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Into the Blind Spot

Learning to Trust What You Can Barely See

ISSUE:  Fall 2015

My right eye had already swollen shut, and, to my left eye, the world outside the gym appeared a provisional version of itself—the brick sidewalk, Lowell House across the street—none of it firmly in place, the sunlight filtering through the trees as though from no one source, everything overly bright. The wide stone steps of the gym shimmered like water, each solid only as it formed under my foot—one step, then the next. Space in general felt wider, less confined, but the space around me felt tighter, as though I were on a lower frequency than everyone else, existing in some range that human ears couldn’t hear.

Peter walked beside me toward Harvard University Health Services, but I avoided looking at him. It had been his finger that had hooked into my eye. We didn’t know each other well; we’d just paired up for a pickup game. It was two weeks before final exams. A flush flashed through me as I thought that I never should have been in the gym in the first place, that I should have been studying. But I’d spent so many hours playing basketball in high school, and devoted so many hours to watching the Celtics with my brother, Matt, at home on the couch, that playing pickup games was more than just a way of relaxing from the career track I hadn’t found. To rise into a baseline jumper, to slash through the lane, was to flip through a scrapbook of my past—my muscles still carrying those late afternoons in the high-school gym and the snowstorms Matt and I had played through in the backyard, fingers going numb. The way holidays carry vestiges of holidays past—that’s what basketball was for me. Every time I picked up a ball, the leather reintroduced my fingertips to all those hours with other basketballs, on other courts, with other people, which was always a quiet reminder of who I was.

My hand trailed instinctively now along the brick wall that lined the narrow sidewalk. The day was too bright. There was nowhere to look. A constant bee sting burned at the back of my right eyeball, surrounded by a tight-fisted throbbing. My T-shirt was stained with streaks of blood, and everything under my skin felt like it was moving faster than it ever had, propelled by a feeling of wanting to strike back, to throw parked cars out of my way. Why had this happened? Why had this happened to me? I told myself the questions were just music playing in a neighboring room, just something to ignore. I needed to get to a doctor. That’s what I needed to do. Then the questions would go away. Vaguely, I admitted to myself that time might be a factor, but for what, I didn’t admit. Peter and I crossed Mount Auburn Street, its two lanes suddenly horrible and dazzling.

At University Health Services, a doctor swabbed some of the blood away from my eye and pressed with his thumb around the lid. He was probably in his sixties. He introduced himself as Dr. Hardenbergh. He’d seen all this before, it seemed. Maybe my senses were heightened, but his white coat smelled like mothballs. His office was straight out of a Norman Rockwell. He said he was going to snip something—it wouldn’t hurt—and just over the bridge of my nose, with my left eye, I saw him cut something white, like a bit of boiled egg. It didn’t hurt—he was right. Maybe it was just the eye’s version of dead skin. But that something could be cut from my eye, and with so little explanation, was not reassuring.

After a quick examination of each eye with his penlight, Dr. Hardenbergh switched the overhead light back on. “Very good,” he said.

I didn’t move.

“You can go back to your dorm room. You’ll have quite a shiner.” He peeled off his rubber gloves.

“I can’t see anything in my right eye.”

“Just heavy swelling. Nothing to worry about. In less than a week the eye should open.”

I had the strange sensation of desperately wanting to believe something I knew wasn’t true. “When you put your penlight in my eye, I didn’t see anything.”

Dr. Hardenbergh removed his penlight again. His bare fingers forced my bruised lid open. “You really don’t see anything?”

“No. I really don’t.”

“Surprising. You’ll want to go down to the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary. You know where it is? You can take the subway. The Red Line.”

“Are you kidding me?”

Dr. Hardenbergh went to the sink, began to wash his hands. “Why would I be kidding?”

“Time isn’t a factor? Can you tell me time isn’t a factor?”

“No ambulance necessary. If that’s what you mean.”

I wanted to grab the doctor by his white coat and slam him up against the wall. Behind my anger there lurked a sickening fear: I hadn’t really been doing anything with my life, and now some outside factor was going to make it impossible for me to redeem myself. Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Didn’t this doctor know who he was talking to? Didn’t he know how much I had to do?

