Guide Dog by My Side,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, 15:2, 250-255.
Sight-Seeing while Traveling Blind
In her remarkable memoir, Traveling Blind: Adventures in Vision with a Guide Dog by My Side, Susan Krieger takes us on journeys to a remote area of New Mexico, trips through which she explores her movement into blindness, with its many losses and unexpected gains. The book is a classic travel narrative, as Krieger moves through time and space, encounters different external landscapes and revises her internal landscape as she goes. As a narrative of disability, the story is sharpened by the fact that each time she visits her beloved Big Hatchet Mountain, with the little Hatchet Range to the west and the distant Sierra Madres to the south, her vision is diminished or altered. Yet as her sight declines, she “sees” more, coming to know the mountain and high desert landscape through a combination of memory, fantasy, altered sight, and the new images she composes. Her wilderness is internal: the wild feelings of loss and wonder, of beauty and sadness, and an internal brightness and darkness that mirror what she sees externally.
Traveling Blind is a quest narrative, as many tales of illness and disability are. Typically the quest narrative starts with a difficult challenge, a metaphorical mountain to climb. In this genre, the subject takes us through troubles and predicaments, moving toward resolution and a triumphant ending – sometimes of healing, or of a disability “overcome,” but more often of greater understanding and full acceptance. Krieger fully intends her memoir to follow in this mode, telling us that her book is “a story about my quest for acceptance of my own ways of seeing and not seeing”(2). The quest is necessitated by a rare disease, birdshot retinochoroidopathy, which erodes both central and peripheral vision, causing darkness, loss of color, and blurred or patchy vision. Yet, importantly, Krieger has limited vision and lives her life as a partially sighted person, thus the quest to accept her ways of “seeing and not seeing.”
Krieger’s tale is not about a solitary quest, but rather one undertaken with two loved ones at her side, her long-time partner Hannah and her relatively recently acquired guide dog Teela, a large golden lab-retriever mix. They travel as a pack. Krieger also intends to go beyond self-understanding to challenge widespread negative stereotypes about blindness, “particularly the negative assumption that blindness implies incapacity or lack” (5). She succeeds by telling a powerful story of mobility, adventure, and personal growth underwritten by her extraordinary ability to describe for the reader how she sees both sites and sight.
The book is laid out around two different trips to New Mexico, though we learn that another one has occurred in the intervening year.1 The two high points of each trip include the day-trip to Big Hatchet, where Krieger always hopes to see more or get closer in order to maintain the spectacular feeling this mountain evoked on her initial visit. The second event occurs at nighttime, roaming through small New Mexico towns to see Christmas lights, especially luminarias, the simple but beautiful small paper bags placed upright on the ground, usually lining a walkway, with a candle burning inside that shines a soft-glowing light through the paper. Krieger’s description of two Jewish lesbians lurking about strangers’ yards in unfamiliar towns makes for a funny image. But there is poignancy as well; the light–dimly glowing, shadowy, and partial–has come to seem especially beautiful to Susan because in many ways it resembles her own vision.
In between these special events are the daily rituals of travel: navigating roads, stops for gas and meals, shopping for gifts, overnight stays at pre-arranged lodging, and carrying luggage to and fro. These ordinary events, however, become far from quotidian when every aspect of travel is altered by blindness. The trip becomes a kind of touchstone for measuring change and capability: Susan can no longer drive, but can she still carry the luggage in and out, pack the car, plan the route, buy gifts, and take her solitary morning walks? What can she do independently and what tasks require help? Which parts of travel leave her feeling secure and which frighten her? How does she deal with her fear, frustration, and the shame that often follows her disappointments and perceived failures? These are the everyday issues that form the “deeds” of this travel account, which is indeed Krieger’s way of taking account of her vision and her self.
