Beth wrote a post last week about how author Laura Hillenbrand and NPR’s Terry Gross—like Beth—conduct interviews without being able to see their subjects. Of course, that’s owed to very different circumstances for each of them. Not being able to do something in a conventional way can be the mother of invention for other methods that have their own merits, and that has long been fascinating to me.
That happens when you live with someone who is blind for 30 years, and with someone with multiple disabilities (our son Gus) for 16 of those years.
I’ve observed all sorts of workarounds. They range from Beth using rubber bands to distinguish shampoo from conditioner, to a wobbly Gus getting off the couch to steady himself with a hand on an end table so that he could sidle over to the living room wall, where, from there, he could go all over the damn place holding on to said wall. And Beth, somehow, finding my eyeglasses in our apartment after they’d gone missing for weeks. (I may have never found them.)
Beth’s written about using talking computers, which sort of replicates the way sighted people use computers, and about her talking iPhone. These are remarkable things that have made an enormous difference in countless lives.
But I’m not talking about replicating an ability here. It’s something else.
I’m thinking about this again, for the umpteenth time, because of a recent This American Life radio segment about a man who was born blind who has learned to maneuver using echolocation, a kind of sonar. It involves his clicking and using the sound feedback to conceive of and navigate the spaces and objects around him. So well that he, his mother, and—it seemed to me the reporters—believe that this echolocation is like seeing with eyes. He’s nicknamed Batman.
Well, the radio story is compelling but it is problematic, in my opinion, on several levels—reportage, semantics, implicit judgments, and others. I need to listen to it again before I can formulate my thoughts. But it is a worthwhile piece, I hope you’ll listen to it, and undeniably this Batman guy has a one-of-a-kind story and he does get around in a remarkably fascinating way.
Anyway, back to Beth’s post. Beth focused on the way Laura Hillenbrand got the most out of long-distance interviews. Another part caught my attention. The article puts it this way:
It may be tempting to think of Hillenbrand as someone who has triumphed in spite of her illness. The truth is at once more complicated and more interesting. Many of the qualities that make Hillenbrand’s writing distinctive are a direct consequence of her physical limitations. Every writer works differently, but Hillenbrand works more differently than any writer I know of. She has been forced by the illness to develop convoluted workarounds for some of the most basic research tasks, yet her workarounds, in all their strange complexity, deliver many of her greatest advantages.
The writer goes on to say that Hillenbrand’s chronic fatigue syndrome prevents her from leaving the house to read old newspapers on microfiche.
“Instead,” the article goes on, “Hillenbrand buys vintage newspapers on eBay and reads them in her living room, as if browsing the morning paper.”
It was that kind of immersion in the news, advertisements, and the tone of the time that helped inform her superb writing for Seabiscuit. And it also led to her writing Unbroken, very directly: While reading an article about Seabiscuit in one of the old newspapers, she saw an item about Louie Zamperini. And that became her next project.
It likely would not have happened if she could get out to the library to view microfiche.
And that’s what I’m talking about.