Creating From Loss: Frank Bruni Talks Blindness, Writing And Empathy

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Frank Bruni (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times)
Frank Bruni (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times)

Last year, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni woke up one day to find his vision in his right eye was completely blurred.

Bruni saw a doctor, and he learned that he was going blind in that eye — and there was a 20% chance he could lose sight on the other side as well.

“I remember that morning so well. I thought, 'Oh you know, I just have some gunk in my eye, or … I haven't caffeinated enough,' ” Bruni says. “And over the course of several hours, I kept on not understanding why the vision in that eye would not de-fog. And that ended up sending me on this long medical odyssey.”

It turns out Bruni’s condition is very rare — only affecting one in 10,000 people — and it usually happens overnight when blood flow is reduced to the optic nerve. Sometimes doctors can determine the cause, but in Bruni’s case, they don’t know why he lost his vision.

Being a reporter, Bruni dove into the work of other writers who were blind or vision-impaired, such as James Joyce, John Milton and James Thurber. He is now working on a book about his own experience.

“What I learned when I studied vision deprived or utterly blind writers is they ended up having to lean on their imaginations in whole new ways,” Bruni says. “It's just a phenomenal thing when you think about it that you can go to other senses, that you can go to other types of perspectives. And while you've lost something, you can gain something as well.”

Interview Highlights 

On learning he had lost vision in his right eye

“In a situation like that, at least for me, I can only speak for myself, there's so much adrenaline, which almost is a saving grace that you know, I didn't grow immediately depressed. I didn't break down and cry. But … it's a very strange thing to be sitting in a doctor's office and to be told in this case not just that what had happened to my eye, there was no treatment for it and that I would almost certainly never have functional vision again in my right eye, but in the next breath this doctor told me there was a 40 percent chance that it would happen in my left eye. Now it turns out that estimation is an outlier, and it's more commonly believed that the odds are about 20 percent. So in all likelihood, I will retain vision in my left eye, but when the stakes are legal blindness, a 1 in 5 chance seems way too big.”

On adapting to life with vision in only one eye 

“A lot of people get through life with one eye or with vision in only one eye. And it can mean we don't have as good depth perception … When I'm trying to text on a phone, I'm constantly hitting the wrong key. I'm like one key off because of my depth perception. But all of that, you mentioned the brain, and it's amazing. I've done a lot of reading and research. It will be reflected in the book I eventually do. The brain's an unbelievable, unbelievable thing, and it makes extraordinary adjustments. I've seen it happen already to some degree with me, but more than that I've interviewed and met people whose brains have sort of created work arounds for their disabilities in ways that really just wow you when you take a close look at it.

“It's been quite difficult to be honest because … my work is reading and writing and my work is words, and I've always been a very fleet writer. It's one of the things that has served me well, and I've been a fairly fleet reader. And now in both cases, I have to think and concentrate a lot harder because I sometimes do slip into double vision. Sometimes my vision, it's hard to describe, it gets diagonal. I just really kind of have to grit my teeth, find a way to work through it and find a way, I think most importantly and I think anybody who's gotten any sort of physical setback or limit understands what I'm about to say, find a way not to let my mood go south because of it. I think that's the most important thing of all. Because if you begin to get not just frustrated, but sad and angry and depressed, I think that's a hole that's very difficult to get out of.”

On the writing of blind Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges

“What I love about it is on the one hand there is such sadness there. He is letting you know that there are these beautiful things in the world that are denied to him now. But look at what he's done with that loss. He has woven from that loss the words that you just read, which are so beautiful and so human and so moving. So there's a sadness, but there's also an elation to what you just read because it was created from loss.”

On what he has learned from this experience

“When you are struggling with something that's not visible to people  — no one can look at my eyes and see that there's anything wrong; no one notices anything odd about my right eye, which is fairly useless to me and nobody would have any way of knowing that my left eye is imperiled. So one of the ways in which I feel I have been changed by this and I'm grateful is I'm much more sensitive to how much struggle there is out there that none of us can see, and I think there's a really profound and important lesson in that. And I've been able to learn it in part because people meeting me or even people who know this about me but don't see evidence of it daily, they have no idea what I'm going through and I shouldn't expect that they do.”

On his reaction to homophobic emails

“One of the more hateful emails I got, actually there were several, was from a woman  — she used her name — and she's a professor at a college in Manhattan. And these were extraordinarily homophobic emails she sent me, and I shared them with some friends just saying, 'Can you believe someone who is actually a professor at a college would be trafficking in this kind of thinking, in this kind of hate?' And several of my friends said, 'Well, you should forward that to the administration there because they'd probably fire her.'

“And I didn't because if that homophobia is showing up in the classroom, I think we live in a day and age thankfully where her students would notice it, and they would say something and they would be listened to, you know, it would be acted on. And if it's not affecting her teaching and it's just something in her heart, I don't know how it got there. I don't know anything else about her life. I don't want to orchestrate her demise just because she spoke hatefully to me because I'm not even worse for it. I can trash that email. She's not affecting my life. I think there is a kind of forgiveness in that decision and a kind of acknowledgment that she may be way more complicated than the emails she's sending me. Maybe that is a kind of empathy that is a legacy of what I've been through. Maybe it's not even the right thing, but I do connect the dots that way a little bit.”

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on September 17, 2019.

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