Madeline and Sophie Ryan are identical twins. They are eight years old. They exude a rugged masculinity and are built like their merchant marine father — thick, solid, broad shouldered, with eyes so dark and glassy they seem to be made from perfectly polished pieces of obsidian. Mass murderers of spiders, flies, moths, and the exceptionally brilliant brush-footed butterflies that sail above the surface of the family swimming pool, the girls constantly hunt for easy prey. They’re also accomplished mimics who delight in doing impersonations of adults, aping their vocabulary with unnerving precision in a single singsong voice and then squealing with malicious, porcine laughter whenever their latest victim shoots them a weary and wounded look. They can be cruel to younger children but reserve the brunt of their wickedness for their long-suffering mother, relishing their roles as jailers and persecuting her in ways that only the most heartless of wardens can. Clever, calculating, supremely subversive, they understand intuitively that parenthood is a kind of indefinite prison sentence, one in which beleaguered moms and dads spend most of their days sequestered from other adults. To neighbors the girls look like a pair of wretched, half-starved urchins out of a folktale, feral creatures that search the nighttime streets for rancid scraps of food before seeking shelter in abandoned barns. They commit acts of petty vandalism. They may possess preternatural powers. They are darkly comic flourishes, or so I once believed, from my novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015).
As I put the finishing touches on the book, I received feedback from several readers who said Madeline and Sophie reminded them of the eerie twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. I was a bit mystified, perhaps even disappointed, by this comparison. I truly believed, at least to a certain extent, that the girls in The Captive Condition served as comic relief. Curious, I viewed the movie again for the first time in several years and became so intrigued not only by the iconic imagery of the hand-holding twins in their periwinkle puff sleeves and ruffle skirts but by Kubrick’s masterful storytelling technique that I decided to teach it in two of my college courses, Introduction to Folklore and Introduction to Mythology.
While performing the obligatory professorial research on the film, I learned that Kubrick, justifiably famous for his attention to detail, conducted his own survey of the horror genre and fell under the spell of “The Uncanny,” an essay by Sigmund Freud. The uncanny, claimed that cigar-chomping, glossarial jigsaw-solver of the human psyche, was the only feeling that was more powerfully experienced in art than in life. “If the horror genre required any justification,” Kubrick remarked, “this concept alone would serve as its credentials” (Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, Michel Ciment, Faber & Faber, 1999).
Toward the end of his brief essay, Freud posits that we experience the sensation of the uncanny whenever a storyteller denies us access to our reality-testing faculties. By this he means that most reasonable people, when faced with a spooky situation and tempted by their “primitive impulses” to attribute perfectly natural phenomenon to some supernatural power, can always rely on their critical thinking faculties to quell any lingering doubts and reveal the mundane truth. For example, we may be lying alone in bed on a stormy night and hear a door creaking open ever so slowly. Our “primitive minds” warn us that a ghost is approaching and yearns to slip under the sheets with us and whisper a bloodcurdling lullaby in our ears. But because we are rational beings who have easy access to those creature comforts provided by modern civilization, we can flip a light switch and quickly confirm that a cold draft has blown open the door and that the rusty hinges need oiling.
As Freud writes, “For the whole matter is one of testing reality, pure and simple, a question of the material reality of the phenomena.” The difficulty only arises when a storyteller keeps us in the proverbial dark for a prolonged period of time and doesn’t allow the trembling protagonist, and therefore the audience or reader, access to a conveniently located light switch. In order to create and sustain a sensation of the uncanny, the storyteller must keep us guessing about the true nature of the fictitious world he has created. Freud writes, “For the realm of phantasy depends for its very existence on the fact that its content is not submitted to the reality-testing faculty.” And according to Freud the critic, as opposed to Freud the psychoanalyst, readers and audiences may retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, “a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit,” if they see through the ruse and react to it as they would react to real experiences. In this case, the intellect serves as a metaphorical light switch and exposes the storyteller as an incompetent trickster.
In Freud’s view the stories most capable of creating a sense of the uncanny are those in which the storyteller “deceives us into thinking that he is giving us the sober truth, and then after all oversteps the bounds of possibility” by bringing about events that can never happen. In the completely fabricated and precisely structured worlds of “once upon a time” and “long ago and far away,” we accept the impossible as being perfectly ordinary. No one ever questions the validity of the tale of an innocent maiden who suddenly awakes from a poisoned-induced sleep and then runs off with a handsome and well-intentioned prince.
Similarly, in a body of literature that makes use of what Freud calls “poetic reality,” we may experience a sensation of gloominess, but because the nature of this world is still imaginary, though less imaginary than the faraway kingdoms in fairy tales, we do not experience the uncanny. Freud points to the tormented souls in both Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey, particularly the episode in which Odysseus makes the treacherous descent into the underworld to consult with the spirits of the dead, including the grief-stricken spirit of his own mother. In both of these epic poems, the moods are somber, the settings somewhat disquieting, but we cannot say they are uncanny.
