Jennifer Bartlett

Limits/ are what any of us / are inside: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner
Chapter 14 Berkeley/Independent Living*

In August 1978, when Larry Eigner left his parents' home, the groundwork for a different life was set. After much argument, Bessie reluctantly allowed her eldest son to move west. Robert Grenier recalls, "When Larry's father died it became impossible for Bessie to sustain the circumstance. At that point his brother, Richard, took over, but it would have been impossible for him to live with Bev and Richard." Once in Berkeley, Richard became the poet's legal conservator, and it was his intention that his brother become as independent as possible.

In 1962, the Independent Living Movement began when Edward Roberts applied to the University of California at Berkeley. Roberts was rejected by the Dean who told him, "We have tried cripples before and it didn't work." In addition to non-accessible classrooms and libraries, a roadblock for Roberts was the lack of a dormitory that could support the iron lung he slept in as treatment for polio. The attitude of the time was best expressed by UC Berkeley professor and poet Josephine Miles who thought of the inaccessible campus as "simply not being built for me." Miles, who had acute rheumatoid arthritis, dealt with the issue of mobility by being carried from location to location by assistants rather than use a wheelchair.

With Roberts persisting the school ultimately agreed to let him reside on the third floor of Crowell Hospital and enlist fellow students to help him get around campus. He joined others to form "The Rolling Quads." In 1968, when the Quads faced eviction, they organized a revolt that led to the creation of curb cuts and other accessibility -- on and off campus. Out of this came the first Center for Independent Living (CIL). The basis of the CIL was to provide people with disabilities complete control over where and how they wanted to live. Previously, people with disabilities had been resigned to live their lives in institutions or, in rare cases such as Eigner's, were provided for by their families; neither was a proactive choice.

Instituted in 1972, the Center for Independent Living was run by people with disabilities who had control over their choice of caretakers and where they would live. The founding of the CIL coincided with Judy Heumann's civil rights struggle in New York City. In 1970, Heumann, who had had polio as a child, was denied a license to teach in New York City Public Schools despite passing the oral and written tests. When she flunked the medical exam, Heumann sued the Department of Education with a discrimination charge, and the case was settled in the defendant's favor.

If these events crossed the Eigner's path in his copious reading and attention to news, he did not mention it in letters. However, the disability rights movement and CIL were not unknown to Richard and Beverly Eigner. It was with the expectation that they would take over the poet's care that Richard and Beverly moved to Berkeley.

This was the environment that Larry Eigner moved into when he arrived in the West. Richard encouraged his brother to settle in a group home. Eigner, however, who had described his life as "the longest childhood ever," was recalcitrant toward the independence that Richard and Beverly encouraged.

In September 1978, Eigner wrote to Cid Corman:

Well Thursday morn it became real definite. From Sept 1 on I'll be in a commune for handicapped in "Cornerstone House" at La Loma and Ridge Road, a wood 3-story 13 mostly c…palsied, 6 there now, the one moving out frm dwstrs rm I'll be in /near the Berkeley campus- this place 1st hrd of frm Rch a wk ago.

Throughout letters, Eigner describes his housemates and attendants and his frustrations with them. The house was an environment of endless drama with a consistently loud, party atmosphere and a list of rotating attendants and residents. The house, owned by a woman with cerebral palsy, had "rooming students as well as being a commune for 'crips.'" He described to Corman the "radio, lights on, smoking pot and hash, doing jigs, going around '.everyone on the town, wow!" He laments to his mother, "The phone's been disconnected again, 2nd time this year'One remark was that one of the attendants charges her [his housemate Adele] when he reads to her."

He described many of the residents' problems to his mother:

Michael is here from Boston…Goes tall on knees or pushes around in a wheelchair…When he walks on his somehow bad feet, he gets a fever, sometimes anyway. He says he got the trouble from overdoses of Thorazine administrated in a mental institution where his "step-father" put him to shut him up…is still gay. A speechless boyfriend in an electric wheelchair about to move in with him, in a larger room.

