This is the third installment of A Month of Blind Women, presented by LightHouse Interpoint and The Toast. Interpoint is the new literary supplement from LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco. Read previous essays at this link.
By Sheri Wells-Jensen
When I think of All The Light We Cannot See, the latest, most popular portrayal of blindness, there are many scenes that run through my head. Here are two, summarized, for your consideration:
In 1940, under the imminent threat of German invasion, a middle-aged locksmith and his twelve-year-old blind daughter are fleeing Paris. Everything happens quickly and their escape is urgent. The locksmith is working furiously, but, short of running her hands over a toy model of the city, the blind daughter does nothing. Her father asks nothing of her except that she use the bathroom, and so she waits, passive as an upholstered chair, while he assembles their possessions, packs their food, then buttons her into her coat, and leads her out the door.
Why isn’t this adolescent girl participating in her own escape?
Four years later, the locksmith is drawing his now-sixteen-year-old daughter a bath, despite the fact that there is a decidedly maternal female character just downstairs. The locksmith washes his daughter’s hair, and she is docile as he explains that he is leaving. At the end of the bath he hands her a towel and helps her climb onto the tile.
Why is a middle-aged man bathing his sixteen-year-old daughter, even if he does step outside while she puts on her nightgown? Who is this girl? Is she the heroine or the victim of the story? Does she get to be both?
This helpless, sexless child is the blind girl who is one of the main characters of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book which first enraged me, then began to haunt me and fill me with a kind of appalled despair. The book has raised neither widespread outrage nor offense in most readers. People love it. It won a Pulitzer. Book clubs are gobbling it up. Every morning, on my way to work, I hear ads for it on my local NPR station. And every morning, I feel the same gut-deep sense of despair, a kind of a mental nausea, as Marie-Laure begins to slide into her place in the public consciousness as a reasonable representation of what it’s like to be blind.
Marie really doesn’t do much for herself in the novel, and when she does her methods are decidedly strange, the reception she receives even stranger. She doesn’t put on her own shoes, button her own coat, or help out around the house. Her ability to find her way around her own neighborhood is constructed and controlled by her father, who builds obsessively detailed models, accurate down to the last park bench, for her to use in navigation. Until the model is complete, she does not leave the house alone. He watches over her as if she were made of spun glass and sugar. When, one evening, she dances in the attic with her agoraphobic uncle, we are told that “her two eyes, which hang unmoving like the egg cases of spiders, seem almost to see into a separate deeper place, a world that consists only of music … though how she knows what dancing is he can never guess.”
In case you don’t know, not a single blind person I have ever met would count thirty-eight storm drains on a walk downtown. We walk to work, to the bakery, and back home again and manage this without the benefit of a single 3-D model of the park benches we pass. We can also tell night from day. We carry our own luggage. We don’t need to use a rope tied from the kitchen table to the bathroom to navigate the inside of a house. And all of us know what dancing is.
But I am not here to complain about misrepresentations of adaptive techniques or tired blindness stereotypes. I honestly don’t care if Marie-Laure counts her steps, reads braille with her thumbs, hears the ocean from her sixth-floor window, or can detect the scent of cedars from a quarter-mile away. The assault on the dignity of blind people is not that this character has strange adaptive techniques, or even that there are so many things she does not do for herself; it is that she is utterly without agency as a character.
Marie does not even pack her clothes, not because she can’t find her bedroom or doesn’t know her socks from her pantaloons, but because she is simply not expected to do that sort of thing. She’s not especially timid or excessively shy. She is, in fact, intelligent and reasonably charming. But she is not the agent of her own life. Isolated, apparently friendless, she is led through her life by the hand and accepts everything that happens to her with dystopian magnanimity. She is moved about, remarked over, and admired, and she spends the majority of the novel in the apparently courageous and all-involving activity of simply staying alive while blind. She expects nothing—not praise, not condemnation, not challenge—and the people around her are glad enough to oblige. Even when she does manage to do something — to cast away a particular gemstone, or run an unsupervised errand downtown for the French Resistance — it changes nothing in her life, except that she eventually asks permission to go to school. Nothing really changes. She resists nothing. She asks for little.
She is my nightmare.
