[NFBWATLK] Portrayal of Blindness in All the Light We Cannot See

Kaye Kipp kkipp123 at gmail.com
Thu Jul 6 17:12:49 UTC 2017

I have to admit, I'm appalled to think that, in the 21st century, our
society can reward an individual for writing something that portrays such a
lack of expectations of the blind.  


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From: NFBWATLK [mailto:nfbwatlk-bounces at nfbnet.org] On Behalf Of
Nightingale, Noel via NFBWATLK
Sent: Thursday, July 06, 2017 8:51 AM
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Cc: Nightingale, Noel
Subject: [NFBWATLK] Portrayal of Blindness in All the Light We Cannot See

From: Olson, Toby (ESD) [mailto:TOlson2 at ESD.WA.GOV]
Sent: Wednesday, July 5, 2017 9:56 AM
Subject: Portrayal of Blindness in All the Light We Cannot See

Sheri Wells-Jensen]

        Anthony Don't: On Blindness and the Portrayal of Marie-Laure

                       in All the Light We Cannot See

                            by Sheri Wells-Jensen

      From the Editor: Sheri Wells-Jensen is a professor of linguistics at

Bowling Green State University. She wrote this book review for Interpoint,

the blog of the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. It is gratefully

reprinted with the permission of the author and the Lighthouse. Here is

what she has to say about the novel:  From the Braille Monitor, July, 2017

      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 [in 2015]. 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 3D 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


      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. [Editor's 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 seventy-five 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 someday, 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.



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