The Best Seat in the House

How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

By Allen Rucker

HarperCollins. 230 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Donna Fielder


Alan Rucker went from being an able-bodied person to a paraplegic in 90 minutes. The paralysis affected every sphere of his existence, from his work to going to the bathroom to his sex life.

He claims that his is not a book about being paralyzed, but rather about being "shook up." What is impressive is the scope of his coping skills. At times he wallows in self-pity, but they are appropriate and brief. Learning to live without use of half of his body was a daunting task, and Rucker has us wondering what we would do if that happened to us. It gets you thinking about all of the details a paraplegic has to confront on a daily basis: how to get up in the morning, how to wheel yourself from your car to the mall.

Rucker is a smart man, and he used his intelligence to understand what was happening and figure out problems. He walks the reader through his thinking and decision-making.

He is fiercely independent, and his independence proves both a blessing and a curse. It helps him get through the day and to survive, but also keeps him from seeking out other people who may be helpful. Rucker is also obstinate and determined, and his determination is what keeps him going - living life on his terms - when he would like to quit.

A successful writer in many media (from PBS's The American Experience to The Sopranos Cookbook), Rucker was sitting on his bed reading the New Yorker when he felt an intense burning pain. He had had an attack of transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal column. Doctors aren't sure how he contracted it, but they told him he would never recover.

He devotes an entire chapter to how his condition affected his family: It was particularly hard on his wife of 30 years, but they are still together.

Rucker has you laughing and crying at his exploits. He also does a good job advocating for the rights and needs of those with disabling conditions who must navigate a world that is not set up for them. Try being wheelchair-bound and taking an airplane, or riding a bus, or going for a wheelchair ride down your block. Rucker has you right in his head, and gets you thinking about how you might get around the house, or do your job, or get to the ice cream store. He takes you along for the ride, and you face the challenges with him. In so doing, Rucker helps the nondisabled understand better the plight of the wheelchair-bound person.

Rucker doesn't shrink from tackling some sensitive topics such as political correctness. What does it matter what we call him - a cripple, a handicapped person, a paraplegic? He gives the reader permission to be crass, but at the same time offers a good explanation for the need to be sensitive to how we speak: It has less to do with political correctness than just plain human kindness and respect.

There are times when you wonder where Rucker is going with his tale, but, for the most part, he does a fine job keeping the reader involved - both with his book and with his life.

Donna Fiedler is a professor of social work at La Salle University who studies and treats emotional trauma.