For Freud the situation is dramatically altered when the storyteller “pretends to move into the world of common reality” [italics mine]. I believe this phrase, indeed this single word, is fundamental to our understanding of the uncanny. Through the slow and careful accumulation of minute details, the storyteller pretends to create a simulacrum of the world as we know and typically experience it, but from the very start he or she has something else in mind entirely. For example, at the beginning of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick gives his audience, and the doomed Torrence family—parents Jack and Wendy and their six-year old son Danny—a pleasant tour of the Overlook Hotel during a sunny afternoon in early autumn, making everything appear perfectly ordinary and familiar. Only after the hotel closes for the season and Kubrick turns his attention to the secret inner lives of his characters do uncanny feelings germinate.
One of the earliest and most memorable harbingers of the uncanny comes shortly after the Torrence family is left to care for the now vacant hotel during the long, brutal winter. Jack’s son Danny, while riding his Big Wheel through the labyrinthine hallways of the Overlook Hotel, sees the figures of the twin girls and listens to their unnerving refrain: “Come and play with us, Danny. Come and play with us. Forever—and ever—and ever.” It’s interesting to note that Kubrick’s twins, though peripheral to the plot of The Shining, continue to occupy a central place in the minds of most viewers, maybe because Danny cannot possibly explain the presence of these unfortunate girls who have been badly butchered by their demented father, the previous caretaker Delbert Grady. The indelible image of these girls, purportedly based on a photograph by Diane Arbus (though Kubrick adamantly denied this), serves as a warning to Danny about the very real dangers he will soon face.
Bruno Bettelheim, in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, argues that these fantastic stories can serve a trouble child and help him overcome life’s travails. “Psychoanalysis,” writes Bettelheim, “was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving into escapism. Freud’s prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seems like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence. This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable.” The trick, of course, is to “master all obstacles and emerge victorious.” A resourceful child, Danny Torrence memorably manages to elude the same grisly fate as the Grady girls by entering into a hedge maze while his deranged, dipsomaniacal father pursues him with an ax.
Throughout the film Kubrick uses mirror images as the primary means of unmasking, rather than concealing, repressed aspects of Jack Torrence’s persona. To establish this idea, Kubrick stages a scene early in the film. While eating breakfast in bed in front of a mirror, Jack reveals to his wife that he feels oddly at home at the Overlook. “It was as though I had been here before,” he tells her. “I mean, we all have moments of déjà vu, but this was ridiculous. It was almost as though I knew what was going to be around every corner.”
Soon he begins to see ghosts in the hotel, and in every scene in which he confronts one of these spectral figures — the bartender in the gold ballroom, the deceptively beautiful woman in the green bathroom, the racist caretaker in the red bathroom — Jack is standing in front of a mirror. To fully grasp the significance of these ghosts, and all of the subsequent horrors the Torrance family must face, one must understand certain hidden realities. “The uncanny,” Freud states, “is something that is secretly familiar but has undergone repression and then returned from it.” It’s easy to see that the ghosts in the film are manifestations of past traumas, which are secretly familiar but which Kubrick renders as "uncanny figures" after they have "returned from repression.” For example, Jack Torrence's repressed alcoholism becomes the bartender, an uncanny figure who shouldn't exist but who manifests a "secretly familiar" repression. Similarly, Jack’s uninhibited lust manifests itself as the naked woman in the bathtub of Room 237.
Unable to face the terrible truth of his moral weaknesses, Jack begins to identify with these apparitions until he is in doubt about his own identity. Freud writes, “The subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which self is his, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own.” In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self, and thus we have characters who are to be considered identical because they may look or behave alike. There is also the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features, character-traits, vicissitudes, and — most importantly for The Shining — the same crimes. Freud explains, “These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of the double, which appears in every shape and in every degree of development.”
By referring to Freud's work, Kubrick seems to be making a larger metaphorical point: that the spectral images he presents to viewers are not supernatural or mysterious in origin, but rather, completely familiar. Freud cautions us that humanity’s horrors aren't something to be explained away with mysticism, ghosts, or magic, but to be fought off with logic and intelligence; nevertheless, we interpret the disturbing images in The Shining as bizarre, horrific and odd simply because Kubrick denies his characters — and therefore his audience — access to reality. His characters, because they are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to confront the troubling nature of their past experiences, fall victim to their own unconscious minds, which transform these buried memories into a series of warped and nightmarish images.
