Review: Privileged Hands: An Autobiography

by Brian Buhrow

 

Brian BuhrowFrom the Editor: For several years now I have been looking for one of our scientifically inclined members to review Geerat Vermeij's wonderful autobiography, Privileged Hands. Even if one knows little about shells and expects to care less, this book is riveting. Dr. Vermeij addressed the 1988 convention of the National Federation of the Blind and has clearly embraced the NFB's philosophy of capacity and independence, as he acknowledges in one passage of his autobiography, in which he commends the NFB for its work and attitudes.

Finally this winter I approached Brian Buhrow, Chairman of the NFB's Research and Development Committee, and he cheerfully agreed to read the book and reflect on it for us. Like me, Brian found Privileged Hands a fascinating and inspiring read. Here is what he says:

 

As many readers of the Braille Monitor already know, one of the primary tenets of NFB philosophy is that blindness can be reduced to the level of a mere nuisance and that the physical characteristic of blindness itself does not prohibit a person from living a full and productive life in society and participating on terms of equality with his or her sighted peers. Instead the social limitations placed on those who happen to be blind by sighted society often put them in a position where they limit themselves, not through physical inability to accomplish what they want, but because they come to feel, as society does, that they can't.

Geerat Vermeij, in his autobiography Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life (Br10669 and RC 42911), describes in vivid and entertaining prose just how he broke out of the bonds of society as a blind person and into the world of ecology, malacology, and biology. He tracks his history from his days as a young blind boy growing up in post-World War II Holland through his current appointment as professor of geology at the University of California at Davis. His story serves as a guide to younger blind folks with an interest in science and sighted folks who want to know what blind people are capable of doing, and it serves as a reminder to everyone that blind people are just about like everyone else in society, except that they happen to be blind.

As Vermeij takes us through his childhood, he keeps us aware of his blindness by describing his surroundings in vivid detail--that is, from the perspective of a blind person. His descriptions of his days in Gouda are filled with smells, sounds, textures, and specific street addresses. No colors, descriptions of the surrounding countryside from a sighted perspective, or descriptions of what people wore are to be found in these pages. Yet I do not believe that readers of this book will feel strongly that significant details were left out of the description of Vermeij's environment. Rather I think people will do what they always do and fill in the blanks using their imaginations and forget that Vermeij uses sounds and smells to paint landscapes rather than sight and color.

This point is significant because it reminds us again that sight is not needed to enjoy the full human experience, nor is it needed to convey that experience to readers. As Vermeij describes the "...sweet aroma of decaying leaves and the fermenting crab apples...interrupted briefly by car fumes" as he walks to elementary school, one can picture the quiet country road where occasional cars pass through the autumnal atmosphere.

Another tenet of NFB philosophy shows up early in this book as well. The author stresses the support he received from his family and teachers from a very young age. "...My family effectively broke through the information barrier by making available the full richness of the print media to me." He also talks of how his parents took him out into the country and exposed him to nature. His father, who was very interested in horticulture, enabled his children, Vermeij and his older brother Arie, to experience the full richness of their European countryside. Through long walks, bicycle rides, collecting natural objects, and a desire to have Vermeij touch everything possible, his parents were able to instill a sense of curiosity and a love of nature at the same time.

Another aspect of this support was the expectation that young Vermeij would be as responsible as the other members of the family or class for daily chores. If Vermeij fell down and skinned his knee while performing some family chore, oh well, he'd just have to be more careful next time. Vermeij summed it up in the old Dutch proverb which says, "Ik ken niet, zei de dwas, en daarom kon hij niet" (I cannot, said the fool, and that is why he could not.)

In addition to support from his family, Vermeij received excellent Braille and scholastic instruction from the Prins Alexander Stichting Boarding School in Huis Ter Heide. This instruction, along with his love of reading and his family's willingness to Braille all they could, meant that Vermeij was widely read for his age by the time he left boarding school and moved to the United States, where he finished growing up in New Jersey.

Once Vermeij introduces us to the building blocks of his life as a blind child and the various techniques he learned in order to function, he turns to the task of showing us how he applied those techniques toward his interest in natural history as he worked his way toward college in the United States. He takes us through the process of collecting, sorting, and cataloguing various collections of shells, plants, and rocks; through days of fishing with his brother Arie; planting and measuring the growth of various plants and herbs; and finally deciding on Princeton University as a place to get his foot in the door and begin his career as a malacologist.

Dr. Vermeij examining shells with his hands.Throughout this journey Vermeij details simply and clearly the alternative techniques he used to get the job done. He describes how he learned to work with readers, develop working relationships with lab partners, and earn the trust and confidence of his professors.

What makes this journey interesting, however, is not so much how he was able to break into a new scientific field in the mid 1960's, but rather that blindness was not, and should not have been, his overriding concern. For every page Vermeij spends discussing aspects of the way blindness affected his progress into and through his career, he spends at least ten times that many discussing the various theories, questions, scientific puzzles, and his own personal development as an academic in the process of becoming a full-fledged professor. Through these pages we learn his theories on the reasons shells differ in various environments around the globe; what it's like to work as a scientist in Guam, the Philippines, the Galapagos Islands, Canada, Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands; how he developed his ideas on evolution and adaptation; and, through it all, how he dealt with the few barriers presented by his blindness. In short, we meet a man who is obsessed with science and the full life it has to offer and who happens to be blind.

Although Vermeij admits that he spent little time developing a social life in high school and during his undergraduate career, he more than made up for it later by traveling around the world performing field work as a scientist, meeting and marrying his wife Edith, and raising his daughter Hermine.

In short, Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life is a book which describes the life of a shining role model of the NFB's philosophy. It documents how to apply that philosophy to everyday living, where to place it in the context of getting on with one's life, and it details how the NFB helps with the process of making blind people successful, first-class citizens. In addition, it is a fascinating view into the mind of a leading scientist in his field and gives a glimpse into the depth and richness of a discipline which involves applying highly technical and political skills in a variety of innovative ways.

I would recommend this book to any blind person who wants to know if he or she can succeed in a competitive environment, whether it be law, science, or letters. I would also recommend it to anyone sighted who doubts whether or not blind people can make it on terms of equality in a sighted world. The prose is written with clarity, feeling, and a fervor which makes it clear that the author speaks from real-life experience and that he believes not only that blind people are capable of competing on terms of equality with the sighted but that they must compete. He recounts the way he did it and leads the reader into the exercise of determining how he or she will do it. Read what Geerat Vermeij has to say, and I believe you'll agree that he's right. The blind have an absolute right to be admitted as first-class citizens into society and an absolute responsibility to take that role seriously by working to first-class standards of competition and responsibility. In addition, you'll meet a humorous punster who lays out innumerable tidbits for his readers to savor and enjoy.