All the Light We Cannot See is historical fiction, and Mr. Doerr says in his numerous interviews that he did endless research while writing. You can tell he did read about blindness: He read about Jacques Lusseyran, a blind man who took part in the French Resistance in World War II; and apparently also about Geerat Vermeij, a blind evolutionary biologist now at UC Davis. You should take the time to learn about these two men; their stories are about active, joyful, curious, hard-working blind people, quick-witted and ready for a challenge. After reading their memoirs, you might think Mr. Doerr would create an engaged, vibrant main character who is blind.
In what feels very much like a betrayal of the lively spirit that inspired and motivated M. Lusseyran and Dr. Vermeij, all Marie inherited from these successful men was a degree of composure and an innocuous predilection for mollusks. Blindness is Mr. Doerr’s metaphor. Real living human beings—caring, active, blind human beings who are parents and teachers and artists and scientists—are not relevant in his story. And I can’t tell from his prose if he cares about that or not. (ed. note: Doerr first achieved notoriety with his portrayal of a mythical blind character in “The Shell Collector.”)
His defenders might object that Mr. Doerr’s depiction has nothing to do with modern blind people—he was creating a historically real picture of a young blind girl 75 years ago in a European war zone when circumstances were different and women of any sort had less power and less autonomy than we do now. Similarly, you could argue—and friends of mine have—that Mr. Doerr, as an artist, can and should create as his muse prescribes. I’ll happily grant that, too.
But art, whatever its genesis or intent, flourishes or fails in a social context. We decide — by what we read, what we watch, and what we buy – if the muse is worth it. And the fact that this book and its blind heroine won the Pulitzer says something not just about Mr. Doerr’s knack as a storyteller, but also about what sighted people expect from blind people. The fact that most people do not notice any problems at all with the depiction of Marie is sad to me.
Many a friend, perhaps in an effort to redeem something from the uncomfortable hour of discussing this book with me, has implored, “Yes, but other than Marie-Laure, didn’t you like the book?” I think they must want to preserve something of the glow they felt while reading. It was a pretty story, well told, right?
Well, no. Not at all. Asking if I liked the book in spite of the portrayal of the blind character is like asking, “Except for the dog turd, didn’t you enjoy that piece of cake?”
So why, you might ask, did I read this book? I have started and discarded dozens of books—some slightly better, some worse—because of their depictions of blind characters. It just isn’t generally worth my time to read insulting or stupid depictions of blind people. All things being equal, I’d rather clean the catbox. But I made myself finish this one, hoping for some resolution. I kept reading because this one will not quietly go away.
I am an associate professor of linguistics in the English Department at Bowling Green State University, where Anthony Doerr received his Master’s degree in creative writing in 1999, the year before I arrived on campus. I understand that he was quite well regarded at BGSU, and has since been named among our 100 top alumni. Although we have never met, he is respected by my colleagues and liked by many of my friends. And because of this book, he will most likely return to BGSU some day, probably to give the commencement speech, and then I’ll have to decide what to do. (My choices range from confronting him angrily in the East Hall lounge to hiding under my desk for the duration of his stay. Both options have their appeal!) Would meeting a real, competent, employed blind person change his approach to writing blind characters? Would that make a difference? Or are the cultural stereotypes—and the permission to use them—just too powerful?
The answers to those questions, although fascinating to me on both a personal and a professional level, don’t matter. And my inclination to spit fire or curl up under my desk is not as important as the conversation we, as a society, should be having about what matters to us and how what we see in the media impacts our lives. Art is important. It is an echo of the real world, capturing our perceptions and reflecting them back to us. And what do we discover reflected in the story of Marie-Laure? A well-crafted homage to destructive stereotypes about blindness, softened and made pretty by artful prose.
There’s nothing pretty about the reality of prejudice, and there’s nothing soft about the lives of disabled people who have been taught that they have neither the right nor the power to run their own lives. Art does matter because it not only reflects what we believe, it also helps establish those beliefs. And if an artist is unsure how to authentically portray blind people, then it falls to the community to begin the conversation, because we do not have “eyes like the egg cases of spiders,” we can put on our own shoes, and we do, in fact, have reason to know what dancing is.
Sheri Wells-Jensen is a professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University.