I just finished The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight by Andrew Leland, and recommend it highly!
I’m always a bit leery of blindness memoirs, but this one joins M. Leona Godin’s Their Plant Eyes (2021) as a truly excellent recent entry in the genre.
This one hit closer for me, since Leland’s experience has so many striking parallels with my own. Like me, he has one of the many genetic disorders that get lumped together into the junk diagnosis retinitis pigmentosa, though his vision is shrinking from the outside in while mine is fading from the center out. We both had visual impairments as children, but only had to confront the transition to blindness in our thirties, in the context of career, marriage, and life with young kids.
There were so many sparks of recognition as I read, an eery number of shared experiences. I also sat in those rolling chairs at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary for a visual fields test, wore the Clockwork Orange electrodes on my eyeballs for an electroretinograph, and encountered their strange reticence to inform patients that they had crossed the line to “legally blind.” I received braille training from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, though my teacher was more knowledgeable than his (and stricter about technique).
As Leland described his first experience at the annual convention of the national Federation of the Blind, I was thinking back to my first (and, to this point, only) experience there. Then he mentioned the topic of the presidential address, I realized that he was talking about the same year I had attended. In fact, I show up briefly in the book, unnamed, as one of the scholarship recipients he ignored to focus on a much more interesting conversation with a 10 year old at his table (a decision I do not begrudge!).
But the recognition went far beyond the surface parallels. Many of the questions Leland asks and themes he explores are the same kinds of things I have thought about as I entered into blindness. What will blindness mean for my own identity? For the ways others identify me? I, too, wondered where the point was on this gradual journey where I could legitimately adopt the label “blind.” I struggled with using my white cane in public and the shifts in perception it provoked. I wondered about the changes that screen readers and braille would make to my writing and scholarship. I felt the frustration of reading children’s books more slowly than a first grader.
Questions of blindness and disability in society also gained sudden urgency, and I too left my vaguely benevolent obliviousness to explore evolving frameworks of disability rights, disability justice, and intersectional cross-disability solidarity. I became aware of the care and ingenuity of disabled communities and the creativity and innovation that they apply to the misfits between their bodies and the built environment.
All of these things Leland examines with curiosity and nuance. He can only do so much in a memoir of readable length, but he leaves plenty of breadcrumbs for readers who want more, pointing toward works in disability theory, history, and literature that can provide more depth and detail.
When I was first coming to grips with my own transition to blindness, I made everyone I know read John M. Hull’s memoir, Touching the Rock. It is a movingly written and insightful account of his loss of sight, but the longer I live as a blind person the more I think it gave the wrong impression. Hull emphasizes the negative and the tragic in a way that reinforces the pervasive assumption that blindness is to be feared and pitied.
Leland, on the other hand, presents blindness simultaneously as loss and gain—as a disability that obscures visual knowledge but also brings revelations about self, society, and human possibility. This is much closer to blindness as I have experienced it. Without eliding the difficulty of losing vision and learning new ways of being and living, he makes it clear that blindness is not all loss and not a tragedy.
At this point in my life, I’ve mostly left the liminal state Leland inhabits in the book behind. Blindness is solidly a part of my life, and though practical accommodations and adaptations will continue as the rest of my sight fades, the fundamental shift of identity no longer feels as intense or urgent. Although I have blog posts (and abandoned drafts) aplenty on many of the topics Leland covers, I don’t think a long form treatment of becoming blind is in my future. Now I’m just glad I have The Country of the Blind to recommend to anyone who is curious, and I wish I’d had it years ago!