As a young child, Joshua James Amberson purposefully blurred his vision. He believed haziness suggested the otherworldly; it provided an escape from reality, such as the realities of growing up working class in rural Washington. Issues of class recur throughout his multifaceted collection Staring Contest: Essays about Eyes, as the adult Amberson, underemployed and uninsured, faces the necessity of expensive and unpleasant treatments to prevent irreversible vision loss.
Joshua James Amberson & Antiquated Future showcase (virtual)
6/14, 7:30 PM, Quimby’s, quimbys.com, free
Many will relate to Amberson’s difficulties with our healthcare system. His fears of taking an “off-label” treatment—injecting colon cancer medication into his eyeballs—offered without much discussion of possible long-term risks remind me of my own experience with aggressive medical care. The week before I moved from Seattle to Chicago, my panicked ophthalmologist informed me my retina was damaged. In Chicago, my new ophthalmologist, equally panicked, referred me to a retina specialist, who calmly confirmed my retina was damaged, that it was irreversible, and that there is no treatment. All I could do was stop taking Plaquenil, the lupus medication I’d taken for 13 years, which had caused the damage, and as it happens, had been prescribed in too large a dose. Glaucoma was also suspected.
Dismayed, I sat on a bench in Streeterville, the Northwestern Medical Center towering over me with deep, benevolent shade. My eyes were too dilated to text my husband, who I was supposed to meet on Michigan Avenue shortly thereafter. I didn’t attempt to call, afraid I’d start crying. Instead, I took a bad selfie to commemorate the moment, then warily tried to navigate crowded, unfamiliar streets on an unbearably sunny day. It seemed miraculous that I eventually found my husband. I wondered how many visits it would take before I’d know Streeterville well enough to navigate with impaired vision.
It’s the intense light of California that reveals to Amberson that his vision has changed in a way that overcast skies in the Northwest did not. “At least a few times each year,” he writes, “the light makes me question what I’m seeing,” a sentiment that reminds me of the moments in that first summer in Chicago when I wasn’t sure if I’d just seen a coyote lumbering in my periphery. The news of coyote sightings sharply increasing that season was not a comfort, though it was excellent fuel for contemplating a shift into writing horror.
Amberson, too, is interested in horror. “Poked in the Eye” leaps from the pigeons of Grimm’s “Cinderella” pecking out the eyes of her evil stepsisters to instances of blinding in Greek mythology to the particular fixation with eye violence in Italian horror. Though not actually a fan of horror, he forces himself to watch scene after scene, describing gore that is not for the squeamish. But it leads him to “think about how many of the eyes belong to women, the persistent wet-dream misogyny of male directors” and to realize that, perhaps unsurprisingly, sighted people are protective of eyes because no one wants to become blind.
Fear of being a burden is a recurring theme. Amberson is told to avoid heavy lifting, lest his eyes hemorrhage, yet he helps a friend with a move, causing the very thing he needs to avoid. But the balm of friendship and connection lends warmth to the collection. Despite the fact that Amberson’s condition, pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE), is rare (somewhere between one in 25,000 people and one in 100,000 have it), there isn’t an overwhelming sense of loneliness in the book. He writes movingly of attending a conference for people with PXE who, “adorably, refer to themselves as pixies.”
Interviews with blind writers and visual artists lend additional insights into the experiences of adjusting to vision loss and maintaining a creative career. The interviews also map out a community, pointing readers to additional authors to seek out, such as M. Leona Godin, author of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, who says she didn’t want to write memoir, though she loves it, because “that’s what everyone wants from the blind writer,” and “the implicit suggestion is: That’s all we can write about.”
Amberson shares his personal experiences and so much more, exploring a satisfyingly wide range of topics across 21 essays. Whether contemplating the intrusiveness of street photography, the career of Bette Davis (whose particular roles are not remembered so much as her expressive, bulging eyes), Stevie Wonder truthers or Helen Keller conspiracists (I had no idea people doubted these figures were blind, but I’m not surprised), the nature of crying, or the histories of eye patches, fresh perspectives are frequently encountered.
I was particularly intrigued by “Staring into the Sun,” the story of William Horatio Bates, a dangerous quack who told patients who wanted to improve their eyesight to do a number of exercises, including staring into the sun and throwing their glasses away; his ideas persist today perhaps because of the appeal of “a do-it-yourself ethic, a belief in a body that’s wise and powerful.” At times unsettling, often tender, and always thoughtful, Staring Contest encourages readers to perceive with greater empathy and care.
Staring Contest: Essays about Eyes by Joshua James Amberson
Perfect Day Publishing, paperback, 224 pp., $15, perfectdaybooks.com
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