A good biography is like a dollhouse, the kind where you can swing open one side and see the rooms in a sort of cross-section. You can lean back and see how the thing works as a whole from top to bottom, or you can zoom in and marvel over how something as broad and messy as a human life has been replicated in such minute and perfect detail, but either way there’s something endlessly compelling there. Dustin Galer’s biography of Beryl Potter, Beryl: The Making of a Disability Activist, is exactly such a book.
Galer begins not with Potter’s birth, but with a near-deadly bout of rheumatic fever that she suffered as a toddler in 1926. It’s an engaging entry point to the story, and the first hint that Galer isn’t just offering a straight birth-to-death account, but is building a narrative – the fever, like Chekhov’s gun, will go off in a subsequent act.
From there, Galer gives a brief family history of Potter’s parents, Charles and Amy, a working-class couple in the booming city of Liverpool, England. Though their young family is expanding rapidly, Potter’s parents seem to be on an upward trajectory – that is, until the death of Charles Potter, the appearance of an unreliable stepfather, and a harsh economic downturn all combine to leave the family impoverished. Then comes the Second World War, during which Liverpool sustains heavy bombing by the Germans.
Though Beryl Potter marries soon after the war and, along with her husband and three young children, emigrates to Canada, her prospects don’t improve much. Her husband drinks away most of his paycheques and has a tendency to become violent. Potter is able to find a job, but is plagued by health problems. In 1965, an accident at the Toronto bakery where she works, combined with the lingering effects of that long-ago fever on her heart and venous system, leave her a triple amputee with an addiction to painkillers.
And yet, it’s through that accident and its aftermath that Potter finds a new purpose in life. After going through a depressive period in the years immediately after her amputations, she credits a Baptist pastor with giving her a new perspective on her life, one that leads her to begin engaging with the local disability community. Her first bit of activism is in raising funds for disability programming in Scarborough, Ontario, which led to the founding of the Scarborough Recreation Club for Disabled Adults. Potter’s children are agog at the change in their mother; before her accident, she was a shy woman with few friends, while after it, she becomes an activist to be reckoned with. The majority of Galer’s book details the successes, struggles, and moments of triumph in Potter’s journey, over several decades, to make Canada a more equitable place. He also looks at some of the criticism she faced from fellow activists – many of whom were several decades younger – who viewed her tactics as being out of date. All in all, it’s an even-handed, well-rounded portrait.
Galer is a skilful biographer, not just in terms of the breadth of information he includes, but also in the vivid way he presents Potter’s life and the issues she advocated for. There isn’t one single passage in this book that drags or feels dull. Potter’s activism may have happened more than 30 years ago, but Galer’s writing gives it the immediacy and urgency that it deserves, especially as conversations about disability become increasingly mainstream. On top of all of that, it would simply be a shame if Beryl Potter’s story was ever forgotten. Fortunately, Dustin Galer has made sure that a new generation of activists will know her name.