Its cover is dark. Some might say macabre. Michelle Herman’s Stories We Tell Ourselves jumped into my hands from its perch in the Psychology section of Joseph-Beth Booksellers over the weekend and would not be contained. I fear one day that the brick and mortar that allows me to sit and flip through works like Ms. Herman’s will be no more, but that is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t have discovered Michelle’s work had she not been a Professor at The Ohio State University in Joseph-Beth’s back yard, engaged in Graduate Interdisciplinary Specialization in Fine Arts. Right now what’s important is that “Seeing Things”, the second of the two essays in this work of creative non-fiction, highlights a condition that resides at the intersection of eyes and brain. The story begins with Grace, Michelle’s seven and a half year-old daughter, cooking together with her mother in the kitchen. Then suddenly, without warning, she stopped what she was doing and told her mother that something weird was happening, sounding more puzzled than frightened. That would be understandable, as Grace reported her mother to have become very small and far away.
That is … until she wasn’t any more. In fact, now laughing in a sense of wonder, Grace volunteered that her mother had become very near and unusually big. That lasted for about a minute until Grace noted that her mother had settled back into a normal appearance. “Wow. Wow. That was weird”, Grace said matter-of-factly, then picked up her spoon and got back to work. As unnerving as the experience was for her mother, Grace seem undaunted because it had been happening on and off for a week or two, and this was the third time that day. By description it seemed like some sort of zoom lens effect changing it’s adjustment without warning, always going from small and far to big and near and back to normal size again.
But the visual system doesn’t work like a camera, and this really is no “image” on the retina. There is light energy that the retina will begin to filter into messages sent through the optic nerve to the brain, which factors this together with input from other regions of the body in a feat of massive parallel processing allowing us to see. This is where psychology begins to come into play. Grace had been having difficulties about which Michelle wrote in another book, and long story short – she took her to a psychiatrist who determined that mother and daughter were too close and Grace needed to establish her own identity. That was a year ago, and Michelle wondered whether Grace’s visual perception of her appearing small and far away, without Michelle having physically moved, wasn’t somehow related to this.
Michelle dutifully made the rounds, first taking Grace to her pediatrician who found nothing wrong. She then went to the pediatric ophthalmologist who had performed eye muscle surgery on Grace when she was tow, when her eyes had suddenly crossed. “She doing great”, he told them. “Her vision is excellent – perfect.” When Michelle asked what he thought might be responsible for what had happened he opined, “Oh, you know, kids can sometimes make that sort of thing happen by staring at something long enough.”
In the elevator, on the way down, Grace asked Michelle if the pediatric ophthalmologist was suggesting that she was making things get smaller, then bigger on purpose. “Why would I do that? Why would anyone?” Although the doctor’s words were meant to be reassuring that nothing was wrong, the pediatrician advised that Grace have a CAT scan which proved to be normal as well. Although the doctors were satisfied that Grace’s eyes and brain were fine, Michelle wasn’t satisfied with an idiopathic diagnosis. Idiopathic essentially being doctor’s lingo for “sometimes stuff happens and we have no idea why”.
Now what? I’m afraid that will have to wait for part 2 …