From the beginning Krieger acknowledges that her story is one of dualities and contradictions, beginning with a self she describes as “doubled,” both a person who can “see and fail to see” (3). The contradictions quickly take over the storyline and make it much more interesting than a simpler progressive narrative of growing self-acceptance and proof that disability does not mean “lack.” In fact, though Krieger ends every chapter on an up-note of accomplishment and triumph over trouble, the substance of her chapters show that loss and lack play a central role in her battle to accept her blindness and forge a new, re-fortified identity.
Allowing for these many contradictions provides, in my view, a more accurate portrayal of learning to live with disabilities, especially acquired disabilities. On the one hand, Krieger beautifully renders her appreciation of the new kinds of sights that partial vision allows. Approaching Big Hatchet, the car whizzes by dried grasslands populated by low pine trees. But without detail or clarity, she sees “green Buddhas on dry, wheat-like fields” (16). Similarly, unable to notice details when looking at luminarias up close, Krieger focuses on her panoramic view, a wide swath flames that form “a tapestry made of threads of glowing filament . . . igniting gold in the night” (141). She has come to recognize “the art that goes into seeing,” an act of constant composing, organizing space and patterns, filling in missing pieces, and guessing at objects to create “a pleasing portrait. . .this was my art now, I thought” (149).
On the other hand, she finds herself repeatedly struck low by her lost vision and injured sense of self. At different points in the book she laments seeing only fuzzy images in blurry towns she had imagined quite differently. A quick day-trip across the border to Mexico results in becoming “frightened to the point of terror” followed by shame at “how much I fear what I don’t see.” (56-57) When she finds she cannot do ordinary tasks like carrying luggage into a bed and breakfast, the sense of failure becomes global: “I immediately felt that I was not brave enough, not skilled enough . . . I felt incomplete as a blind person, not adequately competent, and ready to cry.” (61) Yet Krieger rarely stops there, choosing instead to practice climbing stairs or persist in learning a skill, to the point that she even claims she does not see her self as disabled: “I simply could not see well. But I could climb stairs. I could lift things.” (66). Such back and forth struggle, often revisiting the same issues, left me feeling tugged and pulled as a reader. As I rode Krieger’s emotional roller coaster and came around the same turns repeatedly, I sometimes found myself frustrated, thinking: “not the luggage, again!” Upon reflection, however, I have come to think of this as a strength of the book. My slight irritation is just a fraction of what Krieger experiences in adjusting to and living with a disability in a society disrespectful of variation. “Becoming” disabled does not occur quickly, nor does it produce heroic personalities. It is slow, repetitive, gradual, grinding, and filled with small defeats and triumphs. Krieger illustrates this well as her travels move her from despair over an unexpected problem, to the satisfaction of clearing that hurdle, only to find another one looming ahead.
Traveling Blind also makes clear what should be obvious; someone who becomes disabled is the same person they have always been. There is no “before,” “moment of crisis,” and “after” in this book, and while there is a transformative moment for someone paralyzed in a car crash or suddenly blinded by dynamite, there is still not a before and after person. Krieger struggles with her identity and confidence as a blind person. But this does not seem to stray very far from lifelong struggles for self-acceptance. Krieger refers to her longstanding self-consciousness and need for reassurance to bolster “a precarious sense of myself,” a need which becomes greater when encountering the adversities that come with her disability (128).
This aspect of Krieger’s experience, and its significance for the fully sighted, is presented most powerfully in her chapter titled “Are You Training that Dog?” Early in the book Teela seems to be along for the ride as a comforting companion more than as a working dog. Over time, though, we see that the working relationship between Teela and Susan is still young. As they develop trust, mostly from walking in San Francisco where Krieger resides, the question “Are you training that dog?” assails Krieger repeatedly. It is Susan’s partial vision--apparent from eye movements or indications that she combines sight with reliance on Teela--that troubles the observer and makes many of them question her legitimacy as a blind person. Any rejoinder she tries, from “No, she’s working” to “I’m blind,” often elicits further expressions of doubt. Krieger tellingly suggests that what disturbs the questioner is how her lack of total blindness disrupts the belief that the blind are the complete opposite of those with sight. Even if mobile and independent through the use of a guide dog or cane, the blind person must remain “not sighted” so that a clear difference marks the boundary between disabled and “normal.” Anything less raises the specter that disability could affect any one of us, now or in the future.
