by Robert Kurson
4 stars - fascinating stuff
ALR Green - nice guide dog in minor role
Suppose you'd been blind since the age of three and were offered, in your forties, the opportunity to regain your vision. Go for it, right? Well, what if I told you that the chance of success of the procedure was about 50/50 and that even if it worked your vision could reverse without warning and you'd be taking drugs with scary side effects, possibly for life. Still game? Allow me to add that the small handful of people in all recorded time who had vision restored suffered from depression and confusion? Getting cold feet yet?
Mike May was blinded by a chemical explosion when he was three years old. One eye was completely destroyed, the other retained only the ability to distinguish light and dark. But that never slowed him down and his mother always supported Mike in his quest to do everything normally. He ran, he played ball, rode a bike, even took a spin around in the block in his sister's car. No doubt social services would be all over Mrs. May nowadays for the constant bruising and battering her son took, but fortunately, he grew up in the sixties, with a mother who encouraged him and swallowed her own misgivings as he dashed around his world.
Mr. Kurson doesn't pull his punches. May is depicted in what feels to be an honest way. So we see a child grow up into a man who isn't always a nice guy. His fearless forays into activities like downhill skiing are laudable, but we also see his roguish treatment of women and obsessiveness with work. So while he's a flawed character, he is certainly remarkable for his determination to do whatever he wants and blindness be damned.
The first half of the book deals with May's life leading up to his surgery. The second half with the aftermath of surgery. The second half was the more fascinating to me. The child brain is a mushy compound of neurons waiting to form the intricate connections required to function in the world. Deprived of visual stimulation, the forty year old brain has re-allocated the visual processing neurons to other tasks. Subsequently, restoration of the ability to see does not imply restoration of the ability to process visual input.
While May's surgery was fundamentally a success, his struggles to make sense out of visual input were monumental. How does one suddenly learn to distinguish shadow from step? And faces, ish. Complex tangles of subtle motions that are impossible to decipher. Well, thank goodness for May's guide dog to help him with the former. Even when May was sure he knew a step from a shadow, his dog knew differently and was by his side the whole way, doing his best to remind his master that he knew better, at least for now.
The writing is above average for this sort of book. Thank you, Mr. Kurson. Highly readable, not maudlin, and not afraid to get too technical.
And at the end, one is still left with questions. Always a good thing. Questions about what would I do. Questions about whether for many people, the gift of sight after a lifetime of blindness would be a gift at all.