The Sound of White Canes

      Rosemary Mahoney, For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind.  Little, Brown. Hardcover (January 2014), $27.00. Paperback (March 2015), $17.00.

During a talk she gave in January 2014, shortly after this book was first published, Rosemary Mahoney alluded to various myths that distort sighted people’s perceptions of the blind. Across time and cultures, she said, one finds the idea that blind people are intellectually deficient and cannot be educated; that blindness is a form of divine retribution; that the blind have supernatural powers that make them eerily different from the rest of humanity. When Mahoney referred to this last notion as something widely believed even now, audience members laughed in recognition; in a YouTube video of the event, a woman who appears to be blind whispers to a man beside her, “That’s so true!” Blind people’s skill in attuning themselves to their surroundings often mystifies and disconcerts the sighted, who cannot imagine navigating the world without the aid of vision.

Misconceptions and stereotypes contribute to sighted people’s fear of blindness, and to the unease they commonly feel in the presence of the blind. But the myths themselves may be understood as expressions of fear and other disquieting emotions. In the early 1970s, a researcher named A. L. Ward studied the responses of interns beginning their training as instructors and counselors for the blind. The subjects used such terms as depression, frustration, trauma, withdrawal, nervousness, helplessness, dizziness, pity, annoyance, resentment, and guilt to characterize their initial reactions to their clients. The reference to “dizziness” suggests that the poet William Wordsworth spoke truly when he described his encounter with a blind beggar in a London crowd: “my mind turned round / as with the might of waters.”

For her part, Mahoney writes that for most of her life, she had “no real interest in blindness beyond the usual reflexive dread of it, the usual pity for people who couldn’t see, the usual fearful wish that it would never ever happen to me.” To the audience at her January talk, she said, “I used to think I would rather die than go blind. Some people say to me, ‘How do you dare say that in front of blind people?’ And I say, ‘Well, I dare say it because it’s true.’ And also because I don’t think I’m the only sighted person who feels that way, or some level of related feeling.”

As she embarked on the reporting that led to this book, Mahoney became aware of the pervasive harm that stigma and superstition inflict on blind people. In 2005, she wrote a profile of Sabriye Tenberken, a German educator who with her partner, Paul Kronenberg, founded Braille Without Borders, the first rehabilitation and training center for the blind in Tibet. Tenberken was the only blind person to have earned a degree in Central Asian studies at the University of Bonn; in fact, she was the only blind person enrolled at the university during her time there. Having developed a system to translate Tibetan into Braille, she’d come to Tibet in 1997, hoping to start a school in the capital city, Lhasa, where she could share her invention. She soon learned that although the region has one of the world’s highest rates of blindness, there were no institutions of any kind to serve the blind and no recognition that blind people could lead rewarding lives.

To recruit children for the school, Tenberken ventured into the countryside with three sighted companions, visiting remote villages on horseback. The inhabitants were as astonished to see a blind person on a horse as they were to hear a Westerner speaking Tibetan. When Mahoney asks one student what she was doing before Tenberken found her, the student replies, “I was only at home. Just praying something and helping my mother.” Others lacked even that narrow sphere of activity. Mahoney meets a girl who had been abandoned by the roadside, a boy who “had spent the first eleven years of his life locked in a small dark room.” Many had never been taught to care for themselves and had never been in the company of other blind children.

In this context, the tableau Mahoney sees the first time she passes through the front gate of Braille Without Borders acquires an air of the marvelous:

The school’s courtyard, a little smaller than a tennis court, was full of blind Tibetan children of varying ages and sizes. Some were kicking a ball around; some were singing along with a Dolly Parton tune on a cassette player parked on an outdoor staircase; one boy, stripped to the waist, was washing his hair at a spigot in the corner of the yard; several were wrestling on the ground; one plump girl was descending a long flight of outdoor stairs with a pile of laundry hugged tight in her arms. Two boys were sitting in the sunlight at the bottom of the front stoop, snapping sheets of bubble wrap held close to their ears. A girl in a pink jacket with its hood pulled up over her head stumbled out through a doorway, leading by the hand a small girl in sky-blue sneakers. The scene had the cheery abandon and unself-conscious intimacy of a Brueghel village panoptic.

This passage displays several of Mahoney’s signature qualities: a fascination with everyday life, a gift for precise observation, a relish for incongruous details. But until she reaches the final sentence, she renounces other characteristic virtues of her writing—imaginative comparisons, words that wouldn’t readily occur to anyone else—in favor of simple notation. It’s the voice of someone startled and captivated by the scene before her.

