Alvin Law was born without arms. Within an hour, his natural mother signed papers giving him up for adoption. Doctors told his adoptive parents that he would never be able to achieve anything, that his quality of life would be extremely poor. They were encouraged to place him in an institution. Instead, Alvin was raised in a home filled with love, spirituality, support, humor and the regular household chores.
His mother often tells the story of how she would prop his baby bottle up on pillows, Alvin nestled in his crib so he wouldn’t roll over. One day she went to check on him, after hearing him giggling to himself. She found him laying in his crib on his back, the bottle between his feet, happily nursing away. Alvin doesn’t remember learning to use his feet as we do our hands. He just always has. When it was his turn to wash the dishes, Alvin looked at his Mom and said, “How do 1 do that?” She replied, “How am I supposed to know? You figure it out!” He mowed the lawns, did the vacuuming, everything else his brothers and sisters did. He went to a regular school, played on the town’s boys’ baseball team, played trombone in the high school band, got his license to drive and amazed doctors everywhere.
With his strong family background and belief in himself, Alvin went to college and became a broadcaster. He plays the piano, the drums, participates in all types of sports, is a husband, a father, and he now tells his story to people all over the world as a professional motivational speaker. His speech is called “There’s No Such Word as Can’t!”
I had the pleasure to meet with Alvin Law for an interview after hearing him speak in Ouje-Bougoumou, where community members of all ages gave him a warm welcome, and were inspired by his enthusiasm for life.
Nation: Where are you from?
Alvin Law: Right now, we’ve just moved to Calgary. I spent the last 17 years in Regina, Saskatchewan. I spent the time previous to that in a couple of different places, but I was born and raised in a small community many would recognize in Saskatchewan as Yorkton and that’s pretty much been my residence life. I travel, however, most of the school year doing these programs. Sometimes I figure I have an official residence but I tend to live on the road.
N: Thalidomide is the drug that your birth mother took, that caused you to be born without arms. Can you explain a little bit about this drug?
A.L.: There was a huge controversy in the early 60s about a morning sickness drug that deformed babies, primarily in Europe, then in Asia, and in Canada. It did not go to the United States, but essentially what the short version of the story is that it was a drug that was marketed to be so safe they thought that anybody, including pregnant women, could take it. Of course, it didn’t work that way. What’s really funny about the whole thing is that there was always a suggestion that this whole thing was a terrible thing. If you were born with this condition, whatever the deformity was, and the epical deformity was shortened limbs,
essentially what the drug did was it didn’t allow limbs to grow to their full length because of the shortening of the process. My arms strangely enough just didn’t grow. It didn’t affect my legs at all. So, you live with that sort of a stigma of being one of those Thalidomide babies. I think some people may be aware that there were a couple of documentaries done on it, about specifically actually myself and two or three other individuals. It depends on how you look at it. One of the joys that I find in travelling around doing this is saying to people, if you remember Thalidomide, you remember the babies, now here’s an adult who doesn’t have a problem with that. Having said that, I guess you could for sure consider the notion that it was a terrible time in our history. The legacy, I suppose, is that ever since about 1964, women have had a totally different attitude towards taking any kind of even suggested pharmaceuticals. Thalidomide was the legacy of changing that.
N: Is this drug still being prescribed?
A.L.: The drug is being used for clinical trials in the United States. It is in active use for treating leprosy in Brazil. What’s really funny is that the drug itself wasn’t maliciously produced. They didn’t make this drug going “Huh, let’s just hope pregnant women take it.” It’s so funny that this was probably one of the first drugs that had a major marketing campaign in the history of pharmaceuticals. The imagery back then was that it produced safe, sound sleep for everybody, even high risk patients, because their claim was, and they actually believed this was that it didn’t have any side effects. The big oops was that they never tested it on a single female. Big surprise in the end that it would have this effect. In fact, they s didn’t start actually testing pharmaceuticals on women until after Thalidomide. They would actually just give the drugs to men, to male prisoners as a matter of fact, that’s how they used to test drugs. So, when they gave it to women, they discovered that, big surprise, women’s bodies are different than men’s bodies.
