When last we saw Deenie, she was convinced that she was going to have an operation to correct the curvature of her spine, despite her mother’s shrill angst at the thought of her beautiful daughter going under the knife and becoming “crippled.” She also got to hold hands with her crush, Buddy, at the movies, and her girlfriends bought her the most beautiful nightgown $12.50 could buy. What happens next?
Deenie’s nervous, because the scoliosis doctor has a big, fancy office in New York City. We’re movin’ on up! To the big time! Daddy takes the day off to go to this very important appointment in the Big Apple. The reader will recall that the last time Deenie was there was for a modelling audition, and was turned down because there was something strange about the way she moved. Oh, if only she just had bad posture, rather than a spinal deformity!
The fancy scoliosis doctor looks exactly like Mr. Clean – and he’s the best of the best, which is nerve-wracking if you know anything about the US medical system. Doctor’s bills ahoy! For now, we are all just worried about Deenie’s condition. The shiny-bald doctor explains to Ma that no, Cousin Belle’s slipped disc doesn’t mean that Deenie has inherited some terrible spinal genetics from Daddy’s side of the family; this kind of scoliosis is idiopathic, which means no known cause. In fact, the doctor says, “It could be just as likely from your family as your husband’s. We’ll probably never know.” IN YOUR FACE, MA.
Deenie tells the doctor she wants to get fixed up as soon as possible, so let’s get on with the operation, please! The doctor patiently explains that an operation is rife with complications and would entail her being in recovery for many months, so like it or not, she’s getting a Milwaukee brace. And it’s not a quick fix, either, because she’s going to be wearing it for four years.
NO. Ma will not have it. The doctor clearly doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation, which is that Deenie is going to be a model. She cannot spend her prime teen years in a brace! She just can’t. The doctor gets pretty riled up at this point, because who wouldn’t? Daddy calms everyone down, saying the important thing is to get Deenie’s spine all fixed up. Deenie is mentally preparing to never tell anyone about the brace, ever. She’s going to hide it under her clothes and no one will ever have to know.
The doctor gets up and opens a closet door. He brings out a pile of metal and plastic, which is a MILWAUKEE BRACE. And at that moment, Deenie’s hopes and dreams of no one knowing about her scoliosis go out the window. Everyone will know.
Did you wonder what, exactly, the brace looked like? I know I did; back when I first read this I assumed it was something like the torso of a storm trooper, when in actuality this is a Milwaukee brace:
And seriously. Do you remember what it was like to be in Grade Seven? It was terrible. Everyone is so insecure, everyone is just trying to fit in, everyone just wants to be well-liked and popular. If you were told, at the height being awash in hormones and insecurity, that you would need to wear that? Everyone WOULD know, because the torso part of the brace might be concealed by clothing, the neck support sure wouldn’t. There goes Deenie’s dream of never telling anyone about her brace and her scoliosis.
This should be subtitled “Everything You Wanted to Know About The Making of a Milwaukee Brace…But Were Afraid To Ask.” Deenie goes to the hospital to get a mold made for her brace, and there is a great deal of description about how it’s made. She wears two body stockings – because one will stick to the mold in the process and be ripped off her body – and they make a cast of her torso with what seems like papier mache, but with medical supplies. Deenie has to hold a bar above her head, the process is hot and uncomfortable, and the cast needs to be SAWED OFF HER BODY WITH A CHAINSAW. A chainsaw! It’s amazing she didn’t pee her body stocking, because it’s noted that she has the urge to go to the bathroom whenever she’s nervous and she just had a cast literally sawed off her body.
Sadly, Deenie is faced with the reality of her situation, and starts to withdraw from her friends for a while. She returns the pretty nightgown so her friends can get their money back, even though Janet and Midge think she should keep it as a birthday gift anyway. She doesn’t eat lunch with them anymore, instead going to the library to “catch up on missed work.” She’s cool to Buddy, who gets the idea that she’s not interested in him, although she is. She’s just sad! And she’s going to be The Girl In The Brace, instead of The Girl Who’s Going To Be A Teen Model. It’s a pretty big comedown, to be honest.