Mahoney writes about the blind exactly as she writes about everyone else in her books—the believers among whom she travels in The Singular Pilgrim, the Egyptians who refuse to sell her a boat for a solo expedition in Down the Nile. She is endlessly attentive to her subjects’ physical characteristics, their mannerisms and gestures, their unpredictable turns of phrase. Orville Schell, reviewing Mahoney’s first book, The Early Arrival of Dreams, noted “her uncanny way of capturing” the “off-key English” of the Chinese students she came to know while teaching at Hangzhou University in the late 1980s. The children at Tenberken’s school were learning English and did not hesitate to try out their skills on a visiting American. When a student barges into a Braille lesson that Mahoney is observing, the two converse without a translator:

The door swung open again, and Mingmar, a thin, mischievous girl of twelve, flew into the room chewing gum with the insouciant flair of a swindler. The sound of communal singing coming from a nearby classroom followed her in. She slammed the door shut and greeted her classmates by howling at the ancient ceiling, “Friends! Nice to meet you today!”

Startled, the students lifted their heads and turned in the direction of the voice. Mingmar’s elbow happened to brush mine as she passed me, and a sudden shock of interest flashed across her face. Her hand reached out and gently touched my knee. Like all the children here, she had a tactile ability that was so acute she knew instantly, just from the feel of my trousers, that I was a stranger. She stilled her gum chewing, stepped closer, put her two small hands lightly on my forearm, and examined my cuff, my wrist, my fingers, my watch. Her eyes were two cheerful slits; her small mouth open with curiosity. I could see the gray lump of chewing gum perched on her tongue. After acquainting herself with every part of my person within reach, Mingmar held her face very close to mine and whispered softly, “Who are you?”

I told her who I was. Her face ignited with pleasure. She leaned back on her heels and crossed her arms on her chest and said, “How do you do, Rose! Are you blind?”

I told her that I was not blind.

With palpable pride she responded, “I am yes blind! And you are lovely.”

I asked her what made her think I was lovely.

She said, “By voice I know!”

Mingmar wore a jean outfit embroidered with daisies. She had a short, harum-scarum haircut. Her hair seemed to be flying every which way, vying for space on her small head.

Until now, Mahoney had supposed that the blind were necessarily deprived of “their real enjoyment of life, their effectuality, their potential.” But Tenberken and the students overturn her preconceptions. The only exception is a thirteen-year-old at the Braille lesson, a boy named Dawa, who seems to feel what Mahoney imagines she would feel were she to lose her eyesight. Newly blind and despondent, he withdraws from the other children and prays incessantly for his vision to be restored. Mingmar recognizes him by the sound of his chanting and the feel of the prayer beads on his wrist. Without hesitation, she seizes his hands and presses his fingers into a page of Braille.

Mahoney supplements her firsthand descriptions with forays into the social and cultural history of the blind, drawing on the work of such scholars as Moshe Barasch (Blindness: The History of a Mental Image in Western Thought), Zina Weygand (The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille), and Elisabeth Gitter (The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl). Many of the themes and details she highlights from her reading resonate with her experience in Lhasa. When, for example, she writes about Greek and biblical myths in which men are struck blind by the gods, one thinks of Dawa, who has been told that his blindness is a punishment and whose mantra is a plea for forgiveness. In Weygand’s book, Mahoney is drawn to an episode that took place at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where Louis Braille developed his tactile alphabet. During the late 1830s, when the institute director banned the use of Braille and sought to replace it with another system, the students rebelled. Availing themselves of forks, nails and knitting needles as writing implements, they continued sending notes to one another in Braille and were not deterred even when they were “slapped and starved.” In this story, one recognizes the fierce desire to communicate that Mahoney discerned among the blind Tibetan children.

*  *  *

In 2009, four years after her visit, Tenberken and Kronenberg opened an offshoot of Braille Without Borders: an institute in Kerala, India, that recruited aspiring social entrepreneurs from around the world and prepared them to develop programs for the blind in their home countries. Nearly all of the 24 students in the inaugural class were visually impaired—legally if not entirely blind. About half of them came from developing nations. Mahoney offered to spend several months in Kerala as an English teacher. Her aversion to blind people had given way to curiosity, and this might have been motive enough. But perhaps she had also read, by then, a pertinent remark by Pierre Villey, one of the scholars she cites in her book. In The World of the Blind (1914), Villey acknowledged how difficult it is to dispel the general belief that the blind person is “a strange being, living outside the common life.” He continued, “One has to be a long time with the blind in order to get rid of the idea altogether.”

