Interview with Arnold Lehman

by Kitty Kelley

In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum exploded a bombshell on the battlefield of artistic freedom and First Amendment rights with its exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” which the museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, brought to Brooklyn from the Royal Academy in London.

Among the other provocative paintings in the exhibition, artist Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” created an uproar at city hall. The painting depicted a Black Madonna with one breast created from shellacked and carefully decorated elephant dung. The painting outraged New York’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who tried to shut down the exhibit, fire the board and director, and throw the museum out of its historic building because he viewed the display as “sick” and “disgusting.”

The museum’s trustees, represented by attorney and First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, sued Giuliani in federal court to stop his attacks. The exhibition and lawsuit dominated New York’s front pages and the international media for six months. In the end, the museum was victorious. Now, Lehman retells this story — still relevant today — in a book appropriately titled in all caps, SENSATION: THE MADONNA, THE MAYOR, THE MEDIA, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT.

You’d been a museum director for 25 years when you brought “Sensation” to Brooklyn. The exhibition had already occasioned outrage in the U.K. Did you anticipate the same reaction in the U.S.?

I knew that “Sensation” included numerous strong, exciting, and provocative works, most not seen in the U.S., which was the reason I wanted it for the museum. However, at the Royal Academy in London, it was one painting, “MYRA,” that was the cause of the uproar. “MYRA” went almost unnoticed in New York. “The Holy Virgin Mary,” on the other hand, which the British media hardly mentioned, was the core of the frenzied media and legal battle in New York. However, I believe the outrage over the Madonna was planned and politically motivated.

What does the extreme reaction say about museumgoers in both countries?

“All politics” is often said to be local. Similarly, without the U.K. backstory of “MYRA” being a serial child-murderer, visitors to “Sensation” at Brooklyn only saw a huge portrait of a woman. For “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a backstory was created and incited by the conservative media to support Mayor Giuliani’s early race against Hillary Clinton for the New York Senate. The vast majority of New Yorkers approved of the Madonna despite the media frenzy, while the painting was never the center of any attention in London. In this instance, I believe the focus for the audiences was information rather than any cultural differences.

How much were the Brooklyn Museum’s legal fees, given that Mayor Giuliani opted to settle the case rather than wait for the opinion of the appeals court?

Even with a very substantial discount from our extraordinary attorneys, Floyd Abrams and Susan Buckley, preparing and prosecuting a First Amendment case in federal District Court [that was] continued in the court of appeals…together with the required depositions, court appearances, and a multitude of meetings, was a very time-consuming and costly undertaking. The museum raised funds from its dedicated trustees, engaged foundations, and other supporters to underwrite these costs.

Why did it take you two decades to write SENSATION and document the cultural clash?

Although many tried to “unseat” me, with the total support of our trustees, I remained director at the Brooklyn Museum for almost 16 more years. During that period, although I had always thought about writing a book on “Sensation,” I was both immensely busy and also believed strongly that it was inappropriate to write such a personal narrative about the institution I was then serving. With the beginning of the Trump Administration, I became increasingly concerned about the issues and challenges to the freedom of expression, which was critical to the very core of the battle over “Sensation.” It was at that moment I knew I had to write and publish SENSATION as soon as possible because of its relevance. The monumental undertaking of reviewing all the original research materials, much of which had been collected by my wife, took immense time. Hiring a researcher (which was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation), finding a publisher at the beginning of covid, and the actual writing, in total, took over three years.

Why is SENSATION being published in Britain and not the U.S.?

I approached several American publishers whose books I admired during my career. While there was enthusiasm expressed for the book’s concept, a mixture of current politics and the unknown stemming from the advent of covid were, I believed, deterrents to an agreement. Along with the others, I sent an outline and two unfinished chapters to London’s Merrell publishers, who had worked earlier with us at the Brooklyn Museum on several excellent publication projects. Hugh Merrell responded almost immediately that he had read everything I sent him, and despite being only art-book publishers, he offered to work with me on the book. My partnership with the incredible editor and designer assigned by Merrell to SENSATION was beyond superb. And the tangible book, amazing in every detail, is the result. SENSATION is a narrative or memoir, but it was produced as an elegant art book!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


Dishing With Kitty

by Judith Beerman

Originally published by The Georgetown Dish December 13, 2021

Internationally acclaimed writer and long-time Georgetown resident, Kitty Kelley is renowned for her bestselling biographies of the most influential and powerful personalities of the last 50 years.

