By Judy Wakefield
With an enormous, plastic back brace strapped around her torso, covering everything from just under her breasts to above her thighs, this 11-year-old Andover girl sought refuge from what she remembers as feelings of humiliation.
"The Andover Bookstore is where I went, where I would escape to," said Alyson Gerber, who was especially thrilled when the children's author Barbara Cooney visited and signed her book "Hattie and the Wild Waves."
"It meant so much to me...I was always there (at the Andover Bookstore)," said Gerber, who still has the treasured book.
Now 27 and living in Manhattan, she's a writer herself. Her experience growing up in Andover with scoliosis, an abnormal curving of the spine, is part of the newest Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books. This edition ($14,95) is called "The Magic of Mothers & Daughters."
Gerber wore the brace for three years until she stopped growing at age 13. She's a proud 5-feet, 7-inches today.
Her father, Sam Gerber, is an orthopedic surgeon and first spotted her twisting vertebra. Her mother, Lori Gerber, also had scoliosis as a young teen and wore a similar brace. The Gerbers still live in town with their daughter, Caroline, 22, and 16-year-old son, Adam.
This mother-daughter relationship is typical - strained at times as Alyson Gerber writes that she defiantly blamed her mother for passing the scoliosis gene to her. But theirs is also an extremely loving relationship as Lori Gerber offered valuable emotional support as her daughter struggled with middle school ridicule.
"Don't let them see you're hurting or it will be worse. We are giving you the gift of great posture. Use it," is one tough love quote that Gerber attributes to her mother in the book.
Gerber's five-page chapter is entitled "Fusion Family" and is focused on a tough time in her life. She said she wrote the essay and submitted it for the book because middle-schoolers with scoliosis should not feel alone. By going public with her own scoliosis story she proves others know what it's like to deal with an awkward appearance during adoloescence, when body image is so important.
She writes that she looked like Popeye's thin girlfriend, Olive Oyl, but felt enormous in her cast. She was devasted when she overheard classmates referring to her as an arcade game character named Big Bertha.
Gerber went to Pike School and Governor's Academy in Byfield. She earned her bachelor's degree at Connecticut College and is working on a master's degree in writing for children at The New School in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines. Her Chicken Soup chapter is her first book-writing deal.
Members of her writing group at The New School encouraged her to submit the chapter. Writings by the group can be found at teenwritersbloc.com.
Gerber said the book can be a good conversation starter for mothers, daughters and scoliosis survivors. There are 101 stories in the book.