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The Life-Changing Illness of the Extraordinary Katharine Butler Hathaway

by Kalinda Rose Stevenson

Being Open to Change

A person needs at intervals to separate himself
from family and companions
and go to new places.
He must go without his familiars
in order to be open to influences, to change.
Katharine Butler Hathaway
Katharine Butler Hathaway was an extraordinary woman who was afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine as a child. Her response to her life-changing illness was about being open to change.
Katharine Butler Hathaway

Katharine Butler Hathaway

Katharine Butler Hathaway was born in 1890 to an affluent Massachusetts family. She was afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine as a child, and spent her entire childhood confined to her bedroom, pinned down to a board (with her head and neck held in place by weights.) It was the hope of her doctors that this restriction would cause her spine to grow straight. But the treatment didn't work, and she was left both stunted and hunchbacked, never growing past the height of a ten year old child.
But what did happen in those isolated years of stillness and restriction was the evolution of a most extraordinary mind and imagination. Staggeringly, Hathaway tells the tale here of a happy childhood — one rich with limitless invention. Later, when she leaves her small room and enters the world, she suffers humiliation and isolation, but in the middle of her life she embarks on a brave and fantastic story: She buys a giant house, and (despite the approbation of her family and community) moves into it alone, in order to become an autonomous artist at last (Elizabeth Gilbert).
She was an extraordinary woman who said this about being open to change:

A person needs at intervals to separate himself from family and companions and go to new places. He must go without his familiars in order to be open to influences, to change. 

The Little Locksmith: A Memoir

The Little Locksmith begins in 1895 when a specialist straps five-year-old Katharine, then suffering from spinal tuberculosis, to a board with halters and pulleys in a failed attempt to prevent her being a "hunchback." Her mother says that she should be thankful that her parents are able to have her cared for by a famous surgeon; otherwise, she would grow up to be like the "little locksmith," who does jobs at their home; he has a "strange, awful peak in his back." Forced to endure "a horizontal life of night and day," Katharine remains immobile until age fifteen, only to find that she, too, has a hunched back and is "no larger than a ten-year-old child."

The Little Locksmith charts Katharine's struggle to transcend physical limitations and embrace her life, her body, and herself in the midst of debilitating bouts of frustration and shame. Her spirit and courage prevail, and she succeeds in expanding her world far beyond the boundaries prescribed by her family and society: she attends Radcliffe College, forms deep friendships, begins to write, and in 1921, purchases a house of her own in Castine, Maine. There she creates her home, room by room, fashioning it as a space for guests, lovers, and artists. The Little Locksmith stands as a testimony to Katharine's aspirations and desires — for independence, for love, and for the pursuit of her art. 

Reviews

The reviews of her book are a testament to her determination to live a full life despite her deformity.

"Rediscovered by The Feminist Press, this remarkably un-self-pitying book remains poignant and truthful. Hathaway's descriptions of the writing process are beautiful and on the mark. Hathaway treats the actual events in her life as practically irrelevant: the story she emphasizes is her spiritual and creative struggle to claim "selfish" time to write, her intense loneliness, her startlingly frank observations about her sexuality and her rebellion against the belief that an imperfect person does not experience desire." — Publishers Weekly

[Original Post August 8, 2014]

What are your thoughts about openness to change? Please leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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