Yesterday I sent off a story–a rather sick and twisted tale that has disturbed the dreams of more than one workshop companion–to a reputable UK horror magazine using Submittable. If you’re not a writer, Submittable may be new to you, but if you are a writer, you can hardly avoid it these days. Submittable is the online hub of submitting work for journals, magazines, even fellowships. I’ve used it many times and have always been so happy and grateful that it exists.
Submitting electronically makes it possible for writers who are blind to participate in the vital, if often painful, act of submitting work without sighted help.
So, while submitting “Beautiful Limbs” to Black Static yesterday, I was aghast to find that, according to my screen reader, there was no button to choose a file or browse for one. In other words, I suddenly could not attach my story. And for those non-screen reader users, buttons are usually pretty accessible. I cursed and then asked Alabaster to mouse click the damn thing for me, and took it from there–the “submit” button was still accessible.
Then, as is becoming my habit, I wrote a note to the tech support at Submittable telling them about the problem and offering to help test any changes, a typical example of how I reach out in the face of such difficulties:
I am a blind writer and have used Submittable many times for submitting in the past (and also as a member of the editorial review board for Newtown Literary), and today is the first time I’ve not been able to attach a file. My sighted partner had to click the “choose file” button, which did not appear to my screen reader Jaws in Firefox, though the “submit” button showed up fine. Usually such buttons are no problem at all…
Please let me know if I can be of any further service, and feel free to have your developers reach out with any questions, or if they would like me to test anything out for them.
Happily, Submittable is awesome and I received an email within a couple hours:
Thank you for letting us know. We’ll get this fixed asap. I’ve also let our development team know about your kind offer to help them test the system. I’ll be back in touch when I get word of a fix.
Thanks again! Best,
Although I always offer to help developers test their systems, I’ve only received a taker once before, and that from the premiere screen writing software Final Draft, with whom I’m working as a beta tester, which is super. It’s just kind of sad that most of the time developers do not take me up on my offer. Why not? Hubris? That’s my guess until some one of them explains it otherwise….
I try really hard not to get frustrated by these encounters with lack of accessibility in the writing community, but it’s hard.
I recently filled out an extensive application for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, where several of the menus–age, gender, race, etc.–were not accessible, another frustrating case, as combo boxes and drop-down menus are usually very accessible. So I let Submittable tech support know, and asked Alabaster to take care of these, as the deadline was strict, and there was no time to wait around for a fix.
I also had him choose “Other” in the race box, so that I could type in, “I feel it is important to state that although I am white, I experience many challenges because of my blindness.” Disability is rarely included in statements of diversity, though I think that is changing.
Because the Emerging voices Fellowship is meant to help out traditionally unheard voices, I was able to press the issue further, into the short answers. For example, to the question “Explain why you think you are locked out of the literary establishment,” I wrote:
I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve occupied pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, but oddly, as my sight has decreased, the technology that gives me access to new books, journals, electronic submissions–in short all the things that are vital to a budding writing career–has flourished. Still, there’s a long way to go. even in this application, there are a few dropdown menus that are not accessible and for which I will need help before submitting. I run into such difficulties often, and I try to let web developers know, but if I picked every accessibility fight, I would hardly have time to write. Thus, in a very practical way, I have been, and often still am, locked out of the literary establishment.
Up until very recently, it was virtually impossible for me to gain access in a timely fashion to contemporary literature. This is part of the reason that I stuck close to the Early Modern Period in graduate school. Through my twenties and thirties, almost nothing was available to me, and now I am surprised when I cannot get ahold of a new book. This is wonderful, but I feel I have a lot of catching up to do with regards contemporary literature.
Even now, there is snobbery in the literary community regarding eBooks, which are accessible books. Happily, more and more prestigious journals–“Tin House,” “Ploughshares,” “Granta“–are available as Kindle books, but others, such as “Glimmer Train,” are not. The point was driven home in a “Publishers Weekly” article, “Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize.” In it, the founding editor explains why there will not be a digital version of the acclaimed anthology. “’In the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” which indicates a naïve understanding of readers and a complete disregard for accessibility. This illustrates how, even though the technology exists, there is an ideology that keeps myself and other print disabled people locked out of the literary establishment.
In a Catapult workshop I am currently in, we read “Cremains” by Sam Lipsyte, and though I enjoyed the story, my appreciation of the writing was tempered by the portrayal of Hilda, the blind character, who is fantastically stereotyped and badly drawn–I don’t know any blind people who can’t do their own dishes for example. Of course, as writers we will all be mistaken in our portrayals of the other, but until some corrective is offered in the form of blind people taking some control of their literary image, mythology, and metaphorics, not to mention the mundane bits of life that the sighted cannot know experientially, the stories will remain terribly lopsided both in terms of number and authenticity.