Having captivated my friends with her insights into Frank Sinatra, Oprah and the Kennedys, the always charming and witty author graciously dishes with us!

1.  Favorite spot in Georgetown?

The gardens and grounds of Dumbarton Oaks.

2.  What place to visit next?

I dream about returning to Provence.

3. What’s last book you read that you recommend?

Not last book read but two of recent best:  A Gentleman of Moscow by Amor Towles and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

4. What or who is greatest inspiration?

Those who reach outside themselves to help others like First Responders, Doctors Without Borders, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), et. al.

5.  Whom would you invite to next dinner party?

Dr. Fauci—to thank him.

6.  What did you discover re: self during pandemic?

I look better masked!!

7. Spirit animal? 

A cat, of course.


There Is Nothing for You Here

by Kitty Kelley

England is strangled by its pernicious class system. Even in 2021, the country’s rigid social structure dominates, and its snobbish acronyms still apply: N.O.C.D., usually whispered, means “Not our class, dear.” British aristocrats prefer associating with P.L.U. (“People like us”). If you’re born working class in Britain, you’ll die working class — unless, like Fiona Hill, you manage to cross the pond and move to the U.S.

The title of her memoir says it all: There Is Nothing for You Here, which is what her father told her — nothing for a coal miner’s daughter born in the North East of England with an accent that marks her fathoms below those who speak the “Queen’s English.” That cut-glass British enunciation, defined as RP (received pronunciation), determines one’s standing from cradle to grave.

“Aspirational Brits, mockingly dubbed ‘social climbers,’ would take elocution lessons to change the tone and the pitch of their voice as well as their diction,” Hill writes, citing Margaret Thatcher, who famously took voice lessons to rise above her roots as the daughter of a small-town grocer. But at least Thatcher, being middle class, was allowed into Oxford. Not so Fiona Hill.

Despite her outstanding scholastic record, Hill was steered from Oxbridge to attend St. Andrews University in Scotland, still impressive, but not of the peerage. “This was a case of guilt by linguistic association with a region once completely dominated by heavy industry and thus by ‘workers,’” she writes of her background. “I wanted to leave the UK’s place- and class-based discrimination behind and move on.”

She immigrated to America and received a partial scholarship to study at Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in Soviet studies. Hill traveled to what was then the USSR, where she lived for a year, and later wrote a book about Vladimir Putin.

In Russia, Hill was respected as the standard bearer of the working class; in the U.S., her Harvard credentials gave her social mobility. As a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, she worked in the White House for three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — and was invited to be a presenter at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014. There, she was introduced to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair as someone who once lived close to his former constituency.

“Blair was taken aback when I gave my quick potted history,” she writes. Then came his “determinative question”: “How did you get here?”

Hill played dumb and said she’d flown from DC to Denver.

“No…really…come on,” said Blair. “I obviously mean from County Durham to the U.S. That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?” Hill said she was a product of his own “Labour Party at work.” But, she continues:

“Tony Blair looked more pained than pleased…He seemed most perplexed by the fact that I had attended a County Durham comprehensive school and retained my northern accent. The two of those together were confounding.”

Blair, who graduated from Cambridge and no longer spoke with his regional pronunciation, seemed to have trouble digesting Hill’s presence (and her unrefined accent) in the elite setting of the Aspen Institute. Their encounter sounds like the song lyric: “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this.”

The subtitle of Hill’s book is “Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century,” which she does when she falls in love and marries a man she met at Harvard. She later becomes an American citizen. Her experiences working in the White House, particularly for Trump’s National Security Council, make her book timely.

Hill describes Trump’s awe of Putin as “autocrat envy” and disdains his attempts to transform the presidency into an “elected monarchy.” Worse, she sees the U.S. headed for economic collapse and unrelieved suffering because of its structural racism. She blames Ronald Reagan and Thatcher for driving “the nail into the coffin of 20th century industry while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off.”

There Is Nothing for You Here is not a book for the faint of heart.

Crossposted with Washingt0n Independent Review of Books

Grant and Twain

by Kitty Kelley

Readers who appreciate Civil War memoirs and enjoy biographies will treasure Mark Perry’s 2004 double-barreled book, Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America. With a respectful nod to Pulitzer Prize winners Ron Chernow (Grant) and Justin Kaplan (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain), one salutes Perry for creating a hybrid work focused on 18 months in the lives of two American giants at a time that produced their greatest triumphs.

