Sight and Insight

After a childhood filled with intrusive medical interventions for misaligned eyes, Liane Kupferberg Carter wrestles with learning to see herself and others clearly.

Liane Kupferberg Carter | Longreads | February 2020 | 16 minutes (4,092 words)

I was born with strabismus, an imbalance in the muscles that position the eyes. Strabismus: from the Greek strabismós, meaning “to squint.” People sometimes call it cross-eyed, wall-eyed, or lazy-eyed.

I was still a toddler when my mother started taking me to doctors. They prescribed drops, eye exercises, and, eventually, glasses when I was 4. Mom chose blue and white striped cat eye frames for me. “These are adorable,” she said. If she said they were pretty, I assumed they must be. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear them. But my mother wore glasses too, and I wanted to please her.

When the glasses didn’t help enough, the doctor instructed her to put a patch over one lens to force my weaker right eye to work better. That afternoon I went down the street to play with the neighborhood kids. There was a new girl with them. She asked, “Why are you wearing that patch?”

“I’m a pirate,” I said.

“That’s stupid,” she replied. “Girls can’t be pirates. You look ugly.”

I pushed her. She tumbled back onto the lawn and started to wail. A door flew open, and an enormous dog bounded at me, nipping and snapping. Frantic, I tried to get away, but a woman who must have been the girl’s mother grabbed me, her nails digging into my shoulder. She wrenched my arm behind my back and hissed in my ear, “Who’s your mother? You’re a very bad little girl.”

Sobbing and ashamed, I stumbled down the sidewalk, desperate for my mom. By the time I burst through the back door I was panting. Mom looked angry. The scary lady must have telephoned. “You know better than that,” Mom scolded. “I’m disappointed in your behavior.”

I was awash in incoherent misery. Why wasn’t she taking my side?

But I knew. It was because I was bad. An ugly, bad girl.

***

The first day of first grade I stood in line in the school vestibule. A finger jabbed my shoulder. “Ha ha, your glasses are cracked,” a boy said.

I was still a toddler when my mother started taking me to doctors. They prescribed drops, eye exercises, and, eventually, glasses when I was 4.

“They are not!” I said, stricken. “They’re bifocals.”

I wore them for months, but at the end of the school year Dr. Schlossman said I had to have an operation at the Eye Hospital. I didn’t want to go. Mom said, “Dr. Schlossman is going to help you see better.” I didn’t understand. I could already see. But maybe I could get rid of the bifocals I hated. Maybe it would make me a pretty girl.

Mom held my hand when a nurse used a giant gray-green grease pencil to draw a large X on my right eyelid. Mom refused to leave me. “Parents don’t usually stay,” the nurse said.

“Well this parent does,” Mom said.

That night she read the entirety of Charlotte’s Web aloud to me. Her voice comforted me. I was enchanted by the story of Wilbur, the runt pig destined for slaughter who is rescued by Charlotte, a smart barn spider. Mom and I both cried at the end of the book when Charlotte died.

The next morning, I felt nervous again. When the nurse told me I couldn’t eat or drink, I was terrified. I thought that meant if I swallowed my own saliva, I’d die. When she returned to give me a shot, I was brave and didn’t cry. Then two more nurses made me lie on my back on a narrow bed with wheels. They let Mom walk me as far as the elevator, and I kept a fierce grip on her hand. Gently she pried herself loose, and bent to kiss my forehead. The brown metal door slid shut between us, and she was gone. I was panic-stricken I’d never see her again. I waited a very long time in a corridor. Voices kept saying, “Close your eyes,” but I kept them open because I was scared Dr. Schlossman would think I was already asleep and start operating. Finally I lay on a table beneath a blinding white light; I glimpsed an opaque brown glass bottle, and heard the word “ether.” Something cold and noxious dripped onto my cheek. “Count backwards,” a voice said. I was sucked down, nauseated, spiraling into the black and white vortex, falling through a bottomless funnel.