When I started my grad degree at NYU, I was given, for my nearly exclusive use, a little padded cell in the basement of Bobst Library where, in the beginning, I read books on the history of the education of the blind alongside postmodern theorists. It was black, or I remember it as such because of the black acoustic foam on the walls. The room was insulated in order to keep the electronic voices from seeping out into the quiet library. It was the A Level below the main floor and it, along with the B Level was open twenty-four hours a day, excepting holidays. This meant that studious NYUers could enter any time of the day or night.
These were the days before the several students launched themselves off the balcony, perhaps hypnotized by the interlocking pattern of colored marble on the main floor. I know that on the occasions I was up there looking down, I felt drawn, and could easily imagine the invitation, the siren song of putting an end to the interminable expectations of youth. While I was still at NYU, the gates went up on the stairways and around the balconies to keep this from happening.
As I walked across that shiny expanse that reminded me of a ballroom, I usually looked up not down. Although I thought how wonderful it would be to study up there in the light-filled spaces of the upper floors, my reading equipment was below ground. And so usually, I walked across the expanse to the bank of elevators that opened near my little room with its keypad code entrance just for the visually impaired and blind students of NYU.
If I looked left on my walk to the elevators, I saw the circulation desk and, in the first couple years I was there anyway, the card catalogue to the right. Later those very particular looking chests of pullout drawers with their little cards that held thousands of books–inaccessible to me since I was a very young teenager were replaced with a museum-style exhibition area with pointed lighting. No one would be using those cards anymore; every book would be catalogued online and accessible forever more, thank god.
The times I rode the elevator up instead of down, it was with my reader. We would hit the card catalogue and then troop around collecting my books. He would read some of those books to me–an intimate experience that deserves its own essay–but many of the books, especially those I planned to read from cover to cover and that boasted clear print, would get taken down to my little black padded cell to be scanned by an enormous stand-alone electronic reader called a Kurzweil. Today my Kurzweil software is in my laptop and I often use it to download books or occasionally to scan them on a portable scanner that is about the same size as my laptop, and it does a great job–big improvements in OCR over the past twenty years!
I kept a little pile of books in a plastic bag under the desk in my padded cell, and once, after a night out with friends–those were the days before guide dogs and white canes when I still looked normal and could mostly travel freely–I entered and scanned a book on the history of the education of the blind. I read drunkenly and while eating my bodega bagel, about Valentin Haüy’s dramatic discovery of ten blind performers, an account that always stands at the origin of the education of the blind.
Stumbling into a not-very classy entertainment venue in eighteenth-century Paris inspired Haüy to begin his path that would eventually lead him to found the first school for the blind. The scene of the blind men, gussied up and banging their broken instruments delighted the crowd. It may have been the Age of Enlightenment for the philosophes, but the rabble wanted their lowbrow fun! Here’s a representative version found in Journey into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind (1951:
“Valentin Haüy was strolling through the streets of Paris one autumn day in 1771, some years before his meeting with Maria von Paradis, when a crowd hooting and laughing in front of St. Ovide’s Cafe on the Place Louis-le-Grand-today the Place Vendome-drew his attention. This grave young scholar crossed the cobbles to see what amused the shrill-voiced women in ruffled panniers, the rowdy men in tricorn hats, coarse yellow cloth coats, black breeches and copper-buckled shoes.
“He stared incredulously at the mummery being enacted on a platform raised above the cafe tables. Ten blind men scraped their bows in pantomime, drawing shattering discord from violins, cellos, basses and viols. They stared blankly at sheet music turned on the racks so that the notes were visible to the jeering audience. Their sightless eyes were ringed with huge pasteboard spectacles devoid of glass. They wore grotesque robes, with dunces’ caps and asses’ ears. A Midas headdress distinguished their leader. A peacock tail unfurled was the backdrop for his operations.
“Lighted candles cast shadows on their weary faces and gave raw emphasis to their infirmity. … Every day for two months they had scraped, fiddled and kept up a monotonous accompanying chant, while their audience jeered, banged tankards on the tables and screeched bawdy jokes. Now and again a drunken couple rose and danced in the street to the fantastic music. The rowdies who gathered at night stormed the blind men’s platform and would have demolished it in their exuberance but for a cordon of guards called in to keep order.
