When Bree Walker first pursued a career in TV, few news directors would give her a chance despite her degree in journalism. The problem was that Walker had been born with syndactylism, a rare hereditary disorder, shared with her mother and one brother, which left her with severely deformed hands and feet. (Another brother and a sister are not affected.) Each time she interviewed for an on-air TV job, she was told that viewers might be uncomfortable with such a visible abnormality. Undeterred, Walker spent seven years in radio before finally landing a job with an ABC-TV affiliate in San Diego. There she became an award-winning consumer reporter and anchor-woman and one of the city’s most popular TV personalities. Last August she went East, where she joined WCBS-TV in New York. Viewers and critics alike received her warmly.
Over the years Walker, 34, has learned to endure curious stares and insensitive comments, and not just from strangers. Earlier this month, after she delivered a report on prenatal testing, Walker’s veteran co-anchor, Jim Jensen, asked her on the air whether her parents would have considered abortion had they known that she would be born deformed. Walker calmly replied, “In my case, Jim, both my parents and I don’t consider this to be a very big deal.” Says Bree now, “I might have been offended if it weren’t something I’d been asked all my life. Jim said he felt terrible the minute it came out of his mouth, and he apologized. It didn’t hurt our friendship at all.”
The youngest of four children of a service-station manager and his wife, Bree was raised in Austin, Minn., and earned her degree from the University of Minnesota. Divorced from her first husband after seven years, she married her second husband, Robert Walker, 39, an independent film and video producer, in 1980. Graceful, animated and completely at ease with her deformity, Walker talked with senior writer Kristin McMurran about her dealings with a society that places a premium on physical perfection.
Everyone likes to be noticed, but no one likes to be stared at. In San Diego I was so well-known that everywhere I went I would be looked at. Most of the time the glances were warm and friendly, but when you’re born different you are always wondering whether some of the stares aren’t because of that. I never really knew if people were looking at me because they recognized me from television or because my hands and feet looked funny. I was riding the subway in New York once and a woman kept staring at me and wouldn’t stop. Finally I said, “Yes, I was born this way, and no, it doesn’t hurt.” And she replied, “What a shame that such a pretty girl should have such hands.” Without thinking, I said, “So you think I should have been born ugly too?”
My condition is called complete complicated syndactylism. The bones and skin of my hands and feet are fused together so they appear almost like primitive claws. Doctors tell me it doesn’t get any worse than this. I spent a lot of my growing-up years denying there was anything different about me. There were times when I would come home crying because some kids in school were saying things behind my back. But my parents were adamant about not letting my brother and me throw pity parties. They would tell us that it was our responsibility to make the other kids feel comfortable with us. My mother’s life was much more difficult because she was born when the world was far less tolerant of physical differences. It was she who taught me to bite the bullet and toughen up.
Becoming a teenager was a new crisis for me. It really hurt to have to wear special lace-up oxford shoes when all my friends were wearing high heels. Then they started wearing fingernail polish and rings, things I would never be able to wear. Teenagers can be extremely cruel. When I found out that my first boyfriend was calling me “lobster claws” behind my back I was shattered. I was 15, and I totally withdrew from boys for a while. It taught me to put on a new set of antennae to figure out who my real friends were.
It was during those years that I got really angry about being born this way. I became very rebellious, argumentative, disobedient, a real pain in the neck for my parents. I guess I was trying to assert my independence from them. At school I thought if I became the class clown I could be Miss Popularity. So I developed a very cutting sense of humor about my disability, making myself the butt of a lot of jokes. That got me invited to parties because I always seemed happy and jovial. But it was my way of covering up my sadness and anger. I’m not sure you ever get over the anger.
Since childhood I had wanted to be a journalist, so after college I applied to the Minneapolis Tribune. I was turned down; for one thing, I couldn’t type. In those days I hadn’t learned how to handle rejection, so I just gave up on the idea. I was that way with anyone who appeared unable to handle my deformity. I would make the initial effort to shake hands, and if they acted repulsed, then I just shied away.
I got a job in radio in Kansas City as a rock ‘n’ roll deejay, then worked at three radio stations in New York as a deejay and news announcer. After four years in radio, I tried to break into TV. But a couple of news directors told me it probably wouldn’t happen, that the viewing public was not ready to deal with a person like me. There were moments when I thought I had no business trying to do this, but mostly I thought their opinions were wrong.
I did not want my hands to stop me from having the career I wanted, so I had a pair of prosthetic gloves made that were shaped like hands in a resting position. I took them to interviews and offered to wear them on the air. But it didn’t change anything. When I was transferred to San Diego, I put an audition tape together and bugged the local TV news directors once a week for a full year. Finally one of them, Ron Mires, took a chance on me. In the beginning I tried wearing the gloves. But after one week on the air, it became very clear that I couldn’t stay in the business if I had to wear them. My body language was stiff, and I felt like a sham. So I stopped wearing them. I was thrilled and scared at the same time because I knew that if there was a negative response, it would be the end of my career. Luckily, everybody was very positive. I began hearing from people with disabilities who said it was important to get into the disability awareness movement. Until then I had been pursuing my career with such blinders that I hadn’t stopped to think about helping people who were like me. Suddenly I had a new responsibility—to show that it’s okay to be different. I hate the word mission, but that’s what it felt like. It felt wonderful. Now I give speeches on dealing with disabilities, and I’m active in several organizations for the disabled.
In 1983 and 1984 I had surgery to try to relieve the chronic pain in my feet. Now they are less drastically misshapen and feel better when I wear special shoes, but I’m still more comfortable running around the office in my stocking feet. If there were a lot I couldn’t do with my hands, I might consider more surgery. But to change them for cosmetic reasons doesn’t seem worth it.
The fact is, there is little I can’t do. I’ve always wanted to play the guitar and the piano, but I have friends with 10 fingers who can’t do that, so it’s no great tragedy. I’m clumsy with a lot of manual tasks. It takes me twice as long to get dressed. Buttons are really frustrating. I absolutely cannot get coins out of a pay phone. When I type on a computer, my finger is so wide, I hit three keys instead of one, so I have to correct an awful lot of copy. That’s when I have to slow down. I’ve always been impatient. Sometimes I blow, but always at home. If I can’t hook my necklace, I’ll get frustrated and make some loud growling noise, and Robert will tease me and say, “Aw, poor little Bree, she doesn’t have any fingers.” That brings me right out of it.
Both my husband and I would like to have children, but I still haven’t figured out if it’s fair to try to juggle a career and motherhood. When I was a teenager I thought I would never have kids because I didn’t want them to go through the pain of being different. I have a 50-50 chance of giving birth to a baby with syndactylism. I’m prepared for that, and so is my husband. This kind of deformity seems to be a bigger deal to the rest of the world than it is to me.
I like to think that five years from now we will be living in a time when nothing will be made of my hands. A time when we will have stopped saying “confined” to a wheelchair or “victim of” or “crippled by.” These words describe a person by his limitations, and that’s wrong. We have to reach a point where having a physical difference doesn’t matter. When we do, I will feel that my time has come and I am no longer regarded as special.