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Disturbing Biographies: Biography Inspired

Updated on October 17, 2010

The recent story about the 23 year old armless pianist reminds us of other disturbing, but inspirational biographies (some now on video) such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, My Left Foot and Is This a Man.

The Armless Pianist

I had a "moment" the other day - maybe you did too - when I first heard about then saw Liu Wei, the 23 year old armless pianist who just won China's Got Talent.

An armless pianist.

He learned to play with his feet after he lost use of his arms at the age of 10 following a severe electrical shock. In the contest, Liu Wei played Clayderman's Mariage D'amour, beautifully. At a time when so many of us are turned inward worrying about our own (mostly) small problems, here is a kid who has endured one of life's epic assaults. And not only endured it, he has soared above it.

Liu Wei is now 23, with designer style black-frame glasses and a nice lop-sided smile. There are a number of short video biographies about Liu Wei on YouTube where you can see him go at the piano with his feet then win the contest to a standing ovation and an audience with barely a dry eye.

For me, it is one of those inspirational biographies that send chills down my spine. And in this Hub I am going to tell you about my top three disturbing but inspirational biographies of all time.

My List of Disturbing but Inspirational Biographies

I spend most of my time making video biographies that highlight the mostly day-to-day triumphs of ordinary Americans; but inspirational biography born out of disturbing lives is a topic I keep coming back to.

Other folks, tragically, have been challenged to endure far more than Mr Wei. And I want to tell you about my top three disturbing/inspirational biographies: I.e. biographies of people who experienced crushing suffering but who retained hope and optimism. These are people who changed the lives of those around them and changed lives all around the world.

First on my list is the story of a person with "locked in syndrome" who dictated his life story with eye blinks. The second on my list is the story of Irish writer Christy Brown - born with cerebral palsy he became an internationally acclaimed writer. And the third is the story of Primo Levi, who suffered through and documented Auschwitz with curious detachment and who sought to answer the question: Could man still be man after such a thing?

Each story is a classic, written biography and first two are also available in film or video versions.

Biography By Eye Blinks

You might already have come across the exquisite story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, father of two and editor in chief of the French Elle magazine. Up to the point of suffering a massive stroke at the age of 42, Mr Bauby had it all: Beautiful wife, glamorous job, travel, fancy car, healthy kids.

After the stroke, he was completely paralyzed - except for one muscle controlling his left eye. His mind fully functioning, his body a dead weight, he is confined to a hospital overlooking the English Channel. And with excruciating patience and abiding love for his family, he writes his story, eye blink by eye blink. He records one of his last Father's Day, visited by his son and daughter:

"I am torn between joy at seeing them living, moving, laughing or crying for a few hours, and the fear that the sight of all these sufferings - beginning with mine - is not the ideal entertainment."

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a tragic biography. It is short, wistful, impressionistic; it is also light and warm and humorous. At one point, Jean-Dominique is lying in a pool of his own urine - his catheter having become detached in the night:

"And here comes the nurse. Automatically, she turns on the TV. A commercial with a personal computer spelling out the question: 'Were you born lucky?' "

Jean-Dominique Bauby died two years after the stroke and two days after his biography was published, never having recovered. The "diving bell" of the title was his locked-in life, the "butterfly" was his imagination. The video of this extraordinary biography was released in 2007 and won the Golden Globe for Best Picture.

Of 22, 17 lived & 4 Died in Infancy. Plus Me

Christy Brown came from a large, Irish Catholic family where not every child made it out of childhood.  His father was a Dublin bricklayer and his mother never knew how to give up.

In my mind, Christy Brown is actually Daniel Day-Lewis - who played the writer in the 1989 film and video version of My Left Foot - the biography of a sensitive Irish boy who is born with cerebral palsy and learns to write with his foot.

"It was mother who first saw that there was something wrong with me.  I was about four months old at the time.  She noticed that my head had a habit of falling backwards whenever she tried to feed me… Almost every doctor who saw and examined me, labeled me a very interesting but also hopeless case."

This biography is as much about the fierce, inextinguishable love of a poor, working class Irish mother as it is about the life of her artist and writer son. No matter what his future would hold, she had decided that he would be treated the same as all her other children.  But at 5 years old, Christy could not speak or even mumble, he could not sit up by himself let alone walk or crawl.  " I was a queer. crooked little fellow."

But along with his mother, Christy Brown was also a fighter.  He stuns the family one day by seizing a stick of chalk with his left foot and scribbling on the slate.  A life commenced.

Christy would go on to forge a career as a writer.  He lived to the age of 49 and died in 1981, an ongoing inspiration and a disturbing biography; a biography inspired.

If This Is a Man

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who, in 1947, wrote about his 20 months in a Nazi concentration camp.  He died in 1987 - possibly from suicide.  Is there an inspirational biography in any of that? 

The American title of Levi's biography is "Survival in Auschwitz" - and there is little there to suggest hope or salvation.  The original title is "If this is a Man", a more apt title that suggests the author's purpose a little more clearly:  In the terrible conditions of Auschwitz, were men still men?

The holocaust experience is a shadow that haunts the world and forever will. And the specific events of Primo Levi's book are as inhumane and as chilling as can scarcely be imagined.

But as the story concludes, with liberation by the Russians getting closer, it turns out that men can still be "men" (in the higher sense of the word).  Levi and two of his friends, knowing the Russians are drawing close, try to save as many inmates as possible.  And while the rules of the camp prisoners had formerly been "eat your own bread and, if you can, the bread of your neighbor", the men begin to share again.

Primo Levi did become depressed later in life.  And he may have ended his own life at the age of 66.  But his very survival, and his life after - no less than his "If this is a Man" biography - stand as proof that there is hope and survival, and even humanity, in the face of unmitigated evil.  It is telling that Levi opens his story with gallows humor:

"It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1955, that is after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life span of the prisoners destined for elimination…"

And it was our good fortune that Primo Levi survived to live and to show that there could be life even after an event as terrible as the Holocaust.

Hope For Our YouTube Generation

Each of these three disturbing biographies has inspired hope in their millions of readers; they have confirmed a belief that, despite all the slings and arrows, life is still worth the candle.

These worthwhile stories, classics of literature all, are very much like the story of armless painist Liu Wei who is inspiring the same hope and confirming the same belief in the YouTube Generation (not all of whom are readers after all).


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    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      4 years ago

      I had not heard of the armless pianist, but I surely would love to hear him play. I have heard of the paralyzed man's story.

      People that have lost seemingly everything and come out from under it with such great accomplishments are so inspiring.

    • JaneA profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from California

      Sure helps to get our own troubles into perspective...

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      7 years ago

      Amazing and inspiring story. This is hard life. God bless!

    • FloBe profile image

      Flo Belanger 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Very inspiring. We get caught up in what we think is a bad day and then are reminded of what a "bad day" could really look like. I am thankful to have the life I have. Thanks for sharing these stories with us.


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