The subject of my latest book cuts close to home: Cockeyed: a memoir is Ryan Knighton's own story about his gradual loss of vision by retinitis pigmentosa. On a personal note, in 1988 I lost the central vision in my left eye by toxoplasmosis, a diagnosis I still don't understand yet eye specialist after specialist told me the same thing. Twenty-two years ago I was given the dreadful news that I might lose all the sight in my left eye. Since then I have lived my life by the eye doctor's adage "Never take your eyesight for granted". I have also developed a sensitivity towards and activism on behalf of the blind and visually impaired. It was after conducting some on-line research that I discovered Cockeyed.
Knighton received the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, on his eighteenth birthday. His memoir, which is laugh-out-loud funny in places, tells the story of his voyage into darkness.
As a mosh-pit dancing punk his limited sight didn't matter; he discovered with pleasure that he didn't even need eyesight while flailing himself into people in dark clubs. Knighton even managed to teach English in South Korea, only to find that the faculty and his students didn't even notice he had very low vision.
Funniest of all was his tale of going to adult "blind camp" with thirty others on an island in western British Columbia. I quote the following passage:
> I expected, of all places in the world, this would be the one where sighted habits were dropped. They weren't. People sat around the breakfast tables and spoke to one another without identifying themselves or whom they meant to address. Cheryl might have asked something like, "Are you going to glue macaroni owls at the crafts table this afternoon?" Everybody would carry on chewing until somebody said the obligatory, "Are you talking to me?" All six dining tables sounded like a rehearsal from Taxi Driver. You talking to me? You talking to me? ...
> Likewise, you'd think of all places in the world, this one would have been gesture-free. Nope. Everybody, me included, carried on flagging and pointing, and as you'd expect, none of us followed. We were so used to living with sighted people that we couldn't even be blind with one another.
I had never read an account of a person's loss of sight before. Knighton never gets mad at God or goes on a destructive rampage, however his three car accidents while he had failing eyesight, before he got the RP diagnosis, come close. The one part in the book that will stop your heart and make you cry is how he found out about his younger brother's suicide. It was written with such vivid detail, I felt as though I were in the same room when he got the news.
Knighton did not write about learning Braille, so I am making the conclusion he can still read the printed word, albeit with 1% vision. He did write about learning how to use the white cane, or the "stick", as he calls it. Cockeyed was mostly a fun read, in spite of the subject matter. Near the end of the book Knighton waxes philosophical and seems genuinely at peace with his eventual total blindness.
Ryan Knighton is a brave, strong man. His openness about his life and family (warts and all exposed) while going blind should be an inspiration to all who read his book. His fiercely independent refusal to give in to his blindness until absolutely necessary, is written honestly, humorously and is often totally irreverant. As a disabled person myself I could identify with his need to exist and function "normally" as much as possible, for as long as he possibly could. I found the latter chapters of the book to be particularly poignant and revealing as Mr. Knighton finally accepts, within himself, the limitations that have been placed upon him. It is by no means easy and should not be taken lightly. The fact that he shares his life so openly makes this a "must read" for everyone, especially those who think "that would never happen to me" or who have never "put themselves in another's shoes". This book just might change the way you "see" things!
I read this book in my book club - I doubt that I would have picked it up otherwise. It only took the first chapter laughing outloud for me to know how much I was going to enjoy Knighton's journey. Using humor as a tactic to help the reader understand issues and experiences of the visually impaired, made a very readable book that I cannot get out of my head. It's been a few months since I read it and I am still talking about it and recommending it.
Knighton is a superb writer, and this is a book that makes you laugh and want to cry at the same time. Reading it was tremendously entertaining because the writing is funny, funny, funny and at the same time it was immensely informative about the emotional process of losing vision, about identity, struggle, humanity and dignity. I am glad to have Knighton's words and thoughts in my mind: this book is definitely worth reading and rereading.