by Rosemary Mahoney
Reviewed by Barbara Pierce
Little Brown and Company
New York Boston London, Copyright 2014
From the Editor: Barbara Pierce needs little introduction to readers of the Braille Monitor. Her service as its editor means that her influence on what we have published about blindness and the organized blind movement is unparalleled. Here is a book review she has recently written, one so compelling that I read the book before we could publish Barbara’s observations. Here is what she says:
Reading this book is a little like accidentally overhearing someone talking about one. The old saw has it that you never hear any good about yourself. That was certainly my experience of this book.
Rosemary Mahoney had a brief brush with blindness after an injury in college which affected her profoundly. She says that it was like being trapped in a coffin, a fate worse than death. Why she was attracted to write about blindness is not at all clear to me. It must be like the attraction one's tongue feels exploring a sore tooth.
Four or five years ago she accepted an assignment to write a magazine article about Braille without Borders, the school for the blind in Lhasa, Tibet, founded by Sabriye Tenberken, the blind German woman who with her sighted Dutch partner, Paul Kronenberger, founded the school. In 2014 she arranged to teach English to blind students in a school for the blind in Trivandrum, Kerala, in south India, another school established by Tenberken and Kronenberger. In this book she talks at length about her stay at Braille without Borders and her experience teaching in India.
She is explicit about wanting to learn everything she can about how blind people think and talk and carry out the functions of daily life. In addition she manages to work in bits of the history of the blind and to explore the problems of regaining sight after years of blindness.
I suppose that there is nothing wrong with such goals, and she seems to me to have done a pretty good job of reading and summarizing the literature about the contemporary understanding of the visual cortex and how it gets reassigned in blind people. This is the reason people have a difficult or impossible time making visual sense of the world when they regain sight.
The distressing part of the book for me was her fixation on what blind eyes look like. Sabriya Tenberken, whom the author very much admires, has beautiful blue eyes that look directly at the person with whom she is conversing. Sabriya also moves swiftly and unerringly through downtown Lhasa, never bringing her cane in contact with any obstacle. The other blind people are not so lucky in Mahoney's handling. In her descriptions their eyes twitch, are white or grey, or show other signs of their dysfunction. She describes in detail the various glasses that people wear. It never occurred to me that people might be taking painful note of my eyes. She made me wonder how distasteful people find my gaze. It is hard to find the words to describe how disconcerting all these descriptions were. So much of the book was devoted to these descriptions: I believe that every blind person discussed in the book is subjected to a minute description of his or her eyes.
Perhaps to compensate for all this implied criticism of her blind students, she cites examples of superhuman feats of blind people's sense of smell or listening. Sometimes these are plausible. One student recognized her in the computer room because her typing on a keyboard was faster than anyone else's. That seems reasonable, as does the students' recognizing her footsteps by their speed and absence of cane tapping. But smelling a glass of beer in a large room filled with people seems implausible.
Mahoney includes a number of what must be transcriptions of students telling their stories. These are quite moving and capture the range of backgrounds of the students in the Indian school. Clearly the author comes to love and respect the people with whom she is working, but one is left with the impression that she continues to feel superior to them—there but for the grace of God go I.
Mahoney's boyfriend, who suffers the same dismay when confronting blindness as Mahoney does, visits her at the close of the book. He is appalled at the distance she has traveled in accepting blindness and blind people. But the reader is still convinced that she wants no part of experiencing blindness firsthand.
The book is gripping and a quick read. Mahoney is an interesting writer. But when all is said and done, much of my fascination with it was like probing a canker sore. In short, reading the book was painful and disconcerting.