According to Freud it’s all a matter of intellectual uncertainty. Are we supposed to be looking at the products of a madman's imagination, “behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth?” This is a distinct possibility, and yet our critical thinking faculties are incapable of explaining away our sensation of the uncanny. Storytellers like Kubrick know this perfectly well and attempt to manipulate our emotions by exploiting our uncertainty. We cannot be entirely sure whether the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel are products of Jack’s imagination or real apparitions. Our rational minds are searching for an explanation, but uncanniness is derived from the storyteller’s ability to make us doubt any rational explanations we might devise. The most successful stories deliver a raw, emotional experience, and in order to accomplish this goal, Kubrick used every tool at his disposal.
“Primitive man,” Freud argues, “ascribes meaning to numbers, objects or events which are repeated.” He theorized that we equate things like repetition and patterns with “destiny” and “mysticism,” and Kubrick bathes his film in a semiotic language of repetition, hidden numbers, symbols and patterns, knowing that these images will likely lead to uncanny feelings when discovered. The audience is left confused and enticed by these mysteries and then attempts to bring them to light by creating meaning. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the imagery of “the double.”
But why is such a technique so universal to storytelling? One possibility, according to Freud, is that doubling is “a preservation against extinction.” He hypothesizes that the desire to transcend death led people in ancient civilizations to develop the art of making images of the dead in lasting materials, for example an Egyptian sarcophagus, so they could live forever and ever. Such ideas, however, have sprung from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. For modern people, the “double” reverses its aspect; from having been an assurance of immortality, it has now become an uncanny harbinger of death.
This ultimately futile desire to make, or perhaps remake, the image of the dead in lasting materials is presented quite explicitly, and with tragic consequences, in the final shot of The Shining where doubling is used to extraordinary and almost vertiginous effect. As the film draws to an end, Jack Torrence undergoes a startling transformation of character until he seems to be composed of several different personalities and finally becomes a permanent part of the “haunted” hotel, memorialized in the unnerving 1921 photograph. The film’s self-referential ending highlights the ambiguity, or rather, deliberately confuses the distinction between reality and imagination. An uncanny effect can often be seen when reality (a caretaker in the present day) interacts with our imagination (the caretaker’s likeness in an old photograph). Freud says this is precisely the moment when our “infantile and neurotic elements” start believing in magical practices. We focus on mental realities and ignore the material reality.
Despite The Shining’s bleak ending, Kubrick does allow Danny Torrence to escape from the hedge maze and reunite with his mother. As Bruno Bettelheim writes, “It is not that the evildoer is punished at the story’s end which makes immersing oneself in fairy stories an experience in moral education. In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent and that is why the bad person always loses out.” Bettelheim continues, “Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed. Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problem.”
Many commentators have noted that the true hero, when faced with an existential crisis, can only escape a terrible fate by coming to the realization that “the self” is an illusion created for the benefit of other people. We all craft stories about ourselves, stories that are partially true and partially false. In time they become semblances of an identity, but it is crucial that we recognize these stories as the different masks we wear in order to present—or to disguise—our true selves. The problem is just this: many of us are unable to identify with any degree of certainty a single persona that seems entirely authentic. Who are we when in the presence of our friends? Who are we with our parents? Our children? Our employers and colleagues? Who are we when we are alone? The more we think about this, the more likely we will find that there is no “I” at the center of our consciousness. The ego is a culturally conditioned fiction and in storytelling is often associated with the monster—a deceptive, selfish and self-seeking creature that spreads fear and destruction.
One solution to this conundrum is to become egoless or selfless or, as Odysseus becomes in the episode with the Cyclops, to become Nobody. To be Nobody is not to enter some fantastic condition of egolessness. Rather, it is simply one’s willingness and ability, when the time comes, to drop the self, to let Somebody go and surrender to circumstances. As a reprieve from the cultural demands of egoism, it is important that we slip into a condition of anonymity from time to time. We always worry about what other people expect and want from us. Dropping the illusion of the ego can help us overcome these everyday concerns. Accepting that we are “nobody” can be a difficult and even frightening realization, but relying on pride and ego more often than not leads, at the very least, to profound disappointment.
In The Shining Jack Torrence is an ineffectual husband, father, writer, caretaker, and former school teacher. Perhaps by becoming Nobody he can escape from these culturally conditioned and predictable roles. The problem, of course, is that Jack is deceiving himself more than anyone else in his life. Consumed by different aspects of his own repressed and twisted ego, he rapidly descends into madness, and this, I think, is the final point that needs to be made about the film.
Just as he uses ghosts to reveal disturbing aspects of Jack’s personality, Kubrick uses Jack to reveal something rather disquieting about human nature in general—namely, that the ego can be characterized by one basic rule: it always wants something. Thus, for the person driven by ego, life is characterized by chronic desire and chronic frustration. We are frustrated because so often in life we don’t get what we so desperately want. Jack wants to become a successful writer. He wants to have a drink and even says, “I’d give my fucking soul for a glass of beer.” He aches to posses the beautiful women in the bathtub. He wants to escape from his wife and child. Since these paths are not open to him, he naturally begins to repress his desires until they gradually transform into terrifying phantasms.