“No ambulance necessary. Not necessary. Because?”

“I can’t call for one. Simple protocol.”

I didn’t trust this man. “Then get me a cab.”

Dr. Hardenbergh stared at me.

“Now,” I said.

The only timeline I can be certain of is this: Peter’s finger went into my eye around four in the afternoon; I left the hospital around two in the morning. Maybe with my sense of space so uncertain, time had gone uncertain, too. Sometimes I rotated examining rooms, sometimes the doctors rotated to see me. Sometimes the wait was minutes, sometimes it seemed hours. Sometimes the waiting was a relief, sometimes it felt unendurable.

The only doctor I remember clearly was a young Pakistani man, probably just a resident. The small examining room was rinsed with air-conditioning, coldness as a form of cleanliness. The doctor introduced himself in a soft voice and extracted a few magnifying lenses from a case lined with red velvet. His fingers were gentle on my cheekbone. He took his time peering into my eye. Given the amount of blood, he explained, getting a clear view was difficult. Then he pivoted the large examining apparatus, which looked like a periscope, so that it was in front of me. “Chin on the bar, forehead against the curved plastic band.”

I pushed forward.

“Come forward, please.”

I pushed forward again. My eyes were a peep show for his bright lights. Pale-blue concentric circles of light checked my eye pressure. The terribly bright white light—like the headlamp of an oncoming train—was to see in more detail. It was impossible not to lean away, blinking. But the doctor waited. His manner calmed me some—an answer, it seemed, would be found. Then he brought out his penlight. He turned off the room light and had me cover my left eye with the palm of my hand. He held open the swollen lids of my right eye.

“I want you to tell me if you see anything,” he said into the darkness. “If you can tell when the light is on. Do you see anything?”

I could hear his breathing and the very faint rustle of his white coat. I could hear the clicking of his penlight, strangely loud, as though a whole auditorium’s lights were being thrown on and off.

“Anything? Tell me when the light is on.”

His accent was faintly British, his breath mildly freshened by gum. I could picture him standing there, could picture the look in his gentle brown eyes, as he watched my eye, as he waited for an answer. But, in front of my open eye, there was just darkness—a dark tunnel, night in the darkest forest. I tried to focus closer, then farther away, but there was no closer, no farther away. It was the same kind of darkness I’d tried to imagine as a child before falling asleep—a kind of deep space, which for some reason I’d assumed would be relaxing, but then the darkness would usually turn into a blackboard, with random words appearing in chalk.


The doctor was waggling the penlight back and forth—I was almost sure, from the rustling of his sleeve.

“Anything?” His voice bounced off the chair, off the floor, off the walls. I had the sensation of being a witness—but a witness who had lost the authority to speak. I heard his penlight, his sleeve, I saw them. But it was as though without the correct type of evidence, my testimony no longer mattered. I’d fallen somewhere below the visual, somewhere that couldn’t be trusted.

“Nothing?” he asked.

His sleeve had stopped moving. The penlight had clicked off.

“Nothing,” I said.

After a moment, the doctor flipped the overhead light back on; he wheeled his stool over to my left-hand side. He explained that the retina of my right eye was detached and that my cornea was badly scratched. Normally, these were problems that could be fixed. But the real problem, he was sorry to say, was that the optic nerve, which connects the back of the eye to the brain, had been severed from the back of my eyeball. Peter’s finger had gone in past the knuckle and curved behind my eyeball, his fingernail slicing the nerve. The doctor showed me this on his own finger, pointing to his gold wedding band, which was a bit more information than I needed. Without an intact optic nerve, he explained, no information could be carried from my eye to my brain. Medical science did not yet know how to regenerate the optic nerve. Given the severity of the injury, he said, there was nothing that could be done.

“Do you have any questions?”

I did, but it seemed they weren’t in my head, just as what I’d seen of his penlight hadn’t been in my eyes.

“Anything?” he asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re sure now?” 

I felt a kind of vertigo. “No questions.”