***

The surgery restored some strength to my weaker eye. That was the year I also learned to read, and the world opened up for me. I read hungrily, tearing through Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, and all the Nancy Drew mysteries. One of my favorite books was a biography of Helen Keller. I returned to it again and again. Blind and deaf from scarlet fever at the age of nearly 2, Helen was completely shut in upon herself. It fascinated but scared me. I worried about losing my vision as Helen had. Before the surgery, I hadn’t been aware I didn’t see the same way as other people. I simply saw what I saw. Now I noticed that sometimes, when I was very tired, I saw double. I had to concentrate to fuse the two images into one. I was so awed by how Helen had dealt with her disability that I taught myself the sign alphabet from the diagrams at the back of the book. When I met the deaf parents of my cousin’s fiancé, I greeted them by shaping letters with my fingers. Delighted, they signed back, their fingers flying, touch typists of the air.

At 11, I read “Follow My Leader,” a story about a boy named Jimmy who was blinded by a firecracker thrown in his face. He learned to read Braille, to walk with a white cane, and to orient food on his plate like the numbers on a clock (mashed potatoes at three o’clock, peas at six). He acquired a seeing eye dog named Leader. I read eagerly, certain that with time, luck, and medical intervention, he would regain his sight. But in the end, Jimmy stayed blind. I was horrified. Children could be blinded permanently. Best friends like Wilbur and Charlotte could be parted forever. Some things could never be fixed.

***

When I was 13, an annoying boy named Vinnie Santorini who’d gone to my sleep-away camp had a crush on me. He telephoned daily. Even though he lived five miles away, he rode his bike up and down my street after school for weeks. I was flattered. Boys rarely paid me attention. But I didn’t like him.

“Just be kind,” Mom said.

When Vinnie wrote me a letter that said, “I long to press my lips against yours,” I lied and said I already had a boyfriend.

At the camp reunion that winter, I wore my favorite black and gold mini skirt and matching Poor Boy rib knit sweater. I wanted to look cute. I was excited and nervous, hoping Bobby, the boy I’d pined for the previous summer, would be there too.

I circled the room, eager and searching. Vinnie was standing with a group of boys. Just as I passed them, Vinnie said loudly, “Oh look, there goes Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion.”

***

I hated speaking up in class. It made my heart pound and my mouth fill with the taste of metal. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. Instead, I became an avid listener. I loved to narrate events in my head, replaying conversations and adding the phrases, “she said” or “he thought.” In sixth grade I discovered the pleasure of writing stories. Every Friday, an hour before the dismissal bell rang, Miss Jobo handed out yellow lined paper. She’d tape a picture to the blackboard, or give us a first sentence, and encourage us to write anything we liked for 45 minutes. The following Monday we’d rewrite our stories neatly on white paper, and Miss Jobo would pin the best ones on the bulletin board. I was thrilled to see my pieces thumb-tacked there week after week.

The surgery restored some strength to my weaker eye. That was the year I also learned to read, and the world opened up for me.

I kept a diary, filling the pages of a black and white marble composition book I kept hidden. Much of what I wrote was either florid reporting on the meltingly cute boy who’d accidentally brushed up against me in seventh grade study hall, or lovesick poems I wrote to the sardonic ninth grade English teacher I worshipped. I didn’t know yet why I wrote, only that I felt compelled to do so. Writing was my refuge. It pinned my chaotic feelings to the page and made them containable.

***

Freshman year in college, I went on a date with Stephen, a PhD candidate at MIT. After pizza and a movie, he walked me back to the girls’ dorm. We sat on a sofa in the deserted lobby and kissed for a few minutes. I leaned my head on his shoulder. Finally, when the silence had gone on too long, I asked, “What are you thinking?”

“Do you really want to know?”

I said, sure. It would be years before I learned not to ask men that question.

He said, “I was thinking you’re pretty, but you’d be much better looking if you got your eyes fixed.”

***

Again and again writing saved me. I didn’t need to make eye contact. I was most fully myself on the page, where people could read my words. Senior year, I wrote for the college newspaper, and my advisor encouraged me to enroll in a graduate journalism program.

In my early 20s I dated Arthur, a grad school classmate who was color blind. He had a hard time matching socks to pants, or ties to suits, but was brilliant at concealing this problem. He had a summer job making house calls to repair television sets. He’d say to customers, “Color is such a personal thing. I’ll just play with the knobs and you tell me when the color looks right to you.” No one caught on. He had a close call only once, when a customer argued that Kermit the Frog was the wrong shade of green.


