two different wards, but of course we couldn’t be separated, because everybody was interested in our health, but not particularly in what we did all day. And there wasn’t a lot to do all day, so we had to make it up. I spent a lot of time trying to get into the boys` ward.


JEFFREY BROWN: It was not long after your time at Warm Springs that a polio vaccine came out and changed the world, in terms of that fear that had been out there. What about for you, though? Did those years — did the fact of having had polio define who you are?


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: I certainly think it influenced who I am.. It wasn’t as though I was 10 years old and my life as I knew was stopped by polio.  Polio was always life as I knew it.  It is frequently said and written of polio patients all over, it’s been written about in books . Polio patients are generally fearsome, stubborn, and don’t tend to look back.


JEFFREY BROWN: A kind of a profile of people…


SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE: It’s kind of a profile, as though a certain character comes with the virus.


JEFFREY BROWN: The book is called Warm Springs. Susan Shreve, nice to talk to you.