“Already the place was being renamed the Cafe des Aveugles [Café of the Blind]. Prints advertising the curious show were sold by M. Mondhar on the Rue St. Jacques, with a sketch of the scene, an announcement, and some misspelled doggerel verse.”
This extraordinary scene is woven into the origin story of the education of the blind, and it continues to haunt me because, after twenty years, I still doubt I’ll ever be able to shrug the moment off as being alarming, inexhaustible fodder for art. Here’s the first piece I ever wrote for The Spectator & the Blind Man, first published as flash fiction at Danse Macabre.
When the first fat coin smacked my face, I had to admit Monsieur might have been right about his strange money making venture. Of course that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was, “Ow, what the hell?” And my second thought was, “Shit! Where’d it go?” I wanted to look for it, but I thought that if Monsieur saw me groping around in the dirt for it, he’d be on my ass yelling, “Get back to your banging and scraping blind man!”
The scoundrel had got us to agree to divide The take fifty-fifty, i.e., He would get half and the ten of us would have to split the rest. So I bet you’re thinking, “Well now, doesn’t that sound fair.” And of course we recognized the bamboozle. After all, we’d be doing all the work, making asses of ourselves etc. But here’s the thing: it was his idea. I mean, how could we have known you people would be so easily entertained? The sighted have very strange taste!
Monsieur had also got us our costumes and instruments, such as they were. But he hadn’t warned us about coins being flung at our faces, so after the coin bounced off my face and into the dirt, I decided to do a subtle reconnaissance. It was a delicate operation considering the fact that I was supposed to be playing the fiddle with the stick or whatever it’s called, and all that scraping and banging and yelling and clapping made it pretty difficult to concentrate on the business of my big toe.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m used to a tranquil or meditative lifestyle. I mean, I live with three hundred blind people who are constantly bashing around and messing with each other. It’s not the Paris madhouse, but it sure can get crazy in here! Still, you cannot imagine how damn loud it was at the Saint-Ovide Fair that night. There must have been a thousand people greedily imbibing our blind buffoonery!
Anyway, while my big toe was still looking around for my coin, I heard Jacques (who was next to me), go “Oof!” I guessed that he’d been hit with a coin of his own.
Then I realized he was crawling around in the dirt for it. “Holy horse manure!” I said to myself, “So much for subtlety. That guy’s as subtle as an elephant in a tutu. As subtle as that skinny, syphilitic whore with the oozing boob who calls herself Jubilee. As subtle as the paper spectacles rimming my blind eyes and the dunce cap with ass’s ears sitting on my head. As subtle as Denis, who suddenly starts braying like an ass! Seriously? Does he think he’s singing? Amazing. The stupid crowd is eating it up. This is war!”
I was not about to be outdone by that clown, so I wagged my head a little and trotted in place like a dancing donkey. It worked! People banged their tankards and cheered. Encouraged, I wagged more vigorously and trotted with gusto, and yep, brayed out some bits of song too.
All of a sudden the coins came fast and furious, too many to count. For a few exhilarating moments I felt like I had found my calling. I would be an entertainer. Make a ton of money. Delusions of grandeur, as ridiculous as any of Jacques’s, who always comes home from a day’s begging, convinced that the grand lady who’d tossed him a penny would certainly adopt him as her blind pet project.
I don’t indulge in that kind of bullshit, and I’ll tell you why. Because just when you think you might be able to do something other than live with a bunch of disgusting blind guys who are so horny they rub against anything that breathes, and smell like piss and moldy cheese twenty four seven, just when you think you might be able to get a taste of some other life, that other life jumps up, smacks you on the forehead, and says, “Get real blind man. You will never amount to anything.”
Case in point: The coins were flying, high velocity, dropping all around. Excited and reckless, I bent over to do, I don’t know, some kind of spastic crouching jogging thing, and slammed my eyeball, such as it was, into the corner of the music stand in front of me.
The music stands had been set up in front of each of us with their sheets of music facing the spectators. Nice comic touch, eh? But I’d forgotten it was there. Being blind is so marvelous.
Anyway, it really hurt. Started gushing. People laughed. But I couldn’t keep up the dancing donkey routine anymore. Besides, now all the guys were dancing. They’d realized it was solid gold. I heard later that Monsieur wanted more dancing as the crowd loved it, but by then I was feeling quite miserable, to say the least.
My mangled eyeball got infected, of course, and for the next six weeks I lay on my cot, certain I was dying. To add to my misery, the guys came back every night from the “Café of the Blind,” as it had been dubbed in our honor, with full pockets, whores, and massively inflated egos. They thought they were made, but I knew it wouldn’t last. And I was right.
