For the Benefit of Those Who See

Black cover with multicolored words form the cover of Rosemary's Mahoney's For the Benefit of Those Who See.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.

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28 Comments Add yours

  1. herheadache says:

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    This is exactly what we need more of.

  2. Casee says:

    I have hesitated to read this book because others have mentioned to me some passages that they found condescending if not outright cruel when discussing the appearance of blind people. Things like that make me angry and I just don’t know if the positive aspects of the book will allow me to move past such passages. It is still on my reading list but I keep putting other books ahead of it.

    1. Very interesting comment, Casee. Perhaps it’s universal to feel kinda dismayed when we are categorized by standards we do not create and/or value. I suppose intention holds much significances.

  3. Finny says:

    I listened to this book about a year ago. I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by it. While the parts about the folks who are blind were fascinating, the author’s attitude bothered me. It felt like she didn’t take the time to examine her own issues with blindness, beyond the fact that said issues existed, and left me, as a legally blind person, feeling very much left out of the narrative, so to speak. If that makes sense. I think I will stick to books written by blind folks, not about us.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Finny. Everytime I hear about a new book about blindness or onevfeaturing people with vision loss, my interest lifts. Sometimes the book delivers, sometimes not.

  4. Fascinating and balanced review. Shall look for this book. Years ago I read about, I think, a deaf/blind school in Charles Dickens’ Letters from America. I can’t find the exact reference now but it may have been when he interviewed Laura Bridgman (more on Wikipaedia!)

    1. Thanks, Bridget!
      Yes, Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation talks about his visit with Laura Bridgeman at the Perkins School in Boston. She was the first deaf/blind student to be educated in America.

      1. It banks, Susan. Now I can check it out. I hope I can find it reproduced online. Love exchanging info!

      2. Googling verified it is in public domain. You can download from Gutenberg.org but your library might have a copy, too.

      3. Thank you. I do have a print copy left over from Uni but would struggle to read it. May involve a grandchild to read it to me!

  5. JA Goodsell says:

    I read this and am trying to pick up Sabriya’s book. The anthropologist in me recognized several problems with Mahoney’s interpretations and I agree more work from the visually impaired themselves should be mainstream along with books like this.

    1. Thanks for your information, JA! Interesting perspective you add.

      1. JA Goodsell says:

        Thank you for such a thoughtful book review!

  6. Joy says:

    Hmmm….very interesting comments here! (and a thoughtful, intelligent review by the way!) From my perspective as a legally blind person, I have read many memoirs by people who are blind and going blind, so I actually was pretty curious to read a book from a sighted person’s perspective, especially about cultures that still openly ridicule people who are blind. There were definitely some parts that made me cringe, but mostly because of how ignorant the world can be. I personally reached out to the author and have messaged with her and can tell you that she has a deep respect for the students she worked with and for people with visual challenges. Whether that respect or her fear came across stronger is the issue, I suppose. I think she did come to a place of transformation throughout the book, even if she didn’t spell it out the way some would want. Considering Mahoney is a journalist and a descriptive writer, I felt like her descriptions of students’ eyes matched the detailed descriptions of scenery and other characteristics. Yes, perhaps she could have left these descriptions of physical traits out, or been more respectful in her word choice, but I think sometimes the way a person’s eyes look can be really shocking and off-putting to the general public. That’s part of the barrier we all face– living in a world that places judgments based on physical traits. If Mahoney hadn’t gone on to report all of the intelligent, insightful conversations her students engaged in, then I would have been left simply thinking about their eyes. Given the broad historical context that she includes, I think this book really digs at the tougher issues surrounding societal views, and that makes it uncomfortable to read. But I do think it’s useful to understand where these views come from if we want to move forward. Sorry for my long comment, but lots of thoughts! I do plan to read Temburken’s book about starting BWB and have a feeling I’ll find it more inspiring and uplifting!

    1. THANK YOU Joy for adding your thoughts to the conversation which I believe others will find helpful, too. It did seem like Mahoney was coming from a place of compassion in this book and was being honest about her own biases overall rather than bashing people with vision loss intentionally. Thank you for providing that extra, insider author info. And, you make a good point about how she includes so many things including attitudes towards blindness and allows the reader to contemplate those if we allow ourselves to continue past the eyes and consider a variety of perspectives.

      Your respectful and thoughtful comments are always welcome.

  7. Casee says:

    Thank you for your comment it really gives me another perspective. I know at some point I am going to read the book and I want to give the author a fair chance and not just rely on the opinions of my friends. I am not blind but I do have vision issues and without my eyeglasses my eyes look a little ‘odd.’ I remember as a kid trying not to remove my glasses at school so the other children wouldn’t see them and tease me more than they already did. The Coke bottle lenses were enough to keep them on my case. I probably am still sensitive about such things even though I haven’t had to endure that kind of teasing in decades.

  8. Excellent review Susan! The first time I heard of Rosemary Mahoney was, I believe, on Joy’s blog. While memoirs are really not my cup of tea I was curious and unfortunately forgot to look into the book Joy reviewed. Thank you for putting this author back on my radar, I’ll have to check her out.

    1. Thanks, Steph. Let me know what you think of it if you plunge in.

      1. Yes, I certainly will.

      2. For those interested, here’s the link to the great review Jenelle posted over on Double Vision blog last fall that Steph mentioned:
        http://doublevisionblog.com/2015/11/18/book-review-for-the-benefit-of-those-who-see/

  9. Susan, You and your readers might be interested in a recent full length documentary about The late John Hull ‘On Blindness’, I haven’t seen it yet but I knew John while he was losing his sight. He was a Professor of Education (theology) at the University of Birmingham, UK. A very intelligent and imaginative approach to blindness. Practical and with an unsentimental and sometimes humorous take on his situation and I believe the documentary is excellent. I think you might find it on http://www.johnhull.biz. Susan, apologies for bombarding you with information but your review really got me thinking.

    1. Superb connection, Bridge! Thanks for sharing the link as John Hull continues to be influential. RIP, Professor.

  10. Casee says:

    This is an outstanding book by John M Hull if you can lay hands on it. In the Beginning There Was Darkness:A Blind Person’s Conversation With the Bible. I think it was published in 2001 or 2002. It is well worth the time and effort to find and read it. Even if you are not a religious person his insights are very thought provoking.

    1. Thanks for sharing that book, Casee.

    1. Thanks for sharing link.

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