Sight Unseen: A Review by Catherine Kudlick, Ph.D.

From the Editor: Catherine Kudlick is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis. She deals herself with visual impairment, though surgery has given her more sight than she had growing up. She found her way to the NFB's philosophy when she was given several Kernel Books. Her research is wide-ranging and varied. It includes historical considerations of blindness in modern France and America.

Georgina Kleege is a writer who also sometimes teaches in the Department of English at the Ohio State University. She has contributed to the Braille Monitor. Her book, Sight Unseen, has made quite a splash in book-review circles. I understand that it will soon be recorded by the National Library Service, and it is already available from RFB&D. In the meantime this is what Cathy Kudlick has to say about the book:

Georgina Kleege's memoir, Sight Unseen, sent one early reviewer into a swivet. How, he demanded to know, could a woman who saw anything at all claim that she was blind? And, by implication, why would anyone possibly want to take such a negative label if it wasn't absolutely necessary? If he still had to ask such a question after finishing this marvelous book, he had clearly missed one of its main points. At the same time his indignation only reinforced what Kleege says throughout: "Denial has the power to sustain itself even in the face of the most blatant truths."

Kleege begins her memoir with the simple declaration that "Writing this book made me blind." She's of course writing for the sighted reader who she knows for an unthinking millisecond will tap into a vast reservoir of fear to assume that the act of putting pen to paper must surely have made the poor thing's eyes fall out. But soon she tips her hand: researching and writing about stereotypes of blind people in film, in literature, and in the social imagination more generally made her understand the importance of embracing this identity, if for no other reason than to dispel a set of ugly, persisting myths.

Kleege has lived with macular degeneration since she was eleven and has enough residual sight to navigate both literally and figuratively in the sighted world. In other words, she can "pass." But as a writer and college teacher in her early forties she quickly came to realize that the masquerade consumed too much energy in the name of making strangers feel better. Thus, to her private repertoire of low vision aids such as closed-circuit television and books on tape, she soon added the two public symbols of blindness, Braille and the white cane.

For blind readers who have dipped into some history and cultural criticism or who have slogged through the growing genre of books by people who have lost their sight, the early part of the book's discussion of literature and film covers well-trodden ground in a fairly standard way. It is clearly written, though, and straightforward. It provides valuable background for readers new to thinking about blindness.

The book's adventurousness comes after Kleege has laid this foundation. For starters, this is not your standard memoir. It doesn't tell a chronological story of pain and suffering, followed by triumph over adversity, nor does it luxuriate in self-pity. In fact it has a refreshingly nuanced view of blindness, since Kleege frequently reminds readers that it's her memoir and her blindness; she can't possibly speak for all blind people, not even for those with macular degeneration. Rather she sets the at once modest and daunting goal of describing to sighted people how she sees the world. Thus chapters explore everything from the meaning of eye contact in western culture to growing up as the blind daughter of visual artists to the new role for technology. ("Annie Sullivan lives on as microcircuitry and hardware.") In fact, much as she claims that this book is for sighted readers, to change how they look at blindness, it seems more delightfully subversive than that.

Kleege is a fiction writer who finds beauty in blindness. This isn't the usual trite drivel about blind people's gift for seeing things figuratively and morally that sighted people can't. Instead it's a celebration of all the physical and emotional details—the simple things that bring frustration, dignity, fear, pride, or even the slightly curled lip of amusement to those who think about the world around them. Kleege's gift sparkles on every page, particularly in her deft use of routine images to draw the bridge between her and her readers. "My blindness is as intrinsically a part of me as the shape of my hands or my predilection for salty snacks," she writes. "Some days and in some contexts my blindness is at the forefront of my mind. When I am trying on gloves or eating potato chips, my blindness hardly matters at all." Because they are so simple and seemingly harmless, there's something radical about these details that show sighted people that the gap isn't so great after all.

Those familiar with the NFB's philosophy might at first find nothing radical here. Isn't this merely the stuff of the Kernel Books and the Braille Monitor, written for a wider audience? Yes and no. Kleege's accounts of learning to be independent or confronting denial ("the thing about denial is that it doesn't feel like denial when it's going on") cut to the heart of overcoming, be it bitterness, denial, or anything else. She invites us to peer behind it, pick it up and study it, just like any other foreign object that one hears about but somehow manages to take for granted. Then she pushes us further by magnifying a visit to the eye doctor, a Braille lesson, a comparison of how readers from different services record the same book, a trip to an art exhibit or film, in such a way that—whether you're sighted, blind, or somewhere in-between—you never look at the world the same way again. The remarkable thing is that Kleege manages to do this before you know it's happening, a fact that must in part account for the early reviewer's swivet. Besides, it isn't nice for a blind person to put something over on a well-meaning reviewer.