Keeping My Balance is a unique memoir, because Stephanie Torreno’s life flies in the face of our stereotypical assumptions about disability. Torreno’s cerebral palsy is so severe that she cannot write without someone taping down the paper, cannot type except with a single thumb, cannot walk without a walker, and often cannot be understood when she is speaking. Yet, she not only meets intellectual challenges – she excels, graduating cum laude from high school and achieving an associate’s degree with honors. Calling her a smarty-pants would be understating it, and I can relate; I’m a cerebral palsied smarty-pants myself.
In elementary school, I was the girl with a seatbelt installed at my school-desk so I wouldn’t fall out of my chair, but I was also in the advanced reading group. I took first place in every spelling bee, and even placed second in a science bee. In middle school, I was the one who needed an aide and a cane to get from class to class, but in high school I was moved into an accelerated, college-level English class. When I went to college, I was accepted into the university Honors Program; as long as I maintained a GPA over 3.5, and completed an undergraduate thesis, my tuition was free.
I knew I wasn’t the only one with a story like this. People need to know that there are brilliant minds in broken bodies, that a person’s intellectual powers are not dictated by their physical capabilities (or lack thereof). The more we talk about this, the easier it is to see that we need to provide alternate means of expression to the differently abled.
Torreno is such a strong advocate for herself, too – pushing for better standards of care, better accommodations in public spaces, and demanding the occupational freedom that any “typical” person could expect. In this way she’s very different from me – braver, and in a time when fewer people were on the same page about what disabled people deserve. It’s really inspiring.
All of that said, this memoir is not as impactful as it could be. Torreno has a background in technical writing, and that shows: she writes thoroughly, and gives information in a step-by-step way, often summarizing the facts of her medical difficulties and adaptive routines rather than writing immersive, sensory scenes. In other words, there is a lot of “telling” in this memoir, and very little “showing.”
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She’s clearly excellent at this type of writing. But strong memoir is not meant to be strictly chronological, or so carefully complete; rather, it is thematic, moving from moment to moment in an emotionally-driven way. Similar to the way life stories are told in film, the meaning comes through more clearly for all the unimportant details that are cut.
I don’t mean to say that this memoir lacks important themes. In addition to what I already mentioned about not judging a genius book by her disabled cover, I am intrigued by Torreno’s growth from a girl who is depressed, blaming herself for her father’s suicide, to a young woman who fights tooth and nail for her rights in a world that doesn’t recognize them. But we do not move with Torreno through these woods. We get a rich rendering of the scene in which her father’s suicide is discovered, but this method of storytelling is an exception rather than the rule.
This memoir taught me how hard it is as a reader to be told a story rather than thrown into it beside the protagonist. I want to take this as a reminder to give an experience instead of explanation wherever I can. At the end of the day, memoir – while non-fiction – is still story, and cannot stand sturdy without strategic plot, setting, and character decisions that deviate from a strictly faithful, technical telling of what actually happened.
Again, Keeping My Balance is such an important piece of work. People need to know Torreno’s story – I benefitted from it, as a person with a similar disability and a similar academic prowess, and I think “typical” people would get a lot out of it, too. As hard as it is for those “typical” people to produce a book, it has to have been much more difficult for Torreno; her labor in producing this work is to be applauded, because what she’s added to the literature on cerebral palsy is vital.