[NFBWATLK] Portrayal of Blindness in All the Light We Cannot See
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.
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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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
To: GCDE-INFO at LISTSERV.WA.GOV
Subject: Portrayal of Blindness in All the Light We Cannot See
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
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
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
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