BEHIND OUR EYES: A Review

by Sue Tullos Duffy, Champaign, Illinois

EDITOR’S NOTE: This book is listed in the NLS Talking Books Catalogue as RC 65632 for audio cassette, DB 65632 for the digital format and BR 17432 in braille. Readers with the required registration codes may download the book from the NLS BARD website.

BEHIND OUR EYES: STORIES, POEMS, AND ESSAYS BY WRITERS WITH DISABILITIES is the brainchild of Sanford Rosenthal, who for a long time has wanted to show that disabled people are more like others than society realizes. Disabled people, as human beings, feel the same emotions and have many of the same experiences that non-disabled people have, even though we must often do things differently. Edited by Marilyn Brandt Smith, the book consists of eight parts, all unified by the escape/journey motif.

In “My Health Care Nightmare,” Sanford Rosenthal narrates his horrific stay in two hospitals, where he wants desperately to escape from both. Admitted for breathing difficulties and concerned about the Naproxen his physician had prescribed, Mr. Rosenthal is already upset, and the hospital workers simply make things worse. They have no idea how to speak to or interact with a blind person. They tell him to “turn this way,” instead of specifying right or left. The pulmonologist displays his ignorance by ordering Mr. Rosenthal to “look” at the amount of fluid removed from his lung cavity.

His stay at the second hospital proves just as frustrating. Despite a sign in his room identifying him as blind, hospital personnel still don’t get the message. They hand him things wordlessly, as if he were sighted. When a nurse and a social worker literally pull him from bed, they refuse to tell him where he is going, even though he repeatedly asks. After outright rebellion, Mr. Rosenthal finally learns that the hospital needs to evaluate how well he walks, since patients in the rehabilitation center where he is going must be ambulatory.

In “Beyond the Call of Duty,” Bobbi LaChance and her two children barely escape being robbed, thanks to her protective dog guide, Wicket, who keeps the burglar “penned up in the kitchen.” The compelling dialogue and auditory imagery underscore the terror of the whole family, and the burglar’s fear of Wicket is palpable. On the phone with a policeman, Mrs. LaChance forgets her address, which her seven-year-old son fortunately remembers. Boldly, he vows to “protect” his mother and sister with his baseball bat until the police arrive.

Nicole Bissett’s two poems, “Prison” and “Ice,” describe both her longing to leave an abusive marriage and her loneliness in the world afterward. She hates her “prison” but recalls the good times, as she ponders both “freedom” and “colors” she can hardly see. “Ice” emerges as bittersweet. As air turns “colder,” she sadly ages alone. In “Madness,” Janet Schmidt seeks both escape from a psychiatric ward with its tyrannical nurses and her own destructive voices that taunt her for yearning to be independent. Valerie Moreno’s “Rebel with a Cane” recounts her first solo mobility trip, a walk home from school. She admits her fears, “sings in the rain,” and stands up to her overly protective parents, who insist that her cane belongs “in the closet.” Though deprived of television “for a week,” this blind teenager never regrets her first step toward becoming self-sufficient.

Roger Smith’s “Tell That Blind Man to Move His Truck,” relates the conveniences and inconveniences of having access to wheels. His article gives sound advice and is, simultaneously, a humorous travelogue. The blind person, he stresses, should own the vehicle being driven, pay for all licenses, hire only a driver with an excellent behind-the-wheel record, and, at all times, keep the tank full.

Michael Coleman’s “The Wandering Butterfly” is the tale of a trip gone wrong. He does not meet his traveling companion, “a friend of a friend,” until the trip begins, and she proves to be miserable company, “exploding like Mount Vesuvius,” then withdrawing into long silences. When she finally dumps Mr. Coleman and his possessions out in the rain, he finds a bed-and-breakfast near the sea and revels in a “more relaxing environment.”

Though planning is, to a large extent, possible in physical travel, more difficult journeys occur without warning. In “Will You Be My Mommy?” Ernest A. Jones relates his journey into and through blindness from retinitis pigmentosa. He must relinquish his nursing career, cope with and heal from his wife’s abandonment, and take care of his young son alone.

In “Make Lemonade,” Kate Chamberlin relates her often-painful journey into blindness from Eel’s Disease, the cause of which eludes her. Despite her deep religious faith, she nevertheless has many questions. She heartily dislikes her doctor’s instructions to “sit” and “stay” but gives up her nursery school teaching when she begins “bumping into the children.” She decides at last that, though she has no choice about being blind, she can still choose her reaction to blindness. She finds new ways of doing household chores, procures a dog guide, and begins speaking to groups about her loss of sight. But she never pretends that her journey is easy. Total blindness, she tells us, “can be intimidating,” and, for a long time, she experienced “nagging guilt,” because she could not be “the super sighted housewife” she once was.

The most frightening story for me is Brad Goldstein’s narrative about becoming a stroke victim literally overnight. He awakens “dizzy,” unable to walk, deprived of “understandable” speech, and can barely scribble a note to his parents asking them for help. Later, at the hospital, he can speak with them only by spelling out words on an “alphabet board.” Though he comforts himself that “this is all a bad dream,” and believes that he will “wake up at home” in his “own bed,” he realizes the next day that his stroke is painfully real. At just 25, he is a completely changed person.

Goldstein doubts that anyone “would like to trade places” with him and has no patience with those for whom misplaced luggage and late flights are the worst things that can happen. There are no “compensations” to soften the stroke’s effects.

BEHIND OUR EYES, then, portrays numerous journeys, and often rending glimpses into these journeys. Some are optimistic, like Nancy Scott’s “Keeping an Artist’s Journal,” and Marilyn Brandt Smith’s “The Best First Job.” Others are preparatory, like DeAnna Quietwater Noriega’s poem, “Dog Gone,” in which she imagines grieving for her departed companion. Still others are fanciful, like Roger Smith’s imaginative “The Team,” told in the voice of each of his four Seeing Eye dogs. This book is well worth reading more than once, and the biographies of the 27 contributors are very impressive. Bon voyage!