After a month the crowds lost interest. Monsieur said thanks but he wouldn’t be needing their services anymore. He told them to run along back to their pathetic lives. (Our pathetic lives.) But at least they got that month. All I got was this stupid empty eye socket.
Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:
“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”
-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759
I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.
Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.
But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.
Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.
Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:
”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.
” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”
So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.
Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.
No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!
I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.
Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.
The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.
As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”
“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”
I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”
Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”
As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”
Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”
I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”
I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”
Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”
With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.
Catherine had been exalting in out of body bliss but the flesh sucked back. I must get up. She rolled onto her belly and lifted dizzily onto hands and knees. She executed a wobbly circle on the futon that lay on the floor and pointed herself towards the kitchen. A kitchen made for one in a studio apartment made for one on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but just exactly like so many other such solitary places she had sublet around the world.
Catherine opened the little refrigerator and slammed her eyes shut. The lurid light pierced her brain. She groped amongst the cold. She took ahold of the distinct jar. Then in the door, the bottle. She pulled it out. So heavy. How would she get these things over there by the window where she wanted to be? Baby steps. Her favorite coach used to say that the only way to do the impossible is to break it down into its constituent parts and tackle one bit at a time. Of course, in the end, you simply had to forget all and just let the horse jump.
With her eyes still shut, Catherine put the bottle in one hand and the jar in the other and slid them ahead as she crawled behind along the narrow path between the futon and the television. When she felt she could go no farther, she opened her eyes and saw the dim dawn filtering through the pale curtains. Her head felt so heavy that she wanted to drop it and the whole endeavor but willed herself to want food and water instead. If she did not fight her body, her mind would surrender to the calm inevitability.
Thankfully, the bottle’s top had already been opened. It exuded a small sigh. She lifted it and drank an explosive sip. She put the bottle down and held the bubbly water in her mouth, afraid to swallow. She lay back carefully, pointing her knees up in defiance of the desire to be prostrate. She tapped the count, One. Two. Three. Swallow. She waited, fighting with all her might not to wretch. Please stay down. The water felt positively poisonous Trampling along her esophagus. It pushed into her lower organs. This was the crucial moment. Though some would argue with her, she did not want to die. It stayed down. Give that girl a ribbon!
She let go the bottle and, still lying down, took hold of the jar. It was an unmistakable shape, bought during her first exuberant week in Paris. She had been eating then. But as the empty days of writing-avoidance stretched on, the old familiar lack of hunger set in.
A Paris month had barely passed when she’d begun translating Baudelaire, even knowing that, though it was gratifying, it was not her novel, merely a diversion with dangerous pitfalls. Almost as soon as she’d started translating, she’d stopped going out. Catherine recognized the signs, but the feeling that she was accomplishing something became her drug and she would not have gotten out of bed without the dictionary and Le Spleen de Paris to draw her. She rationalized that she was preparing for her reimmersion into University life, but it had all been superfluity. The disgust and fatigue soon weighed her down and pressed her into bed. She stopped visiting her desk. Dangerous time had passed.
This was precisely what they—the doctors, her family, her few friends—had all been afraid of. The decision to go to Paris in the summer so long before her teaching position started, with nothing (as they saw it) to do seemed to them an eccentricity fraught with foreboding. For Catherine, it was the writer’s dream. Three months of solitude in the city of writers!
Eyes averted to the ceiling, she unscrewed the top and stuck her index finger blindly into the goo. Then, extending the soiled finger away from the jar, she screwed the top and let the weight of it drop to the floor. She folded her hands, right over left over her ribs. Except for her knees and the straightened finger, she might have been a corpse.
An unsought memory put her eight-year-old self with her friend Michelle at the kitchen table of her family home surrounded by grey paper and charcoal horse drawing efforts. They were eating Nutella and giggling. It must have been a rainy day. Catherine’s cracked lips parted into a painful smile as she remembered the paces she’d put Michelle to when the days were fair. Catherine would set up hurdles and time her friend over them, all the while judging as she would have been judged herself in the children’s competitions.
It had all been so much fun then. When did it turn ugly? It had been gradual, that shift from love to loathing, but the beginning arrived with puberty, when the coaches turned mean and the friends turned competitive and the competitions revealed their ludicrous pomp. When the dream of starting fresh in New York City became a reality in the form of a Columbia acceptance letter, Catherine quit show jumping, suddenly and without explanation. The insular world had been stunned. Secretly she wanted to be involved in what she naively thought of as the real world. She did not want to move blindly through college as she had through high school, thinking always of the next show or the last. Silently she had planned to reinvent herself as a writer and intellectual. But the triple major and endless clubs and activities put her into a fever pitch of excitement that was not unlike her final years of show jumping so that, if she were very honest with herself, her metamorphosis had been incomplete. The truth became undeniable when grad school was put off for the first of her hospitalizations.
