One of my blog’s most consistently viewed posts is this one, regarding the portrayal of blind characters in books. Because of this, I’ve decided to do a monthly book review, alternating between fiction and nonfiction, beginning with this book that created quite a stir in the blind community when it was first released.
For the Benefit of Those who See
By: Rosemary Mahoney
I chose to review this book because of this article that made the rounds of social media nearly two years after its publication. I found it well-rounded and compassionate, at great odds with reviews of this book. After mentioning this disparity to a friend, I realized that I needed to read the book, to form my own opinion. Nearly a month after putting the book down, I still find myself incredibly conflicted by it. How can I be so awed by some beautiful friendships and inspired by the resilience of many of the blind students, yet put off by some of the awkward and inappropriate behavior and the fixation on everyone’s eyes?
Some Unnecessary Detours
The introduction to this book begins with a rather graphic description of an eye surgery. This is not for the squeamish. Perhaps the author uses this to reminisce about her own temporary blindness, how scared she felt. Then she uses this as a springboard to how she got involved with Braille without Borders. The first couple of chapters tend to jump around unnecessarily; I honestly found myself not caring about Rosemary herself, as her own experience of blindness was temporary and she was able to go back to her sighted life, with a seemingly perpetual fear of blindness itself. Later in the book, she describes the perception of the blind in wider western society, beginning in the eighteenth century and ending midway through the twentieth. The placement of this information was between the two sections of the book (the school in Tibet and that in India), which was quite logical, but the author didn’t cite any historical data from eastern countries, nor did she truly address the strides that have been made in western society in the past sixty years. It appeared that she viewed her ideas through the lens of a contemporary western chronicler, while not really addressing many of the true social realities that have historically been lived in the east. In these ways, the book takes off on tangents that may be informative as their own volume, but were cobbled together as a west-meets-east education model that doesn’t truly convey either particularly well.
I Did Find Inspiration Here
Unlike many other reviews by blind people, I did find myself truly awed by some of the students and their friendships portrayed in this book. I chuckled at the seriousness of the 12-year-old braille teacher, was touched by the young girl who persistently physically refused to allow a classmate to disengage by constantly praying for a cure, laughed out loud at the friendship of two loud and rather bawdy students at the school in India. Two young girls took Rosemary through a crowded Tibetan square, and showed her how they used their other senses to determine where they were; they were neither self-pitying nor constantly happy, yet they simply gave Rosemary the information they had. I was awed by many of the blind students’ resilience, not because they got up and got out of bed in the morning and did what they had to do with little or no vision, but they did so in a society that truly didn’t know what to do with them, and with little or no governmental or family assistance, sometimes fleeing truly abusive family environments.
Some of the behaviors described in this book were truly cringe-worthy. I would hate to see any other group of people walk around with tea streaming down the backs of their shirts, waving long sticks around, crying out how glad they were to be (insert disability/race/gender here). It baffles my mind that in one breath, the heart-warming friendships and terrific adaptability of the students are wonderfully depicted, then in the next some of these same students are acting with the social grace of a toddler. It surprises me that a confident blind woman who runs the school would not address these behaviors; if she had, perhaps the author could have described the strides the students were making as she did with their computer learning. But as it stands, my western mind just can’t compute the disparity, especially in countries and cultures where cleanliness and propriety are quite important.
Two schools are described in this book. They provide food, shelter, and education for blind students, both children and adults. My opinion on blind schools has been documented here, and yet I applaud the author’s ability to detail the complex nuances and ironies at play for blind students in Tibet and India. In cultures where families run farms, and sighted children work on the farm, their blind child/sibling has an opportunity for an education. It’s one of the few times in which blindness has its own unique advantage.
Fixation on Eyes
I grew very uncomfortable with the author’s seemingly endless descriptions of people’s eyes. Many blind people wish we could make eye contact, but are uncertain how best to do this appropriately. Some of us are self-conscious about how our eyes appear to others, and based on the never-ending descriptions in this book, we have every right to be. Very few, if any people, were described as having nice eyes, and it appears that those who did have “normal” eyes had their blindness questioned by the author because of their confidence and social normality (see above). If eyes are the window to the soul, I’d hate to think of how soulless we are.
There are some nuggets of beauty in this book. Unfortunately, they are dispersed throughout outdated, unnecessary, and demeaning information. Even now, more than a month after concluding this book, I can’t seem to get it out of my head. As someone who lives in the “world of the blind”, I object to the characterization of us – of me – based on what my eyes do or don’t do, and the truly horrid manners exemplified in these pages. And yet, I draw inspiration, perhaps as the author intended, from the depictions of deep friendships, of learning despite the naysaying of family and society, of falling down and getting back up. I am glad I chose not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that bathwater is truly quite murky.
If you have any book recommendations, or wish me to review books more or less frequently than monthly, please comment below!