What would you do if you were sixteen and lost most of your eyesight? If, within weeks, you could no longer drive, read the high school blackboard, pick out the coolest music, or recognize your date’s face? Would you consider your options? Or would you fall into a pattern without making any conscious decision at all?
In Blind Man’s Bluff, a delightfully candid memoir, James Tate Hill describes how he was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a condition that left him legally blind, and how he tried to hide his disability from pretty much everyone. His voice is compelling, humorous, without ever simplifying the complex emotions of his younger self. He neither despaired nor actively sought solutions; he focused his teenage energy on concealment, pretending he could still see.
I was immediately intrigued by Hill’s story, especially since he kept the secrecy going for so long, beyond his college education and into his professional career and marriage. His bluff did not result from immaturity. It was a reaction to loss, to grief. Hill writes: “I wasn’t blind. I could still see things. And every day that I passed for the fully sighted person I used to be made it easier to believe there was nothing wrong.”
Ashamed of what he could no longer do—order from a menu, safely cross a road—and fearful of the stigma that awaited him, he invented tricks to deny his life had drastically changed. He wanted to be a normal young man, so much so that he would rather come across as a jerk not waving back when a schoolmate greeted him from a distance than be known as blind, the dreaded b-word that “felt like a slur.”
I read Hill’s well-crafted memoir in the period right after my mother died, and attuned to grief, I was moved by many of its painful passages. I felt my hopes for a cure rise and fall as I traveled with the author to a mystifying world called Tokyo. I cringed as I followed him into college where, unwilling to acknowledge his limitations, he tried to figure out everything on his own.
The five stages of the Kübler-Ross grief theory rarely occur sequentially. They often overlap, repeat, or get skipped altogether. Hill experienced anger when not everyone proved willing to play in his charade and he felt forced to ask for help. He went through periods of bargaining when he realized he couldn’t blame all his troubles on his blindness and had to question his character instead: “I wished I were a man capable of leaving a bad relationship, but I barely found the courage to leave the apartment.” Hill also encountered depression when he could no longer ignore that his life was stalled. Still, he never quite left the stage of denial until he settled down to write a memoir about his journey toward this point.
Hill wrote his memoir in first person past tense, except for three chapters for which he chose second person present tense. The change effectively creates more distance, showing that in certain scenes the current author had difficulty identifying with the skilled impostor he used to be. It’s one thing to empathize with a lonely teenage boy who cannot express his emotions. Another to fully understand an isolated adult who knows the intimate connections he longs for can be obtained only through honesty, a sacrifice he’s either unable or unwilling to make. In the chapter Dating Tips for Those Still in Denial about Their Disability, Hill writes: “Meeting strangers might be less stressful if you weren’t trying to convince them, with body language if not words, that you are not blind.”
In one of the more uplifting chapters early in the memoir, Hill writes about what he gained because of his loss: He became a reader. Before the burnout of his optic nerves, he had never cared too much for books, but with other competing activities taken out of the equation, he gave them a chance. Because it proved tedious if not impossible to read with magnifiers, he agreed to visit a special library full of pale green cartons holding tapes that smelled like plastic dolls. Soon, he fell in love with audiobooks, a love he unfortunately felt the need to hide like his bad eyes. Listening to a book on tape was, and perhaps still is, not as highly regarded as reading a book in print.
In college, Hill got more and more invested in writing and applied to competitive MFA programs that turned him down until they didn’t. Scanners and screen-reading software had seriously improved over the years, so Hill could prepare for his classes and edit his work with more efficiency and independence. In other words: He could keep pretending. Surrounded by other writers, however, he noticed how many of them were aware of his disability without ever having been told. “Are writers this perceptive,” he wondered, “or have you always been this transparent?”
Not even writing brought Hill to the truth, though. “Fiction had become another way of hiding.” When asked to read his work in front of an audience at the end of his master’s program, he didn’t tell anyone that his eyes weren’t good enough. Instead, he went to great lengths to fulfill the requirement by recording his computer’s voice, listening to the playback, and practicing reading aloud with the digital voice plugged into his ear. After his performance, people applauded and didn’t ask about his earbuds. “Congratulations,” he tells himself retrospectively. “You fooled them all!”
Still, it’s through literature, through the poetry reading of a friend of a friend, that Hill perceives the power of fragility. He sits in awe as she reads aloud her poems about her disability, showing herself as she is. At home, he rereads her work and becomes “envious of how starkly, how boldly, each poem announced her difference.” Has the time come for Hill to denounce his bluff?
In the self-critical and simultaneously self-forgiving voice that kept me engaged until the end, Hill reveals how he ultimately reinvents himself as a teacher, a writer, a partner, a friend, and a human being. Blind Man’s Bluff is a powerful and touching memoir about loss, denial, and all the complicated ways we fool ourselves.
About the Reviewer
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of five novels. Her short fiction and nonfiction have been published in TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Tin House, Electric Literature, Denver Quarterly, and Fiction International. Her memoir in progress is about traveling through Vietnam during the pandemic, elder abuse in Florida, and grief.