What a Relief

The following letter is typical of many like it. It expresses the overwhelming relief when, often after many years, someone finds they are not alone in being a legbrace devotee or wannabe. To avoid embarrassment I have altered some of the names and details slightly.

First, some biographical detail, so that you can see how I fit into the categories in the poll survey.  I'm a 59-year old male, Caucasian (Anglo-Saxon, actually), a graduate professional, retired, happily married for 38 years, with 3 grown-up children.  I've never been in a personal relationship with a brace-user, probably because the opportunity has never arisen.  I would say that my primary interest is in brace-users and only secondly in amputees, though the latter interest is also quite strong.  There is a strong wannabe element for both these conditions.

Several years ago I told my wife of my lifelong interest in and fascination with people wearing legbraces, but I don't think she had any real idea of how strong the urge had become to wear a brace.  For the past six years I've been wearing orthopaedic-type boots on most occasions, saying I prefer them to shoes for their comfort and ankle support.  But this only goes a little way towards satisfying my longing to wear proper legbraces.

April 2001 was a milestone month for me.  First, I found the courage to tell my wife that I had actually made a sort of legbrace (from metal rods and scrap leather) and wanted to wear it in the privacy of our bedroom.  What I feared most was that she would recoil from something she might regard as too deviant, too sick, and thus also from me.  I need not have worried.  Her lovely nature and the strength of our relationship resulted in her showing the greatest understanding and acceptance.  This was an indescribable relief, and led directly to the second important event.

As we were now openly discussing this strange fascination of mine, it occurred to me to use the internet to see whether there was any information about it, whether it was a known and described condition.  And so I found your website.  My reaction is the same as you've had from so many others: an amazing sense of liberation from a feeling of being alone with a shameful secret.  It's difficult to exaggerate that sense of relief.  I read the "Threads" page and ticked off item after item which exactly reflected my own experience over sixty years -- especially the early onset, the photographic memories of sightings, the increasing strength of the urge as time goes on, the feelings of shame and fear of discovery.

When I try to account for my being a devotee/wannabe, all I can do is recall certain incidents from my childhood which may be relevant.  I think my very first sighting must have been at the age of 3 or 4.  My parents had taken me to the zoo, where one of the attractions for children was a ride on the resident Indian elephant, Nellie.  Six children sat in a special seat, three and three, back-to-back.  My parents thought I would like the ride, and bought a ticket.  But when it came to actually climbing up the wooden steps and sitting 8 or 9 feet above the ground on a huge animal's back, I was overcome with fear and refused to go.  Coaxing had no effect.  I wailed and cried until my parents gave up the attempt.  I suppose they got a refund, but I didn't know that, and I remember feeling bad because they had spent money on me and I had somehow let them down.  Now comes the interesting part: my place on the elephant was taken, with no fuss at all,  by a little boy of about my own age who was wearing braces on both legs. (I didn't know what they were -- I just had the impression of leather straps criss-crossed up his legs.)  He was lifted to the top of the mounting platform, took his seat, and off went Nellie with her full load.  I was left in fear, shame and guilt.  So much for my first remembered encounter with anyone in legbraces.

About the same time, on a day trip to the seaside in the family's Baby Ford, I recall with absolute clarity that my father had to slow down to let three boys cross the road in front of us.  One of them was wearing a legbrace and a boot built up quite high to compensate for a short leg.  It wasn't a solid sole, but seemed to be a sort of open frame or platform under the boot.

At about that age, I recall a train journey with my mother, who got talking to a woman sitting opposite. One of the topics of conversation was a little crippled boy known to the other woman, and how he coped with his disability.  Despite wearing "cripple boots and irons" (I suppose that was the current popular terminology in the 1930s) and walking with crutches, he was "very good", "no trouble at all" and amused himself playing alone in the garden for hours on end.

When I was about 9, at our Wolf Cub pack meeting one evening Richard H. announced to everyone that our fellow-Cub John F. "had infantile paralysis". (The word "polio" wasn't yet in general use.) After an absence of a month or so, John F. reappeared at Cub meetings with his right leg in a brace, and with a characteristic plunging gait.  He managed to take part in the pack activities that didn't involve running or jumping, but when we sat cross-legged on the floor for a game or a story, he would sit down and get up rather clumsily with his stiff leg. It seems that legbraces with unlocking knee joints weren't much in use then.  I remember being amazed to think that his leg would have to be kept stiff and straight all day, from getting dressed in the morning until bedtime.

By that time in my life the fascination was firmly entrenched. Sightings were disturbing yet pleasant experiences, and minutely remembered.  In adolescence the most exciting sexual fantasies and dreams involved myself as a disabled person, in legbraces, enjoying the attention and pity of others.  (I knew even then, of course, that real PWDs usually dislike or resent this kind of attention.)  In parallel with this, the ordinary romantic life of a teenager developed, but I was never in the position of going out with a disabled girl.

Though the fascination was always there, the preoccupations of courtship, marriage and fatherhood seemed for a time to make it less insistent.  However, as many of your respondents have indicated, it simply doesn't diminish or go away, and in my sixties I found myself as disturbed, fascinated, even tormented by the same feelings I had when I was fourteen.  As I have now openly acknowledged it all (at least to my wife) I intend somehow or other to get some proper legbraces, so that after all these years I can really experience what it feels like to wear them.

A comment on one aspect of your respondents' feedback on the website: I suppose we've all had the thought that if we really were disabled and were compelled to wear legbraces for mobility, it would be a very different situation, and the fascination might disappear once and for all.  It doesn't take much to imagine the inconvenience, discomfort and frustration suffered by physically disabled people wearing legbraces.  It was interesting therefore to read that one devotee who had to start wearing braces in his late twenties found that his fascination did not diminish in the new situation.  Perhaps this was because his condition (loose-unstable joints) didn't involve serious loss of function, as in paralysis, and therefore there wouldn't be the same laborious physical effort involved in walking. I tend to agree with the respondent who thinks that "... if [he] spent much time close to the mundane reality of disability and braces and such like, the attraction would rapidly evaporate."  It would be very interesting to get the evidence of more wannabes who actually became PWDs and were forced by serious loss of muscle function to become legbrace wearers.  There must be a number of them.

Finally, I would like to know how different people cope with and live with the wannabe condition in their everyday lives.  How can one give expression to it (as one feels compelled to do) in a community where one is known to be ablebodied, without causing widespread amazement, amusement, aversion, incomprehension?

If all this has been a bit long-winded and boring, I apologise.