Looking back on my own work, I can now see how Madeline and Sophie Ryan serve a similar function in The Captive Condition. The adult characters in my novel, fearful of serious introspection and therefore lacking in any kind of meaningful self-awareness, have a tendency to perceive the twins as devious little fiends and, later, as a couple of cajoling ghosts, mainly because the girls have an uncanny talent for revealing the moral shortcomings and the secret, forbidden desires of adults. At certain moments in our lives, our emotions can become asphyxiating clouds of uncertainty, and in a passage near the end of the book, I briefly make use of mirror imagery to acknowledge that, for many of us, determining the difference between what is real and what is imaginary can be difficult:
Some people, when they pass away, leave behind fond memories and wonderful legacies of love, but many more leave long trails of misery and despair, and when the bereaved claim to sense a presence floating along dark hallways or glimpse hooded figures rising up in shattered mirrors or witness fantastic apparitions advancing and receding above bogs and fens and festering swimming pools, they likely are perceiving the enduring gravamen of the dearly departed, a disappointment so profound that it somehow transcends death. So who could say for sure if the spectral figures that…floated above the streets of town were in fact ghosts or illusions conjured up by the drunk and disorderly revelers making their way home on New Year’s Eve. Madeline and Sophie wondered the same thing themselves: was this how ghosts were supposed to feel?
There can be no definitive answer to a question of this kind. We are now in the realm of the fantastic. The passage is meant to reveal more about the reader than the characters enacting the drama, but of course the whole art of the drama is to put into words and images those experiences people know are secretly true but haven’t yet noticed or are themselves unable to express. In this sense storytelling becomes a kind of meditation on the self. As Bruno Bettelheim puts it, “Stories also warn that those who are too timorous and narrow-minded to risk themselves in finding themselves must settle down to a humdrum existence—if an even worse fate does not befall them.”
Only those who rid themselves of superstitious beliefs can see through the uncanny. Such individuals can shrug off deceptive sights, signs and repetitions, and perceive the underlying truth. In contrast, those who cling to the ways of our primitive forefathers are doomed to believe in the supernatural. Freud states that our ancestors’ fondness for mythology and fables is largely what causes our belief in ghosts, apparitions, and monsters. Thus, our current irrational beliefs are largely due to the irrationalities of our ancestors. They’ve been passed down from one generation to the next, much as generational violence has been passed down in Kubrick’s film. Jack Torrence, who clings to the ways of his predecessor Delbert Grady, reenacts the same heinous crimes simply because he conjures up ghosts of the past, which he uses to affirm his own existence. Freud cautions, “Unless a man is utterly hardened against the lure of superstition, he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to these phenomena.”
Me, Myself, and Eye
My earliest memory is my mother’s panicked expression as she grabbed my face and told me to look at her. I assured her, as best a three-year-old could, that I was looking at her. I had developed a lazy eye, but that wasn’t my first foray into the world of eye troubles.
When I was thirteen months old, I was a quiet baby who didn’t cry, but whose eyes darted back and forth and watered continuously. I’m told my eye pressure at the time was 40, which is extremely high. I was diagnosed with open-angle juvenile glaucoma. The lazy eye, my left eye, my weaker eye, would be a later side effect. Multiple surgeries would take place by the time I was five.
Before I knew how to spell, count, or tell time, I knew I was partially blind. I had to wear glasses long before I knew how to take care of them; even in the McDonald’s PlayPlace ball pit, where a pair still remains undiscovered. I was told for years that a field of vision test was “just like a video game." I had to bring a note on the first day of every school year that explained why I needed to sit in the front row and completely throw off the alphabetical seating chart. I know how to live with it because I’ve never lived without it.
I find it hard to write about my disability for two reasons.
One reason is that I don’t fully grasp it. For most of my life, it has been something handled for me, never by me. All doctor’s updates were directed at my mother, and most of the terms flew, and still fly, over my head. I am not an expert on my disability, which makes me feel like a fraud.
The other reason is that I have the luxury of hiding my truth. You don’t see me as disabled until I tell you. And when I tell you, when you see me that way, even when your intentions are good and your heart is pure, I become incapable in your eyes. It becomes easy for you to see me as someone who cannot achieve anything. And that’s a hard way to be viewed.
But I’m going to try to write about it. So I can see myself clearly. For once.
Loosely cup your hands around your eyes like a big pair of binoculars. Now you see what I see.
That’s the explanation I’ve used since middle school because it’s simple; makes me sound like I understand what is wrong with my eyes and I’m dumbing it down for outsiders. It was harder to explain when I was younger.