N: What is the warmest reaction you’ve had from a complete stranger meeting you?
A.L.: That’s an excellent question. It was a reaction from what seemed to be a very old Islander in Antigua where my wife and I were vacationing a few years ago, who was watching as I opened the car door. We had gone shopping, and he was across the street sitting in an old chair and he came across. I had opened the door on the passenger side first for my wife and then as I was opening up the door for myself he came over and asked me, “What happened to you?” I answered that I was born this way. Whether it was just because this happened to be a human being who was very enlightened, his response to it was so unusual. Instead of it being, well that’s too bad, he said, “Clearly you’ve been given other gifts.” I said I guessed so. He introduced himself, and he asked who I was and he went to shake my hand. Unlike the reaction you get from some people where I would say, I’m sorry, I don’t do that, he just extended his hand, and instead of it being a mistake, he just said, “There must be some way that you do this.” So I reached up with my foot and I shook his hand. And then he said, “Now, this is how I would say hello,” and he gave me a big hug. And then he asked permission -I couldn’t believe he did this – to give my wife a hug. And he said to her, which surprised even my wife, although I’m sure she feels this way on occasion, “You’re a very lucky woman.” And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re very lucky people, and welcome to my home.” And he walked away.
It was an island reaction in some respects.
But in many others I think that there are those who have gifts in all communities where they’re able to see past what seems to be an obvious disadvantage, and I think most often these people probably have a strong spiritual side to them. It’s not religious, it’s spirituality. Having said that, I think that’s where you get the opposite reaction. I think there are people who are very positive in that respect.
I actually had a woman come up to me not too long ago who, believe it or not, thought what I was doing was a terrible disservice to the community of disabled people, painting such a picture that everything is just rosy if you’ve got a good attitude, that we treat disabled people very poorly and that we have no respect and that I should stop making these tours because the reality of the situation is that disabled people are still living in a third world environment. That could be true in her situation, and it could be something very personal for her, but I have had that reaction on occasion. I think that where if there’s any kind of deep sort of philosophical side as to why I do this, it’s not to change the world.
It’s to work the percentages where if there’s anyone out there could possibly use a bit of a bump up in the own attitude, it’s the least I can do considering what I’ve had given to me. I think that’s probably the one message that I try to give to the people who are on that border of acceptance of themselves, is that the biggest mistake that we make probably is looking for that acceptance in others before we get it together on our own.
N: You speak a lot about your childhood, your parents, your family home and environment. What is one of your favorite childhood memories?
A.L.: There are so many. I spent my winter, fall and spring in a town of about five or six thousand, which was an urban environment.
But I spent my summers at a cabin. Even though my Mom and Dad were religious, and we went to church all the time, I think it was there that I was able to, and I hate this expression but I can’t think of another one right now, but I communed with nature there. I was always outside. I was never in the cabin. I was out fishing, or walking around or exploring creeks, and I don’t know if this was me or the environment, but I loved to feed the squirrels. They would actually come and sit on my knee and eat peanuts and sunflower seeds for a considerable length of time. I don’t know what it was, but my Mom commented on it one time when I was younger and she said ‘You have a gift for being so gentle with pets and animals. If you could learn to be that way with people you’ll be so much better off.”
I think that’s why I come up to communities like this one, communities in the North in particular: there is a way up here. And I think if we can somehow translate that way into also dealing with people that’s a gift that we may not even recognize we have.
I was just at a bison conference, believe it or not, speaking at it with the likes of CNN’s Ted Turner and afterwards the First Nations group from Northern Alberta presented Ted Turner with a buffalo skin and did a ceremony. I don’t remember what it was called, but the essence of it was that anyone who helps provide for one of God’s creatures is blessed with something extra. Somehow there was in that a message to me that the lake had taught me so much about myself. That if I can have this kind of connection with an animal that I don’t even know, then I should worry less about the rejection of people. Because they’re not as wise as the animals somehow.
