This is A Blind Writer’s Notebook, a monthly column by M. Leona Godin about her experiences as a writer and the monolithic trope of blindness.
“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,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922. “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.”
Although the marriage proposal from a man—a stranger with five kids when Helen was forty-two—was not taken seriously, the opportunity to vent her heartfelt disappointments was. Keller had been roundly discouraged by friends and family from the idea of marriage and children—even once having had a lover run off by her brothers with guns when she was young—so that, from the vantage-point of middle-age, she had little choice but to conclude, “I faced consciously the strong sex-urge of my nature and turned that life-energy into channels of satisfying sympathy and work.”
The contortions that people will undergo to desexualize me, a blind woman, can be overwhelming. In our neighborhood grocery store, where my partner and I had gone shopping together countless times, a cashier with whom we’d struck up a strange friendship—she often gave me candy meant for children—finally screwed up her nerve to ask, “So you are brother and sister?”
We look absolutely nothing alike—he’s blond and blue-eyed and I’m brown-haired and brown-eyed. We were middle-aged, and holding hands. *
Close your eyes. Imagine a blind person. Do they have boobs? A penis? Are they holding a tin cup, or simply swinging a white cane? Have you seen a sexy, gorgeous blind person in real life? Have you seen one in a movie? Or read about one in a novel? Blind characters are so rarely depicted as sexy, sexual, or having a sex, that I suppose it would be easy to conclude that blind people are saints and virgins.
And yet! Blind people have sex, even in books, though it is rare that they are the central protagonist. In particular, the blind woman seems to magnify certain distortions and fetishes of straight men within the metaphorics of novels that have little or nothing to do with blindness.
“She would have sniffed the brilliantine in his hair and examined his garments with care,” thinks Port in Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky. And in bed, without eyes to see beyond the bed, she would have been completely there, a prisoner. He thought of the little games he would have played with her, pretending to have disappeared when he was really still there; he thought of the countless ways he could have made her grateful to him. And always in conjunction with his fantasies, he saw the imperturbable, faintly questioning face in its mask-like symmetry. ”
As Port’s marriage unravels, the glimpse of the blind dancer takes on a life of its own, subjecting him to a night of unrequited romance. But if he’d succeeded in making her his, he may have found himself as unsettled by her imperturbability as Coetzee’s narrator in Waiting for the Barbarians is with his barbarian girl, who is one of the few visually impaired characters I’ve come across in literature, and one whose blindness manifests as central vision loss, just as mine had, when I first read the novel.
“When I look straight there is nothing, there is— ”(she rubs the air in front of her like someone cleaning a window).
“A blur,” I say.
“There is a blur. But I can see out of the sides of my eyes. The left eye is better than the right. How could I find my way if I didn’t see?”
This blind barbarian girl helps our narrator, an old magistrate of the Empire, relax. He can dawdle nude while she is in the room. He feels her vision loss keeps her from judging him, and yet, until he leaves the town, he cannot penetrate her: “I have not entered her. From the beginning my desire has not taken on that direction, that directedness.”
When she tells him what he thought he wanted to know—what her torturers did to her eyes—that does not penetrate either. Instead of wrestling with the strangeness of her story that seems to suggest the damage to her sight was maybe psychological, or listening to her assurance that “now it is getting better” he instead takes her face in his hands and stares “into the dead centers of her eyes, from which twin reflections of myself stare solemnly back.”
And is this not his problem? That when he looks at her, he sees himself? He cannot even see her affections and jealousy, her incomprehension at his not having sex with her:
“You visit other girls,” she whispers. “You think I do not know?”
I make a peremptory gesture for her to be quiet.
“Do you also treat them like this?” she whispers, and starts to sob.
Though my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can do. Yet what humiliation for her! She cannot even leave the apartment without tottering and fumbling while she dresses. She is as much a prisoner now as ever before. I pat her hand and sink deeper into gloom.
The Magistrate’s feelings of inadequacy and befuddlement do not allow him even to try to understand her desires and frustrations. Instead, her emotion impels him to get rid of her. Her blindness seems to become his own blindness, an obscuring of her personhood.
Just after I turned thirty, I got myself partnered with a guide dog, having never wanted to use the stigma of the white cane. This act turned me from looking, in the eyes of the world, like a sighted person, to looking like a blind person. Cane or dog did not seem to matter, I was suddenly treated differently.