It started with a cloth eye-patch that would go over the left frame of my glasses. It was used to strengthen my right eye and alienate me from fellow toddlers. I had two alternating patches; one with an embroidered train, the other had a teddy bear. I would wear my glasses lower on my nose and just look over them.
This resulted in an upgrade: flesh-colored adhesive patches that covered my eye and stuck to my young thick Italian eyebrow. My routine became:
Have my mother administer drops.Put on a fresh eye-patch.Have concerned peers on the playground ask me what happened to my eye.Itch around my eye.Have an attendant at the after-school center rip off my eye-patch to administer eye drops.Rub my eyebrow.Put on new patch.Have my mother rip off my eye-patch before bed to administer drops.Rub my eyebrow.From a distance, you would look at me, the flesh tone of my eye-patch blending with my skin, and think I didn’t have a left eye socket.
In middle school, I didn’t have to wear the patch and came up with the binoculars metaphor. I was selective with who I told, but word got around. I was never bullied, but it did come up. It was acknowledged, but never outright mocked. Velma from Scooby Doo, a white Ray Charles, Mr. Magoo, a white Stevie Wonder, or, as a friend from AP English said, “an ancient Greek oracle, a blind prophet.” Or a white Denzel Washington from The Book of Eli.
I would laugh along, only slightly bruised, but knowing that most of the people used as references were fully blind. They didn’t have the luxury of the label and the ability to see the person pointing the finger.
Now, I mostly refer to myself as “legally blind.” An asterisk next to my disability. A technicality. Something I get to use if I need it, hide if I don’t, be ignorant about, and reap the benefits from. A privilege.
Sometimes I’ll try to look up articles about glaucoma and learn about the details of what’s happening to my diminishing peripheral vision and deteriorating optic nerves, but usually, I just get depressed.
There’s no magical eye drop or surgery that could cure me. It can be stabilized when monitored correctly, but any vision lost can’t come back. Right now, I don’t see the importance of becoming an expert. All it would give me is more acute anxiety.
You’re standing on a mountain looking at the most beautiful landscape you’ve ever seen. Loosely cup your hands around your eyes like a big pair of binoculars. To your surprise, you see the magnified details of the landscape and notice a growing darkness racing towards you. There is no way to escape. The darkness will consume you. Do you focus on the darkness for the remaining moments? Or do you put your hands down and enjoy the view while you can?
I love movies. I have felt stronger emotions toward movies than I have most people. Friendships have been ruined based on opinions about movies. And one day, maybe, my glaucoma could progress to the point where I would never be able to see a movie again.
It’s hard for a young kid to sit still in an exam room and get their eye pressure taken. You have to rest your chin on a big metal device with lots of lights and rotating parts. The doctor tells you to stay perfectly still, look forward, and don’t blink as a small blue-glowing nub comes towards your eye. Luckily, pediatric ophthalmologist, Dr. Arthur had a TV in a cabinet in the corner of his office with a VHS player.
I would spend hours as a seven-year-old agonizing over whether to bring The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or The Lion King. The selection was ultimately pointless. I’d only get to see about four or five minutes before my pressure was checked. But I was always transfixed. So much so that I didn’t realize until years later that the blue-glowing nub was even touching the surface of my eye.
I’ve spent a lot of my life looking past what is happening to me and focusing on a film. Instead of focusing on an eye exam, I’ll watch “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Instead of wondering why the cable’s been turned off again, I’ll watch School of Rock. Instead of dealing with my unresolved emotions over a break-up, I’ll watch Sleepwalk with Me five times in a row.
On the nights when my mind anxiously wanders through all the possible scenarios of my life and my health and my vision, I wonder what the last movie I’ll ever see will be.
I hope it’s a good one.
When asked if they brushed their teeth, it is instinct for kids to say Yes, even if they mean No. That same instinct kicks in when you ask a kid if they put in their prescribed eye-drops every morning and before bed every night. They say, “Yes, I’m taking the drops that regulate my eye pressure so it doesn’t get too high and weaken my optic nerves,” but they mean, “No, I’m ten years old with terrible aim and no concept of responsibility.”
I don’t know if my mom knew I wasn’t taking my drops. I do know that every three or four months, when we went to an eye doctor appointment, she would give me the drops right before going into the office. I do know I grew up without facing the consequences of having a messy room, not doing laundry or dishes, general laziness. I don’t know if it’s fair to entirely blame my mother for my bad habits. Shouldn’t I be held accountable too? She never communicated the severity of my condition to me, but I never asked questions to begin with. She never made sure I brushed my teeth, or cleaned my room, or took my drops, but I never cared about myself enough to start of my own accord.
At a point, I became willfully ignorant.
At a point, I went to college over eight hundred miles away in the Western Mountains of Maine where I didn’t take an eye-drop or see an eye doctor for four years.