Grad school was reclaimed, but from then on, each time she moved, from New York to Russia, China to Honduras, she would think the loneliness and anorexia were gone for good. It was her fatal flaw to believe she was cured. That hubris that suggested sovereign power over self had been inherited from her father. But what fueled Mr. James Mirth, CEO extraordinaire, consumed his daughter. Inevitably, almost without her being aware, the evil twin pillars would rise again out of the seemingly smooth sea of activity and bar her way to happiness. Finally, again, she would have to be rescued from her far-flung existence.
Her family attributed her troubles to her excitable nature, and constantly tried to dampen it. They were not misguided. She had seen for herself on countless occasions that her enthusiasm was off-putting to people who did not know her well. And worse, though she felt it to be right to be passionate, her passions too easily turned into the flames of an insatiable furnace that burned up all mundane appetites.
Catherine had no religious convictions to speak of, but she sometimes felt like her anorexia had more in common with her saintly namesake than might be expected from the average intelligent, cosmopolitan, twenty-first century woman. As a self-examining humanist type, she hated that she did not understand this part of her. She considered her Nutella dipped skeleton finger. She considered her literary ambitions. She felt a failure. She was thirty-three and on the verge of dying a starved virgin in the city of food and love.
Catherine rolled her burning eyeballs to the left at the neglected desk. Could she ever admit this to her pen? Was it somehow lack of honesty that made writing so hard? Her novel suddenly seemed false, a translation of her show jumping prodigy childhood into a concert pianist prodigy childhood. Was it subterfuge or merely an attempt to write fiction rather than memoire? A lesser genre if you asked her.
Her head ached. She could not figure this all out now. The important thing was to fight the urge to give up. She did not want the story to end here.
Letting go of intention, Catherine lifted her hand and kissed the back of it, as you would that of an Orthodox priest, her hand even more boney than those consecrated Russian ones. Thrice she lifted and kissed and then, thoughtless, she put the Nutella into her mouth. Please. Stay down, she prayed to her body. Beneath the waves of nausea that threatened negation, she felt a feeble acquiescence echoing deep in her hollowness.
You kneel on the floor with two loop pedals in front of you. Above you hangs a projected red curtain and an empty spotlight. you say, “Oh, fuck it,” and hit one of the pedals, which causes The Star of Happiness theme song instrumental interlude to play.
“I was born with a degenerative eye disease called…” you hit the loop pedal twice quickly in order to catch “cone-rod dystrophy.”
“This means that, since I was ten years old, I’ve been going very slowly blind. I’ve occupied many positions on the sight/blindness continuum. I’m more blind than sighted now, but it’s not always been like this. Perhaps for you, going blind is the scariest, or at least one of the scariest, things imaginable. For me, thinking about losing another sense, especially hearing, is really scary.
“When I started reading books by and about Helen Keller, I suddenly developed a ringing in my ear. It was likely psychosomatic. (Wouldn’t have been the first psycho symptom I’ve exhibited.) Around that time, I had a dream: I was Helen, in the last years of her life when she was confined to bed by old age illness. We were insensible to sights and sounds As she had almost always been, but now, unable to move, we were deprived of the incessant, impulsive force that had launched her, a crazy deaf blind caterpillar, feelers electrified and electrifying, meteorically into a world that could not get enough of her, and of which she also could not get enough.”
Behind you on the screen, images of Helen from earlier in the show slowly spin around the projected spotlight, then break away.
“Now, after living nearly ninety years of a life that included such varied occupations as…” you pick up “political activist” and “vaudeville performer” into the loop and continue, “and ” after World War II, after America dropped bombs etc., she became an officially sanctioned, unofficial…” you catch up the following into the loop, “ambassador of American peace and good will,” and continue. “Two million Japanese welcomed her when she visited decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They loved her that much!
“but my dream was set in a time past all that, so that I experienced what it would be like to have a sensory existence that extended no farther than the cocoon like bedding in which we were wrapped. Excepting slight tremors and vibrations through the floor, And the occasional touch of an attending hand…” you hit the loop pedal, “THERE WAS NOTHING.”
“However, in the double visioned way dreams sometimes unfold, I was trapped in her immobility with her and seeing her inert body as if it were an out of body experience, without much height or distance. The perspective was split: both inside feeling out and outside looking in.