I met a lot of men in those early days of my guide dog. My visual impairment allowed me to move about with some ease, and to fake eye contact (if I could not see their eyes, I could at least see where their heads were). My guide dog pronounced me blind. All of this made me, I think, attractively different. In New York’s Lower East Side, where difference still possessed power, I did pretty well. But when I ventured, for example, to the Upper East Side, where difference had no value, I would encounter people who grabbed my arm and shuffled me across the street, as if I were an old person.
Once, when I ventured with a friend to visit another friend in Rhode Island, the three of us, after having loads of fun in a bar, walked to his car, I with my guide dog, and I heard some guy say, “Yeah, but would you really date a blind chick?” I yelled back something like, “Well, I wouldn’t date you!” but my heart was not in it. Later, I would cry, knowing that in the end, the prejudice was real.
“What do you do about sex?” a sighted man asks a blind woman as he helps her across the street.
“Oh, I just send it out with the laundry once a week.”
It’s a good joke, I think, and a real story told to my friend George, who recounted it to me during our interview for an article I was writing for Playboy about dating as a blind person . The retort shows the importance of humor and wit as a first line of defense for the blind person, whose occasional need for helpful intimacy—taking an arm—opens the floodgates to questions which are stupid, indiscreet, impertinent, you name it. Such questions assume that the blind person has no boundaries, that the intimacy of an elbow leads directly to the intimacy of personal information. The situation of a sighted man helping a blind woman across the street seems neatly to fit into traditional gender roles, and perhaps lends itself to the idea of a blind woman in a sexual context more readily than that of a blind man.
“Rather than risk being foolish, a failure, a blind bungler, I had started to withdraw from the contest, especially the sexual contest,” writes Andrew Potok in his outrageous memoir Ordinary Daylight, as he toys with the idea of being a recluse. “At times, sacrifice seemed easy, particularly when the alternative was humiliating, even crushing. And sacrifice had its nobility. It had been quite foreign to me in my previous life, but it was considered characteristic, even expected, of the blind.”
Perhaps Potok is thinking of Helen Keller, who was so often depicted as a saint, but who, as we saw in the opening quote, experienced the sexual impulse, just like most of us. In any case, he doesn’t have to consider renunciation or sacrifice for long. Ironically, this line of thought leads him directly into the arms of a new lover, who declares her attraction to him, and chides him for whining about his lack of manliness without sight:
“It’s not true,” she said. “From the moment I met you I wanted to sleep with you. You must have sensed that. It doesn’t happen to me often. I’m very choosy. You’ve been a part of my fantasies ever since. I don’t even understand why your eyes matter. You don’t need your eyes for this."
One of my all-time favorite blind characters is Reba McClane in Red Dragon, the first of the Thomas Harris novels featuring Hannibal Lecter. I admit I first saw the movie and then read the novel, because I was on a Ralph Fiennes kick. At that time, still visually impaired, I was delighted by Emily Watson’s performance. Little did I think that, years later, I’d be called in to audition for the part in the NBC series Hannibal. Sadly, I did not get the part, but I’m appreciative that they even considered auditioning a real blind person. It is a happy, and hopefully lasting, trend to hire people with disabilities to play characters with disabilities, instead of just doling out Oscars to the able-bodied actors for acting disabled (Jamie Foxx in Ray, for example), but that is a different article .
I like Reba because she is a smart, self-aware, and sexually confident woman, who makes the first move on Francis Dolarhyde. Granted, he may not have been the best pick, but her attraction to him—despite his own disability—is precisely why he likes her back, and even, for a hot minute, considers giving up the serial murder game. And why not? She gives him head and then some great sex:
Reba rests her head on his thigh and turns her gleaming cheek to him. She runs her hand inside his shirt and rests it warm on his chest.
Somewhere. Quick. Grandmother’s bed, the satin comforter sliding under them.
“Oh, wait, I’ll get them off. Oh, now it’s torn. I don’t care. Come on. My God, man. That’s so sweeeet. Don’t please hold me down, let me come up to you and take it.”'
Throughout this scene, Reba seems to be orchestrating their relations. Even if Francis speaks, it is within the context of their frantic tumbling communal quote. Reba has asserted her desire for him, and put to rest at least one “common misconception about the blind”:
"She wondered if Dolarhyde shared the popular belief that the blind are ‘purer in spirit’ than most people, that they are somehow sanctified by their affliction. She smiled to herself. That one wasn't true either."