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Arthur had figured out a good way to compensate. His disability could be hidden, whereas mine was plainly visible. My vision was far more compromised than his, yet I felt sorry for all he was missing. For me, color was often so visceral I could feel it. I could taste words. See sounds. Even numbers had colors. My second grade teacher once wore a dress of mustardy gold so unsettling the color sent waves of nausea washing through me. My fourth grade teacher favored a magenta suit so bright it made my eyes throb. If you couldn’t see any color at all, did the world appear black and white? Was it all luminescence and shadow? Studies show that mice kept in total darkness develop improved hearing and more auditory connections in the brain. In the absence of color, perhaps people learn to perceive the richness of texture. Tone. Depth. Movement. Maybe their world looks as lush, as vibrant, as complex as an Ansel Adams photograph.

***

After graduate school, I got a job as an assistant at a major publishing house in New York. I was surrounded by books. I loved it. I felt like a chocolate addict who’d been set loose in a candy factory.

Two years later on a plane ride home from vacation, I sat next to a handsome fellow book nerd named Marc. We had a delightful two-hour conversation about literature. I was drawn in by his intense blue eyes, which were full of kindness. On our first date he read me poetry. We finished each other’s sentences. He admired everything about me. “I love looking into your eyes,” he said, to my wonderment. “It’s like we’re two bodies with one mind.” Fourteen whirlwind days later, he asked me to merge our libraries permanently, and we were married within the year.

I was overjoyed and relieved when our two sons inherited their father’s expressive blue eyes, not my flawed ones. I cradled my babies in my arms, repeatedly checking their eye alignment. But each time I peered into their infant faces, I saw only love looking back. I understood that I looked as perfect to them as they did to me.

***

In my late 20s I consulted a new ophthalmologist, Dr. Samuel. I liked him immediately. He was young, energetic, and personable. Late one windy afternoon, as I passed a construction site, something blew into my eye. The pain kept me up all night. Dr. Samuel opened his office early the next morning for me. Deftly, he numbed my eye and extracted a minute splinter of wood.

At my follow-up, I was his last appointment of the day. By the time we were done, his receptionist was gone. He needed a file from the hospital nearby, so invited me to keep him company on his errand. We talked animatedly, and laughed a lot. He insisted on treating me to coffee.

“Too bad we’re both married,” he said.

 

What?

It was like a needle screeching across a record. Was he…flirting?

It didn’t occur to me until years later how unprofessional he’d been. In the moment, I thought only this: how was it possible an ophthalmologist could be attracted to me, when he knew better than anyone that I was defective?

***

Marc encouraged me to enroll in a fiction writing seminar, and we were both thrilled when I sold the first two stories I wrote in that class to a national magazine. The instructor invited me into his select advanced writing seminar at the New School. Everyone welcomed me kindly, although another student named Sally eviscerated my short story during the first class. The next week as we rode up in the elevator, Sally said, “Hope I wasn’t too rough on you.” She was, but I’d never admit it.

“No worries, I’m tough.”

“Good,” she said. “I thought so.”

Later, on the elevator ride down, a woman with a German accent said, “Where I come from, women with a cast in their eye are considered beautiful.”

I squirmed. I could take Sally’s barbs, but this? “Oh, but it makes you alluring,” the woman hastened to reassure me. When the elevator door opened, I fled.

***

In my 30s I consulted Dr. Morrison, an internationally-known optometrist to the rich and famous, who’d pioneered soft contact lenses. I’d tried hard lenses briefly in my teens, but couldn’t adjust to the discomfort. But by now, my eyes had been prodded and poked so much I’d lost my squeamishness about touching them. I knew my inward-turning eye was more noticeable to others when I wore thick glasses, and I was tired of needing to wear them all the time. I’d heard Dr. Morrison could even fit difficult cases like mine. I’d read that the queen of the Netherlands had been so grateful for his services that she’d given him a Rolls Royce. He was modest about his clientele, although when he heard my last name was Carter, he let slip that the actress Lynda Carter, who played “Wonder Woman” on TV, had been in earlier that week.

