I’ve recently had a first. At my age, I didn’t feel there were too many more firsts that I could experience so I was pleasantly surprised. We were watching a movie about a woman that was an amputee and hero in WWII, and I felt convicted. Wow, I thought, If she could do all of this as an amputee then I need to step it up! As odd as it sounds, this feeling is something that I haven’t experienced much in my life. When we watch movies or read books about inspiring people, they nearly always have two feet or are completely abled in order to meet the challenges before them. My mind’s deductive reasoning translates this to be impressive but not possible for someone in my situation, and so I dismiss any conviction subconsciously. It felt like a breath of fresh air to me, seeing someone like me on the screen accomplishing things beyond my wildest imagination!
Virginia Hall was an American woman from Baltimore. She lost her leg in a hunting accident below the knee as a young U.S. government secretary in Turkey. She dreamed of becoming a diplomat and was turned down in letter after letter of rejection due to her “condition”. Not only was she a woman, but a disabled one at that. Even the disabled President Franklin Roosevelt was not prepared to make such an exception at that time in history when her case was presented to him.
Virginia persisted and went to France, there she drove an ambulance on the front lines of battle during the Nazi invasion. (Purnell, 2020) Her bravery was remarkable during this time and she learned nerves of steel, perseverance, and the importance of hiding her disability from the masculine and able-ism views affronting her.
Later, she was dispatched successfully by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE, a WWII secret-service organization) to pave the way into occupied France. She worked to build a network for resistance to aid the allied war efforts. She had a wooden leg she named Cuthbert, which caused hardship, bleeding, and much pain on a regular basis. She dealt with the shortages of soap and food during France’s Nazi occupation, and risked her life at every turn. She was the first female SOE personnel successfully placed in enemy territory, and the first agent to successfully nurture the resistance and network successful air-drops and inroads for the allies in France. (Purnell, 2020)
Her escapades in France led her to be one of the most sought after enemies of the Nazi state, and the price for the “limping lady’s” capture was steep. When careless personnel inadvertently blew her cover, Virginia, along with Cuthbert, were forced to cross the Pyrenees mountains, only to be imprisoned in Spain. She eventually made it back to England but was not permitted to return to the field by SOE due to her cover being extensively blown. (Prahl, n.d.; Pilcher, 2021.)
Not having any of this, she learned the holy grail (and most dangerous) of secret-agent skills: wireless operation. Her new skills made her invaluable and she joined the American equivalent of the SOE (the OSS, Office of Strategic Services Special Agent Branch). As the first woman within this new American organization, she subjected herself to the disguise of an old woman, going so far as to have her own teeth ground down in the manner of country women in France, and returned to assist the allied war efforts to prepare for D-day on the mainland. (Purnell, 2020)
This should be enough by any average standard, but Virginia’s standards were not average. After the war, Virginia married fellow OSS agent, Paul Goillot, and attempted to fulfill her dream of becoming a diplomat. She was denied, again. Resigned, both Virginia and Paul worked for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) where Virgina served as the first female agent within. She finally retired in 1966 with Paul and lived in Rockville, Maryland, dying at the ripe old age of 76. (Prahl, n.d.)
An exceptional story, is it not? Her duties were performed in spite of being an amputee much like myself. Reading her biography and seeing the movie was truly humbling for me. The possibilities of willpower and resourcefulness convict me to take a fresh perspective on life as an amputee.
Unrelated, I saw a question posted on an amputee Facebook group last week: “Who are some Amputee heroes in real life?” In a group with over 3.5k members, only two people (I am one) named someone other than “myself”! I was astounded, appalled. How can you be your own hero? It usurps the very purpose and intention of having a hero to begin with. (Hero, n.d.) The number of amputees that reported believing themselves to be their own heroes quite unsettled me over the course of the next few days.
A quick google search reveals there is an entire movement about becoming your own hero and the ways in which this inspires and creates a sense of wellbeing. I wholeheartedly disagree with this. While we must definitely be filled with self-compassion, admire and celebrate our achievements, and try to be the best that we can possibly be, we cannot also be our own standard! (Hero, n.d.)There must be something outside of ourselves that holds a standard for us or represents to us the best version of humanity. In this age of narcissism, to be your own hero comes off to me as being one’s own god, one’s own surgeon, one’s own psychologist. It simply cannot be. We exist to work together and to raise humanity to greater levels by each achieving and inspiring those around us to be better. The bar must continually raise in order for there to be movement in that direction. But who can both hold the bar and jump over it at the same time?
Learning about Viginia Hall’s life of selfless devotion and sacrifice to freedom and humanity, I am inspired to be a better person. That is not a standard or perspective that I would have garnered without the inspiration of her life, apart from my own. I am inspired to hold my values and purposes in the front of my mind with my disability in the back. I am inspired by her not to conform to the conventions of the time or socially acceptable standards of one considered disabled. I am inspired to push towards my own purpose and calling regardless of the obstacles at hand. I think the artist Charlie Mackesy puts it best, “Isn’t it odd. We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on our insides.” (Mackesy, 2021.)
Hero. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hero
MACKESY, C. (2021). BOY, THE MOLE, THE FOX AND THE HORSE. S.l.: HARPER ONE.
Prahl, A. (n.d.). Biography of Virginia Hall, WWII’S Most WANTED Spy. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.thoughtco.com/virginia-hall-4690641#:~:text=Virginia%20Hall%20Goillot%20(born%20Virginia,by%20the%20Nazi%20German%20regime.
Pilcher, L. D. (Director), & Thomas, S. M. (Writer). (2020). A Call to Spy [Motion picture on Amazon]. United States.
Purnell, S. (2020). A woman of no importance: The untold story of the American spy who helped win World War II. New York, NY: Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.