While engrossed in Theatre and Creative Writing classes, I neglected my physical and mental health, like a majority of college students. There was a subconscious belief that I was immortal. I could bounce back from anything. Everything.
Now a year out of college, I have to actively tell myself that I can’t eat pizza every day, that I have to brush my teeth before bed, that I should try to stretch in the morning, and that I have to face the inevitable consequences of the effect these last five years have had on my eyes.
At the time of writing this, I’ve scheduled an eye doctor appointment. I’m trying to figure out how my insurance works. I’m trying to make sure I have all the right records and information. I’m trying to not stress myself out about my deteriorating vision. From my perspective, nothing about my vision has changed, but since when have I been an expert?
I don’t regret my actions. For a brief time, I got to live without a disability. Or at least pretend to.
I once had a friend ask me if he was only getting cast in productions because of his race. He was constantly overthinking things, so I gave him a stern, “No. You’re a talented actor, duh.” I thought he was crazy to assume that his race was a factor in a talent-based audition.
Then I started applying for jobs, fellowships, and gigs. To stand out on the page, I would identify as a “legally blind playwright” to hopefully off-set my checked boxes of “white” and “male.” I got a small sliver of what my friend experiences on a daily basis. Is my work being recognized as good work? Would I receive the same attention anonymously? If I get a great opportunity, is it because of my talent or because I fit into “a diverse collection of writers”?
But, walking down the street, I get to blend in. In classes and workshops, my disability is never a factor in the work I present or the notes I give. I never have to speak on behalf of a whole community or justify my right to exist. I get to hide in plain sight, only revealing the full truth when it’s convenient for me.
I’m always trying to find that balance of identification. In high school, my IEP teacher would always tell me if I needed anything, like an iPad or something, the state would pay for it. Of course, I wanted an iPad, but I never needed one for anything related to my vision. I always understood that those resources should go to other IEP students who actually needed assistance.
However, there are resources I do need. I’ll never be able to drive, so I need to live somewhere with a good public transit system. I’m currently applying to get special rates on transit because costs add up quick. And I dream of the not-so-distant future where self-driving cars give me the independence felt by every teenager with a fresh new license.
It’s a hard line to walk: advocating for myself, but trying not to take advantage. Fully representing myself, but not letting my disability define me. Blind, but only legally blind.
Right now, I define myself as Zack Peercy, a twenty-three-year-old writer who loves pizza, movies, and theatre. I don’t have a good singing voice, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. People in my improv classes think I’m weird, but seldom in a good way. I spend a lot of my time fabricating the reality that my friends hate me. That U2 album is still on my iPhone because I never figured out how to delete it. I probably masturbate too much. And I feel more comfortable sharing personal things on stage or in my writing than I do with the people I love.
My disability is part of what defines me, but it’s not how I define myself.
Am I renouncing my community by saying that? Am I doing enough with my privilege to speak out for others? Is it my responsibility as someone on the fringe to speak as or for this community? Am I writing about this for my own journey, or am I writing for you to see me as someone special, honest, real? I’ll get back to you on that.
Looking Myself in the I
My eyes, with a panicked expression, grab my face and say, “Look at us. Acknowledge us.”
And, after twenty-three years, I do. As best I can.
Listen to the audio recording of this essay on SoundCloud here.
I used to think my greatest challenge as a writer was identifying, in the most precise possible terms, how I feel. Most of the time, though, I know what I feel. This is palpable when I am stricken by an emotion I’ve lived through before. No matter how traumatic the sensation—the icy terror of being found cheating on a sixth grade reading quiz calling to mind the chilling shame three years earlier when my dad caught me illicitly scratching off a lottery ticket—there is comfort in believing that feelings are drawn from a massive, but ultimately finite, palette.
Perhaps the challenge, then, is not in the knowing, but in the writing. Language is not what is, but rather a tool for communicating such. It is tempting to conflate the two, I believe, because language is often the most convenient, universal, and expedient channel through which to express our realities. We are instructed as toddlers to “use our words.” My two-year-old sister is learning how to talk, and my stepmom says this all the time. Use your words. Words are helpful for expressing one’s most granular desires. I want milk. Put me down. Where is Mom? But when my sister cries, when she fills our house with these awful, pathetic screams for hours on end, I can’t help but think: is there anything more true than this? How could “I want milk” possibly encompass the depth and scope of what she so desperately seeks to convey?
There is what is and there is what is articulated, and these are two discrete entities unbound by physical phenomena. The best we can hope is to craft the latter to be as faithful as possible a facsimile of the former, approaching asymptotically the trueness of the matter that lives itself in a plane independent of language. This is why I am driven so mad by cliché. Because to be trite is to use a crutch, to say the thing that is almost true, to gesture toward the approximate and beg your audience to fill in the gaps from their lived experience, instead of immersing them—with atomic focus—in yours. To do the bare minimum. Ball’s in your court. The most insidious form of laziness. You know what I mean? Cliché is the reason I can be a vocal participant in math class all quarter and still earn a failing grade. When called on, I can always explain the procedure: well enough to appease my professor, not well enough to solve a single problem.
