Curiosity thrives around what goes unseen. I spent hours under anesthesia for eye surgery. All lost time. No recordings from the OR, but still I wish to watch one. This wish resurfaced when I read about an eye surgery told by Rosemary Mahoney in her book, For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind. The procedure showcased the delicate nature of eyes. From there Mahoney takes the reader on a trip to meet blind students in the Braille Without Borders (BWB) program in Tibet and to teach English at its school in India. The account filled with personal experience and interviews as well as history becomes an insightful journey.
Mahoney’s immersive first-person writing style drops the reader into environments alongside people she encounters. She illuminated situations like navigating a bustling city with vision loss with clarity. While my vision loss makes me wonder about the wider blind community, I think the public’s general ignorance about blindness allows this book to possess broad appeal. It captures the desire to know.
Seasoned writer Mahoney builds character in skillful interviews, notably BWB founder Tenberken whom she paints as strong and poised. “Nobody can insult me with blindness because I am proud to be blind” Tenberken says as she navigates the school grounds and beyond. She went on to explain, “Not until I accepted my blindness did I begin to live.” The school founder wants to educate people, saying:
“People don’t understand we’ve had years to adapt to compensate for blindness. To close your eyes and fear the darkness is not the same as living with sight loss. They are distracted by beauty. Blind people aren’t distracted by the superficial issue.”
The portrayal of Tenberken as confident and capable leaves me wanting more. I must seek out Ms. Tenberken’s book, My Path Leads to Tibet.
Mahoney pairs conversations with sensational events, purposely minimizing vision. She realizes eyes distract. Yet a conclusion about a temple experience reveals her hesitation to believe truth in non-visual stimuli. “How could I know what is really going on here without seeing that? I can imagine, yes, but as fabulous as imagination is there’s no substitute for sight.”
With empathy Mahoney unpacks historical legends at the root of societal revulsion of blindness through considerable research. It puts experiences in context, uncovers stigmas and misinformation and compliments her rich observations of Tibet and India.
The sparkle of Mahoney’s part reportage, part memoir faded at times when I felt “other” identifying as a person with vision loss. For example, she quells her nervousness of meeting Sabriye Tenberken because in photos, “she looked normal enough.” Another off-beat was the prevalence of eye description. Perhaps this would be overlooked in my sighted years, oblivious to how American culture fixates on physical appearances, on judgments via a notion of beauty rather than character. Mahoney describes the schoolyard in Tibet beautifully, mentions student activity and location, and then the eyes. Phrases like “most of them look blind” struck me. Words like sunken, jittery, and damaged reinforce the shock when people tell me I don’t, “look blind.” It brings up the odd situation of passing as sighted and it’s dangerously close to shaming uncontrollable physical differences.
Mahoney writes as a compassionate and genuine person, early on she admits to her ignorance of blindness. I respect her honesty. However, in the broader arena of disability writing, it’s past due for people with disabilities to speak without interpretation. The passages of speech from people living with blindness gripped me. The lack of more firsthand perspectives in accounts like For the Benefit of Those Who See feels like a faint echo of separation in past American generations. Oh, “the blind,” those other people far away in a world so different from “ours.” When we fail to emphasize how humans are more alike than different the false divide between a sighted world and a world of the blind remains in literature and society.
We sit 25 years past the signing of the ADA. Schools and workplaces and transportation and living arrangements stand more integrated. But the ADA is not international law. The fact is, as Mahoney shows, the students attending BWB sought a refuge from societies which actively shunned, abused, and devalued them. They chose self-segregation, the haven of a country’s first school to educate blind students to survive. With the skills they learn together, they will return as advocates to their communities. That’s resilience.
While I found For the Benefit of Those Who See interesting, well-meaning and a worthwhile read, in hindsight essays from students and staff members living with vision loss mixed with Mahoney’s recollections and historical context would be preferred for curiosity regarding blindness. As it’s said in the book, “The widely held assumption that blindness is only filled with loss is quickly corrected by the testimony of the blind themselves.”
Have you read For the Benefit of Those Who See? Do you enjoy memoirs and travelogues? What are your thoughts on books about blindness and characters with visual impairments? Tell me about it.
Note: visit the website to learn more about Braille Without Borders.