A few days ago we blogged about a memoir by Fred D’Aguiar that was reviewed favorably in the New York Times as one of three recent and sharply observed works showcasing how their authors dealt with disease. Another of that trio is Blind Man’s Bluff, a memoir by James Tate Hill. Whereas D’Aguiar’s memoir mentions visual challenges parenthetically, coping with visual loss is front and center in Hill’s down to earth self-analysis. Whereas most of the books I blog about were discovered by browsing in bricks & mortar bookstores, it was the Times review of Hill’s memoir that drew me in: “He doesn’t want people to know how little he can see. There’s comedy in this, and tragedy. One girl tells him, about how she never knew he was blind, ‘I just thought you were an asshole.’“
After a series of misdiagnoses, Hill was found at age 16 to have Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. His description of his residual vision and function is so prosaic that I will simply quote from the prologue, opening with a Dickensian flair:
“It’s better and worse than you might imagine. This is what I’d like to tell people who ask about my eyesight. What most people want to know is what I see when I look at them, and the short answer is this: I don’t see what I look directly at. If I look up or to the side, I can see something, and this usually fends off further questions. This answer allows people to imagine, however erroneously, that my blind spots are smudges on the center of a mirror from which I can escape by looking elsewhere on the mirror. Lies of omissions weren’t ones I hastened to correct.
Instead of smudge, picture a kaleidoscope. Borderless shapes fall against each other, microscopic organisms, a time lapsed photograph of a distant galaxy. Dull colors flicker and swirl: mustard, yellow, pale green, magenta. ‘That would drive me crazy’, a friend once said when I described my blind spots for her.
The most frequent compliment heard by people with a disability is I could never do what you do, but everyone knows how to adapt. When it’s cold outside, we put on a coat. When it rains, we grab an umbrella. A road ends, so we turn left, turn right, turn around. We adapt because it’s all we can do when we cannot change our situation.
I can still see out of the corners of my eyes, but here’s the thing about peripheral vision: The quality of what you see isn’t the same as what you see head-on. Imagine a movie filmed with only extras, a meal cooked using nothing but herbs and a dash of salt, a sentence constructed only of metaphors. To see something in your peripheral vision with any acuity, it has to be quite large. On top of this, my periphery isn’t unaffected by the blind sports.
Looking directly into a mirror, I am not without a face. My kaleidoscopic clouds permit enough light to see pronounced contrasts like my eyes, nostrils, the crease where my lips meet. Of the many mundane abilities my remaining sight permits me, I am especially grateful for the ability to feign eye contact. if not always as convincingly as I would prefer. The closer someone’s face is, and the better the lighting, the more easily I can keep track of the shadows between nose and forehead. A few inches from the mirror, I can gauge with some accuracy if all the coffee I’ve consumed has stained my teeth, style my hair, ponder the accuracy of the girl who told me when I was twenty that I kind of looked like Ben Affleck, which might have compelled me to defend the actor’s sometimes problematic career choices for the next two decades.”