“The in-body perspective was that of the cornered small animal trembling with the desire to escape, that of the suddenly quadriplegic wishing impotently to die, that of the tongueless victim left alone to tell her tale.
“While the out of body perspective was that of the achingly detached observer, that of the nonsensical buzzing fly, that of the sole audience at a wake. From here, the bed on which we lie, appears, in my mind’s eye, to be a tabula rasa, our body a lumpy virgin landscape.
You put down the mic and hunch over your workstation on the floor. You feed Helen Keller quotes from one pedal into the other, adding to the increasingly chaotic mix. Above and behind you in the projected visionscape, images likewise become disjointed and frantic.
Helen says, “Every one of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to our fellow men, until our ears hear the voices of humanity.”
Helen says, “It is not required of every man and woman to do or be something great. Most of us have to be content to take small parts in the drama of life.”
Helen says, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”
Helen says, “I really care for nothing in the world but liberty, liberty to grow mentally and spiritually, untrampled by tradition and arbitrary standards.”
Helen says, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”
You hit the loop pedal one final time and the theme song plays its refrain, “Wonderful star of light wonderful star of light wonderful star of light…”
You are done. you look up into the audience, then crawl stage left as if you will exit, but stop at the edge to sit and apparently observe the strangely calm cycling of looping fragments. The soundscape grows louder while the lights, almost imperceptibly, grow brighter, until the stage and the audience are drenched in artificial light.
Out of the dark, a jewel box scene materializes; Helen Keller plays vaudeville on this top-billed set. The handsomely appointed drawing room, brilliant and color-saturated, projects hugely: French windows overlook rolling hills and a sky that will shift from day to night; drapes puddle on the floor; The Apotheosis of Homer hangs on one of the brocade-papered walls, and a lion-footed grand piano, atop which sits a vase of American Beauty roses, dominates the pretend room.
In your best announcer voice you say, “All the world knows and loves Helen Keller, the girl with the unconquerable spirit. She had fought her way uncomplaining against the greatest obstacles that ever confronted a human being. Today she is “The Star of Happiness” to all struggling humanity.
“The Star of Happiness” theme song plays and Helen, in a fantastically sequined gown that hugs her curves steps in with a huge smile. She theatrically sweeps her hand around, reaching for the piano, and runs her gloved fingers along its keys of light.
You continue, “Helen can feel the music not only with her finger tips but with her whole body.
Helen says, “It is very beautiful.”
“Miss Keller,” you ask leadingly, “can you tell when the audience applauds?”
She says, “Oh yes, I hear it through my feet.” Then, “Only…”
“Yes?” you ask, as if you didn’t know what was about to happen.
“They are not applauding?”
Your giant MC voice booms through the theater as you command, “Will you please applaud?”
The audience, putty in your hands, applauds enthusiastically, even more so and with little chuckles as Helen does her lying on the ground soaking in the vibes bit. “Ah, that feels good,” she says languorously. She likes to be a little bit naughty; it is not what those poor saps expect. “More!” she cajoles, and the suckers comply.
It’s time for you to play the straight guy. “Er, Miss Keller?”
“Yes?” she says, her eyes half closed. She looks quite ravishing down there.
“You feel the applause through your feet.”
Helen sighs, “Oh, all right,” and pulls her upper body up to rest on one hand, mermaid style. She looks left and dramatically sniffs the air, then crawls in the direction of the vase of flowers which sit on a block made up like a table with a lacey cloth covering. She picks up the vase of fake flowers, the analogue of that which sits atop the projected piano, and sniffs elaborately.
“Miss Keller finds her way from her second floor dressing room to the stage by following the scent of these roses.”
“I do love the scent of American Beauties!” She puts down the flowers and looks thoughtful. “So… Are you really going to make me say this next bit? I mean, who wrote this stuff?
She always balks here and you are not sure why. It’s a bit sappy, but you have to give them a little of what they want. “You did,” you remind her.
“I guess I did, but I believe Mr. Albee‘s man urged me in this direction.”
You say nothing, and she falls in.
“What I have to say is very simple. My teacher has told you how a word from her hand touched the darkness of my mind and I awoke to the gladness of life. I was dumb, now I speak. I owe this to the hands and hearts of others. Through their love I found my soul and happiness. Don’t you see what it means? We live by each other and for each other. Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Love can break down the walls that stand between us and happiness. I lift up my voice and thank the Lord for love and joy and the promise of life to come.” Helen gives a big woe-is-me sigh as the theme song comes up.
