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What Would Gabby Do?

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Giffords on the floor of the House of Representatives on August 1.  

On the plane to Tucson, Kelly’s emotions welled up. For a moment, he freaked out in the bathroom—“lost his shit,” one person said. It got worse after it was reported that Giffords had died. Then Kelly composed himself. As an astronaut, “you got to keep your shit together,” said a fellow astronaut. He focused on the task ahead. “I think he made a decision: The only way she’s going to survive is if she’s surrounded by optimism and positive energy and love, and he thought, ‘That’s my job,’ ” said a person who spoke to him later.

When Kelly arrived at the hospital, Giffords was in a medically induced coma. Her head was puffed up and black and blue. Her eyes were swollen shut. Kelly wiped blood from his wife’s face with a tissue and told her, “Hey, sweetie, you look great. You’re doing great. You’re going to be fine.”

The people around Giffords realized from the beginning that managing the story was an overriding priority—but the work was unlike anything they’d ever done before. Karamargin had spent the past five years begging for national media attention—his biggest success might have been getting Giffords and Kelly into the “Vows” section of the New York Times. Now “the media was overwhelming,” said Karamargin, “and seductive.” Now he hit SEND on an e-mail, and ten minutes later he watched the TV in his office as a newscaster said, “This just in on Gabby Giffords … ”

The story had multiple layers. Perhaps the most important one, in political terms, concerned who was most responsible for the violence. One theory had it that Loughner was acting out the violent animus at the core of the far right. The evidence for this, showcased on cable TV, was the fact that Sarah Palin’s PAC, in targeting Giffords for defeat, had drawn a map in which she literally put Giffords’s district in the crosshairs. But while Giffords had been an object of questionable tea-party attacks and had forcefully opposed the recent rhetorical escalation in politics, Loughner is a schizophrenic whose madness is sui generis—Giffords’s father called him, simply, a “nutcase.”

Another problem with this element of the story, from the point of view of Giffords’s advisers, was that a debate over her victimhood made her merely a victim. “We were very conscious that Gabby shouldn’t be absent from her narrative,” explained Karamargin—Giffords should be the author of her own destiny. They decided on a different message. “The arc those early days was about Gabby’s amazing recovery,” he said. “Bouncing back became the narrative.” And, in this telling, good fortune and medical skill hadn’t alone propelled her recovery—it was Giffords’s determination. “She’s working at rehab six hours a day every day—just like Gabby,” who’d never been halfhearted in her life, said Karamargin, recalling the story they were trying to tell. “She’s getting better every day.”

The best part of this story is that it happened, in many particulars, to be true. Soon after arriving at rehab in Houston, she uttered the word toast, which resulted in international headlines. On CBS, Kelly told Katie Couric that she continued to overcome obstacles: Though her right arm was virtually useless, she’d learned to write with her left. She continued to travel with two nurses (and still does), but around the four-month mark she was already walking, albeit slowly and with a crash helmet designed to protect her skull, which was still missing a piece.

Despite the rosy news, behind the scenes some who saw her worried about the expectations that had been created by the narrative. By spring, the rate of improvement seemed to slow. “We saw some very early signs, and so we got optimistic,” said one doctor. “We were expecting a very fast recovery, and that’s not what we are seeing now.” Friends who visited her in late March worried about her struggle to speak. She pantomimed her condition. “Boo-boo, hurt,” she said and motioned to her right side with her left hand.

“What did you have for dinner?” one friend asked.

“Pizza,” she said.

Kelly, who was now always at her side, stepped in—he didn’t believe that progress came from evading difficulties. “No, Gabby, we didn’t have pizza. What did we have?” he asked. Giffords didn’t know what to say. He answered his own question. “We had salad, Gabby, remember?”

Occasionally, an “off-message” comment, as Karamargin put it, slipped into the press. In June, Carusone gave a stark account to the Arizona Republic: “With Gabby, what we’ve been able to infer and what we believe is that her comprehension is very good … Her words are back more and more now, but she’s still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing. Add it all together, and she’s able to express the basics of what she wants or needs. But when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that’s where she’s had the trouble.” For Giffords, the divide between cognition and self-expression was deeply frustrating. At one point, she broke down in tears in Kelly’s arms.


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