By abandoning the cradle-to-grave story in favor of constructing a small keystone in the lives of these greats, Perry, who succumbed to cancer in August 2021, crafts a new kind of biography that blends the relationship between two 19th-century individuals who represented their culture and tradition yet still speak to us generations later.

From May 1884 to July 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, wracked with terminal throat cancer, wrote his memoirs, which Mark Twain helped publish to acclaim and profit while finishing his own masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel seven years in the making.

“This is the story of a friendship,” Perry writes in his introduction about Grant, “America’s greatest general,” and Twain, the country’s “most esteemed writer.” The relationship between these two men at the end of Grant’s life brought out the best in both, enhancing their history and enriching literature forever.

Grant, from Ohio, became an abolitionist years before Twain, from Missouri, saw the light. “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery,” Twain recalled after he published Huck Finn. He started the book in 1876 and had written 400 pages but could go no further. Seven years later, he returned to the manuscript, “when,” as Perry writes, “in the midst of his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant he finally realized what Huck Finn was really all about…It is unlikely that he could have finished it at all were it not for Grant.”

What a godforsaken world it would have been without Twain’s fictional raft trip down the Mississippi with a poor scamp and a runaway slave, and how bereft history would be without The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who won the Civil War and saved the U.S. from slavery.

Geniuses in their own right, neither man excelled at business, but both, according to Perry, “felt the irresistible pull of wealth,” living in the era known as the Gilded Age. They aspired to be men of means and hold their own with the financial barons of their time, but both became too familiar with debt and fell into the abyss of bankruptcy.

Grant’s financial debacle dogged him with scandal at the end of his life. As he was dying, he was desperate to redeem his good name while providing for his wife and children. Twain, who revered Grant “as the greatest American since Washington,” was determined to help him by publishing Grant’s memoirs.

In June 1884, the two men joined forces and within a year and a half realized their greatest financial successes while transforming the world of American literature. Fighting through piercing pain with dollops of cocaine, Grant summoned the courage that had led to his victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, and later to two terms in the White House. Days before he died, he finished his memoirs, which were later published to profit and acclaim.

At the same time, Twain published his own masterpiece on the evils of slavery, which Ernest Hemingway praised for its excellence: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Hemingway wrote in 1935. “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain represent the heart and soul of America, which Perry captures in his enchanting book. He applauds their friendship, a kind of relationship he, too, had mastered, as was evident at his recent memorial service. Mark Perry died too soon at the age of 70, but he left us with a book that will live forever.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


by Kitty Kelley

Despite their mutual animosity, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill will be forever linked as a result of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At that time, she accused him, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexual harassment.

The televised hearings, chaired by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, riveted more than 20 million Americans and many others around the world watching on CNN as the unknown law professor testified under oath that President George H.W. Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court had harassed her by talking suggestively “about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts, involved in various sex acts,” which included animals, group sex, and rape scenes. After three days of testimony, Thomas was confirmed 52-48. Hill was pilloried as a liar, a fantasist, and an erotomaniac.

It’s worth noting, three decades later, that now President Biden sits in the White House and Justice Thomas sits on the highest court in the land, whereas Professor Hill struggled for years to survive her notoriety as a whistleblower. Although it cost her a tenured position at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, she does not regret her decision to testify.

For years, Hill shrank from the divisive reactions to her Senate testimony (a CNN/Gallup poll showed 52 percent of the country believed Thomas), but now she’s unafraid to step forward and take on her critics. “As a victim and a teacher, I had a unique perspective to speak from,” she writes in her third book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. Reflecting on the 1991 hearings, she chastises late Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for “his tittering tone” and “his smirk” and for claiming there couldn’t have been sexual harassment because Thomas never physically touched Hill.

She further faults Specter for his flawed thinking “that sexual assault was the only behavior that called for judicial disqualification.” She blames the entire committee for being slow to recognize the right to work in a workplace free from abuse.

Hill also upbraids the late Justice Anthony Kennedy for his 1999 dissent in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, in which he wrote that “boys will be boys” and condoned groping by grade schoolers as “routine behavior.” Kennedy dismissed such conduct as a prank, mere hijinks. Hill denounced his dissent for normalizing harmful misogynist behavior “that [holds] the country back from making progress toward equality.” Lest anyone suggest her criticism to be a carp, she writes:

“Any student of the law knows that language that starts in dissent can someday become the majority opinion.”

Twenty-seven years after her debacle before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill watched in dismay as history repeated itself when Christine Blasey Ford testified about her alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanagh. In those contentious hearings, Hill recognized the same “victim blaming, flat-out denials, mansplaining and gas-lighting” that she’d endured. Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48, the second-closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in history.