Yet, Krieger’s ability to pinpoint such stereotypes does not stop this recurring question from undermining her own sense of legitimacy. Krieger wonders if she is blind “enough” to get the support she needs, or if, to the contrary, she asks for too much since she retains some sight. She eagerly responds when strangers recognize her as blind, but then wonders whether she really “qualifies.” In the end, she realizes, “[I] make myself materialize as a blind woman in order to counteract the aggressive public feedback I hear in the question, ‘Are you training that dog?’” (115) Still, these efforts don’t restore her self-confidence because blindness is a new self-identification, and she too has learned that to be blind is to be devoid of sight. Krieger must unlearn our society’s powerful beliefs in order to believe in herself.
Does identifying as a lesbian, another “outsider” identity, help Krieger adjust to the radical changes in her life? This is a question she leaves largely unaddressed. Yet the book still has much to offer as a lesbian text. Most obviously, lesbians and persons with disabilities are often the same, not separate groups or “identities.” In addition, Susan’s relationship with Hannah forms an important thread throughout the book. Finally, the book contains a fascinating subtext around what I will call butch identity, although I don’t know whether Krieger identifies with that term. Her regrets swirl around commonly associated (though debatable) butch “duties,” like driving, knowing directions, and carrying the luggage. I wondered if, after giving up driving, Krieger’s attachment to being able to manage stairs while carrying luggage had become a further signifier of butch identity at risk. By “butch” I do not mean being part of a butch/fem relationship. Rather, her singular identity as someone who always felt “different” and unacceptable, who doesn’t seem to have been particularly “girly,” and who exists in the shadows of conventional femininity (popular fashion, marriage, overtly feminine self-presentation) seems consistent with a recognizable “butch” style in lesbian communities. Is the struggle around her identity as a blind person related to loss of some of the competencies and markers of a butch(ish) identity and her earlier struggles around self-acceptance?
The great strength of Traveling Blind is Susan Krieger’s honesty. In veering away from a quest narrative that features inevitable triumph, she reveals much more than her fears and self-doubt. Her imagination; determination; ability to love nature, people and animals; and capacity to find the positive in changes that at times feel like devastating losses all enrich this tale. This is a book full of unique visions, shaped by Krieger’s ability to appreciate and articulate how seeing less is sometimes seeing more. Due to absence of color and detail, Krieger explains, “I see images more dramatically, in stark relief,” at the same time noting “the details I do see can make an ordinary world magical.” (195). All is not beauty and magic, though, as she describes her life now as one of constant adaptation, with strict blacks and whites replaced by “overlaps of light and dark.” (196) Krieger’s book, too, is full of overlaps. One account is distinct to the author, marked by her unusual kind of blindness and unique ways of coming to terms with it. At the same time, when she says, “I see and yet I must always remember that I don’t see, which is a much harder recognition,” this is a message that applies to all of us (197). All vision is partial; none of us see perfectly and we all misperceive what we think we see at times. Traveling Blind makes me at once want to grant Susan Krieger’s experience of blindness the singular recognition it deserves because of the profound difference it has made in her functional and emotional life. And at the same time, it tells a story about someone who is not profoundly different from any of us. Krieger reminds us we are creatures, human and animal, who use the senses we have to perceive (partially) the world around us; to learn, to grow, to fail and try again; and to reach out to others with stories that build connections by compelling us to see differently.
Susan K. Cahn
Department of History, University at Buffalo
1 Readers of Krieger’s preceding book, Things No Longer There (University of Wisconsin, 2005), will know that she once lived in New Mexico and has traveled there before with Hannah, though not to this location.