For the Benefit Of Those Who See

Dispatches from the World of the Blind

by Rosemary Mahoney

For the Benefit of Those Who See

Hardcover, 287 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $27 | purchase

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NPR Summary

Inspired by a visit to the first school for the blind in Tibet, the author investigates the cultural history of blindness, revealing the sightless' resilience, strength and ingenuity, and the oppression they've faced around the world.

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Excerpt: For The Benefit Of Those Who See

Vision

Not long ago I accompanied my boyfriend to Jerusalem for his laser eye surgery appointment. From Cyprus, where Aias lives, Israel is a forty-minute flight; you've hardly taken off from Larnaca's tiny airport before you're skidding to a landing again at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The surgery took place in the private clinic of an Israeli ophthalmologist of considerable reputation. This ophthalmol­ogist doesn't smile much, but his mouth is slightly lopsided in a way that makes him look perpetually on the verge of a smile. He looks as though he is privately enjoying a mildly amusing joke, although after spending twenty minutes in his company one suspects there really is no joke, it's just the way his mouth is. He is short and stocky and neckless, and though his eyes are small and set close together, and though he doesn't truly smile, there is warmth in his face. He walks slumped a bit to the right, as if he has too much ballast in his star­board pocket, and moves through his clinic in a dogged way, like a weary commuter trudging through Grand Central Station at rush hour. His pending smile notwithstanding, I got the distinct sense that the surgeon was thoroughly bored with his job. At any one time there were approximately fifteen patients sitting in his waiting room, waiting for a first consultation or waiting for their surgeries or wait­ing, eyes bandaged, for their follow-up appointments. Each time I found myself in this room (I found myself there on three separate occasions), I could not refrain from counting the number of patients and doing a little mathematical calculation. If Aias was paying four thousand euros for his surgery, then the others probably were too. 15 x €4,000 = quite a lot. The ophthalmologist was possibly bored but certainly rich.

In first consultation, the surgeon explains the process with sen­tences he has used hundreds — perhaps thousands — of times before. His style is sleepily deadpan, which somehow lends him an air of in­controvertible authority. Probably because he is required to, he offers a brief overview of the possible negative outcomes of the procedure, that one-in-a-million chance that you will emerge from his surgery worse off than when you went in, that wholly far-fetched possibility that you might come out of his surgery not just your same old presbyopic self but plumb blind — or, if not blind, then at least optically diminished in one way or another.

After detailing these disturbing possibilities, the surgeon looks at you and blinks dryly, waiting for your horrified reaction. The dry blinking is a prompting of sorts, a cue, a wry indication that you have nothing to worry about, that it is extremely unlikely that you will go blind under his expert care. And so, somewhat intimidated by the entire enterprise, swept along by the rush of medical lan­guage and quite in the dark as to what it all means, a bit too polite to turn back now, the patient does not react in horror but simply nods and smiles with false detachment to show that, yes, of course, it would be ridiculous and perhaps a bit hysterical of him to think that he might come out of this costly surgery worse off than when he went in.

Before beginning his work on Aias that day, the surgeon asked me if I would like to observe the procedure from a small room adjoining the operating theater. From there, I would be able to see the surgery not only through a plate-glass window but also, highly magnified, on a television screen above the window — an exact broadcast of what the surgeon himself saw through his double-barreled microscope. Gener­ally eager to observe just about anything new, greedy for any unusual experience, easily seduced by the wonders of modern technology, and lulled by the surgeon's dispassionate manner, I said without thinking, "Yes."

Of course, the moment I saw Aias's eye — that most vulnerable of organs — tremblingly huge on the screen, I felt that perhaps I had made a mistake in choosing to observe. Magnified a thousand times, the eyelids looked like desert dunes, the lashes like wind-tossed palms, the creases in the skin like a hundred parched arroyos. The rims of the enormous lids were raw and pink, damp and very tender-looking, the blue iris so immense it looked astral, like an ex­ploding star, and the crimson blood vessels were dense and tangled as tree roots. How horribly exposed that eye appeared, how creepily suprahuman. In a sympathetic reaction of discomfort, my own eyes began to blink and water.

Presently a sort of screen slid across the eyeball, like a paper-thin sheet of ice, and then it crumpled and the eye was bathed in a foam of crystalline bubbles that slowly dissolved. Next, a metal clamp ap­peared, dug deep beneath the edges of the upper and lower lids, and pried them wide apart. And then a spade-shaped scalpel blade moved into view, hovering half an inch above the glittering eyeball. At the sight of this razor so close to the eye, I felt my face clench into a grimace, and my right hand leaped involuntarily to my throat in a nonsensical gesture of self-defense. I had made a mistake in choosing to watch, but having agreed to do it, I could not look away now — it was a matter of both stubborn pride and obsessive curiosity. The tip of the scalpel pierced the cornea at the edge of the iris and began to carve its way around the brilliant blue circumference.

Excerpted from For The Benefit Of Those Who See: Dispatches From The World Of The Blind by Rosemary Mahoney. Copyright 2013 by Rosemary Mahoney. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown And Company.

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