“We’ll need to run a few tests. Do a CT scan to make sure there’s no blood in your brain. But there shouldn’t be anything else to worry about.”

Nothing else to worry about.

I thanked him for his explanation, grateful for etiquette for the first time in my life—for the small dignity it allows when there is nothing else to say.

Coming home from college always felt a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. My parents lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, just a twenty-minute drive from Adams House, but crossing the Charles River always made me feel like an expat returning to his native country—everything familiar and unfamiliar, at once too large and too small. They lived on a street of stately brick Tudors, one with crenellated towers, another with stone lions posed out front, ferocious heralds of the suburbs. Inside the house, Mom’s inept attempt at organization, which often took the form of arranging tchotchkes, aimed to announce nearly every room’s intended use. A red milk carton, suspended by a plastic stream of milk, hovered over a bowl of plastic cornflakes in the kitchen. A fluorescent orange arrow pointing down, painted by Mom herself, ran the length of the stairwell from the kitchen to the basement. In the downstairs bathroom, a small ceramic statue of a man in a bathtub sat at the edge of the bathtub. And the house’s centerpiece was a Thomas McKnight print of a blue couch in a living room, which hung above the blue couch in our living room. As a boy, when no one was around, I’d steal across the Oriental rug, climb up on the blue couch, and wait to see if a little boy would appear on the couch in the painting.

But the morning after the accident, even my own room felt unknown to me. Dust motes drifted in the sunlight above the radiator. As always, the same posters of Larry Bird and Andre Agassi hung on the walls, the same National Latin Exam medals hung over the trophies on my bookcase. But the lines on the wallpaper seemed to be trying to hold the room in place. My bookcase, my desk, my chair—nothing was quite as solid as it was supposed to be. Every object looked like it had lost its outer coating. As though it had become a suggestion of itself—a mock-up for a rehearsal of some kind, until my real bedroom was ready to return. I’d always been especially proud of my trophies: the batters so dignified and balanced in their stances; the basketball players rising up effortlessly into jump shots; the gavel, for a debate tournament I’d won, poised at an angle as though it were rapping a bench for order. But now they just looked like trophies in a store window, with no substance behind them, no real victories holding them up.

I kept looking around my room, testing. My eyes still tracked together, and with any movement of my left eye, my right eye balked with pain. There was the swampy heaviness of the lid, the battered feeling of the eye itself, and that interior pain, no longer as piercing as a bee sting, but thicker, with a kind of dull vibration. The doctors had given me only Extra Strength Tylenol, which seemed like a very bad joke. Don’t I at least get drugs? On the other hand, no drugs meant the injury couldn’t be that bad. Two Tylenol sufficed for a hangover from too many scorpion bowls at the Hong Kong. Maybe the strangeness of my room was just a trauma jet lag, just the shock of everything that had happened and the effect of a bad night’s sleep. The ER doctor had mentioned something about an adjustment period, the brain adapting in fascinating ways, but I hadn’t really been listening. I wasn’t interested in adjusting.

But as I emerged from my room and came to the top of the stairs, it was clear I wouldn’t have a choice. I could see each stair clearly enough, but couldn’t gauge the drop between them. There was just a series of lines, the distance between which became smaller as they reached down to the foyer. They looked like a suggestion of stairs, a possibility of stairs, but nothing I could trust. I waited, like a skier at the top of an expert-level trail, trying to visualize my descent. It didn’t matter how many times before I’d taken the stairs not bothering to look. Matt—who was more than six feet tall by the time he was thirteen—had been the one who had difficulty with the stairs, the one whose perpetual effort to catch up with his own body generally reminded me of how good I had it physically. But now the stairs looked treacherous, unfixed, fantastical. I gripped the wrought-iron banister. My foot dangled. The plush blue carpeting received the ball, then the heel, the iron of the banister solid under my palm. It wasn’t until my foot struck carpet that I knew for certain where the stair was, but the next stair was still in question. It didn’t matter that memory and common sense told me each stair was the same distance down. My brain trusted my eyes, and my eyes said there was no telling where the next stair might be—no telling if I would step and not find anything solid, no telling if my foot wouldn’t just keep falling, pulling the rest of my body down. I took another step, resting both feet on the same stair. I just needed to listen to my eyes less, to trust my other senses more. Appearance was not reality. I could almost feel my brain struggling to adapt. Vision no longer knew best: It could no longer be in charge.

