I am a sort of second cousin to Henry, the time-traveler in The Time-Traveler’s Wife. This may seem surprsing, since Henry is a muscular coke-snorting hipster who can (and will) beat you up or pick your pocket, but here’s how it works. Once my friend K was talking about an old boyfriend T, listing all the reasons why she had had to dump him. I noted that T sounded exactly like me, and K said “I’m glad you said it before I had to.” Some time later, another person was talking to me about TTW and said “Henry really reminds me of K’s old boyfriend T.” Weird–sort of like the fact that Carl Bernstein has been played in the movies by both Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.
Just the other day, reading,Susan Krieger’s Traveling Blind: Adventures in Vision with a Guide Dog by My Side, I realized that Henry does indeed have something in common both with me and with Krieger, a 60ish legally-blind Stanford professor whose book recounts road trips to New Mexico with her “intimate partner” Hannah and her guide dog. For the distinctive feature of Henry’s time-travel is that his clothes and wallet don’t travel with him; arriving at random locations naked and penniless, he copes by learning to fight and steal. Krieger and I haven’t taken up Henry’s transgressive strategies, but one of the cenral realities of being disabled is that you are conspicuous and vulnerable: you attract attention whether you want it or not, you may have to ask strangers for help, and you may find yourself in danger.
Krieger is admirably honest about the fear and anger that go along with her disability, the frustration at not being able to find the bathroom in a restaurant or at tripping over the irregular curbs on a Mexican street, or simply at knowing people are staring at her and not being able to read their faces. This last is particularly complicated for Krieger as a Jewish lesbian who already feels herself to be an outsider in straight Christian rural America.
Krieger balances her account with a recognition of what vision loss has brought her. For one thing, there is the pleasure of still being able to see what she can, a mountain or Christmas lights, and an awareness that most sighted people lack, of the massive processing and analysis that turns a pattern of light and dark into a comprehensible image. Just as one only becomes aware of the nature of language by trying to learn a foreign language, one become aware of the nature of vision when it becomes slow and laborious.
Loss of sight has also brought her the generosity of Hannah and Teela. To the extent that the book has a story, it is the story of Krieger’s struggles with trust and the loss of independence. She finds it hard to accept help, frequently refusing Hannah’s offers of guidance and even insisting on telling Hannah where to park the car. I would have thought that this would be harder for men, in a culture that tells boys they must be rugged individualists, but it seems that Krieger has a lot invested in self-reliance (perhaps as a protest against the stereotype of female dependence); in any case, though I too hate to feel useless, I have no problem asking Shelley to do the things that I can’t do. This probably has as much to do with Shelley as with me–there can’t be many disabled people who are never made to feel that their disability is a drag on their spouse. Shelley always lets me feel that my contributions are as valuable as hers, and who am I to contradict her? It is also true that, in my view, self-reliance is vastly overrated and reciprocity underrated.
I’m not sure if most people would find Krieger’s book interesting, since her writing is rather pedestrian and repetitious, but of course it has a special interest for me. There were also some intriguing tidbits here and there, as with any frank account of someone’s life. Here is one (Krieger is at a party at an art museum):
…she looked straight. They all did, although perhaps I could not see the subtle clues that would lead me to make a distinction–the presence or lack of makeup, the way a woman smiled, a direct look to her eyes. Still, I would see the big clues, I thought, such as a defiant stance or a very butch haircut.
I’ll definitely be asking all my lesbian friends to do a defiant stance for me–perhaps this could be an album on Facebook.