Book review

Friday, December 31, 2004

As an angry young man, David T. Williams used to harangue the paratransit bus operator when his wheelchair-accessible bus was late. Visiting friends, he smoldered over the placement of furniture that hindered his wheelchair. He took offense with strangers who held the door for a young father of two.

“My anger knew no bounds and the targets of my anger included family, friends and strangers. I was not a fun guy to be around,” Williams writes in his affecting first book, Battling the Beast: Success in Living With Adversity.

The eponymous beast is the chronic progressive multiple sclerosis that wrestled him into a wheelchair at the age of 28. The book is part memoir and part inspiration, as far as genres go, and peppered with aphorisms from Ecclesiastes to Kermit the Frog to Invacare’s Pat Nally.

Published by the Cleveland Clinic Press, Battling the Beast takes off chronologically from the onset of William’s disease and progresses through the heartbreaking erosion of functionality. Williams, who retired last year as Invacare’s director of government affairs, doesn’t shrink from the gory revelations of life with his atypical brand of MS.

The pain “feels like a bad sunburn that starts at the soles of my feet and moves up my body to the top of my head. On a scale of one to 10, it can reach 15! It can be so intense that I can hardly stand the weight of my clothes or the brush of a gentle breeze,” he writes.

An implanted drug pump is anti-dote to some of this pain, but the trials are seemingly endless - the urostomy, the CPAP he wears every night, the hour or two it takes to get dressed every morning and a brush with death that was so close an intern told his family that he was not likely to make it through the night.

While these graphic renderings of life as a person with a disability

(a phrase that Williams helped coin, by the way) do make us see and make us feel, as Joseph Conrad once described the task of a writer, the point of it all is not to provide testimony to the difficulty of living with the disability but to earn the right to stand at a bully pulpit from which he can share a few “lessons about life.”

Battling the Beast is eloquent testimony to the examined life and adversity overcome. Gradually, as Williams points his bow into the headwind of each new challenge and accepts “the new package,” as he and his wife, Fran, have come to call new limitations, the book shimmers with optimism.

There are those two roads that divide in a yellow wood, and Williams had to take a wheelchair down one of them, but by the time you get to the end of the book you’re not sure whether that’s made much difference. Stalked but never trapped, one can’t quite be sure who’s the hunter and who’s the quarry in this marvelous evocation of fortitude and perseverance.

To buy a copy of BtB, contact the Cleveland Clinic Press by phone (216-444-2315) or e-mail (