Grunwald on losing his sight: mining a terror

November 14, 1999|By Victoria Brownworth | Victoria Brownworth,Special to the Sun

"Twilight: Losing Sight, Gaining Insight," by Henry Grunwald. Alfred A. Knopf. 144 pages. $20.

At age 4 I was found to have only 10 percent vision due to a congenital problem. Surgery corrected my sight to near perfection, but my experience of the eye hospital's children's ward was harrowing. The day before my surgery, a girl of 12 with bandaged eyes told me her eyes had been cut out by the surgeons and warned me to stay away from the operating room. Even at 4 I understood blindness was a terrible thing.

Scenes torn from Greek tragedy imbued me with a primordial fear of blindness. When I lost sight in my left eye from complications of MS a few years ago, the terror I had felt at 4 gripped me anew. Athletic and outdoorsy, I had learned to live without walking. A writer and reader, a critic of film and art, how could I possibly manage without my vision?

That question forms the foundation for Henry Grunwald's brief, bittersweet memoir of his encroaching blindness from macular degeneration (MD). Grunwald spent two decades as managing editor of Time magazine, became editor in chief of all Time Inc. publications and spent a period as U.S. ambassador to Austria, his country of origin. Two years ago, his autobiography, "One Man's America," was published. "My existence seemed to be wrapped in the printed word," he writes in "Twilight." Grunwald also passionately loves art, opera and theater -- all of which require sight to fully engage and appreciate.

An inveterate researcher, Grunwald's disease led him to an investigation -- of MD, about which little is known, for which there is no cure and which afflicts more than 15 percent of adults over 50. Grunwald also explored the history and science of the eye, from its evolution as eyespots on amoebic life forms to the most complicated human organ after the brain. He ruminates on how the eye -- and blindness -- have been perceived throughout literature, art, religion and culture.

For the most part, "Twilight" fascinates. Grunwald takes us through his own experience of failing vision and he catalogues and critiques artists and writers who were partially sighted or blind, including Degas, Borges and Thurber.

Inquisitive above all, Grunwald's desire to uncover the intricacies of vision is the vein that pulses through "Twilight." At times this leads to Grunwald's ruminations on art and paintings with which many readers might not be familiar; the book lags through that section. Grunwald also seems unaware of how his financial and personal privilege allow him to maintain an autonomy denied most visually impaired Americans to whom he still refers as "handicapped"; this is not a politically conscious book.

Nevertheless, the rather heavy-handed subtitle rings true in the end: Grunwald shares his vision -- literal and metaphoric. Sad, lovely, intriguing, "Twilight" mines an ore of visceral, complex and intensely human experience.

Victoria A. Brownworth is author of seven and editor of eight books, most recently "Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability" (Seal Press). Her writing appears in many national publications. Her memoir of her disability experience will be published next year.

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