My pets know where to come for a scratch. I’m sure they’ve learned it over time. My dog knows to bring the toys to my feet, where he knows to bring them to my wife in her lap. My cat knows to jump on my wife’s lap for a cuddle but knows to come down by the bottom of the couch or the bed to cuddle with me.
N: How do you keep going when times are rough, when you’re feeling bad, how do you continue to make these speeches? You must get bitter sometimes at having to, no, not having to because I know you want to do this, but what happens when you wake up in the morning and you just feel down, blue, and you know you have to go in front of a crowd of thousands and tell your story?
A.L.: One of my favorite expressions, and I’ve got a lot of them, is “Be careful what you wish for.” I think that everyone has their own way of being validated somehow. I remember, (and this goes very straight to the point, and I never tell a story that really goes right to the point) my Dad’s work, in particular. My Mom worked at home, she was a wonderful homemaker. It was very much a job, I don’t view it as being women’s work, in fact I never have. The fact that she didn’t leave the house everyday was significant because my Dad did. He was a mechanic. I remember that this is kind of an interesting story, and I don’t always tell this one either. One of my earliest memories of my childhood was going out during harvest and watching my Dad fix things, combines and tractors and trucks and having that ability to repair where others didn’t have that ability. He wasn’t doing anything that would make him rich or famous, he wasn’t one of the socialites in town and he didn’t have a fancy car, but he had so much respect from everybody. Everyone that knew my parents, my Dad in this case, never had a bad word to say about him. I felt he was doing something that had meaning to it, even though he was just fixing an engine. I’m not suggesting that a factory worker, or a person on an assembly line or even a garbage collector should ever fit into any particular category. As for what I do, I recognize that it’s a job, but it’s more than that. It’s an ability I’ve been given, to share stories with people, to hopefully enlighten their lives and you think of it as more than just a job.
One of the things I tell educators in my education speech is that if you picked this profession because you needed a job, you’re in big trouble. You can’t just BE a teacher, you ARE a teacher, that’s who you are, you’re everything to these kids. It’s probably harder on the spouse of a teacher than it is on a teacher, because they’re faced with that dilemma, ‘I’m married to somebody, and do they care more about the kids than they do about me?’ You have to care.
I carry that in my back pocket. I know that my family would rather have me home, but at the same time, my son has never known anything else but his father as a speaker. I met my current wife as a speaker. She manages the business. I see it in one respect as a means to a financial end, to running my own company and to make money and to have the freedoms that are attached with that, but more than anything, and I try to explain this to my kid like my Dad did to me, if you don’t get a good feeling everytime you do your life’s work, then you need to find a different job. I’ve had times, sure, where I’ve felt lonely and depressed, unhappy with being away and the travelling, but in the end you look back and say, but I also remember about 15 years ago saying, oh, I would love to be able to do this all the time. You don’t mess with that.
N: You are a musician, an athlete, a husband, a father, a celebrity of sorts. What is your next goal?
A.L.: Author, actually. I’ve had to quibble with this one a great deal. Like the transition from being a broadcaster to being a speaker,
I think there is another natural transition that usually goes in the other direction, usually people are an author and then a speaker. I have always tempered everything with a certain amount of ego check. I have a big ego but I also have a lot of checks and balances there to keep me sane. One of them has always been the fight between just having this speaking thing, but also recognizing that if I write it down, then it’s accessible to everybody, it doesn’t just have to be where I come to a town or a community or a school.
The other thing too, is that when it’s written that hopefully one can then say, “Jeez, you should read this.” And you’re sharing it with someone else and if it becomes an assistance device for people for their attitudes for their own lives, then it goes further than just the one hour speech. As a writer you understand this. My being a quasi writer at this point, I have a difficult time coming to grips with how I want to put it. That’s probably the worst part. I hasten the ego that goes with writing an autobiography and what kind of person you must be to consider yourself lofty enough to write it down.
At the same time, I also look at the other angle, and as corny as this sounds, if one person read it and felt like their life changed… did you read the book or see the movie the Hurricane about that boxer? As I was watching that movie, that’s what got me. There is, in the middle of this whole story, and it’s a remarkable story, this young black man who has his own problems, reading this book of the hurricane story and how it inspires him. I look at that and I I think, ‘jeez, I have to write this book.’
