BOOKS IN BRIEF

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto, Faber pounds 9.99. Born prematurely before his retinas had developed, Stephen Kuusisto spent the next 30 years attempting to deny his blindness - to pass as sighted. Raised in an atmosphere of guilt and brave denial by his mother, Kuusisto colluded and proudly "marched everywhere at dizzying speeds without a cane", cycled, sledded and buried those shameful glasses in the garden. Of his father he remembers, "Because I never discuss my blindness, he's content to view me as sighted. He is a man who believes in mind over matter."

Yet it was not an uncaring family, his mother, terrier-like, insisted on the public school rather than a blind institution believing it would give her son the greatest "normal" opportunities.

Sheer force of will propelled him through school, seeing only with his left eye by placing the book against the end of his nose for a maximum of half-an-hour before focusing became too painful. It was a lonely stigmatised childhood. He would shout out in the empty road to see if any children would play with him. Agonising memories are dealt with matter of factly. He is not self-pitying, but neither does he shy away from the pain.

Pursuing normality, Kuusisto stumblingly battles with literature at college and university, and wins a Fulbright grant to research poetry in Finland. The cost of being a jaunty, gregarious, independent world-traveller can be revealed to no friend nor lover. Were they fooled or did they understand the importance of the lie? Rather than dissecting their reactions, Kuusisto's narrative focuses on his inability to accept himself as a blind man. Over the years various offers of help are rejected, or more accurately, suppressed. He cannot risk shedding his carapace until he he loses his creative writing teaching post at the local college. Unemployment sends him into a terrifying downwards spiral and despairing, he seeks help.

So when Corky, a $25,000 guidedog bounds into his life, he gains far more than a canine companion. Initially he's worried that her excessive friendliness means she is too goofy to be trusted, but she quickly reveals herself to be a disciplined and precise worker: "I suspect this dog reads the encyclopedia in her spare time." Corky frees him his dread of doors, kerbs, hurtling bicycles, cars, holes and more holes, as she effortlessly navigates the unfamiliar.

Reflecting on his blindness Kuusisto says: "There's power that comes with admitting how little I can see because the world is more open and admits me far more graciously than it did when I was in my closet. But it's hard in a different way. You are watched everywhere you go, and sometimes I feel buried beneath the graffiti of other people's superstitions." But by writing a poetic, intense memoir he has illuminated the dark corners of a blind man's world for all to see and challenged those suspicious irrational beliefs - an inspiring achievement.

Comments