Touching the Rock – An Experience of Blindness

Author: 
Hull, John M.
Publisher: 
Vintage Books
Date Published: 
1992
ISBN: 
0-679-73547-X

This was the incredible story of a man losing his sight over an extended period of time and describing in detail his personal experiences through each significant part of this time period. Early on he kept a diary, a log of all the events he considered critical. This was later edited and compiled into this fantastic voyage into darkness.

The book takes us from the summer of 1983 when Hull begin “sinking” into darkness, through the summer of 1986 when he touches the rock of absolute blindness. Oliver Sacks has written about blindness and about many other conditions, but he himself is not blind. Here the feelings, the emotions, and the insights into what vision means and what the loss of it over time means to this devout educator, husband, and father are vividly evoked. Hull’s journey is very special and I suggest that each of you take the journey, even if only vicariously. It certainly caused me to stop and think many times and to try to imagine what he must have gone through. Here are few of his insights:

June 1983: “On the whole, my experience has been that, if I have a bad habit, it causes me some inconvenience of inefficiency in my movement, and is naturally corrected in the effort to move more freely. In other words, blindness itself imposes an iron law upon the user of the white cane. Lampposts, curbs, and stairways are the best teachers.”

April 1984: In a section on time and space he states, “Perhaps all severe disabilities lead to a decrease in space and an increase in time. When I had sight, I would have worked with feverish haste, correcting forty footnotes in a single morning. Now I am happy if, with the help of a sighted reader, by the end of the morning I have corrected ten. Sighted people can bend time. For sighted people, time is sometimes slow and sometimes rapid. They can make up for being lazy by rushing later on. Modern technology seeks to expand human space and compress human time. The disabled person, on the other hand, finds that space is contracted and time is expanded. It is because of the space-time coordinates within which the blind person lives that his life becomes gradually different from the lives of sighted people.”

In the same section, he talks of how sounds help him understand his world. “The acoustic world stays the same whichever way I turn my head. This is not true of the perceptible world. It changes as I turn my head. New things come into view. The view looking that way is quite different from the view looking this way. It is not like that with sound. New noises do not come to my attention as I turn my head around. The acoustic world is mainly independent of my movement. This heightens the sense of passivity. Acoustic space is a world of revelation.”

July 1984: “When I am walking along this, my most familiar route, I have in my mind a screen with a sort of map of the area, and my own presence, like a pinpoint of light, moving along it. I continually refer to this to check up on my position. Here I am, coming along this portion of my route, having crossed the road, being about to cross that road, knowing that around the next corner there will be the traffic lights. I must never forget my position. That would be as if the light went out. I am continually verifying my position on this map by taking into account all sorts of little, familiar features. On this corner, the curb is slightly higher. The curvature of the footpath is slightly more pronounced at this point. The road surface here is not quite the same as it was there. Here comes that little smooth patch. There are certain points along my route where I actually have to count the steps in order to avoid the lampposts. All of this requires constant attention. If I allow my concentration to lapse for a moment, I may get slightly out of position, I might walk into something, I might stray on to a busy road. I cannot do any of this and have a conversation at the same time.”

September 1984: John is a father and has young children while becoming blind. Throughout he talks about the changes in how his children understand his blindness and how it affects their relationship. “Over this weekend, I have become sharply aware of how much sighted children live in a visual world. Their play, their humor, their dressing-up and their tumbling around, everything is in the context of sight. It is by way of contrast with this that I developed a sense that am not in the presence of these sighted children. I am, of course, an object in their visual field, but the world of common experience, the world which we know together, the world before which we stand in a sort of mutuality of presence, that is so fragmented by blindness.”

Throughout he talks of what happens to stored visual images and visualizations when he encounters that person or place again. Until that time they are held as they were when sight was lost, but at the moment he encounters these people or places again the old image fades and is gone forever.

The book is a quick read, but for the reader who allows him or herself to become fully engaged, is very powerful.