Now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis, Hill has put herself in charge of shining a light in a very dark place. She’s become the poster child for ending gender violence and intends to change the violent psyche of America with Believing, which springs from decades of personal recovery and professional research into humanity’s bestial behavior. “For thirty years, this has been my journey and I expect it to continue in some fashion for the rest of my life,” she writes.

Hill has schooled herself in the miasma of gender violence and how it imperils our country’s health, safety, economic security, housing, transportation and educational opportunities. As might be expected of an academic, her tone is a bit pedantic as she makes her grim case with studies and citations and statistics. She admits up front that she’s “neither charismatic nor a gifted speaker.”

Unfortunately, she’s right.

At various points, this disquisition cries out for a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but Anita Hill is not Mary Poppins. Her treatise is on man’s inhumanity to man, and while her catalog of ills is short on solutions, she spotlights behavior that will make some readers cringe at the extent of sexual violence in our society.

Hill focuses like a laser on gender-based attacks in homes, schools, courts, companies, and corporations. She outlines how difficult it is for victims, especially rape victims, to file suit, even if they can afford the lawyer fees. “[T]he hurdles to prevailing in assault and rape suits are still extremely high,” she writes, citing rape as the least-reported criminal offense, with “less than one percent of rapes…likely to result in conviction.”

Midway through her manifesto of misery is a short chapter entitled “Believing that Change is Possible,” which reports the progress made by activists who formed the Hollywood Commission to seek justice for victims of gender violence in the entertainment industry. As a result, men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Les Moonves lost their positions, which gave Hill hope and made her a believer, justifying the title of her book.

“The task of a writer is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem,” Anton Chekhov wrote, and for that, Anita Hill gets high marks. So, caveat emptor: Do not look to Believing for inspiring prose or literary flourish. But perhaps that’s appropriate since there’s no poetry in gender violence.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Graceland At Last

by Kitty Kelley

The essays in Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, at Last began in grief as the author mourned the deaths of her mother and mother-in-law and wrote to exorcise her misery. Eventually, she found her way to gratitude for the gift of life, which she celebrates in a weekly column for the New York Times about living in the South.

Born in Andalusia, Alabama, and now living in Nashville, Renkl honors the natural beauty of her lush roots while acknowledging the ravages of slavery still embedded in the terrain, which, she suggests, might be why the region “keeps giving birth to more than its fair share of writers.”

As a white Southerner, she’s a bit defensive (but graciously so) about the sin of the South, writing that slavery was not restricted to the Confederacy, but must also be owned by states such as Ohio, New Mexico, Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, all of which exacted torture and death on those they enslaved:

“The fact that the rest of the country shares in the South’s greatest moral failing doesn’t excuse our brutal history or the way its vestiges linger. But the South has always been more than its most appalling truths.”

So Renkl sets out to illustrate the assets and attributes of her region’s blood-stained soil, as well as its widely varied culture. Graceland, at Last begins with the South’s beauty. In these essays, Renkl rhapsodizes about Cooper’s hawks and blesses Broadhead skinks while delighting in the New Guinea Highland wild dog. From fauna she segues into flora, praising the purple Tennessee coneflower, “the star of the cedar glades of Middle Tennessee.”

In another offering, she travels to the delta to find the American lotus, not as intoxicating as the sumptuous lotuses that ensnared sailors in The Odyssey, but even Homer might bow to Renkl’s description of “the thousands of pale-yellow flowers rising on foot-high stalks, the petals of each bloom curling gently in the sun.”

Renkl introduces readers to some of her region’s progressive publications, too, such as Facing South, an online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina; Scalawag, a nonprofit print and digital publication focused on Southern politics and culture, also based in Durham; and Southern Exposure, a journal with special emphasis on investigative journalism and oral history.

So far, this lovely little book is bright, courteous, and informative, even lady-like, but then Renkl ventures into territory that more timid Southerners would avoid: sex, religion, and politics. Here, she shows her soul as she lambasts the Tennessee legislature for its misbegotten attempts to amend the state constitution to prevent same-sex marriage, for denying birth certificates to babies born to undocumented parents, and for outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is, Renkl writes, frequently before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.