Maybe this is what the young doctor meant when he’d explained to me that I’d lost stereoscopic vision, the only means of perceiving depth. He said a normal person uses his eyes in concert: The disparity between the information each relays to the brain enables someone, by a kind of instant triangulation, to locate objects in space. Without the use of both eyes a person can no longer perceive depth. He or she can only judge it with the help of depth cues, the same cues everyone uses instinctively: the size of known objects (bigger when closer), parallax (when you turn your head, objects farther away don’t move as much as nearer objects), and occlusion (if an object is partially blocked, it’s behind the object blocking it). The doctor explained that I would probably be able to manage daily activities, especially as my brain adapted, but I still wouldn’t perceive depth—I wouldn’t have that clear sensation of space, of moving through a realm of dimensionality. This change, he said, could prove disorienting for some people.

And it was. Later that morning, I poured orange juice straight onto the kitchen table, pouring a good two inches in front of the glass. In the bathroom mirror, there was no second bathroom behind my reflection, no space behind me: The whole room was just a flat plane, like a photograph. I kept wiping at an unsettling white spot on my nose—Was it crust that had slid down from the crust sealing my eye?—before realizing the spot was just on the surface of the mirror, just a toothpaste stain. And out my bedroom window, while I was gazing at the Boston skyline trying to gather myself, I saw a horribly enormous black bird blot out the Hancock building. Its shape was monstrous. It was overtaking the entire tower. I stepped back, flinching. Then I saw. It was just a fly, crawling up the outside of the windowpane.

I remembered something from my Psych-1 class that reassured me. We’d read about studies that showed that sighted people have all kinds of blindness. When professional pilots approached landing in a flight simulator with flight data superimposed on the windshield display, many failed to notice a large jet airplane that was clearly visible on the runway. When subjects were shown a gorilla running through the middle of a basketball game, they would often respond that there had been nogorilla. Even more amazing, when an experimenter ducked behind a desk—in a show of looking for papers—and a different experimenter stood up in his place, a significant portion of subjects didn’t notice that the person had changed. Not only did subjects’ brains, in these cases, remove the airplane, remove the gorilla, or see the new experimenter as being the same as the old, but they also had no doubts about what they had seen. Everyone’s reality was a construction of his or her brain. 

And so it struck me, as I fingered my way up the banister to my room: If everyone’s reality included blind spots, if that was simply the nature of perception, and I was now constantly being reminded of blind spots in my perception, wasn’t I actually seeing a little more than most? Wasn’t it helpful, on some level, to have been made aware, physically aware, there was so much I wasn’t seeing? Wasn’t that a way of seeing more, or at least seeing more truthfully? It was a comfort to think I hadn’t only lost something—to think I’d been given a way of seeing, or not seeing, that was potentially profound, if only I could figure out how to use it.

This wasn’t a good sign. I tried to blink it away, to look again, but nothing changed. Exam period had begun, and I was sitting on my bed in Adams House, my Riverside Shakespeare heavy as a small dog on my lap. A chair had scraped along the hardwood floor in the room above me, and I’d looked up from reading King Lear. After a bit more scraping, the sound had stopped. But something was wrong with my ceiling. There was a shadow where the ceiling met the wall, and a hovering where the brown wood molding began. I waited for the shadow to go away, for my normal sense of space to return. But it didn’t return. No matter how hard I stared, no matter how I turned my head. The lines of the brown molding had a phantom-like quality—a margin for error—as though my ceiling didn’t begin in any one place, as though the plaster and the wood molding were no longer solid. It was easy to picture how I had seen the ceiling before—how sharp the division between the molding and the ceiling had been, how definite my sense of depth and space. But that configuration of lines, which had been tied in place as neatly as a present, had come untied. Geometry had gone off-duty. My ceiling’s formality, in both senses of the word, was gone. I couldn’t tell with any certainty where my ceiling began.