Cornerstone House functioned on a concept of democracy amongst residents. Eigner wrote to Bessie that there were 14 residents and the house functioned as a commune voting on policies concerning "neatness, routine, and privacy." The noise level was a particular problem for the poet. He lamented about people leaving television sets running full volume. He didn't get along with many of the people he lived with and relationships were often strained. He wrote to Bessie:

A new man here, who's having problems, going through a divorce anyway, lashes out with tongue if any of us in whchrs says a word to him or otherwise inadvertently bother him and he's been offensive at times to the attendants, rude.

Growing up in a silent, sheltered environment, the poet could not suffer the noise. Robert Grenier recalled, "he'd never had to deal with/tolerate/'understand' other people's habits, sharing a house w/ anyone but his typically silent parents)." Corman suggested, "You sound like your living in the center of a 3-ring circus' it don't sound like the porch in Swampscott." The poems of this time reflect the chaotic environment:

           however brief
           gap lightening
            meaning goes
            into the air

            like new yrs eve
            all year through
            there's a typewriter sound
            what of the day
            reflection of letters
            and frustration with the noise

Eigner relayed to his mother that he often was not properly cared for:

At the end of the first yr here, it's not very bad, it's tolerable, bad so-so, right now anyway but all the same wild enough, the help at unpredictable times cranky and rather domineering. Like, Saturday ten days ago, on the phone Bvrly invited me to "The Renaissance Faire" …I asked Keith, who was right there, if I cd get up in time and Keith sd sure, but then it turned out Kth wdnt be home Monday morn and I cdnt get Bobby to agree to get me up by 9:30; so Rch came and got me up, observing and cutting my toenails, as he sd he wd Sunday when I phoned to say ok for me to stay home if I cldnt get up by 9:30.

He continued:

This guy who's been here sundry times since the palsied proprietress (49 years old) responding to his lonelyhts as in early or mid June (she's wanting to retire, she's said a couple of times, get man to lean on…got [a] 26-yr-old to agree to be manager if and when she lives elsewhere) …A minute or two later I back into the hallway, headed for living room to make a phone call and see him [the new manager] right there say, surprised, Boy! I didn't see you here." He said, "Larry, get out of there. I don't want to hear a word from you! I've got my own problems." 3rd such incident. Well, last Sat. night I heard I'm not the only one after all, 26-yr-old said he's spoken hard words to himself and others.

And, like, disco again this morning, and I just got lectured for not getting girl next door a birthday present a card…saying it's a disgrace and he's ashamed of me. (Ha! I'll be 52 myself in 9 more days).

Also present, was his ever difficult relationship with physical therapy. Due to Richard and Beverly's insistence, therapy became more involved after his move:

The UC gym was not open, but a wk later…, and getting down there on the mat I found it better than any rug I've bn on (just the bedroom and lvgroom rugs on Bates, maybe) no hurt at all in my knees and besides going around on my fours more easily than anyone before, as I'd been doing it these past months and yrs, I lifted up hips above knees, foot much easily than I'd done on a rug or of crs in bed, on mattress. Quite a surprise!

Despite the difficulties at "Cornerstone House," the poet was able to interact with people in a way that he hadn't before -- with both housemates and visitors. He formed a bond with Adele and related to his mother, "I've been regaling Adele, talking, reciting, and reading to her." He told his mother about meeting new people on the way to therapy:

So, Wednesday I rode over, with a paraplegic the driver had already picked up, who's majored in polit…science at UC Berkeley…the way back I learned for instance he watches the McNeil Lehrer reports as I do'

For awhile, he was involved in a writing group for people with disabilities "Creative Expression Workshop' my first trip there to talk/read by invitation." A steady stream of poets began to visit and invite him to events: "Ron Silliman here Sunday invited me to read at the end of Oct'Grenier was here with Lyn [Hejinian] and Kit Robinson." Particularly his interaction with Robert Grenier brought him into the poetry world in a way that had previously been limited to correspondence. He told his mother, "I've been asked to read together with a guy now dwelling above Grenier [Norm Fischer], Aug 29'364 days after I came here. Another anniversary, wow!"