Meanwhile, things take an interesting turn in gym class; instead of Modern Dance, the class is going to have a “discussion group.” SEX ED, PEOPLE. Or, H.S., as it’s called in our school. They have a question box for those embarrassing teen problems, and Deenie’s is about masturbation: is it normal?
Slight digression: we had a question box in Grade Five, and I clearly remember someone had asked the question “What does it feel like to have an orgasm?” and our teacher, Mrs. Black, turned kind of red and described it as an “intense sort of feeling. Next question!” This was years before When Harry Met Sally came out, and so no one really knew what a good sandwich was like.
Anyway, Deenie’s masturbation question is chosen for discussion, and Susan Minton has things to say about it. She volunteers the information that boys who DO THAT can a) go blind, b) get acne, and c) become deformed. For a minute, Deenie almost passes out because SHE IS BECOMING DEFORMED AND IT’S ALL THE FAULT OF RUBBING HER “VELVET PILLOW.” So to speak.
The teacher dispels this notion quickly and all is well in Deenie’s world, until later that night, when she gets the phone call that her brace is ready and to bring larger-sized clothes, so that they fit over the brace. This is VERY upsetting to Deenie, who has new clothes she was saving for cooler weather, and thinks that buying a whole new wardrobe is a waste of money. Fortunately, she does have an older sister, who gives her a brand-new outfit that SHE was saving, saying that it would look better on Deenie anyway.
It’s really sweet, this portrayal of the relationship between Helen and Deenie. Although at first it seems like they have nothing to do with each other – maybe because of the Smart One versus the Pretty One labelling by their mother – you can see their relationship develop. I could really understand sibling rivalry, especially because of the inequitable treatment they receive, but the diagnosis seems to be bringing them together; big sister helping out little sister, little sister looking up to big sister. Maybe it’s because I don’t have sisters – although I do have an awesome sister-in-law – but this relationship just seems so lovely.
Deenie and her parents go to pick up her brace, and her mother immediately bursts into tears, sobbing noisily and saying “Oh my God, what did we ever do to deserve this?” Way to be supportive, Ma. That’s going to really help the self-esteem. Don’t mind me, I’m just going to sit here sobbing about how horrible this is for my beautiful deformed daughter.
The nice nurse shows Deenie how to put on and adjust her brace, and also recommends wearing an soft undershirt for comfort. Deenie says that she feels like she’s in a cage, and no undershirt is going to change that. NO THANK YOU ON THE UNDERSHIRT. Ah, we all need to feel like we are in control of something, don’t we? This is Deenie’s line in the sand, apparently.
Deenie says to the nurse that she doesn’t think she can do this; she cannot live with this brace. The nurse very calmly shows her the alternative; photos of uncorrected scoliosis cases. And there it is, the WTF moment when Deenie realizes that she could really be deformed by this, and she’s one degree of separation from the hunchbacked Old Lady Murray who sells gum at the bus stop.
In case you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some photos that would have Deenie convinced that maybe wearing the brace will pay off.
So Deenie has her brace on, and her parents are ready to take her home. Ma is putting on a fake-brave face, which is better than the crying game, and says it’s not bad at all! Why, you can hardly tell she’s wearing it! But when Deenie tries to get into the car she hits her head.
“I guess I’m okay,” I said. “I guess I just can’t bend my head with this brace on.” As soon as I said that, I started to cry. I cried the way I wanted to when I first saw the brace, loud and hard, until my throat hurt. Daddy didn’t try to stop me. He just held me tight while he rocked back and forth, patting my head.
Poor Deenie! How is she going to adapt to life as The Girl In The Brace? How will her friends react? Is she ever going to feel normal again? And will she ever sweatily hold Buddy’s hand ever again? Stay tuned!