by Sally Rosenberg
My immediate inspiration for writing INVINCIBLE in the winter of 2000 was the 5 year old Kessler twins, Isabel and Olivia, daughters of my wonderful friends from law school, Lewis and Tamara Kessler. Isabel was born with cerebral palsy* and Olivia was not. At the time the family was traveling to Poland for month long stints at an unique (at the time) physical therapy program where Isabel demonstrated her fierce determination to break through assumed limits.
For me, the girls modeled how the able-bodied and disabled can enhance and nourish one another’s lives. I was driven to write a piece of popular fiction that would bridge differences by creating characters whom children would want to befriend. I wanted to shift focus from limits to possibilities. To challenge fear. And to remind us that we each face disabilities, some visible, some not.
Since writing the story over two decades ago, I have come to realize that I rewrote and reimagined my late aunt’s life.
My family’s rhythms largely revolved around my Dad’s sister, Gertrude, whom we all called Missy. She had a degenerative condition called post-encephalitic syndrome** and used a wheelchair. She lived with my grandmother in an apartment two blocks from ours. We spent a lot of time there. My predominant experience of Missy was of an isolated, disconnected and unhappy person.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up, the world outside my grandmother’s apartment was not accessible to Missy. I remember how involved it was to take her anywhere, so mostly she stayed home. My grandmother, I know, made the benevolent choice at the time not to institutionalize my aunt. There were no programs available for Missy to socialize or participate in the world outside my grandmother’s apartment. My family and my grandmothers’ friends who came to visit were my aunt’s only stimulus. Her disease had a profound impact on her mood, but, no doubt, so too did her seclusion.
I am so grateful that in 2020, 37 years after Missy’s death, that inclusion and accessibility are now concerted movements. My sincere hope is that INVINCIBLE, the book and the musical, contributes to our forward motion on these fronts, including in making theatre venues more accessible both for artists and audiences. And that the story fortifies people to live their fullest lives.
*Cerebral palsy (CP) is a neuromuscular condition that usually onsets at birth. When someone has CP, messages from the brain to the muscles can get scrambled. Although people with CP know what they want their muscles to do, the muscles won’t respond as intended because the instructions their movement doesn’t arrive properly. The severity of impairment can vary dramatically from person to person.
** Post-encephalitic syndrome is a disease believed to be caused by a viral illness that triggers degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.