Rosemary Mahoney, the exquisitely precise author who in past books has brought alive the insular culture of Irish women and a solo river trip down the Egyptian Nile, overlooks nothing. ”I am like a security camera ever on the watch,” she writes of her gulping gaze in For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind. A freak accident in college left her cornea horribly scratched and useless for days. ”I concluded that being blind was worse than being dead,” she writes. ”Being blind was like lying alive within a locked coffin.”
And so it is with considerable anxiety that Mahoney plunges into the world of the sightless. Her reliable guide is Sabriye Tenberken, a blind woman who founded the first school for the blind in Tibet. There Mahoney is dazzled by children who can juggle three apples and by their assured teacher, who is so keenly aware of her surroundings that the author accuses her of feigning blindness. Next, Mahoney’s journey takes her to Tenberken’s international training center in India, where Mahoney spends three months teaching blind adults.
This is such a vivid portrait of people and places that one forgives Mahoney for occasionally losing sight of her own narrative. Chapters on the history of blindness, in particular, seem like structural interruptions. But in the end it’s as if she’d turned on the lights in a dark room, revealing how the world appears to those who experience it with their other four senses. The seeing reader will gasp in recognition and understanding, marveling at lives once hidden. B+