This failure of precision is reinforced by the way most of us learn English in grade school. First we cover the basics: phonics, spelling, punctuation, grammar. Only when we have mastered fundamentals do we move on to fun stuff. A simile is a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ In tenth grade English class, I once had a test over all these literary devices, maybe eighty or so. I sat in the library one day after school, drafting up a thick deck of flashcards: Metonymy. Synecdoche. Asyndeton. When I actually sat for the quiz, I was disappointed to see that it was just one big matching exercise. I had studied way too hard. That exam was as easy as stealing candy from a baby.
The very framing of these tools as “devices” implies they are window dressing. You don’t say: “her eyes are beautiful,” because, my teacher told us, that is boring. Try instead: “Her eyes shine like diamonds.” Points for style. We internalize the notion that the world is simple, and, I guess, to keep morale high, we must invent creative ways to describe the basic phenomena of our existences. This—I have come to believe—is backward. Perhaps it is the universe that is more complex than we could ever begin to communicate with symbols on a page. That the most artful, vivid, evocative poetry is, in fact, the simplest thing we could conceive.
I know what it feels like to be in love, I am so confident I know. I know how it felt the first time I told my first boyfriend “I love you,” my whole body pressed up against him in the grass, my lips firm against his neck. I know how my whole being tingled electric, every cubic inch of me, how I wanted to cry. I know how right it felt, saying it again and again. I couldn’t fathom anything else: I love you. I love you. I love you.
But even that seems unfinished. Tingled electric. What an impossibly insignificant phrase. In attempting to write this paragraph, I have contemplated electricity and fire and flora and oceans, the very biggest and the very smallest. I don’t feel insufficient so much as I feel incorrect. I have made an error. In describing how deeply I felt for him, I have told a lie. I might as well be recounting the relationship of two strangers.
And even this: love. Who taught me that this word is that feeling? Maybe the birds and the bees talk should always include this critical clause. That every parent in the universe should have to sit his child down and tell her: one day, you will meet a person who makes you feel as if there is a current running through the deepest part of your being, the strongest possible force your body can withstand before splintering into a thousand bits. And you should say: Love! And they will know what you mean.
The night before my nineteenth birthday, I had a dream so juvenilely transparent in its symbolisms it is nearly too embarrassing to recount. As in most dreams, the logic of its universe was tenuous and inconsistent: rigidly committed to certain physical principles with zero regard for others. I was traversing what I can only describe as a parking garage with a hollow core, of infinite height and devoid of gravity. I could send myself accelerating upward through the building with the slightest push off the floor. Sometimes, though, without understanding how I had gotten there, I would end up standing on solid ground. It looked like the interior of an office, maybe, or an old library.
As I explored the levels of this structure, I kept running into people I knew. My ex-boyfriend was there, inexplicably, irritating me over something I can’t recall but perceived with sharp awareness nonetheless. I bumped into a guy who had run and lost for student body president at my college, whose face I’d seen on a poster outside my dorm every day for two straight weeks. He was smiling, but for some reason he was wearing an awful chartreuse velvet sweater I’d paid twenty dollars for the month before. That sweater had been final sale, and I had regretted the purchase since the second I’d left the store.
A few family members filtered through the loose outlines of the narrative. This included my dad. In real life, Dad and I barely spoken in months. We had not had a falling out, but rather an awkward, glacial drifting apart. I knew, deep down, he loved me, but I don’t think he liked me very much. I spent a significant chunk of my dream working on something for my dad. I can’t recall what. I remember he was disappointed in me: not for what I was doing, but for trying at all. As if any measures I took to appease him just made him more upset. I kept circling this building, floating up and down, and every once in a while crossing his path. He never confronted me, but I could tell he was not happy with me, and I was not happy with him. This all felt so familiar.
I could not explain why, but eventually, I was stricken with the knowledge it was time for me to leave. I drifted back down to the bottom of the building, planted my feet on the cement floor, and walked over to say goodbye to my family. My dad wrapped me in a tight hug. I couldn’t tell you a single detail of what he looked like, but he was there, I know for sure. I loved him so much. He was so far away; I missed him. I started weeping, and I felt my face grow damp. I cupped his chin with one of my hands. I told him: “I am space man. You are earth man.” Dad looked at me, deep into my eyes, and he nodded. He understood. He let me go.
And then I pulled away from him, and I leapt upward with the tiniest exertion, ascending into the abyss headfirst. My eyes were blissfully shut and my limbs elongated to full, graceful length like a free diver gliding through water, floating to the surface. I was off to somewhere, alone.