Writing was my refuge. It pinned my chaotic feelings to the page and made them containable.

Shyly, I asked about tinted lenses to bring out the green in my hazel eyes. “No, he said kindly. “That will call more attention to your eyes. You’re an attractive woman. Why don’t you try wearing a pretty blouse instead?”

***

It wasn’t until I was 50 that a new eye doctor told me I had narrow angles. I’d never even heard of it. I’d had so many doctors by then, why had no one ever mentioned it? Narrow angles can be a precursor to angle-closure glaucoma, he explained, and he’d noticed I was already developing adhesions. Best to treat it with laser iridotomy before actual disease set in. “This is preventative medicine at its best,” he said.

I wasn’t keen to let anyone laser holes in my irises, but after getting a second opinion, I recognized the necessity. The procedure solved the problem, but left me seeing halos around headlights. The doctor reassured me. “As you age and your eyelids naturally droop, it may resolve.”

“Now there’s a cheery thought.”

“We can try to correct it with more lasering, but no guarantees,” he offered.

“No, thanks,” I told him.

***

One weekend Marc, my brother, and sister-in-law visited Longwood Gardens, a vast horticultural display in the Brandywine Creek Valley in Pennsylvania. It was late March and would snow the following day, but just then the pale sun was shining and the air was filled with the sweet fragrance of freshly-turned earth. I admired a dense, dazzling field of tulips. I squinted, and discovered that if I looked with my left eye, the tulips were purple. If I looked only with my right eye, they were pink. Mystified, I toggled back and forth between eyes.

I asked my sister-in-law, “What color are those flowers?”

She seemed surprised, but said with assurance, “Purple.”

What does it mean, I wondered, if I cannot trust my own eyes?

***

But I could trust my writing. I’d never stopped, even in the sleep-deprived years at home with small children. It always grounded me. Through a haze of baby powder and infant formula, I wrote articles for parenting and women’s magazines. After our second child was diagnosed with autism, writing about it was my salvation.

In middle age, the vision in my left eye grew steadily worse, until it was no longer correctable with glasses. I was nearsighted, farsighted, and astigmatic.

“You’re young for surgery,” the cataract surgeon said. Was that flattering, or depressing?

“I can fit you with a special lens that will adjust the astigmatism,” she told me. “But you’ll still need glasses. You have to decide whether you prefer to live with nearsightedness, or farsightedness.”

I thought of Monty Hall. Let’s Make a Deal. Choose a door.

Which one would show me the world as it truly was?

***

Six months after cataract surgery, images started to pixelate in the center of my left eye. Text faded out, as if a shimmering dark cloud was moving across the page. I stopped doing the New York Times crossword puzzle because I couldn’t make out the numbers in the grid. Initially I attributed it to the new glasses. Next I blamed the surgery. Finally, terrified I could be going blind, I called the retina specialist.

She said, “I need to torture you a bit. We need to inject contrast dye to get a look at the blood vessels behind the retina.” I pictured the eye clamp scene from A Clockwork Orange and laughed nervously. “You’re just speaking metaphorically, right?”

A technician plunged a syringe in my arm. He took a dozen blindingly bright flash photos. I returned to the doctor, my sight a blurry pink haze as she clicked through images. “See that inverted smoke stack shape?” she said, pointing at the computer screen. “That’s a classic presentation of central cirrus.”

Cirrus? Like thin clouds? I imagined wisps of water vapor drifting over the surface of my eye.

Once home, I looked up “central cirrus.” Google corrected me: central serous. It had nothing to do with clouds. “Central serous retinopathy: causes visual impairment, often temporary, usually in one eye, characterized by leakage of fluid under the retina. Can re-occur, causing progressive vision loss. Stress appears to play an important role.”

Lately my stress had been acute. Our autistic son was aging out of the school system, his future scary and uncertain. Our beloved cat had just been diagnosed with lymphoma. I hadn’t seen much of my husband for the past six months, because a new job we both hated required him to live two states away Monday through Friday. He’d return exhausted every Friday night, only to leave again late Sunday afternoon. “Are we divorced?” our son had asked.

Maybe my left eye was an early warning system, like a canary in the coal mine. If I didn’t learn to cope better, I’d be in serious  —  not only serous  —  trouble.