Mahoney is assigned to the same dormitory as her students, just as she was in Hangzhou. She dines with them, joins them on shopping trips, visits them when they are ill. In the process, she gains a rich understanding of their circumstances and personalities. Yet nothing supersedes the vivid first impressions they make when she asks them to introduce themselves in class. She expects only a perfunctory response, but the students surprise her by sharing their life stories and expressing their indignation about the degraded status of the blind. A German woman says that in her country, most blind people—indeed, most people with disabilities—are unemployed, but not because they lack qualifications: “It’s because of many people’s opinion that the disabled people can’t live independent life and can’t work accurately.” A student from northern India, who was eventually educated at a Catholic boarding school, recalls leaving her first school after sixth grade because she received so little encouragement. “My parents were poor,” she says. “And teachers not patient and that is the problem with them. They must respect what life we have, but there is too many in the villages who don’t get help because of disability. So there comes to my mind thinking, What about the others who don’t get help?

In the parts of the world where most of these students live, poverty and a lack of access to health care lead to rates of blindness unthinkable in the West. “There was no one in my family literate before me, so my parents did not know anything about treating my eyes, so I was forced to become blind,” a Nepalese man tells the class. Two students from Liberia had lost their vision after contracting childhood measles. A third, Johnson Kortu, was blinded at age 26 during his country’s civil war when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in a marketplace. Twelve years later, he has become a Christian minister and a teacher at an institute for the blind in Monrovia. But at the time of his injury, abandoned by his friends, he felt that he had entered a different world—“the world of invisibility.”

“My family understood I got blind. Instead of helping me, they tried to send me away to relatives in the rural area. My people, let me tell you.” Silence. “I had a biological brother who used to tease me because I was blind. He said, ‘Brother, you are blind and there is nothing useful you can do now. You must go to the country.’”

Johnson clasped his hands, fingers intertwined, on the table before him, and for a moment he looked like a handcuffed prisoner. “But I refused to go. I said to my brother, ‘If you want me to go to the country, you must force me. You must tie me up and carry me there! Yes! I say, tie me up!’”

By now, Kortu and his classmates are reconciled to their blindness, but not to its socially imposed consequences—mockery, exclusion, relegation to a useless existence. And so he says nothing of the anguish he may have felt when a doctor told him, “I’m sorry, your sight has been destroyed,” but speaks instead of his revolt against his brother’s cruelty.

Over time, her students’ blindness becomes to Mahoney what it is to them—a fact of life. “I became used to the sound of white canes scraping and tapping down the walkway outside my bedroom door, to the clacking sound the folded canes made as the students shook them back to their upright positions at the end of a class,” she writes. Later, she adds, “I got used to the shocking gunshot sounds of screen doors slamming and to shouting, ‘Quit letting those screen doors slam! I thought you blind people didn’t like loud noises.’ I got used to the laughter and the hoots I received in response to that comment.” She would not have been capable of such irreverence before she met Tenberken; back then, she had worried about violating some arcane etiquette for dealing with the blind.

She admires her students’ skill in navigating the physical world, their fearlessness, their patience and self-possession. At the same time, she notices the challenges and mishaps that make their patience a necessary virtue. The students leave “horizontal finger streaks” on the windows as they feel their way along an outdoor corridor. They have “scarred shins and bruised knees.” When they cross the dining hall bearing full cups of tea, Mahoney darts out of their path. But anyone expecting “constant accidents” among the blind—as she perhaps once did—would be mistaken: “Nobody fell off a balcony, got electrocuted, caused the school to go up in flames. Nobody drowned while swimming in the lake. Nobody got lost on expeditions into the city. And nobody ever used blindness as an excuse for anything.”

Mahoney’s students have only one habit she can’t get used to: they divine her presence even when she thinks to pass unnoticed. One of them hails her on a path and claims he recognized her by the sound of her footsteps.

This one I found extremely difficult to believe. “Do you mean to say that of all the forty-some people who might be walking on this path tonight, you can actually differentiate the sound of my footsteps from everyone else’s?”

“The shoes you wear have a particular sound.”

I looked down at the shoes. They were simple sandals, just like the sandals of many of the other women on the campus. “Oh, for God’s sake, they couldn’t possibly have a particular sound,” I said. I did not believe it.

Of course, looking down at her shoes does nothing to solve the mystery. But it’s just like a sighted person to assume, at a confounding moment, that visual information will provide some missing clue.

Conscious of the ridicule often directed at the blind, Mahoney rights the balance somewhat by turning much of the humor in this book against herself. During one of the district’s nightly power outages, she hits her head against the edge of her bunk and curses in frustration. The two students in the next room rush to her door to check on her:

One of them, Yoshimi, who was Japanese, said apprehensively, “Rose? Are you all right?”

Embarrassed, I said, “I’m fine, thank you, girls. I just banged my head in the dark.”

“Bleeding?” Kyila said. Kyila was from Tibet.

“No, just painful and annoying.”

Yoshimi laughed. “I bang my head too.”

“And I bang my head also,” Kyila said supportively.

“Yes,” I said, “but do you lose your temper the way I do when you bang your head?”

Yoshimi said in her nearly flawless English that she could not afford to lose her temper all day long every time she did something clumsy.

