Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity

by Jerry Waxler

My brother had a curved spine with the fancy name “scoliosis.” So I knew that Linda Wisniewski’s memoir, “Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” would have something to do with posture. However, after reading it I wondered if posture played a central enough role in the story to warrant a position in the title. It’s true that when she was diagnosed with this problem, it made her feel like she had a defect, like there was something diminished in her character. Was that enough?

I kept thinking about Linda’s posture, and how it might have affected her life, and soon noticed that my first impression of people was influenced by how straight they stood. This observation provided an insight into something I might have known earlier if I had thought about it, but I didn’t. These signals we send and receive are nonverbal, without words. And therefore, we may find ourselves affected by such things, without necessarily thinking them through. It was only by reading the memoir that I began to wonder what such an experience might feel like.

After thinking about it, it was easy to see for myself that the charisma of a person can be affected by their posture, but what about their self-image? Recently I came across a fascinating observation from an analysis of the ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. In a lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” Professor Arnold Weinstein recites the famous riddle of the Sphinx. “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” The answer is “humans.” Professor Weinstein points out that the riddle is not about legs. It’s about posture. As children, we crawl. To join the world of adults, we stand up. As we grow old, we stoop, using the cane to remain as upright as possible. Humans equate dignity with an upright spine, and when standing up is hard, we try harder.

Another suggestion about posture came from Martin Luther King’s autobiography, which was posthumously crafted from his notes and speeches by Clayborne Carson. King exhorted people to maintain their dignity despite the crushing weight of prejudice and Jim Crow laws. He said, “No one can ride on your back if you stand up straight.”

Throughout the memoir “Off Kilter,” Linda Wisniewski does press forward to find her dignity in the midst of the many social and psychological issues facing women in the twentieth century. And so, while she does not quote Martin Luther King or Sophocles, her tale is definitely about the struggle to achieve dignity, providing personal echoes of this universal principle.

Memoir itself is a triumph of the human spirit

By showing how her curved spine affected her, she helped me think more deeply about this aspect of life. She helped me understand my brother’s condition. Even at his full six feet five, he was, in a sense, unable to stand up straight, and found his dignity in other ways, through serving and healing people. She helped me understand the struggles of the women of the twentieth century, who strived to find their dignity despite old roles that encouraged them to be submissive. And she helped me realize the importance of posture as a general symbol for human dignity.

While nothing could straighten out the curvature of her spine, Linda’s effort has elevated her stature in a different way. She shared a story, and that act creates a dignified connection between us that transcends the shape of her spine. By teasing, tweaking, and perfecting the narrative of her life journey, she has become a woman who stands tall despite the forces of age, culture, and gravity.

Story behind the book

The history behind Linda’s title might reveal something of its sweeping implications. Before she wrote the book, she wrote an essay about her scoliosis that attracted the attention of author Maureen Murdock who praised Linda’s story and encouraged her to extend it. Since Maureen Murdock is famous for her interest in symbolism, perhaps her guidance contributed to the deeper meaning conveyed in Linda Wisniewski’s memoir.


For more about Linda Wisniewski, her memoir and for buying options, visit her home page.

I recommend the audio version of a book about Martin Luther King’s life, “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson assembled from King’s letters, notes and speeches.  I listened to the version from audible.com which includes original recordings of many of his speeches.

To learn more about Maureen Murdock’s work, visit her home page.

Visit the Teaching Company for lectures about literature, philosophy, and other topics of value to memoir writers. For the lecture series mentioned in this essay see: “Understanding Literature and Life” by Professor Arnold Weinstein.