Beautiful Monsters: Living with a Prosthetic Limb

Ruminating on life with a prosthetic limb.

  • We are easily reduced to the sum of our parts, and sometimes we are reduced to only our parts. As a woman who wears a permanent machine, I felt and still feel this reduction acutely.
    Photo by Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/
  • When one part of the organic organism does not function the way it should, someone crafts a part to fill its place, to accomplish the needed task.
    Photo by Derek Bridges/

Ever since there have been wars, physical anomalies, accidents, aging, and bodily improvisation, there have been cyborgs — people who are half machine, half body. When one part of the organic organism does not function the way it should, someone crafts a part to fill its place, to accomplish the needed task. Artificial legs made of iron. Wooden-wheeled wheelchairs. In the last century, the definition of a cyborg has of course deepened and broadened. Prosthetic limbs now contain computers that work with the living person’s brain, signaling the parts to move. Humans — part human, part machine — have always existed: imago dei sprung from human invention and creativity.

Since the time I learned to walk, I have worn a machine. Made of disparate parts, I have, like Frankenstein’s monster, moved as a hybrid person through the world, an amalgamation of mechanical parts that enable me to live and thrive. The correct functioning of my artificial part was as essential to me as food or drink, safety and shelter. Without it, I could not be at home in the world.

Born with a congenital birth defect that required the amputation of left foot at the age of four, I began my toddler life in a metal brace secured to the body by Velcro straps and a foam “bump” under the left foot that made my legs even, or “line up,” as we said (“Is it lined up? Do you feel lined up?” the brace outfitter would ask). The brace helped me learn to walk and then kept me walking. For years, whenever I had an art assignment in school, I would look at the lines on my drawing of a flower or a bear’s two paws together, holding a pot of honey, and think of the lines of the human body and how both were meant to be even and symmetrical. My first brace was a primitive creation, all metal and easily soiled cloth, with a clickety-clanking noise, a literal cage for the smaller left leg that kept it straight and allowed it to swing through after the right leg, the “lead leg,” took a step forward. One step, two step, three step. The dance of a broken doll.

After the amputation of my foot, I had subsequent “modification” operations to the hip and other areas of the femur, and I graduated to another leg made of a light wood the color of the cabinets in my childhood kitchen. This wooden shell fit over my residual limb and attached with a cloth waist belt that frayed at the edges and rubbed against my hips when I walked, often creating rashes and sores that my mom rubbed with ointment. Secured along the sides, like two metal eyes, were the hinges that swung the leg through to its next-step destination. My dad had hung a rope swing in our garage in Wyoming, and I loved to swing, charging the right leg forward and then watching the bottom half of the left leg move on its own, back and forth, like a door closing shut against the body, a door opening and closing in the strength of a breeze, the leg both a part of me and also separate from me, mindless in a way that inanimate objects are, and yet also possessed of a mind of its own. I accepted this cyborgian body as mine, and at night I tore off the leg and let it rest next to my bed, an off-body talisman that, in the morning, just like in some kind of modern fairy tale, would be reintegrated — although not always easily — into my body. Helpless without it, my body was made active and mobile with the presence and assistance of this human-made device.

As a child, I imagined my body was put together by elves, beavering away in the back rooms of the Denver offices where we traveled for any leg-related activities. Denver was the closest city to oru our small town in rural Wyoming. The drives felt long to me then, the station wagon and then the minivan traversing miles of flat and desolate plains, with a hint of mountains in the distance as approached Colorado. The prosthetist’s rooms were coated in sawdust, dirt, and metal parts. Like a fairy-tale princess, I was blessed (and this part I imagined with glitter) by a small group of people who were dedicated only to the crafting and welfare of my body. Instead of magical dresses and shoes, I was given magical body parts. As a child, I initially took great pride in being distinctive.

The prosthetist’s office in Denver was located on the nondescript corner of a rundown block in a sketchy neighborhood, the floors coated in dust, the rickety side tables in the waiting room littered with old magazines. The traffic moving by on Colfax Avenue was often barely visible through the windows, which hadn’t been cleaned for some time. I liked to rub a hole in the dirt with my sleeve and check for it when I returned; it was never wiped away. As an adult, looking back and thinking of this office — of its waiting room, the back room, and the “walking” runway where we tested the adjustments to the leg — I consider it as a place where objects of shame were manufactured: for the incompletes, the outcasts, the abnormal, the “disabled” as we were then (and still are) called, as if we constituted some beastly barbarian horde. Later, I would think about how those of us in these rooms were part of my strange fairy tale — instead of frogs turned into princes, we were people with misshapen bodies made acceptable (at least in part) to live and move in the world. As a child, however, I did not think of these things, but simply filled that dusty space with my constant chatter and genuine curiosity.

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