Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

Shortlisted for The 2020 Barbellion Prize


In 1958, amongst the children born with spina bifida is Riva Lehrer. At the time, most such children are not expected to survive. Her parents and doctors are determined to ‘fix’ her, sending the message over and over again that she is broken. That she will never have a job, a romantic relationship, or an independent life. Enduring countless medical interventions, Riva tries her best to be a good girl and a good patient in the quest to be cured.

Everything changes when, as an adult, Riva is invited to join a group of artists, writers, and performers who are building Disability Culture. Their work is daring, edgy, funny, and dark-it rejects tropes that define disabled people as pathetic, frightening, or worthless. They insist that disability is an opportunity for creativity and resistance. Emboldened, Riva asks if she can paint their portraits-inventing an intimate and collaborative process that will transform the way she sees herself, others, and the world. Each portrait story begins to transform the myths she’s been told her whole life about her body, her sexuality, and other measures of normal.

Written with the vivid, cinematic prose of a visual artist, and the love and playfulness that defines all of Riva’s work, Golem Girl is an extraordinary story of tenacity and creativity. With the author’s magnificent portraits featured throughout, this memoir invites us to stretch ourselves toward a world where bodies flow between all possible forms of what it is to be human.

My Review:

Riva Lehrer was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1958 and Riva was born with spina bifida. Many children born with spina bifida during this time were not expected to live. Golem Girl (Virago) is an extraordinary memoir of a life lived and destined to be different.

The first thing that struck me was the title and I had to go and look up the meaning of Golem and it is an artificial creature made of clay that turns into a real person by magic.

Riva Lehrer is a successful writer and artist; the list of awards and achievements is long as is the list of exhibits for her work. In Golem Girl, Riva talks of her early life and through the many surgical procedures she had to go through. Riva’s mother would do whatever it took to get the correct medical advice and treatment but despite everything it was tortuous for Riva. Being told she would never be loved or desired is devastating to a young person.  

As the book moved into its second part Riva talks about finding her true self and a career and being excepted for who she really is in society. Riva was going to make an impression on the world as an artist and writer and she has done that with gusto. Throughout the book there are photographs from her early years through to the artistic work where she uses her gift to express her life and how it changed as time went on.

As Golem Girl draws to a close, we see that Riva looks at the disability culture as she becomes an activist on this front as the decades moved on. Throughout Riva writes with incredible honesty and humour.

If you have an interest in disability culture, this is a book I would recommend. Golem Girl has been shortlisted for The 2020 Barbellion Prize with the winner being announced on 12th February 2021.

You can read more about Riva Lehrer via her website:  Riva Lehrer

Follow news of The Barbellion Prize: The Barbellion Prize

448 Pages.

I am extremely grateful to Cat Mitchell, Virago and the Barbellion Prize review copy of Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer.

Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer is published by Virago and was published on 8th December 2020 and is available to order through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org


The Barbellion Prize was founded and dedicated further the voices of ill and disabled writers. This is a prize awarded each year to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness or disability.

The award recognises work submitted for fiction, memoir, biography, poetry or critical non-fiction and can be from around the world in English or translation and can be published work from a publisher or self-published.

Further information about the prize can be found via their website: The Barbellion Prize

You can follow progress of the Barbellion Prize via Twitter: @BarbellionPrize and Instagram: @barbellionprize

The prize is named after the English diarist W.N.P. Barbellion who wrote about living with multiple sclerosis until his death in 1919.

The shortlist for the 2020 Barbellion Prize was announced:

Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (Published by Virago)

The Fragments of my Father: A memoir of madness, love and being a carer by Sam Mills (published by Fourth Estate)

Sanatorium by Abi Palmer (Published by Penned in the Margins)

Kika & Me by Amit Patel (Published by Pan Macmillan)

The winner of the 2020 Barbellion Prize will be announced on 12th February.

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