Kathleen Frumkin, poet, and partner of Robert Grenier, was one of the regular visitors to the house:

Past few month I've had more or less of a secretary desultory engh in this freelance miscellaneous willy-nilly life what we do we figure as we go along, mostly we gab, a few hours a wk. Friend of Bob Grenier's, lively. She came along with us here 2-3 wks ago to Angel Island one day, she and her 7-year-old son. I drove around pretty well on the ferryboat, sf wharf, and on the isle, road in a couple of stretches two ways.

Frumkin described the process of adjusting to Eigner's speech:

When I first went up there, I couldn't understand a word he said. It was just this wash of sound, physics of sound. And I had never really been in this situation where I had to really pay this close attention to someone. The first week I was struggling to understand him, and he talked non-stop. It was like learning a new language. After about two weeks, I was only half listening and all the sudden he came in the track. In an instant, it all came together. And then it was fine. It was as if someone had taken regular speech and slowed it way down on tape.

Frumkin recalled coming to the house on La Loma to sort out the poet's complicated filing system:

Copies (from which I have now compiled abt 100 pieces, and Grenier is now at his place looking em over and adding to them, seeing what he thinks shd really reach thousands, and after I arrange he'll retype, and yesterday an editor was here and asked for a few things for his new mag to be out in July or so, so I gave him some of the spare copies, they were at hand and he was willing to use things already in books.

In many aspects, the experiment in independence was a difficult, somewhat unsuccessful one. On January 6, 1978 Eigner told his mother "electric wheelchair arrived fifteen days ago." This electric chair was his first. But, things with the chair weren't so easy. He had an accident on campus and described, "legging myself up with the help up and back with the help of a cop and a passerby." He complained, "It won't fold and the batteries, a big job to move, make it too heavy to lift. We agreed, too, it's not so good for around the house. For instance, I can push backward with my feet, but not forward, it's soo hvy, and my hand is kept rather busy driving."

Neither the Center for Independent Living nor the Cerebral Palsy Association had the facilities that the Eigner's hoped. Beverly remembers that, in general, the disability culture was a mismatch for her brother-in-law. She recalled:

We thought it would be a good resource for Larry when he came out here, but it didn't work out that way. Perhaps The Center was too early in its evolution but it didn't really help us at all. Actually, it was negative because on two occasions: I brought him into a socialization group, and they said Larry was too spoiled. I took him to the Cerebral Palsy Association, and Larry told them all he could do and that he didn't need any help.

In a letter to his mother, Eigner expressed his resistance to United Cerebral Palsy in reaction to a postcard the organization sent offering to take over his care:

Some man maybe in nyc who started or was about to start up a place for his cp kid and others writing you of the possibility (or probability?) brothers or sisters might sometime be unwilling let alone unable to provide for L and your figuring he had mch nerve.

Eigner's reaction to UCP was likely derived from growing up the era of the first telethon. Starting in 1950, the United Cerebral Palsy Telethon, hosted by television personality Dennis James, relied heavily on pity to get donations; children with CP walked across stage using crutches and being pushed in wheelchairs singing:

Look at us, we're walking!
Look at us, we're talking!
We who've never walked or talked before
Look at us, we're laughing.
We're happy and we're laughing.
Thank you from our hearts, forever more.


*Authors Note: This piece is a work in progress; please forgive any errors. Research for this chapter derives from interviews with Robert Grenier, Kathleen Frumkin, Beverly Eigner, and Richard Eigner. Additional sources are letters from Larry Eigner to Bessie Eigner and Cid Corman [used with the permission of the Eigner estate}, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement by and Joseph Shapiro.
A big thank you to Anne Garner, the best librarian, ever.