Author tells own story of life with cerebral palsy

‘Someday I will be known,' Steve Salmon says
Author tells own story of life with cerebral palsy
Photo courtesy of Steve Salmon
Steve Salmon has two new books—one a novel, the other an autobiography—that lay bare his life-long struggle with cerebral palsy.

On a Saturday in late February I interviewed nine writers over four hours at Mystery to Me bookstore on Monroe Street. It was an “author slam” featuring presenters and attendees from the annual University of Wisconsin-Madison Writers’ Institute to be held on campus the following month.

The last author piloted his wheelchair to the front at about 7:45 p.m. He had two new books to promote, a novel and a memoir, though he bases his fiction on fact and takes a few liberties with his nonfiction.

“Most of my writing is autobiographical with a creative license to it,” Steve Salmon says. “I write what I know.”

I wrote “Salmon says” in the sentence above, but don’t take that literally. The quotes in this piece are from an email interview and other correspondence I’ve shared with Salmon, 49, who was born with severe cerebral palsy, and struggles to speak or move.

His mind is something else. Salmon has a bachelor’s degree in English from UW-Stevens Point, where he started writing and took four classes from the acclaimed novelist Larry Watson, who became a friend.

Salmon writes by tapping out Morse code with his head, and his stories describe the great difficulties he’s had making his way in the world, along with his groundbreaking successes, his human strengths and frailties.

On Salmon’s website are posted earlier articles about him that, to my mind, shortchange his accomplishment. They do provide a record of his remarkable success against long odds. But it’s only in reading his work, including the new memoir, “It’s a New Life! Mom is Gone,” that the enormity of his struggle is revealed.

He touched on it in our interview, too, and in other correspondence–his frustration with government regulations regarding the disabled, and his attendant depression. Nothing has come easy. “The system has never known what to do with me,” he says, but he has persevered, with writing his salvation.

Salmon–who will appear with his two new books Saturday, May 13, at 2 p.m. at the East Towne Barnes and Noble–was born in Ohio and spent his adolescence in Racine, where he graduated from Case High School.

He spent elementary school in a special education class. “Nine severely disabled children with one teacher,” he says. “Most of the time my class sat at our desks, staring at the wall, waiting for the teacher to help us.” Liability concerns kept them indoors.

He began mainstream classes in junior high. Despite starting behind–“history and science were new to me”–he became an honor roll student in high school.

If there is a hero in Salmon’s story beyond himself, it’s unquestionably Mary Salmon, his mother. She bought a house in nearby Plover when Steve enrolled at UW-Stevens Point.

“I always lived with my mother,” he says, and she was always there for him. “Mom purchased computers, paid for my education, and did everything for me to pursue my dream.”

Mary Salmon’s fatal heart attack in July 2015 was a terrible blow to her son. His fictionalized account in his new memoir is both frightening and heartbreaking to read: “She falls onto the floor, cracking her head open. Mom has a convulsion. I scream for several minutes but my neighbors don’t hear my shrill yells for help. Drool pours from my mouth.”

Salmon did what writers do–attempt to make art from life–and in the effort, began to mend.

“Writing this book helped me to heal,” he says. “I needed to write to let out my emotions and pain. Hours were spent writing and crying at the computer. I still cry reading it. My heart and soul are poured into the book.”

Salmon today lives on Madison’s northeast side with two roommates and a rotation of attendants. “My attendants are good people,” he says, “but it is not easy taking care of an author.”

My recollection is that Salmon had an attendant with him when we did the Writers’ Institute event at Mystery to Me in February. He had both his new books with him, the memoir, and a novel, “A Very New Day,” which is about a boy with cerebral palsy going to mainstream classes for the first time in junior high.

The attendant helped interpret Salmon’s verbal responses to my questions, and then, as I remember, another author, Chris DeSmet, one of the Writers’ Institute’s founding organizers, read a bit from one of Steve’s books.

In a review of Salmon’s memoir, DeSmet wrote, “This is revealing material, sometimes raw but Steve tells it like it is and I admire him for that.”

Sometime between our bookstore interview and the Writers’ Institute in late March, I was included on an email Steve sent to a small group. He talked about appearing at the State Capitol for disability advocacy day, and voiced his frustration over some logistical problems regarding the pending writing conference that were eventually worked out.

“I’m going to the conference,” Steve Salmon wrote, in conclusion. “I won’t give up. I promise. I love you. Someday I will be known.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.