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"Talent shines on every page of this feisty, bittersweet memoir."   -ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Grade: A
   

The Boston Globe; Date: June 27, 2006

A journey into blindness, from one wry perspective
By Carol Iaciofano

So many memoirs have been published in recent years that distinguishing among them has become as much of a challenge as reading them. Happily, Ryan Knighton's autobiography will not be confused with any neighbors in new nonfiction.

Cockeyed provides an unexpectedly wry view of a life that twisted into the extraordinary. Like many courageous fictional characters, the real-life author has achieved his perspective at great cost. For the past 15 years, Knighton has been steadily losing his sight.

Now in his 30s and a professor of contemporary literature and creative writing at Capilano College in Vancouver, Knighton grew up in British Columbia, "just this side of the US border." He was born into a tight knit working-class family of one sister, two brothers, and two loving parents.

Knighton's first job was at 14, as a shipper-receiver and occasional forklift driver at a local warehouse. His sardonic accounts of the shop floor's "ulture of whimsical cruelty" feel as authentic as those in "Rivethead," Ben Hamper's thoroughly engaging 1991 memoir of his time on the General Motors assembly line .

He might well have followed a similar career path, but a growing number of accidents upended the balance of Knighton's life. He almost drove over a co-worker with the forklift because he didn't see him: The man had stood in a blank patch of Knighton's vision. When he got his driver's license, he slammed his father's car into a boulder because his eyes had trouble distinguishing shapes at night.

At first these events seemed random, but soon they could not be explained away. On his 18th birthday, Knighton received a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa a progressive eye disease that fragments sight, causes night blindness, then steadily shrinks the sight to tunnel vision and ends in complete blindness.

You might think a devastating diagnosis would make a young man seek safety and comfort. But Knighton used his deteriorating sight as a catalyst for independence: He rented an apartment near the university he was attending, with his girlfriend. Who was deaf.

Knighton highlights the comic potential in this matchup, but even stronger is the portrayal of two people learning how to acknowledge their handicaps before they can truly deal with them.

Knighton frequents the local punk rock clubs, where frenetic lighting helps his failing vision and where "bumping into people was acceptable." Navigating alone eventually becomes impossible, and Knighton is forced to stay in more, "living in a state of self-loathing with M*A*S*H reruns lighting the room." Yet he still cannot consider himself a blind person.

Acceptance comes fast and furious in the form of a car that almost kills him while he's crossing the street in broad daylight. He rapidly learns how to use a white cane -- for greater mobility, and also to be seen as a blind man, for, as he notes, "the blind are most vulnerable when we are not seen."

With his cane and some very good friends, Knighton ventures farther out. He journeys to South Korea to work, teaching English to elementary school students. He almost gets mugged in New Orleans, but the thugs apologize after they spot his cane. This angers rather than cheers Knighton: "Discrimination feels like discrimination, even when it's for the best."

Unlike the muggers who apologized and stepped away, life's tragedies do not back off because you have a disability; Knighton writes tenderly about a family tragedy he endured. He also reveals, conversationally, how normal daily annoyances can be amplified when your partner knows she will always, for example, have to be the one to kill the bug on the floor.

Many of us will never face the challenge of feeling that each new step is the "edge of the world." But armed with some hard-won truths, Knighton helps you understand some things you didn't really know before. If he teaches with the same insight as he writes, his students are very fortunate indeed.



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