Maybe some young person out there that might pick up my book and not idolize me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about reading this book and going ‘wow, you know, I’ve got this stuff happening in my life, I can rise above that.’
N: Something you said in your speech really touched me. It had to do with the fact that there are people in your life who make you feel good about who you are, and there are those that just make you feel bad. It’s a simple choice, you choose to be with the people that make you feel good. If we could always just keep that in the back of our mind, our lives would be so different. It’s nice to hear you say that.
A.L.: It’s something that I lived through. I look back at my first marriage and I think that was a marriage of necessity about a child. And it happens everywhere in the world. We should respect that we somehow produce a child as a couple. There is an onus of responsibility, especially on the men, to be there for their part, too. But having said that, I also think that women, especially those who have the right motivation and love for their child, can do a far superior job raising a child on their own than being with the man just because that’s what you do.
I look at that whole scenario in my own life, and not only was it my first marriage and not only did it change me in a negative way, but the friendships that we established with people, the likemindedness were mixed in with that. I have such clear image of sitting around our dining room table having coffee with our friends and doing nothing but bitch about people and society and life.
How can that not affect you? We’ve all got a little thing that makes us get kind of anxious, annoyed or whatever, but I’d rather be at a table where you’re sitting around talking about a wonderful thing, a beautiful experience.
N: It makes such simple sense, but I find most often people do the opposite, because it’s something to talk about…
A.L.: Yeah, we’re really good at criticizing people, aren’t we, but we’re not so good at taking it back in our face.
N: I have to ask you this. I know a lot of people who are obsessed with the show the X-Files, and I know you were on it. Tell me about it.
A.L.: The episode was done maybe five seasons ago, it was a show called ‘Humbug.’ It featured a gentleman by the name of Jim Rose who travels the world mostly on the fringe circuit with a thing called the human circus. He’s just a wierd guy. He takes with him on the road a nineties or new millennium version of side show circus freaks. The writer of this episode had seen that show in LA, in some kind of bar, and he went back home and started writing this episode. He tied in the history of circus folklore and also was inspired by a documentary that was out a few years ago about a place called Gibsontown, which is a real life retirement community in Florida for circus freaks, primarily the Barnum & Bailey ones. So you can imagine pulling into this town and seeing all of these people that were ex-professionals in the circus, but of course in our politically correct time, we’re not allowed to do that anymore. It was a really big deal to be a side show circus freak, and one of the facts is that people without arms found a place to work. They would do the side shows, they would use their feet to shoot guns, to use bows and arrows, they would do all these things that amazed and grossed people out at the same time. This writer of the X-Files decided to put this program together with the notion of somehow bringing in the FBI. So of course, the irony of this whole thing was that they could not find anywhere an armless actor. Even though there was a ton of them before, they couldn’t find one.
They had seen me on a telethon I do in Vancouver for Variety Club. They, being the X producers of the show, just happened to be watching and found me doing things with my feet, and they needed an armless preacher, there had to be this character in the script. The part was written into the script, it wasn’t written for me, it was just there and they couldn’t find the actor. They were actually going to go to the expense of digitally erasing, to take the arms away, like they did with Gary Sinise’s legs in ‘Forrest Gump.’
But there I was.
So you can appreciate this, it is one of our favorite family stories that I don’t go to great lengths to talk about in my speech, but my wife does not watch televison. She may watch the occasional show, but I’m the television guy. She’d never heard of X-Files, quite literally. So she gets a call at the office and the message is actually saying, “I’m wondering if this is the Alvin Law from the telethon. Would he be interested in being a preacher on an episode of X-Files.” So she thought it was just some wacko from some fringe church asking me to come and do a sermon. She didn’t understand, so when she called back she said, “Well, I’ll have to talk to him, I don’t know, he’s pretty busy,” and of course the people on the other end are thinking, hello, this is the X-Files,-people would DIE to be on the X-Files! So I ended up doing it. It was one of those wierd things that happened. It was sort of my 15 minutes of fame. It was just a thing I did.
