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Greg Marshall on his new memoir 'Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew From It'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Leg" by Greg Marshall is a memoir that is intimate - and I mean that in all ways - insightful and often laugh-out-loud funny. That's quite an achievement when you're writing about a mother who contends with cancer, a father immobilized by ALS, four siblings and your own motor disorder that your parents decided to minimize and keep from you, except everybody else in the world asks, what's going on with your leg? "Leg: The Story Of A Limb And The Boy Who Grew From It" is the title of Greg Marshall's first book, and he joins us now from Austin, Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.

GREG MARSHALL: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Your parents told you for years you just had tight tendons, right?

MARSHALL: They did. So I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months. But growing up, they just said I had tight tendons. And when I kind of pressed them as I got older and that explanation didn't carry water anymore, they told me I had hemiplegia or hemiparesis, so essentially symptoms of cerebral palsy that indicate paralysis on parts of the body. So they really tried to sidestep the kind of loaded term of cerebral palsy.

SIMON: How do you think that affected you? Why do you think they did that?

MARSHALL: Well, I think they wanted me to not, you know, face kind of the limitations and the stigma of having a disability, and they wanted me to just sort of be a kid. And I really get that part of it. I think the part that was harder to justify as I got older was that I kind of feel like my parents put a banana peel off in my future for me to slip on later as I got older. And when you don't have the facts about your body, you're just set up to fail. You know, instead of thinking, you know, I'm a little bit brain-damaged, my brain works a little different, you kind of think, God, you know, I'm stupid. Why can't I figure this out? Or why am I making such a big deal of this? This is just tight tendons, you know? It's basically like a pulled hamstring. Why am I literally getting tripped up over this? So I think those were some of the consequences of giving me that, quote, "freedom."

SIMON: I'm not for a moment going to say you're wrong, but I have read your memoir and loved it, and I love your parents. I think they're two of the greatest people I've ever met between the pages of a book in my life. They're funny and fair and delightful company and very brave as they confront their own challenges. And I guess they were just trying to spare - I don't know, as we do - pain for their beloved son.

MARSHALL: Thank you so much for saying that. And humor is such a part of my family. And kind of the premise of this book is so inherently absurd, not knowing that you have this obvious condition. You know, I walk with a limp from cerebral palsy. I've walked with a limp every step of my life. And it was this sort of thing where so many other people in my life knew that I had cerebral palsy. When I uncovered the condition going through my childhood medical records when I was almost 30, there was a memo from my orthopedic surgeon that had written to excuse me from high school PE that just said, to whom it may concern, Greg Marshall has spastic cerebral palsy related to prematurity. So I was in a situation where even, like, the secretary of my high school knew that I had cerebral palsy, but I didn't. And so I wanted the book to kind of read like a French farce full of comedic misunderstandings and bodily humor.

SIMON: Oh, I love the bodily humor. Let me tell you.

MARSHALL: There was probably a little too much bodily humor in there. But, you know, I think once I was able to own the condition and own the fact that I have a disability, I was able to kind of push past the cringe and find real moments of vulnerability that can also be incredibly funny. That goofiness and that dark humor was such a part of my parents' resilience. And my mom will love hearing you say that you thought she was one of the greatest characters in the - between the pages of a book. So I really appreciate that.

SIMON: Your father one day, training to run in the Boston Marathon fields, a twitch in his shoulder - wasn't just a twitch in his shoulder, was it?

MARSHALL: No, it was a fasciculation. A muscle in his chest was essentially twitching to death, and it indicated that he had ALS. But the plus side of that was that it really let me connect with my dad on a disability level. We were able to see each other's bodies in totally new ways. I mean, he had kind of been this tennis player, this jock, this really happy-go-lucky guy who hiked and swam and did all of the things and loved to ski. And suddenly he couldn't do any of those things anymore. And I was in a position of being one of his caregivers. And just that kind of communion that we were able to share - I remember once we went up Millcreek Canyon near our childhood home, and he just said, you know, Greggo (ph), I'm starting to understand your leg a little better. I mean, it just never goes away, does it? The fact that he was willing to connect with his gay disabled son in that way was really profound for me, and it kind of opened up all of these avenues. You know, your dad is still your dad, even if he isn't able to kind of do the things that he used to do, even if he's on a respirator and you have to, you know, clear mucus plugs from his trachea. So that was a super eye-opening experience for me.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the intimacy of the book 'cause you made allusions to that. And, boy, it's graphic. Some of it is sexual, but much more of it is just how the human body is. And it can be tough to read. But I guess that was your life.

MARSHALL: Yeah, I think so many of the kind of disability narratives or characters in literature that I had encountered were either, you know, supervillains or superheroes or, you know, geniuses like Professor Xavier or something like that. And I think what I wanted to do with this book is just convey the experience of my own body. You know, I was really nervous at first about including, for example, some of the stuff about erectile dysfunction, which may or may not be related to my cerebral palsy. It's just part of me. But it felt strange to be so open about these kind of more wholesome parts of the coming out process as disabled without going into the bedroom, going into all of the places. Why should the curtains just be fluttering if it's a disabled person having sex versus letting people into that intimate experience? You know, I kind of wanted my leg to not be a sidekick but a star. And it was so much a part of my sexual and romantic experiences, human being, that to leave that part out would be to kind of just whitewash the experience a little bit. And I thought, hey, this is my one chance to tell the story of my leg, so it's going to be a tell-all. And, for example, I love my sixth grade teacher. I hope she comes to my reading in Salt Lake City. But if she does or doesn't like the book because of those things, that's kind of more of her call than mine, I guess, if you know what I mean.

SIMON: I think she'll like it.

MARSHALL: I think she will, too. I had a very cool sixth grade teacher.

SIMON: Greg Marshall - his memoir, "Leg: The Story Of A Limb And The Boy Who Grew From It" - thank you so much for being with us.

MARSHALL: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.