You recite for the audience the lyrics to drive home the point:
“Wonderful star of light
Out from the darkness of night
Sending down a silver ray
Turning nighttime into day
Helen throws her arms up like an air traffic controller, “Enough!” The sound of a needle ripping off a record is used to cut the song. “I’m not so sure about those lyrics.”
“What’s wrong with them?” you ask. You know the next line as well as she does, but it seems unnecessarily pedantic. She has insisted you let her keep it.
I’m just so sick of these quasi-religious, light dark metaphorics that pretend to give credence to the idea of compensation.”
A small smart titter is about all that line gets her, but you play along. What can you do? This is her show after all. “Compensation?”
“You know, metaphorical sight for physical sight. Spiritual light for the real thing. I just don’t buy it. I mean really, “The star of happiness”? It’s just so saccharin and Pollyannaish. It panders to the sap and sentimentality in people.”
You hate having to play dumb, but there’s no getting around it, “What’s that?” you ask naively. It’s time for the dance number.
“Hit it boys!” Helen pulls her white cane from a black sequin quiver.
The tiny Twenties trumpets blare as the song starts up, “Yes, we have no bananas–” Helen, right hand on cane, left hand up waving, makes a circle around her white cane. “We have no bananas today.” She makes her circle backwards, bum first, then lifts her cane, holding it horizontally with both hands. “We’ve got string beans and onions–” Helen kicks to the left and the right under the cane. “Cabbages and scallions–” she kicks a little higher to the left and the right. “And all sorts of fruits and say–” Helen shimmies the cane from waist-height to over her head. “We have an old fashioned tomato–” She lets go the cane with her left hand, which she places on her left hip, and twirls the cane above her head like a baton, making a funny proud face, which always cracks you and the audience up. Then she brings it down and stands with it in her right hand, at attention like a soldier. “And Long Island potato,” Helen puts the cane under her arm, as if it were a bayoneted musket, and marches loudly stomping in her heels in time to the music three times. STOMP STOMP STOMP “But yes, we have no bananas.” Helen puts both hands on her cane like Charlie Chaplin. “We have no bananas todaaaay.” Helen holds both arms out in a big-finish gesture and the audience erupts in applause.
“That was fun,” you say.
“You know,” she says, suddenly candid, “I’m rather tired of uplifting your spirits and being an inspiration.”
“What would you prefer?”
She walks determinately upstage and clears her throat. “Through a performative reading of disparate texts, I’d like to make some bold suggestions that force my audience to confront their deeply held, if often unconscious, attitudes towards the disabled body.” She smiles and lifts her head like a self-satisfied peacock, which earns her a chuckle or two.
“All right,” she says, and steps to the pretend table with its lacey tablecloth and moves the vase of roses so she can sit and cross her legs–rather shapely legs. She takes up her little toy drum and the prerecorded audience questions begin.
“Miss Keller, Do you ever tire of talking?”
“Have you ever heard of a woman who tired of talking?”
“Do you think women should hold office?”
“Yes, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to vote for them.”
“Well, sometimes I feel blue and sometimes I see red.” Helen makes her own BADUM BUM with her toy drum. This gets a good laugh.
“What do you think of capitalism?”
“I think it has outgrown its usefulness.”
“What is your conception of light?”
“It is like thought in the mind, a bright, amazing thing.”
“Miss Keller, Do you close your eyes when you sleep?”
“I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.” BADUM BUM.
“What do you think of Soviet Russia?”
“Soviet Russia is the first organized attempt of the workers to establish an order of society in which human life and happiness shall be of first importance, and not the conservation of property for a privileged class.” Helen pauses, then BADUM BUM. People laugh, relieved.
Helen pauses to consider, then, “To feel the other side?”
“Freak,” mumbles that voice.
She puts down her drum and walks towards center stage. She stops, slightly askew, as if a bit disorientated. “Well, yes, at first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same bill with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.”
You try to lighten the mood with a little historical perspective. “Helen’s act was, according to Hammerstein and other vaudeville producers, called an odd act. This was not strictly entertainment, but rather topical, newsworthy or of human interest.”
Helen grows wistful. She is remembering her time in The Play World, tipping her hat to the fact that this performance is pretend, and not so much like the original as all that. “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage, I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me.
“The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.
“I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotions, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.”
“That must be the hardest thing about being deaf and blind.”
“Not having a lot of opportunities to study life.”
“Oh yes, it can be complicated. . Having conversations with people who do not know the manual alphabet must be done through an interpreter or …
Virtually sitting in my interlocutor’s lap.”