In my two weeks back at school, I thought I’d already made all the necessary adjustments. Instinctively, I sat in the last row in crowded lectures, generally on the right-hand side, to have the whole lecture hall in front of me on my left. I walked to class later than usual, so as not to be caught in the crush of so many bodies on the sidewalk. On rainy days, I trailed a little behind my friends—without sunlight there were fewer shadows, fewer depth cues, and this was the best way to avoid the sharp spokes of umbrellas, menacingly poised at eye level, and also not to miss a curb. No one really seemed to notice. Finals were coming up, the rush of the semester was at its peak. Especially once my eye healed outwardly, and the blood on its surface went away, my friends tended to forget—probably because they couldn’t see that anything was different. The young doctor had been right: He’d told me my eyes would move normally, that they’d continue to “look” at the world just the same. The metaphor he’d used was a toaster oven with a broken cord: the toaster looks fine, it just can’t be plugged in. This normal appearance led to some strange situations. About a week after my return, a classmate came trotting toward me on the grass in front of Lamont. He was out of breath, and looking at me a bit too closely. “I heard the most horrible story,” he said. “I’m so glad to see it isn’t true.”

“What story?” 

“Some of the guys said you lost an eye playing basketball. That it actually came out of your skull. That it was rolling around on the court.”

I told him what happened. I explained about the optic nerve.

“No shit. No shit! You mean, you don’t see anything out of that eye? Which eye? This one?”

He held his finger in front of my face, wagged it back and forth. He was peering at me like I was a lab specimen. I had the feeling he was seeing one version of me, while another version was looking out at him. It felt like a trench inside me, like there was an actual space of about a foot between where he saw me and where I was seeing him from. Gently, I put my hand around his hand and pulled it down to his side.

The only place where I was having physical difficulty by now was the dining hall. The juice machine, which was situated by the doorway to the tables, posed a particular hazard. After filling two glasses, I’d turn to the right, with my full tray, to go out to the tables, but someone who hadn’t been there a moment before would suddenly materialize on my right, and we’d crash. I collided with a sophomore from Kansas who reminded me of Woodstock from the Peanuts gang, her collarbone exposed as we bent down to the floor. I knocked into Steve Martins, the hockey stud, who barely noticed me bouncing off him. I even tangled trays with Prokopow, the house tutor who had suggested I stay home and postpone exams until fall. Each time, there was nothing to do but apologize, clean up the ruined food, and be angry with myself. Why couldn’t I remember I’d lost peripheral vision on that side? How had I forgotten that space immediately to my right existed? My brain somehow hadn’t registered, no matter the frequency of my collisions, that my blind spot had expanded. The missing area in my brain’s map was like the inverse of a phantom limb—instead of my brain filling in a hand or arm that no longer existed, it had subtracted the awareness of a physical space that did exist. The worst part of this wasn’t the humiliation but the impossibility of an honest apology. I looked normal. I couldn’t tell the story every time I crashed, couldn’t just crash into people with my story, too. The story felt too emotional, too strange to put into words. Or maybe I could have tried, but my instinct was just the opposite—to keep my blindness invisible. But I couldn’t help wondering, as I returned to the line for a replacement helping of Tater Tots, how many other people lived with this kind of doubleness. I’d look at the faces above the salad bar, faces strangely vulnerable as they moved along with their blue trays. How many of them also feel a divide? How many of them look one way but feel entirely another?

