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
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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