In sharply crafted essays, she also upbraids the state she loves for its immoral array of tactics to undermine voting rights. She pillories Tennessee’s Republican legislators for refusing to expand Medicaid, which she condemns as an “act of cruelty.” She then lacerates them for their lax gun legislation:

“It’s easier to purchase an AR-15 in Tennessee than it is to become a licensed exotic dancer, as two employees of Déjà vu Showgirls, a Nashville strip club, demonstrated in a recent YouTube video.”

Renkl doesn’t seek to repeal the Second Amendment — she just wants guns out of the hands of psychopaths who shouldn’t have them. While she identifies as a Democrat in the red state, she praises Tennessee’s Republican governor, who commuted a prisoner’s life sentence and chose mercy and understanding over the strict letter of the law. “We may never agree on what real justice looks like,” she writes of that case, “but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do.”

As a “cradle Catholic” who became a “cafeteria Catholic” — picking and choosing which tenets of the religion to practice — Renkl supports a woman’s right to choose abortion. “No matter how you define it, protecting human life should never stop at the zygote.” She also writes essays supporting voting rights, immigration, affordable healthcare, and same-sex marriage. She abhors capital punishment and challenges “pro life Christians” who condemn “pro choice” advocates while still championing the electric chair.

Seeking reassurance in the unsure world of 2018, Renkl drove to Plains, Georgia, to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class at the Maranatha Baptist Church. “[He] still has faith in this country, and I hoped his Sunday school lesson might restore my faith, too.”

The former president, then 94, addressed more than 350 parishioners as he read from the Acts of the Apostles and discussed how the apostles worshiped together and took care of each other’s needs, an example for all of us to follow. Then Carter acknowledged: “We have lost faith in a lot of things that have always nurtured us.” Still, he continued, “I believe…that God’s love will prevail.”

His faith cheered Renkl, who left that morning feeling as if she’d attended “a master class in responsibility and goodness, and above all, love.”

As for the title of this book? Perhaps it’s a metaphor for a little girl who grew up in Tennessee yet, having lived there for decades and made numerous trips from Nashville to Memphis, had never made the pilgrimage to Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, and its walls and walls and walls of gold-encrusted mirrors. There, as an adult, in the midst of all those mirrors, Renkl saw herself as a woman — a wife to a beloved husband and the mother of three sons schooled and embarked on their own lives.

“Walking past all those mirrors, I kept catching glimpses of myself,” she writes. “Mirror after mirror, there I was, right in the heart of Graceland, smiling and smiling and smiling.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

First Friends

by Kitty Kelley

Imagine you are a contestant on “Jeopardy!” and you select “Presidents and Their Female Friends” for $200. The host says: “This 20th-century president was known for his close relationships with women.” You hit the buzzer and choose either John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, both of whom had well-documented extra-marital affairs.

Unfortunately, you don’t make it to Final Jeopardy because the correct answer, according to Gary Ginsberg’s First Friends, is, “Who is Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”

In Ginsberg’s enchanting hybrid work of history and biography, he describes FDR’s enduring relationship with Margaret “Daisy” Suckley in delightful detail as the person FDR held “closer to his heart than anyone.” Although Ginsberg doubts an affair between the distant cousins, he cites Roosevelt as the only president to have had a woman as his best friend.

Previously, readers have been treated to books on first families, first ladies, first butlers, first chefs, first photographers, first dogs, and first cats. For his first book, Ginsberg, who served in the Clinton Administration, ingeniously presents bite-size biographies of U.S. presidents and their best friends — and how those friendships influenced presidential legacies and affected the country.

The author wraps history and humanity in a sparkling package, concentrating on nine U.S. chief executives and their closest friends, from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan. It’s an inspired idea that will thrill anyone who loves life stories woven into presidential history.

Given the current age of tweets and texts, plus the nation’s diminished attention span, Ginsberg has devised a unique way to engage readers, fashioning 18 lives within 359 pages of narrative and perhaps sweeping into the dustbin the turgid 1,000-plus-page tomes of such as Robert Caro, who’s written four volumes to date on Lyndon Baines Johnson, with one more hulking in the wings.

If Mies van der Rohe was right, then less is more, and brevity is to be celebrated, as is exemplified by:

The 23rd Psalm (118 words)
The Magna Carta (650 words)
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (272 words)

The Great Emancipator’s friendship with Joshua Speed, who became a slave owner years after meeting Lincoln, is included in Ginsberg’s book and illustrates the bond between two men whose differing principles put a decade’s worth of distance between them before they mended their breach.

