Cleveland Plain Dealer: Sunday, June 18th,
A potent look at journey into
by Sarah Willis
Writer Edna O'Brien put it this way: "What writing does is al low us to
sample each other's fate," and although she was discussing fiction, this
idea of sampling another's fate is exactly what a good memoir does. From the
safety of our own lives we can understand what it's like to be raised in the
foster system, be clinically depressed or, as in "Cockeyed" by Ryan
Knighton, to go blind. Knighton invites us into his blindness, and through his
reflective and simply told story we literally see the world through his weakening
Knighton had an ordinary childhood in Langley, British Columbia, and even the
first hints of failing vision seemed the ordinary problems any teenager might
have: reading the wrong number, tripping over something left on the ground, missing
a stop sign, driving over a rock - although Knighton drives over a whole row
Finally he crashes the family car into a deep ditch, and his father becomes so
angry that his mother makes an appointment for the eye doctor, just to appease
her husband. Here the story veers from the familiar. On his 18th birthday, Knighton
discovers that he has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that will
leave him blind.
"Cockeyed" tracks the passage from denial to acceptance. Knighton charts
this course in a series of chapters with odd titles, such as "Bodysnatchers
from the Planet of NASDAQ" and "The Pusan Roach." Each reads like
a short story, a moment or a time seen alone, unconnected, small circles of stories
that become whole only when you put them all together.
There's the story about nightclubs, where "bumping into people was acceptable,
even expected." There's the story about teaching English to children in
South Korea while trying to pass as sighted and the story about a trip to New
Orleans, where two muggers apologize when they realize that he's blind.
In all, there's humor and sadness, sometimes both in the very same
sentence. After the aborted mugging, "The two men patted me once on the shoulder as
they left, as if we were buddies, or I was a pet."
Knighton gives us the facts, then his interior response: "That
night didn't sit well with me for the rest of our trip. Something
had, in the end, been taken from me, something very small. A strange
kind of dignity . . . how does one get justice for not having been
In the middle of this memoir, Knighton's brother dies, a sad story that feels,
at first, dropped in, as dropped in as death can be, unconnected to blindness.
But a memoir is never about the thing, it's about the person, and the brother's
death shapes the writer, too.
There are no pyrotechnics here, no unbelievable moments, no stories
that feel stretched for the purpose of telling a better story. And
there is no whining, no "why me." Sometimes Knighton wanders
and a story can feel unimportant (he loses a shoe in a nightclub),
but then he comes back to the bigger picture, showing the most ordinary
thing now framed in his blindness.
Knighton was losing the last of his sight as he wrote "Cockeyed."
He can see some color and wavy blurred shapes and has a little tunnel
vision left. "If I look at the word 'dime' on this page, less
than half the letter 'm' is clear to me . . . dragging the rake of
my eye around . . . I collect holes of clarity."
Knighton sees the world in tiny circles. He writes his memoir in this way, too.
The whole becomes a powerful read.
Willis, a novelist and teacher, lives in Cleveland
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