N: Was it fun?
A.L.: It was ten hours, on your feet, acting! It was fun, but it was wierd. It was recognizing that this is a big budget production and there are 85 people standing around with cameras, lights and makeup and all of a sudden, you’re the guy. I was the only speaking pan up until, if you remember the episode, the guy comes out of the ground and hammers a spike into his chest as a tribute to the escape artist that had died. Anyway, everyone always asks, “What was it like meeting David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson?” Well, I started meeting celebrities when I was sixteen. And, really frankly, once you’ve met one, you’ve met them all. I did not get to know them enough to find out whether they were good or bad people, but you can tell that they were very much the Hollywood that we all imagined they would be. It was just one of those things where I’ll be able to look back sometime in my life and say, there wasn’t any real reason for doing that, I just did it.
N: You’ve travelled all over the world, had dinner with the Queen, been to the White House, met the Prime Ministers, what was the biggest thrill for you?
A.L.: Boy, that’s a good question. I think it would be hard to pick something that gave me a real thrill.
N: Is it more the things and people that are closer to your heart, to your home that give you that?
A.L.: Yeah… but I enjoyed very much my first experiences in Australia, I’m not sure if everyone’s built this way; but all I know is that I am built this way: my excitement for life comes when I am sharing that with somebody. When we can have a shared experience and we can say, “Wow, it was so cool that we did that.” Those are the ones that come close to my heart. Having dinner with Queen Elizabeth was an occasion that would be viewed as rather remarkable, but it wasn’t one that I went and told my friends about.
N: Were you afraid of doing something terribly impolite?
A.L.: Oh sure. I was actually bit irreverant back then too, and that probably caused me a bit of grief.
N: Did you pick your nose at the table?
A.L.: (laughing) No, I didn’t do that! Good question though.
I think that at one point there may have been one or two experiences that I could have pointed out, but there’s been so many of these extraordinary experiences that I keep thinking, well you know, how much more could anyone ask for. But at the same time, maybe that’s the eerie trade off that comes from doing this. This is an interesting way to put it: I think that the whole dramatic change from what my lack of any expectations in life were when I was young to what it has become has been that package, that package of experiences, There wasn’t one person that impressed me over the other or one experience that impressed me over another.
I think they all did, for whatever little thing they give you, and that’s it. Every now and then you hear somebody say, what or who were your influences, was there someone special.
N: We meet certain people at different times in our lives for different reasons, often it’s all coincidence, and we don’t even realize it at the time.
A.L.: One other thing to add to that is that you have to be one of the believers in all of this karma thing about it and that is what I’m a believer in too.
N : Is this the first time you’ve been to a Cree community in Northern Quebec?
A.L.: I’ve never been North of Montreal. I’ve been to Cree communities in Saskatchewan.
N: Would you be interested in returning?
A.L.: Yes. If people want to contact me or send me any kind of information, that’s fine.
This is where the book, or inevitably someday maybe even a tape of the speech, becomes available so that people can pass it on to someone else, that’s great. We all know somebody who’s having a rough time and who could use a little inspiration, and I’m not suggesting that I am the cure-all, but maybe one little element of an observation of life can give people a different angle, that’s all I ask.
N: Do you have a favorite book?
A.L.: “Where the Wild Creatures Are.” As a child, I’d read this book and say somewhere out in the world this is normal. Maybe that’s how I felt as a little boy… that maybe someday I could get to a place in the world where I’m not unusual, I’m just like everybody else.
“Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California Baseball, Starkweather Homicide, Children of Thalidomide”
The “children of thalidomide” in Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” were 10,000 babies born with shortened arms and legs or without any limbs at all. Their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide early in their pregnancies to help them sleep and to keep them from feeling nauseated.
Of the 10,000 babies with “seallike” limbs, only seventeen were born in the United States. The number was low because Dr. Frances Kelsey blocked the sale of the drug in the USA.
Now, some thirty years later, thalidomide has resurfaced, Doctors are investing its potential as a treatment for a variety of diseases.