***

The condition stabilized, but left a permanent small shimmer in the center of my vision. It felt as if I was peering through a pane of cellophane, a field of floaters and fog drifting like lunar mist across the surface of my sight.

The following year, rushing to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for 30 guests, I tripped over a rolled up area rug and crashed head first into the corner of the dining room credenza. The impact drove my glasses into my left eye socket. My glasses were irretrievably broken, but they’d shielded my eye from far worse. I cleaned my bloody face, applied an antibiotic ointment, and resumed cooking.

One night a week later and still sporting a black eye, we were walking in Manhattan when I glanced up, surprised. “Oh look, how pretty!” I said to Marc. “It’s snowing.”

But it wasn’t. I was the only one seeing silvery sparkles shimmering down like small shooting stars.

The doctor told me I’d suffered a contusion to the retina and that it was still bleeding. She sent me home with medication and her private cell phone number. “I live two blocks away,” she said. “If you need anything don’t hesitate to call, even if it’s the middle of the night.” She insisted I see her every two weeks for a year until it healed.

In middle age, the vision in my left eye grew steadily worse, until it was no longer correctable with glasses. I was nearsighted, farsighted, and astigmatic.

“We got very lucky with this one, my friend,” she said.

***

Cleaning out cartons from my late father’s apartment in 2018, 11 years after his passing, I found a letter from 1956 addressed to my pediatrician from a Doctor Hans Kaufmann. I’d never heard of him. I pictured a stern, bearded man with a Viennese accent.

“Thank you very much for referring Liane to me. Her mother noticed soon after birth that her eyes do not focus together. Mrs. K’s brother and niece also have muscular imbalance and her husband’s brother was crossed in his childhood.”

It was familial. It wasn’t my fault.

“Since the child was absolutely uncooperative I felt that a refraction with atropine would not give an accurate result.”

Absolutely uncooperative.

Those words felt like a rebuke. Instantly I was defensive. I’d been a baby! Only 21 months old!

But I was also able to recognize my reaction for what it was: an old script. For the first time I felt proud of the combative little girl I’d been, that pirate in her eye patch. She’d been difficult. Feisty. Decidedly not always a good girl. I was finally, perfectly, okay with that.

***

“Don’t over-think this,” the cataract surgeon said.

I’d returned to her to address the other eye, weighing whether I preferred to be nearsighted or farsighted.

“I over-think everything,” I said. Was there any other way?

We revisited my history. I said, “Strabismus.”

She said, “Lazy eye.”

I hate that word. Lazy. It sounds deliberate. As if I couldn’t be bothered to summon up the energy to see better.

I asked the question I have asked so many eye doctors so many times.

“Is it possible to fix my eyes?”

I’ve been told repeatedly that while such surgery is possible, my brain has adjusted to seeing the way it has for a long, long time. I’ve compensated for faulty depth perception. Surgery could leave me with double vision.

Predictably, the surgeon said no. But then she added something I’d never heard before. Or if I had, I’d never taken in.

“All the patching and drops and surgery you had as a kid saved your vision.”

I was stunned. I’d been so preoccupied with the cosmetics I hadn’t realized that without intrusive treatment, I wouldn’t have been able to see. It was a paradigm shift, reframing a lifetime of how I viewed myself.

I’d weathered years of childhood taunts. Comments from strangers. Feeling demeaned by men who saw my eyes only as sexual accessories, until I finally met the man who saw me as so much more than my eyes. Decades of feeling ashamed of how I looked to others, so desperate to look normal, to be pretty, that actually I had lost sight. Not in the literal sense of seeing, but of the critical fact that my parents and doctors had saved my vision.

I look a little different; I look differently, too. But my eyes aren’t a character flaw, and they don’t define me. I do. I am a wife. A mother. A reader. A writer.

The second cataract procedure restored clarity to my right eye, and color is again vibrant.

But the surgeon’s gift to me was twofold: sight, and insight.

* * *

Liane Kupferberg Carter is a New York-based essayist and author of an award-winning memoir, Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Brevity, The Rumpus (forthcoming) and many journals, blogs and book anthologies.

Editor: Sari Botton