Emily Rapp Black on Frida Kahlo, Disability, and the Myth of the Suffering Artist
This Week From the Big Table Podcast with JC Gabel
After seeing Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Two Fridas,” writer and professor Emily Rapp Black felt an intense connection with the famous Mexican artist—maybe one of the most recognized faces in the world.
Rapp Black has been an amputee since childhood. She grew up with a succession of prosthetic limbs, and learned to hide her disability from the world. Kahlo, too, was an amputee, having sustained lifelong injuries after a horrific bus crash during her teenage years, eventually leading to her right leg being amputated. In Kahlo’s life and art, Rapp Black saw her own life, from numerous operations to the compulsion to create pain silences.
Rapp Black—an award-winning memoirist—tells the story of losing her infant son to Tay-Sachs disease, giving birth to her healthy daughter, and learning to accept her body—and how along her path in life, Frida inspired her to find a way forward when all else seemed lost.
Frida is the subject of Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg (Notting Hill Editions, 2021), Rapp Black’s fourth and most recent book. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, where she also teaches medical narratives at the School of Medicine.
From the episode:
J.C. Gabel: I’ve always been interested in Frida Kahlo, but while reading your book, it really dawned on me that this was all in the first part of the 20th century, so we don’t have a lot of the modern medicine. Hence, the corset and being bedridden—the unbelievable circumstances she was put in in order to still create.
Emily Rapp Black: Although, when I went to go see her corsets and her early prosthetics, they were almost the same as mine.
JG: Yeah, at one point you bring in the Iraq War as an analogy in that, after that, the technology got to the point where you had a modern-day prosthetic. You weren’t using what was the industry standard for most of the 20th century.
ERB: It wasn’t even the industry standard. I think it was just for the people who couldn’t afford the expensive standard. My dad had to get an extra job to pay for my wooden leg, which looked just like hers with several modifications. We weren’t offered anything else because there was no one around. There was no internet, there was one doctor, and we lived in the rural West. So, even if there had been something available, I don’t think I would have had access to it.
JG: Living with something like this, you see why we need something like universal healthcare—because of the inequities that exist. I loved this quote where you said, “I do not believe that suffering was Frida’s main characteristic, because suffering does not create art; people do.”
ERB: Yeah, that’s a big pet peeve of mine. It’s analogous, if not a one-to-one comparison, with the idea of the suffering, brilliant artist. Not much comes out of pain except pain. Pain is just pain. It doesn’t inspire anything. What’s remarkable about Frida is that she didn’t allow her pain to be the only thing. When she was in pain, she was in pain. That was it. And then when she came out of it, in her periods of productivity, she was able to fashion something out of that crucible of pain.
It annoys me—it’s kind of like the emotional bootstrap myth: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Or, it just kills you! Or it breaks you, or makes you feel nutballs. It’s a stupid, stupid idea, and yet so much of how we respond to other people’s so-called tragedies is rooted in that.
JG: Beyond creative writing and being a literature person, you’re also now teaching in a medical school about what you’ve gone through, and the psychology and neurology of some of this stuff.
ERB: Yeah, I teach two different courses in the medical school. One is called “Death.” It’s like, welcome to death! I have a little hat. We can’t talk about death in this culture very easily. We don’t have the tools, and then it’s a big mess at the end. A lot of the training I did when my son was alive in hospice is stuff that I talk to doctors about. Doctors come in, fresh-faced—they look 12 to me—and are like, “That’s failing if you don’t fix it.” I’m like, “The human body is mortal.” It’s, on its own, not a fixable thing. It’s a vessel—it’s a sack of meat! What does that say? It says that medical stuff is heroic. We talk a lot about that, like the “overcomer syndrome.” In my course “Disability,” I often ask them, “What does that word convey to you?” Incapacity, the wheelchair sign—it’s not nuanced. We don’t know anything about disabled people in this culture except very extreme examples on TV.
JG: I have a disability as well that’s sort of invisible—I have fibromyalgia. I’ve found my most cathartic thing to do is to help other young people who are really unsure of themselves and feeling held back a bit. The thing has come to define them. For me, that’s my giveback. I haven’t sat in on your classes, but is teaching about this from firsthand conversations you had with doctors about your son a cathartic experience for you? You can impart some of this tragedy into wisdom for others.
ERB: I think so. What I like about teaching the medical students is, first of all, it’s a huge class. They all have to come, and they’re like, “Who is this deranged person on the stage?” It’s very performative; it’s like comedy hour at the medical school. They haven’t been trained by the system to think about these things. How are they going to take care of somebody who’s at a point in their journey of life where it’s about to end without freaking out? It’s not a way to go.
Also, I’ve gone through two of the “worst things,” which is what people say to me—not that there’s a ladder. I’m like, there are a lot worse things. Why are we ranking them? I’m still here, which is not nothing. People can survive a lot of different things, but eventually those people will die. Why can’t we talk about different bodies, non-normative experiences, and chronic illness instead of just saying to the person, “Oh, you need to eat better. You need to try harder. You need to work harder.” It’s this fallback into this dumb American Dream myth. You can’t push your way out of feeling fatigue. If Covid taught us anything, it’s that.
Big Table is a half-hour podcast about books and conversation told through interviews with authors conducted and curated by writer, editor, publisher and historian J.C. Gabel and a small cast of contributors, including Ray Bradbury biographer and scholar Sam Weller, London-based producer and creative director Dermot McPartland, and biographer, journalist, and punk professor Vivien Goldman. Editing by J.C. Gabel and Matteah Baim. Sound design by Matteah Baim. Engineering by Jacob Ross. Produced by Invisible Republic, Hat & Beard Press, Dub Lab, and Golddiggers.
Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, a New York Times bestseller and an Editors’ Pick. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Vogue; The New York Times; Time; The Wall Street Journal; O, The Oprah Magazine; and the Los Angeles Times. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and is the nonfiction editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Rapp is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, where she also teaches medical narratives in the university’s School of Medicine.