“That sounds exciting.”
“Perhaps… In order to have direct conversation with someone who does not know the manual alphabet, one must put one’s hand on the other’s face, the middle finger lies alongside their nose, the index rests gently along their lips, and the thumb feels the vibrations of the throat. It is rather intimate. Not everyone feels comfortable with such a position. The men in particular seem to get a bit… flustered.” She looks down, as if to acknowledge her large breasts and how they may have contributed to men’s discomfort in her proximity. She looks back up, then, “Could you please excuse me?”
she exits and the pastoral scene beyond the projected French windows transforms into a shadow box–Helen’s dressing room–into which her silhouette magically steps.
Soft music plays–Me and My Shadow–while your conversation with Helen continues as if through the intimacy of airwaves. The audience is immediately hushed and expectant.
“I suppose my figure does not fit the angelic ideal people have of me. I understand my friends and publicists do much to downplay the fact that I am a woman and have breasts.” Her silhouette pulls off one glove and then another, dropping them into the dark.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I had one once… His name was Peter… His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation. The sweetness of being loved enchanted me, and I yielded to an imperious longing to be a part of a man’s life. For a brief space I danced in and out of the gates of Heaven, wrapped up in a web of bright imaginings.” The silhouette reaches behind to unbutton the gown. As she continues, she finishes and it slips to the ground. “We planned to elope but my family learned of our elicit plans and Mother sent my two elder brothers to rescue me from my silly adventure. They were right to do so… I cannot account for my behavior. As I look back and try to understand, I am completely bewildered. I seem to have acted exactly opposite to my nature. It can be explained only in the old way-that love makes us blind and leaves the mind confused and deprives it of the use of judgment. I corresponded with the young man for several months; but my lovedream was shattered. It had flowered under an inauspicious star. The unhappiness I had caused my dear ones produced a state of mind unfavorable to the continuance of my relations with the young man.”
“And has love never disturbed you again?”
She seems to wrap herself in a dressing gown hanging on the wall, but you can’t be sure. You’ve never been allowed back there. Sighing she says, “Recently the idea has slipped into my consciousness, by way of a letter from a gentleman. It is in fact a proposal. I am flattered, but I am no longer the young and thoughtless creature I once was. I am too practical now, in my middle life to seriously consider it. As recompense, I am granted the mature sentiments and talents to write a letter worthy of such an impetuously magnanimous offer. I have spent no little time composing my letter of response, will you hear it?”
“I would be honored, Miss Keller.”
Helen’s silhouette moves to a chair and sits, crossing its legs. It reaches into the pocket of its dressing gown, pulls out folded pieces of paper which it smooths on its lap. The shadow hands move gracefully across the page as the silhouette reads. “All the primitive instincts and desires of the heart, which neither physical disabilities nor suppression can subdue, leap up within me to meet your wishes. Since my youth I have desired the love of a man. Sometimes I have wondered rebelliously why fate has trifled with me so strangely, why I was tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill. But time, the great discipliner, has done his work well, so that I have learned not to reach out for the moon, and not to cry aloud for the spilled treasures of womanhood. I have come to feel that it was intended for me to live as an unmated, and I have become reconciled to my fate.”
Outside the shadow box dressing room, the piano fades, leaving behind the Victorian textured walls, which in turn fade to black, leaving only the silhouette in its box of creamy light.
“You have read my books. Perhaps you have received the wrong impression from them. One does not grumble in print, or hold up one’s broken wings for the thoughtless and indifferent to gaze at. One hides as much as possible one’s awkwardness and helplessness under a fine philosophy and a smiling face. What I have printed gives no knowledge of my actual life. You see and hear, therefore cannot easily imagine how complicated life is when one has to be led everywhere and assisted to do the simplest things.”
Now the shadowbox itself begins to fade into the blackness, leaving the audience, and you, in inky and disorienting dark. If not for the illuminated EXIT sign, one might worry one did not exist either.to
“Somehow your letter has made me acutely aware of my situation and the discomforts of it. I realize, as perhaps you cannot, the almost unthinkable difference between your life and mine. You seem to have lived a full, normal man’s life. I have lived inwardly. They say that all women partake of the nature of children. I am absurdly childish in many ways. My nearest friends tell me I know nothing of the real world. in some ways my life has been a very lonely one. Books have been my most intimate companions. My part in domestic affairs is usually that of a wistful looker on. Your willingness to marry me under the circumstances fills me with amazement. I tremble to think what an inescapable burden I should be to a husband.”