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Still me

Still Me
by Christopher Reeve

Random House, $25

Review by L.D. Meagher

May 28, 1998
Web posted at: 1:17 p.m. EST (1817 GMT)
(CNN) -- Actor Christopher Reeve begins the story of his life at the moment it almost ended. On Memorial Day weekend 1995, Reeve, an accomplished equestrian, was competing with his horse Buck in an event at Culpepper, Virginia. One moment, horse and rider were moving smoothly along the jumping course. The next moment, Reeve was flying through the air, tangled in the horses bridle, and crashing headfirst into the jump. Everything about his life changed in that blink of an eye.

"Still Me" is not a typical celebrity autobiography. Reeve weaves the tale of his life on the stage and in movies with his life since his accident. The contrast is chilling. Once he stood on a bare stage, trying to hide his nervousness by telling Katherine Hepburn his grandmother had attended college with her. (The response: "Oh, Bea. I never could stand her.") Years later, he sat on a stage at the Academy Awards, and tried to hide his nervousness by joking, "I left New York last September, and I just got here this morning."

There was a time when it seemed Christopher Reeve led a charmed life. He was the modern incarnation of the ultimate super-hero in two hugely successful films. He was living with a beautiful woman, with whom he had two children. He was a movie star who actually looked the part: tall, strong, and classically handsome. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us to learn he was not particularly happy. Many stars in his position have been known to be frustrated. Like Steve Reeves before him, Reeve was becoming typecast as an action-adventure hero. But he really wanted to be an actor.

It's a common lament among movie stars. But Reeve was different in one important respect: he was trained as an actor. Dating back to his days at Princeton Day School, Reeve had been drawn to the stage. He worked summer stock and studied theater at Cornell. He attended Julliard. His credentials as an actor were solid. So he held out for roles that challenged him. That's why the Superman movies weren't followed by a string of big-budget action extravaganzas bearing his name. Instead, he returned to the stage, and did smaller movies, and smaller parts in movies that he felt challenged his talents. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the same fellow who saved the world in blue tights is also the brash American congressman in "Remains of the Day".

Christopher Reeve on Larry King Live!

Reeve tells stories about his acting days in counterpoint to stories about the life he's living today. The whole world knew about his accident. Far fewer people knew about the many times he has been hospitalized since then, for ailments ranging from lung infections to a broken arm. The whole world saw him on the stage at the Academy Awards, speaking bravely from his wheelchair to his peers in Hollywood. Far fewer people have seen him sitting in the same chair, on the deck of his home watching his young son play soccer, and fervently wishing he could join the game.

"Still Me" is a book about disabilities, and abilities. Not all of Reeves disabilities are physical. He bears deep emotional scars from the divorce of his parents when he and his brother were very young. He frankly discusses how the experience gave him a deep-seated aversion to marriage, which he didn't overcome until six years ago, when he and singer Dana Morosini were wed. He had parent issues growing up; in some ways he still does. Shortly after his accident, his mother insisted the doctors remove him from life support. Of course she didn't want me to die, he writes, but she simply could not stand the thought of my living in such a terrible condition. She knew what an active life I'd always led -- that for me being active and being alive were the same thing.

As he overcame some of his emotional burdens to build a family of his own, Reeve is also overcoming some of the physical burdens that are the legacy of the accident. The challenges are daunting. He can't move a muscle below his shoulders, and can't breathe without a ventilator. It takes hours and at least two people to get him out of bed in the morning, and at least that much time and energy to get him ready for bed at night. When he makes a public appearance, he travels with a small army that makes sure he can get in and out of buildings, as well as in and out of bed. He could just as easily stay in his New England country home and let the world turn without him. But he doesn't. He has become an active and outspoken advocate for the disabled, particularly those with spinal cord injuries like his own. And he has launched a second career in films, as a director. His first effort, "In the Gloaming", was a critical success, and he was nominated for an Emmy award.

"Still Me" is a terrifying book, and a hopeful one. Reeve doesn't try to milk sympathy from his life. He doesn't have to. If anything, he understates the pain, physical and emotional, that infuses his life. He repeatedly credits his wife and son with giving him inspiration, and he credits a phalanx of doctors and researchers with giving him the hope that one day he will walk again.

There are two photographs on the jacket of the book. On the front, Reeve sits in his wheelchair, facing away from the camera, looking out onto the rolling countryside that surrounds his home. On the back, there is the Christopher Reeve who charmed the world: the young, strong, handsome movie star who made us believe a man could fly. The message of the pictures is the same as the message of the book. Reeve is telling us, it's still me.

L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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