“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” novel by Karen Joy Fowler

My 32-year-old book club just finished reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. I simply loved the book, a gripping fictional story with important nonfiction substance. Spoiler alert: the rest of this blog will reveal a key plot point that is hidden till page 77 of the novel.
The adult protagonist, Rosemary Cook, spent the first five years of her life like a twin to Fern, a female chimp, three months older. The book unearths so much deep-seated psychological material, revealing interesting, if sadly ill-conceived research studies. As I read, I couldn’t help but make the connection between the impact of an environment immersed with a chimp and the impact of an unseen environment on someone congenitally blind.
Rosemary is separated from her beloved Fern and enters kindergarten. There she is shunned by her young peers. Something is “off” in Rosemary’s interactions. She likes to leap up on tabletops and chairs, for instance. She stares at people way too long, stands way too close, and wants to touch, to run her fingers through the other kindergartneres hair. Sometimes she lopes across the floor, hunched over, knuckles on the carpet. She smiles like her chimp twin, covering her top teeth with her lip. Soon the kindergarteners name her “Monkey Girl,” a moniker she can’t shake.
When I entered a training program after becoming legally blind, I was struck by the behavior of some of the congenitally blind students. They, like Rosemary, didn’t operate on the same spatial lines as I did. If someone heard my voice from across some 200 feet of gymnasium, she spoke to me as intimately as if we were within a few feet.Often these students touched and caressed my hand and arm as we spoke. With the bit of sight I had, I noticed them rocking back and forth vigorously as they sat. I only learned later that they often had a flat affect, without much expression. How could they have learned that, being born without sight? Facial expression is visually stimulated. They also failed to use many hand gestures. Again, gesturing is visually-learned. Often they didn’t turn and face me as we spoke. Again, why should they? It made much more sense to turn their ears toward speakers. And where Rosemary stared too long at her human peers, blind people cannot make eye contact except accidentally. More important, blind eyes often aren’t beautiful, since the blindness occurs from accident or illness.
And those of us who become blind as adults probably use less facial expression over time. We gesture less, if for no other reason than that we, ahem, at least I have accidentally contacted way too much genitalia .
So just as Rosemary’s peers sensed something “off” about her, I think sighted people sense something strange, something missing, something “off” In those of us who are blind. And it’s a distraction. This “offness” can create obstacles to social interaction between the sighted and the blind.

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About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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