Probably the most bizarre first friendship in the book is the one shared by Richard Nixon and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a Cuban exile who got branded as Nixon’s bagman during the Watergate scandal. Pat Nixon called Rebozo “Dick’s sponge.” In 42 years, the two men never talked politics but shared long silences together, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

By far the strongest chapter in Ginsberg’s book — and the chronicle of a relationship that changed history — was Harry Truman’s friendship with Eddie Jacobson, the son of a Jewish shoemaker and Truman’s former business partner in Missouri. It was Jacobson who prevailed on the president in 1948 to go against revered Secretary of State George Marshall and recognize the new state of Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Since, according to the Bard, “Brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,” I will be brief in my conclusion: Gary Ginsberg has written in First Friends a romp of a read. Enjoy!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Blind Man’s Bluff

by Kitty Kelley

Some memoirs flicker like fireflies on a summer night. Others pierce your psyche with their subjects’ tortured experiences, consequent miseries, and — finally — their oh-so-glorious survival. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou are among the memoirs that leave you breathless; they’re books you keep and don’t pawn off on your neighbor’s yard sale.

Now comes another keeper: Blind Man’s Bluff by James Tate Hill. With his pluperfect title, Hill winningly recounts his life after he was declared legally blind. “I was ready for a change, ready to be changed, but the loss of my sight that month before turning sixteen wasn’t what I had in mind,” he writes.

After being diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a genetic condition that causes gradual blindness mostly in men, Hill burrows into denial and bluffs his way through blindness until his mid-30s. Armed with a basketful of euphemisms for his affliction — “sightlessness,” “print disabled,” “limited seeing,” “bad eyes,” “blurred vision” — he forges ahead, psychologically unable to accept a world of white canes and seeing-eye dogs.

He refuses to admit to himself, his teachers, his friends, and even his first wife that he is blind. “Not speaking of it, not reminding others of it, not letting it hang like a banner above my head let me almost forget, and to almost forget was to make it almost untrue.”

Some days in school, he lets himself be docked for absence rather than risk signing his name over another student’s on the attendance sheet. In classes, he pretends to take notes, scrawling pages of gibberish that he later throws away. Poignantly, he lines the shelves in his apartment with books he can’t read while hiding his Talking Books under the bed:

“I was aware of the stigma associated with books on tape. Jokes on sitcoms implied audiobooks were to physical books what flag football is to the NFL.”

Reading this memoir makes you realize how much you take sight for granted. Just being passed a plate of food can be fraught for a blind person. “So many things can go wrong,” Hill explains, “not limited to my thumb and forefinger landing in the wrong section of the plate; touching, defacing or possibly knocking onto the floor a brownie or precariously arranged cheese on a cracker, or, the Grand Guignol of canapes, a chip that must be sent on a recon mission into a dip of unknown depth or viscosity.”

Crossing the street becomes a potential dance with death:

“In daylight, you can’t rely on headlights and traffic lights to know when it’s safe…Sometimes other pedestrians are waiting on the curb, and you can cross behind them…At night when there are no pedestrians to whom you can pin your safety and no traffic lights or stop signs to part traffic, you can listen for cars.”

One day, Hill nearly loses his life when he changes his route and crosses on what he thinks is a green light, and then “a car horn punches a hole in the morning,” as he stumbles to a concrete island, escaping “almost death.”

Hill’s story is funny and sad at the same time, and raw in its honesty as he recounts the rejection by his first wife, who initiates divorce proceedings after six years of marriage. Both had cultivated facades: His was having vision; hers was having an outgoing personality. Alone with him, she clams up and resents his dependence as much as he hates being dependent. Despite having earned three master’s degrees, he cannot earn a living as a writer, and only barely as a teacher, forcing her to become the primary breadwinner.

“I wished I were a man capable of leaving a bad relationship,” he recalls, “but I barely found the courage to leave the apartment.”

After his second novel is rejected, Hill identifies with Paul Giamatti’s character — a divorced, unpublished novelist — in the film “Sideways.” But then Hill rallies, reactivates his online-dating account, and somersaults into a relationship that finally makes him feel secure enough to stop bluffing. Once he drops his pretense and admits his disability, he finds happily-ever-after endings as a person, a teacher, and a husband.

In the book’s last chapter, entitled “Basketball,” Hill and his new wife are in a gym playing hoops. They chase down rebounds and launch wild jumpers and crooked free throws, laughing as they miss nearly every shot.

“Every once in a while a three-pointer rattles in, and we scream our heads off,” Hill writes, “champions after a last-second shot.”

Champions, indeed.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books