Book Review: Outside Myself (Kristen Witucki)
Reviewed by Suzanne Kamata
Kristen Witucki's first book, the novella-length The Transcriber, published as part of Gemma Open Door's series for literacy learners, was convincingly told from the point-of-view of the sighted brother of a blind girl. In her first full-length novel, Outside Myself, Witucki, who has been blind since birth, introduces two very different characters who live without sight.
First, we meet eleven-year-old Tallie Keller, the only blind student at her New Jersey elementary school in 1994, as she tries to climb a pile of tires during recess. Never mind that she's wearing a skirt and shiny shoes with heels not meant for climbing. She is out to prove that she is as capable as her sighted peers. When her student helper tells her that she will fall, Tallie ignores her – and falls.
Tallie's parents are divorced, and she divides her time between them. Her no-nonsense mother, a Swiss-born university geology instructor, accepts her blindness, and tries to nurture her development through tactile wall adornments and visits to the library. She encourages her to learn to use a cane, which would make her more independent, and to try new things. Her recently remarried father, on the other hand, dangles the possibility of an operation that will cure her blindness and make her like everyone else, like her sighted baby brother. "There are medical advances all the time," Tallie overhears him saying. "There has to be some hope for her." Tensions increase between the parents as they argue about what is best for Tallie. Meanwhile, she tries to forge her own path.
Tallie's story and that of Benjamin, an older African American man with an adult step-daughter and grandchild in another state, are told in alternating, converging chapters. Unlike Tallie, Benjamin grows up partially sighted in the pre-ADA 1950's, and gradually goes blind. When he is a child, his parents refuse to acknowledge that his vision is impaired. After he crashes his bicycle into a tree, his father says, "He can see. He just doesn't look sometimes." Taking a cue from his parents, who are in denial, Benjamin learns to fake it, passing in the world of the sighted. He relies on those who guess his secret and help him out, like Lisa, the woman who eventually becomes his wife and ex-wife. Eventually, estranged from his step-daughter, he rents an apartment from an elderly HIV-positive woman and gets a job at the Library for the Blind.
The two "meet" when Tallie calls the library, hoping to find a cure for her condition, Lebers Congenital Amaurosis. Benjamin tells her, "You won't find that here. You're blind. You' ll live." Although she is initially angered by his response, she is fascinated by him. He is the first blind adult she has ever met. Their unconventional and purely platonic relationship mostly develops through a few phone calls, although they meet once in person. They are both aware that those around them might not understand their friendship. After all, she is a kid, he is a grown man. She is white, he is black (and a Muslim).
Both Tallie and Benjamin are believably complicated and flawed, unlike the bland Klara in Heidi, the book that Tallie checks out in order to learn more about her mother's birthplace. Klara seems to be stuck in her wheelchair by sheer lack of will. Tallie wonders:
What if Klara was simply fooling everyone, waiting for the right moment? But I knew that Klara didn't have that much imagination. It took Peter the goatherd to get Klara moving. He pushed her wheelchair down the mountain out of envy of her friendship with Heidi when no one was looking. But then Heidi gave Klara a little encouragement and up she stood, first with help, then on her own.
In contrast to "sweet, boring Klara," Tallie is, at times, sassy and sly. She refers to her mobility teacher, "fat Mrs. Jones who reeked of perspiration and cheap perfume" as "one of the stupidest people I've ever met" and imagines hurling her hated cane over a mountain. She bristles against platitudes about blindness but tries to get out of homework by using her disability as an excuse. Benjamin, too, is far from saintly. As a child, he is borderline juvenile delinquent, and later nearly becomes a murderer. When his step-daughter needs his help, he is reluctant to get involved, preferring his solitary life. All Witucki's characters, blind or not, transcend stereotypes.
As any writer who has ever fielded questions about her writing knows, readers often want to know how much of a story is autobiographical. Witucki generously provides an afterword in which she shares the origins of this novel. At the end of the essay, she mentions "the chorus of multi-dimensional, successful blind characters that abound in literature once you know where to find them." At the risk of sounding peevish, I wish that the author had provided a list or a link to other titles of interest. Nevertheless, Outside Myself is an excellent place to start. This novel hints at the breadth and depth of blind experience, and would easily lend itself to classroom and book group discussions (for which the publisher has prepared questions) on not just disability, but also music, religion, race, family, and class.
At the time of the book's acquisition, award-winning publisher and graphic designer Nancy Cleary of Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing was engaged in earning a master's degree in publishing at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Outside Myself became her project for the Applied Ethics Capstone portion of the program. To insure accessibility, the publisher issued audio and braille versions of the book on Louis Braille's birthday, in advance of print publication. The braille edition is distributed by Bookshare and the audio edition will be available through Learning Ally.
Although the book has been labeled a young adult novel, it could have just as easily been marketed to adults, and it should appeal to a broad range of readers. Rich in sensory detail with occasional flashes of poetry – one character moves "through our quiet like a swimmer negotiating seaweed" – this story is a valuable addition to the growing body of disability literature and to literature in general. It's about being blind, but also about loneliness, making connections, and being human.
Title: Outside Myself