Who hasn’t seen a blind person crossing the street and wondered: How awful to be unable to appreciate the beauty of nature, to read, to recognize faces, to live independently? Most of us quickly brush those unpleasant (and misinformed) thoughts aside. But Rosemary Mahoney didn’t.
Mahoney, a native of Milton and author of several works of nonfiction including “A Likely Story: One Summer With Lillian Hellman’’ and “Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff,’’ explores blindness in her new book, “For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind.’’
Mahoney’s book takes its title from an essay detailing the rich and active life of a blind man by 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot. “Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See,” Mahoney notes, was “probably the first formal investigation of and appreciation for a blind person as an intelligent, capable human being.”
Over two centuries later, Mahoney immersed herself in the world of the blind by visiting Braille Without Borders, a school in Tibet, and teaching English for three months at its sister school in southern India, an experience which serves as a focus for the book.
Both schools were cofounded by a blind German woman named Sabriye Tenberken, whose energy and intelligence, Mahoney admits, surprised her as much as these qualities in a blind man did Diderot. “[H]ow ossified and entrenched society’s judgments are on this subject and how little they have changed with the passage of time,” Mahoney concludes.
Throughout history and in art and literature the blind have been mythologized, demonized, pitied, and scorned, Mahoney notes. In developing countries, where 90 percent of the blind live, superstitions about the condition are pervasive, and blind children are often considered economic liabilities by families.
India would seem a particularly challenging and rewarding place to teach blind students but, Mahoney acknowledges, neither India nor teaching attracted her. Rather, she writes, “I was teaching at this school solely because I had developed a strong curiosity about blindness and wanted to meet blind people . . . to get to know them, to find out how they think . . . how they talk and eat and dress.”
Mahoney’s curiosity, inspired by her own “morbid fear” of losing her sight, led her to investigate many aspects of blindness. Particularly fascinating are her accounts of the founding of the Perkins School for the Blind (now in Watertown) and her review of rare cases in which sight was restored — and not entirely welcome.
Mahoney’s work with blind students yields interesting observations, such as that sight, which she terms a “slick and overbearing autocrat,” can actually impair other senses. She notes that totally blind students often had an easier time navigating than partially sighted classmates whose ability to feel, smell, and hear were less keen.
But some of Mahoney’s observations about the blind, such as that their vocabulary includes visually-oriented words like “see,” seem banal. And often she generalizes too broadly from her experience with a few students, or patronizes the blind by highlighting their friendships and flirtations — as if their normal human interactions were somehow surprising.
Mahoney begins with an engaging anecdote about witnessing her boyfriend’s eye surgery. She then describes an eye injury she sustained in college. These passages, plus the many about her time in Tibet and India, invite us to read “For the Benefit of Those Who See,” at least in part, as personal narrative.
But Mahoney doesn’t examine herself as closely as she might. For example, she declares her fear of blindness without really probing it. Oliver Sacks’s “The Mind’s Eye’’ and Stephen Kuusisto’s “Planet of the Blind,’’ both of which Mahoney refers to, are compelling memoirs about blindness, not merely because their authors have visual loss but because they are deeply honest. In several moving moments, such as when Mahoney mentions the loneliness she felt as a sighted person among the blind, she makes us wish she’d followed the advice she offers her students, to “write more about yourselves.”