When my father was five, he turned to his mother and asked, “Who just turned off all the lights?”
He remembers the bleached sidewalk and the summer breeze and then he remembers nothingness. He’d gone blind just like that, in an instant and with no warning. After an emergency surgery, he was hospitalized for a month. My father regained his vision, but his eyes rolled around in his head for the next year. When someone talked to him, his baby-blues went off in different directions, trying to find the voice. He had to wear inch-thick bifocals that embarrassed him.
When he was eleven, my father was molested by a priest, which resulted in years of addiction and psychological terror.
I grew up Catholic. My father and mother took me to church every Sunday before they got divorced, before Dad slipped into drink and psychosis. I went to CCD classes. I received my first communion. I confessed to a priest in a pine box. I prayed to porcelain Mother Mary statues. My grandmother hosted priests and nuns, offering them cold Coca-Colas and sandwiches.
Imagine my father in the wooden pew, in a starched shirt, avoiding eye contact with the priest and clergymen. Imagine his neck red against the stiff collar my mother had ironed, never knowing his past.
At night, when he raged and smashed dinner plates or punched drywall, my mother would come into my room and stroke my brow. She’d sing “Amazing Grace” until I fell asleep.
I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.
In my mid-twenties, my father was on the brink of homelessness. His addiction had plateaued for years, but after he lost his job, it escalated into week-long binges. During that time, I had a recurring dream where I taught a blind man to swim.
I carried him on my back in a giant indoor pool made of marble and gold. The man was frail, bird-boned, paper-skinned, his eyes the milky-blue of prophets. His thin arms hung around my neck as we submerged. Later, I cradled him. Chest up, he rested his head back into the water and smiled. I told him to breathe in, and hold. I pulled his face below the surface.
His eyes opened, milk-blue under blue.
Blind sight: In a study where researchers explored the existence of a sixth sense, participants who were blind sat in front of television screens that flashed the faces of different people. When asked what expressions the faces were making, the participants didn’t know. However, as the photos changed on the screen, their faces mimicked the facial expressions on the monitors.
Our eyes can sense expression and feeling and pain without a conscious understanding.
The organ that is the eye is the physical embodiment of empathy.
My grandmother told my father that he was some kind of psychic. He didn’t get it from her, but from his dad, Red Dog. He was a firefighter with red hair who bruised his children. But he softened in old age and called me his Mona Lisa. Red saw things. Knew things. Dreamed things. Dad calls it Red Intuition. Dad says he wishes every day that his father had known about the priest.
My father told me for years that he’d wind up either in a mental institution or dead by his own hand. Neither of those things ended up being true.
I wonder whether his boy-body tried to go blind before the thing that happened to him.
My dad remembers the nurse unwrapping the bandages from his eyes, layer by layer. The first thing he saw was his father. Red sat in a chair by the bed in his Arlington County firefighter uniform.
“Damn, boy, can you see me?” his father said.
Our eyes are connected to our amygdala, where emotions are processed and stored in our brains. The amygdala is one of the first parts we form. It’s old. It records, sometimes remembering trauma that happened before we formed language. We saw something as a child we don’t have words for. But our body hasn’t forgotten.
I didn’t tell my father about my own sexual assault until my book was accepted for publication. The book was about his assault and subsequent addiction and how, later, he got sober and survived. I called him to tell him the truth, a secret I had kept hidden for more than a decade.
When I told him he fell silent, the phone a valley between us.
He gasped for air and said, “I knew. I knew. I always knew. I had dreams for years. I knew.”
“I didn’t think you guys knew what was going on. It always happened at night. You were asleep,” my mother said.
My therapist had been working me back through my memories, trying to find the first, searching for what made me so afraid of sleep. My mother tells me I was born into chaos. My father disappeared for the first week of my life, only to reappear as a broken window. My mom slept on the couch as he climbed in. He grinned, cocksure, and opened the fridge like he didn’t have an infant daughter upstairs whom he hadn’t yet met. Mom, furious, threw a glass of water on him.
He grabbed a knife.
He chased her up the stairs to my crib. She ran with me wrapped in her arms, out of the house, into a car. She sped her way to my grandmother. We lived with Nana for several months.
Do I have this memory? Did my body collect these nights in my veins and cells and bury them into the folds of where consciousness is first developed?
My mother tells me that I slept with my eyes open as a toddler. She’d wake and find me, eyelids peeled back, irises flickering back and forth, rotating, floating in circles. Sometimes I’d mouth words to the darkness. She and my grandmother would joke that I was possessed.
When I grew and learned to walk, I started waking up and climbing into her bed.
“My god. You’ve been doing this your whole life,” she said.
Nearly thirty years later, my therapist suggested that I start eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment to reprocess my sexual assault. It’s a psychotherapy designed to alleviate stress related to traumatic memories.
During an EMDR session, a therapist asks me to focus on a negative thought, memory, or image. In my hands, two tappers buzz back and forth. This is called bilateral stimulation. While the rhythm alternates from hand to hand, I am asked to let my mind wander. When the memories bubble forth, I’m asked, “What do you notice?”
Patients are encouraged to close their eyes during EMDR, but I am too afraid. During a session, I can see the garage where I was taken and assaulted, but my eyes are open, wide open.
Over time, the distress over particular thoughts, images, or memories starts to reprocess. The fear response weakens and becomes neutral.
I remember the garage. I can still see it, but my chest no longer seizes and the room doesn’t bottom out. My triggers still exist, but they are less lethal.
When I think about this treatment, the eyes, the tapping, I wonder, what did I see in the ceiling as a child?
My father’s condition as a child was nystagmus, “dancing eyes.” Doctors haven’t pinpointed the cause of the condition, but they know it is linked to the brain. Many are born with it, but some develop symptoms later in life. It’s rarely a cause for surgical intervention, and my father wishes his parents were still alive so he could ask them about what happened. Nystagmus is often genetic but can also be a result of trauma.
Nystagmus can occur in adults with alcoholism and drug addiction. In my memoir and in journals from when I was a child, I would write that my father’s eyes danced around in his head.
“The Country of the Blind” is a short story by H. G. Wells. It was first published in 1904.
A mountaineer named Nunez falls down the far side of an unconquered mountain, where he finds an isolated community. The inhabitants of the valley have been blind for generations after a disease struck early settlers. The town is fully adapted to life without sight.
Nunez discovers this and recites to himself, “In the Country of the Blind, the One-eyed Man is King.”
But Nunez is labeled a madman because of his obsession with this thing called “sight.” The village doctor examines Nunez and finds a troublesome organ causing Nunez’s sickness.
The village doctor tells the elders:
“Those queer things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Nunez, in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and distraction . . . And I think I may say with reasonable certainty that, in order to cure him complete, all that we need to do is a simple and easy surgical operation—namely, to remove these irritant bodies.”
“And then he will be sane?”
“Then he will be perfectly sane, and a quite admirable citizen.”
I could not write about my parents for years. One night, when I started writing the book that would attempt to tell our story—the abuse, the priest, the drinking, the forgiveness—I lost my vision. Literally. I could not see the screen or the words. I turned my head up toward the ceiling, my eyes twitching back and forth. It happened over and over.
I wrote our story blind. It was the only way my body knew how. Perhaps it couldn’t remember with my eyes open. Perhaps the body can see only so much at once, and to dive into the valley, into the depths of the dark thing that made me, a second sight was required. Perhaps the eyes are a distraction. Perhaps the quitting eyes are an inheritance.
My fingers tapped across the keyboard and my sight snapped shut, like someone had just turned off all the lights.