Kyila said, “And also we are so used to this.”

Their voices were warm and amused and somehow sweetly innocent coming at me out of the night. Their concern was genuine. I said, “We had a power cut. I’m not very good in the dark.”

“We know it,” Kyila said.

I assured them that I was all right and that they could go back to bed.

“We were not in bed,” Yoshimi said.

“You weren’t? What were you doing?”

“Reading,” Yoshi said.

“Organizing my clothes,” Kyila said.

When the Tibetan student says, “We know it,” she may mean that the blind are well aware of sighted people’s limitations: they are not very good in the dark. Or she may mean that she and Yoshimi have grown accustomed to hearing Mahoney stumble about at night. That she’s only trying to be supportive makes her remark all the more comical and humbling.

 * * *

Humility is a recurrent theme in this book. Mahoney remarks early on that in conversation with Tenberken, “you find yourself regretting you’re not a more articulate, more vibrant person.” From her classroom window in Kerala, she watches her students cross the center of a campus that is still new to them and marvels at their confidence. “This sense of ease,” she writes, “seemed to broadcast a fundamental connection to the world that was, I suspected, deeper and more elementary than the one I had.” Elsewhere, it occurs to her that the blind, unswayed by appearances, may have a truer understanding of other people than the sighted do. Even to consider such possibilities is to challenge the ancient hierarchy of the senses, which places sight above the rest, and its unfortunate corollary, a belief in the superiority of sighted people.

Mahoney’s ultimate aim is to do away with the hierarchy, not merely to reshuffle it. This becomes clear in her account of a journey she makes to Jokhang Temple, in the center of Lhasa, with two teenage students from Braille Without Borders. Tenberken had suggested that Mahoney don a blindfold and allow her companions, Choden and Yangchen, to lead her through the streets. These young women have identified a series of aural and tactile landmarks that help them navigate the city. They turn left when they hear “the sound of many televisions” from a shop; they turn right when the smooth concrete pavement beneath their feet gives way to “something like cobblestone or roughly hewn brick.” But Mahoney is unaware of these stimuli until the students point them out to her. It isn’t just that she is ignorant of their value as geographical cues; she doesn’t perceive them at all. Now she grasps the lesson that Tenberken surely had in mind at the outset:

Sight is a slick and overbearing autocrat, trumpeting its prodigal knowledge and perceptions so forcefully that it drowns out the other, subtler senses. We go through our day semi-oblivious to a whole range of sensory information because we are distracted and enslaved by our eyes. . . . In this sense, we too are handicapped. I began to envy Choden’s and Yangchen’s skills a little. In their presence, I saw that I had been missing a great deal of what was happening in my daily life, and I realized that it was not the blind person’s deficiency that was drawing me into this subject but the revelation of my own.

This recognition is essential to her book, but Mahoney doesn’t end the scene with it. Moments after assailing the imperiousness of sight, she feels a sudden nostalgia for visual experience, as if she had been blindfolded for weeks. She offers a lavish, almost rhapsodic description of the Buddhist pilgrims she had seen on an earlier visit to the temple—their garments, postures, complexions, movements. She remembers the look in their eyes: “There is in the Tibetan gaze a vivid clarity, a gamesome look of wildness and freedom and good humor.” To be sure, Mahoney continues making discoveries about the temple in her guise as a “poor blind person”:

I absorbed information that I hadn’t noticed before: the unceasing sibilant whisper of hundreds of pilgrims’ hands sliding along the paving stones as they stretched out to lie down. I had seen the pieces of cardboard and cloth and wood that they used to protect their hands, but I hadn’t registered fully the pleasing sound that all that protective matter made. It was the sound of a hundred besoms being lightly dragged along the pavement, the sound of a swan’s great wings stirring the air as he passes overhead. On my first visit to the temple I hadn’t really noticed the constant monotone lowing of a holy horn being blown by a monk, how soft and melancholy and human it sounded, like a secret, lovelorn sigh accidentally picked up by a public-address system.

But then she goes on to write, “I was dying to remove my blindfold and have another look around.” It is the confession of a writer compelled to give each sense its due.

Of all the revelations Mahoney recounts in this book, the most exhilarating may be the spectacle of blind people casting off the myth of their inferiority. At Braille Without Borders, the students astonish her with their high spirits and their eagerness to teach one another. Part of the explanation, she suggests, is that they had “been found by someone who saw beneath the surface of them, who knew that behind their dull eyes, a whole universe of thought was simmering, waiting to be given a chance.” The standard metaphors for blindness equate it with a prison or a tomb, but only prejudice makes it so. In their own ways, Tenberken and Mahoney show that the affirmation of blind people’s capacity to take part in the common life, in a whole universe of thought, is a means of deliverance.