Minou Soumekh Michlin is an Iranian Jew who was raised in the city of Tehran in the mid-twentieth century while King Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was in power. At the age of three, she suddenly contracted polio. In the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide each year. In Iran, this malady was widely experienced but medically misunderstood at the time. A doctor comforted Minou’s mother by saying her daughter’s polio wasn’t severe. He prescribed hot baths, vitamin B shots, massages, and exercise. The author writes that: “While the rest of me grew taller, the muscles on my right leg refused to grow.… I walked on my right toes with my heel raised more than an inch in the air.”
Michlin’s memoir, I Kept Walking, is a poignant account of growing up in Iran with a disease that branded her as “less than.” As the story develops, we gain insight into the author’s Persian parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, mentors, and friends. However, the strongest force in her life is culture. Minou was raised in a country with strict social and cultural constrictions. Having a physical flaw, such as a limp, automatically excluded her from being acceptable marriage material and stood in the way of being betrothed to any Iranian man of her choice.
I Kept Walking is deeply inspirational. Despite the obstacles coming from within and without, her strengths grew — developing from the darkest corners of her life. Not only does she survive but, more impressively, she also conquers. Having a medical condition that prevented her from doing all that other girls her age were doing is certainly a hardship for Michlin. But to be raised in a culture that pigeon-holed her by defining her as broken, defective, and therefore unentitled to a full life, is a whole other matter. Courage is an important theme throughout her story. With her mother’s tenacious support, Michlin shattered professional barriers. However, for her to marry a man of her choosing and have a family of her own required a different kind of strength. To tackle this hurdle and defy all Persian taboos, she enters therapy and diligently works on her inner self.
Today, Michlin is professor emeritus of social work at Southern Connecticut State University. Prior to immigrating to America, she worked as a social worker in Tehran’s Jewish ghetto and oversaw day cares across Iran.
As I read I Kept Walking, Maya Angelou’s words kept coming to my mind: “Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently.” And I hear this author also whispering between the lines: Go ahead, beat adversity. One isn’t born with courage; one practices and develops determination.
Esther Amini is a writer, painter, and psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. She is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Concealed—Memoir of a Jewish Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America, and her short stories have appeared in Elle, Lilith, Tablet, The Jewish Week, Barnard Magazine, TK University’s Inscape Literary, and Proximity. She was named one of Aspen Words’ two best-emerging memoirists and awarded its Emerging Writer Fellowship in 2016. Her pieces have been performed by Jewish Women’s Theatre in Los Angeles and in Manhattan and she was chosen by JWT as their Artist-in-Residence in 2019.