I didn’t want to think about it too much. No reason to get all philosophical. Apart from my crashes, my physical adjustments had been going well. I was acclimating to the various sets of stairs, like the smooth, gray, unevenly worn ones in my entryway: Step higher than necessary, then let your foot, as it comes down, locate the stair. The same tactic worked with shaking hands: Keep reaching until contact. Not too much had to be different, I told myself. Already, my hearing was adapting. I was listening not just for sounds but for space: the rhythmic scuffing of footsteps behind or beside me, or the wind-rush of cars coming down Massachusetts Avenue. This happened without any effort on my part: It was just a sympathetic response, as the doctors called it, as though my ears were actually sympathetic and showing a kind of moral support to my eyes. My “Spidey sense” was what I called it. I’d know my roommate was about to appear in the doorway of my bedroom—maybe from a subtle shift of air currents on my face, or maybe from the creaking of the floorboards. I didn’t even know how I knew. It was a little spooky. Apparently, studies show that the visual area of the brain begins to process auditory and tactile information within five days of the loss of vision. The occipital cortex automatically starts using sound and the touch of wind patterns on your skin to help you see, to help orient you spatially in your surroundings.

All of this had been fine, just some neurological redecorating, something that didn’t require too much thought. But now my ceiling wasn’t in any particular place. The light coming through the windows was just simple late-day light, but the air around me felt different. My heavy wooden bureau looked weightless, permeable—as though I could put my hand through it. The more I looked out from the solid island of my bed, the more I felt as though gravity had been altered in the room, as though every object hovered rather than sat. It seemed my vision couldn’t help but tread lightly, as though it were waiting for some more definite confirmation of what I saw. As though, like Gloucester in King Lear, I needed to learn to “see…feelingly,” to see not so much with eyes but with my hands and with my heart.

This wasn’t so different from how my bedroom had felt the morning after the accident, but this wasn’t the morning after. Life was supposed to have returned to normal. Finals were just a few days away. But my ceiling wasn’t coming back. I felt betrayed, like when you look into the sky for a plane after hearing its sound, then have to search and find it farther along in the sky—some gap suddenly there between reality and your sense of reality. But then, usually, your brain, working like a minor god, just moves the airplane’s sound to match the airplane’s location in the sky. Your hearing and vision align, like two competing mirrors sliding into one, and the gap vanishes. The plane is where it is, which means you are where you are. But now the gap wasn’t going away. I was stuck in it, stuck in a strange, steady awareness that my sense of reality was assembled by a team, a team not even close to perfect. This wasn’t a well-turned couplet in Shakespeare. It wasn’t even a secret passageway at the back of a wardrobe or a long, curious tumble down a rabbit hole. And I wasn’t sure whether I was one step farther away from reality or one step closer to it—because that depended on what reality really was.

In a way, I’d always lived between worlds—between the jocks and the nerds, between my parents’ interests and my own—and I’d always understood myself as the ever-shifting but broadly consistent sum of those gaps. But this gap had always been the one that felt too wide: the gap between what I saw with my eyes open and what I saw with them closed. How strange it had always felt to stand from my bed after reading a poem I pictured in my mind—the snow, the quiet, the woman waiting and not waiting for her lover—and to walk outside into the Cambridge afternoon where I saw less vividly, and, it seemed, needed to see less vividly to get where I was going, to do what I needed to do. But now those two distinct realms—behind my eyes and in front of them—had drifted so close together as to become almost indistinguishable. The ceiling, the molding, the walls—they were all suddenly like something out of a fairy tale where a spell has been cast, where a threshold has been crossed. The entire physical world seemed a doorway into possibility. I liked it and didn’t like it. It felt like an initiation, but an initiation into a realm where I didn’t belong.

I got up from the bed and dragged my black desk chair to the wall. Even standing two feet off the ground, I couldn’t tell exactly where the molding ended. The ceiling was still too high to touch. The doctors had warned me about the blood behind my eye, close to my brain. I knew, given my persistent headaches, that jumping from the chair wasn’t the best idea. But I needed to know, as well as I could, where my ceiling began.

And so I jumped. 


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Derek Robinson's picture
Derek Robinson · 8 years ago

Not to quibble but stereoscopic parallax isn't such a big deal when we have what's called "active vision" - that is, a kind of time-based integration where the effect of visual parallax is achieved by overall movement of the head. I've been blind in one eye since birth (so has Johnny Depp, I only this week learned) and it's never been an impediment; sometimes I get a lucky streak playing basketball or billiards, and other times not.


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