Disabled writer whose life inspired film bio dies at 52

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Mexican writer Gaby Brimmer, whose life inspired a Hollywood film biography starring Liv Ullman, died Jan. 3 of a stroke in Mexico City. She was 52.

Brimmer was born in Mexico City to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Austria.

The writer, who had cerebral palsy, could not speak and could only move her left leg and foot.

But with the help of her lifelong caregiver and companion, Florencia Morales, she learned to communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board that Morales had placed on the footrest of her wheelchair.

She came to San Francisco as a young child. Her aunt, a physician, found treatment for her with the leading specialists in the country.

"They really knew very little about cerebral palsy back then," said her brother, Henry Brimmer, a San Francisco resident. "They told my mother she would not live to be 10."

But she lived much longer and became an accomplished writer. She began composing poetry while still in junior high school. By 1980, she had written a poignant and powerful autobiography.

"How can I scream when I can't talk? How can I stop loving with the seed of a woman inside me?" she wrote. "God, if life is so many things that I am not, and never will be, give me the strength to be what I am."

Among her fans was film director Luis Mandoki, who eventually made the critically acclaimed 1987 movie "Gaby, a True Story," featuring Rachel Levin as Gaby. Ullman was nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award for her role as Gaby's mother.

"We all laughed about it a little because — well, a movie is a creation," Henry Brimmer said. "This was not a documentary. It was massaged to be an interesting bit of cinema."

Still "after years and years of people writing scripts that edged on kitsch, it was toned down to be a film that's actually not too bad." Brimmer worked on the script herself, her brother said.

When the movie came out, she was interviewed on "Today" and on other national TV news programs.

"The film had a lot of impact in the community of disabled people, which is international," her brother said.

In Mexico City, Brimmer was a celebrity. "If I walked on the street with Gaby, people stopped me," said her cousin, Dinah Stroe of San Francisco. "There are schools named after her, streets named after her."

As a young adult, Brimmer moved to the Independent Living Center in Berkeley, the first residence of its kind in the country. It was there that she met Judy Huemann, who now works in the Clinton administration as an advocate for the disabled.

Huemann and Brimmer developed a personal and professional relationship, with each supporting one another in advocating for people with disabilities.

Returning to Mexico, Brimmer founded an organization called Adepam for disabled children, and was lauded nationally for her efforts.

She continued to visit San Francisco frequently, and her family continued to help her obtain the best resources available, including state-of-the-art wheelchairs and specialized therapy.

According to Stroe, the support and encouragement of her mother, Sari Brimmer, was instrumental to Gaby's success.

Brimmer was "an extraordinary person for being so disabled, and that doesn't come about without a big push from a family," Stroe said. Her mother deeply resented efforts to sentimentalize Gaby's life, Henry Brimmer added.

Morales, with whom she lived in Mexico City, also helped Brimmer realize so much of her potential, Stroe added. One of the things Brimmer was able to do was adopt a daughter, Alma, who is now 22.

"We tried to figure out how old Flor must be now," Henry Brimmer said. "That woman was Gaby's hands and feet."

While she died at a relatively young age, it is important to remember that she long ago surpassed an extremely brief life expectancy, her brother said.

Donations may be made to Adepam, 74 Flores, Tlacopec, Mexico City.

In addition to her brother, cousin, daughter and Morales, Brimmer is survived by her sister, Mimi Greisman of San Francisco.

A funeral was held in Mexico City. Brimmer's family will hold a private memorial service in San Francisco in the near future.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.