Interview with Patricia Horvath by Pamela Turchin
Patricia Horvath, diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of twelve, endured wearing a Milwaukee brace during her adolescent years. The brace was a chin-to-hip contraption, a hard plastic corset, held in place by metal suspenders and a thick leather belt. She was bound inside, and was only released one hour each day for a shower. When this didn’t correct the S-curve of her spine, she underwent spinal fusion surgery, which left her bedridden in plaster and fiberglass casts. Years later, Horvath told her doctor she was shrinking, and thought she might have osteoporosis. The doctor stared at her in confusion, but assured her she was much too young. Perhaps in ten years she could have a baseline bone density exam. Horvath persisted, her doctor relented, and handed her an order for the test. The results came back–osteoporosis.
“My bones have always been treacherous, and once again they had betrayed me.” She explained it took her a long time to write this book because it wasn’t an issue she wanted to relive. “I write out of a sense of what I term vexation and inquiry. If something is bothering me I have to try and figure it out.” It was through the process of understanding what it meant to have been disabled, and how disability shaped her identity, that she came to write All The Difference.
Horvath discovered in elementary school how being physically adept was clearly valued over being skilled academically. She became witness to how our society gives prominence to sports and winning. “We privilege prowess. It’s more fun to run around on the blacktop and play sports. The spelling bee was what I excelled at, but who wants to play spelling bee after school?” Aware she lacked the dexterity of her classmates, Horvath became determined to be the student who was known for getting good grades. She also retreated into the magic of books, surrounding herself in new realms of adventure, from the classics to comic books, fairy tales from the My Book House series, to her favorite—D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Through reading the myths, Horvath was transported from mundane reality to worlds where “these goddesses, especially Athena, were powerful, could turn mortals into animals and change their shapes. They could do what they wanted. They had agency.”
While reading All The Difference, readers will be moved by how difficult it was for Horvath to navigate puberty during a time already fraught with anxiety and insecurity, especially for girls, while having the additional burden of being strapped into a metal and plastic brace for 23 hours a day. During the mid-seventies, when most girls entered junior high wearing platform heels, she had orthopedic shoes. When describing her new-found frustration in trying to get clothes to fit, and how her mother spent many nights sewing, Horvath asked herself, “But do hemmed Levi’s jeans ever look right?” When told this is funny, she replied, “People tell me: ‘your book is funny.’ I’m happy when they say that because I don’t want this to be a book about self-pity. In my own case, certain things were inherently funny. There was a lot of absurdity attached to this, like drinking champagne out of a straw in a body cast.
“The brace was a horrible thing to wear. It was uncomfortable and hot. The metal parts would heat up in the summer and get cold in the winter. It was difficult to sleep. It was obvious—if I didn’t wear a turtleneck, and who’s going to wear a turtleneck in the summer—you could see there was something underneath my clothes because it was big and bulky. The metal suspenders stuck out about six inches from my shoulder blades.” She was consigned to loose-fitting clothing, and couldn’t even wear dangly earrings, the only things left which would have added a touch of style, because they bumped against the metal ring of the brace.
She longed to wear current fashions, to look like David Bowie and Twiggy, yet at the same time, was painfully aware of how the brace made her stand out. Horvath wanted to go unseen when most girls her age wanted to be noticed by boys. Although feeling self-conscious by being constantly on display, she knew she was “The Girl with the Brace,” invisible to boys. “The male gaze—is there anything more potent to the adolescent girl? The messages we received through television, advertisements, fairy tales, movies, music, especially music—encouraged us to define ourselves in its beam… A girl unremarked on by boys suffered more than a lack of stature. In a sense she ceased to exist.” This, in turn, led her to become a literal chastity belt for her friends. She tagged along on their dates— “for safety, a chaperone for girls who did not want to go too far, at least not right away.” But when her brace and cast came off, she found she was treated differently. “I was looked at as a sexually available creature. Men would make comments and boys suddenly wanted to date me. I had no idea what to do. I thought that’s what I wanted and when it happened, I was unnerved by it. The transition was so abrupt I had no idea how to adapt…how to flirt and banter. How to go on a date, and all these things girls my age seemed to know.”
She feels lucky her mother was a staunch advocate. When she was recuperating at home after spinal surgery, her first nurse was not a good match. Her mother fired her and found one who ended up becoming a friend. The new nurse was in her twenties and helped to get the author through this ordeal. They bonded because of the intimate environment they shared. The nurse changed her, painted her toenails, and never made her feel embarrassed. She asked, “What teenager wouldn’t feel embarrassed using a bed pan?” But her nurse made her feel like a normal teenager, and for this she has her mother to thank.
Patricia Horvath endured taunting from her peers in junior high school, and still now, as an adult, gets looks because of her “funny walk.” Although she understands people can make you feel self-conscious and second-rate, she also knows they can make you feel accepted and valued. That is the message which resonates in All The Difference.
Pamela Turchin is a graduate assistant in the Wilkes University Creative Writing Program where she is pursuing an M.A. in fiction. Prior to joining Etruscan Press, she taught 4th grade and language arts on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.