A Memoir of
Blindness and Vision
John Howard Griffin
(Orbis)Those of us who came into the age of reason in this country in the 1960s will never forget the voice of John Howard Griffin. Black Like Me is his story of living in the southern United States as what was then called a "Negro." Griffin's reporting of the facts of being turned away from restaurants and hotels and wash-rooms and even drinking fountains told us --- in the simplest language possible --- what it was like to be the despised minority. The kicker was that Griffin was a southern white.
What he had done was to imbibe a chemical that turned his skin black, and for six weeks he traveled through the Old South, experiencing a world that he and many of the rest of us had never known, had never expected.For those of us who read him and heard him speak, the power came from from his simple, journalistic writing style and his voice. He spoke with a mild southern accent, in a soft but majestic voice --- a voice majestic with outrage. The Civil Rights bills from the 1960s were, in no small part, brought into being by John Howard Griffin.
Now, in Scattered Shadows, we learn of his earlier, strange, and tortured life. He had trained as a musician in France; his special emphasis was on Gregorian Chants. He had also worked with the French underground, smuggling Jewish children out after the Nazi invasion of 1940. He barely escaped with his life, and, after returning to the United States, joined the 424th Bomber Squadron, stationed on the Pacific island of Morotai.
He was caught in a Japanese bombing raid in 1944 which caused a slow deterioration of his eyes. By 1947 he was totally blind, and returned to live with his family in Texas, taking up, at the age of thirty-one, farming, the raising of prize cattle.
This unassuming book is probably the best I have read on the reality of blindness. A blind man Griffin meets in Tours says of the sighted, "They want you to act in a certain way. They want you to be taken care of and stay out of sight, not remind them of blindness or some guilt."
They castrate you of self-respect thinking they help you.... But when you are blind, people will reveal themselves to you, knowing you can never identify them. I have heard elderly women and men --- I could smell their dentures --- with the odor of incense from Mass fresh on their clothes, whisper to me things that only Satan could utter.
Griffin learns the tricks of being visionless: reaching for a glass of water, moving about with it in his hands, drinking it. He explains how he filed his fingertips with sandpaper so he could read Braille. People would bring him food, but he would wait until they left "for fear of making a spectacle of myself."
How did a man comb his hair or find his clothes or shave? And what did he do during the hours except sit and wait for someone to come and take his arm and lead him somewhere.?
He says of an old friend, "His reaction to my blindness brought home the truth. I knew that those I loved would suffer far more than I would suffer"
I carried the responsibility not only of accepting what came, but also of comforting them. And the best way to comfort them was to nullify the stereotypes of blindness, to work for skills that would dispel sadness and make them forget my condition.
As if this weren't enough, in subsequent years, Griffin
This latter, he reports, is as difficult, if not more so, than learning to be blind At the Monastery at Mount Carmel, a monk asks if he wants the lights left on. He says no:
- develops a form of spinal malaria from his time in the South Pacific and in the process, loses the ability to walk;
- converts to Catholicism, and lives in several monasteries;
- writes a novel, reciting it in French into a recorder at night, transcribing it into English the next day;
- when the novel, The Devil Rides Outside, comes out, it is considered, in those dark years, obscene (it contains the words "bitch" and "bastard");
- the United States Supreme Court finally adjudges it not obscene;
- Griffin slowly recovers his ability to walk; and, even more dramatically,
- regains his sight.
Light caused immense fatigue. When he hit the switch, I felt that a great weight were lifted. If felt safe, at home in the dark, and everything relaxed back to a semblance of normalcy.
And the first active sports he indulged in?
A monk invited me to play ping-pong. The ball was only a white streak at first, but soon I was hitting it. And then we played some billiards. All the stagnation left. It was fascinating. For the first time since this thing had happened, I felt real laughter within myself.
Real laughter. If there is anything missing from this fascinating period of a dozen years in Griffin's life, it is "real laughter." Despite the powerful experiences, the whole is weighted with a desperate Christian guilt. Again and again, the author tells us how guilty, how unworthy he is. He constantly longs for "a spiritual union with God." He speaks of "my own reeking hubris." He raves on about his "ugly sins," although these sins are not all that apparent to the reader.
The power of Griffin's narrative mostly overrides his self-torture on his lack of piety, and we are left with the knowledge that if it had not been for this guilt, the man who darkened his skin so he could write about the racial viciousness of the American south may have never come into existence.