I awoke, then, in that moment, soaring high above the ground. I touched my cheeks, and they were slick with tears. It was my birthday. I am space man. You are earth man. How special it is, to finally say what you mean.
(According to the National Institute of Mental Health, and also Me)
1) Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating.
When I was five, I’d sneak sandwich meat, pudding, cereal—anything quick and easy to snack on—into my room and hide it so my parents wouldn’t find out how much I was eating. I did this until I was nine when my mom cleaned my room and found moldy bologna under the bed. Since then, I mindlessly eat almost every time I eat. I can’t control myself. I’ve been doing it for eighteen years.
2) Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self
I was always the fat kid growing up. When I was twenty, I joined a gym and went six times a week, stopped eating like crap, and drank only water. I lost fifty pounds in three months. Everyone around me said I looked great—even skinny. It was the best compliment I had ever received. The only compliment that mattered. So, I kept losing weight. People told me I should stop working out so much because I was going to wither away. I still thought I was fat.
3) Self-harming behavior, such as cutting
I cut myself the day my brother attempted suicide in 2010. It was my first time. I was in ninth grade Earth Science, standing in the back of the room, running scissors across my left wrist. I wasn’t breaking the skin. I wasn’t bleeding. I couldn’t control all the pain Andrew’s attempt caused me; I wanted to control my own pain for once. When I got home from school and my parents were halfway to Charlotte to see Andrew, I tore apart my razor. I sliced my left forearm once, twice, three times. It worked much better than the scissors.
4) Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days
One Thursday, I had a lot to do—homework, class, sending/reading e-mails, searching for post-grad jobs—and I planned to get everything completed during my four-hour shift at work. I wasn’t too worried. When I got to work, I looked at my color-coded planner and my inbox. I cried. I was so behind on everything. I did what work I could, but I was so depressed by the end of the shift. I thought about what it’d be like to dig through my secret hiding spot where I keep my razor blades and use them for the first time since August. I skipped my classes and meetings that day. I needed to cry in bed and sleep the emotions away. By the end of the night, I didn’t feel depressed anymore, just stressed.
5) Recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats
I missed the last three months of my junior year of high school because of a back injury. When I went returned for senior year, rumors said I had just been released from a mental hospital. My friends abandoned me. After not cutting for almost a year, I relapsed. Both my forearms looked like ladders. I thought it’d be better if I weren’t here. I planned how I would kill myself. I was too afraid to actually swallow a bottle of Ambien, but it was always in the back of my mind in case I decided to.
6) Feelings of dissociation, such as feeling cut off from oneself, seeing oneself from outside one’s body, or feelings of unreality
Last spring, an hour after a boy I was (practically) dating and I solidified our plans to watch Mean Girls, our favorite movie, I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at my closet door handle. I felt off. I couldn’t stop crying. It was a drastic change from ten minutes earlier when I was excited and bubbly. I texted the boy, described the feeling to him: the front part of my brain knew what was going on, but the back part just wasn’t me, and the back part was taking over. I didn’t feel like I was part of my own body. I canceled the plans with him, despite the fact I’d been obsessing over going on another date with him just an hour earlier. I asked a friend to drive with me to Myrtle Beach for the day—I needed to get out of my apartment. I didn’t trust myself. I hoped my friend would be able to bring me back to me. After half an hour of driving and talking, I finally felt like I was myself again: laughing, making sarcastic jokes, and having fun with my friend like always. All day, I thought about how I felt like I was watching my life happen from another point of view. I thought about how I never wanted to go back to it.
7) Chronic feelings of emptiness
8) Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
Three of our neighbors were with my parents outside as I yelled at my father the second I parked my car in the driveway.
How could you get rid of Andrew’s clothes? They were clearly marked. You knew we were going to have a quilt made out of his T-shirts. Mom told you, I told you. What’s wrong with you? Is it ‘cause your brain is fried from all the coke? The twelve beers you drink a day? The pain pills? What the fuck is wrong with you? I hate you. I fucking hate you. I can’t believe you fucking threw the bins of his clothes away. Jesus fucking Christ. I can’t believe you. Fuck you. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
9) A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
The marching band from freshman year
The 2018 Orientation Leader team
10) Difficulty trusting, which is sometimes accompanied by irrational fear of other people’s intentions
I was drunk and crying when I told my best friend that I didn’t trust her even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. It slipped out as she sat with me on the ground outside my twenty-second birthday party. I saw the hurt in her eyes. She told me again how much she loved me and that she wished I could trust her. I told her I was trying but didn’t know how. I didn’t want to scare her away like I had all my past friends.
11) Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, such as rapidly initiating intimate (physical or emotional) relationships or cutting off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned
Three days before our four-month anniversary, I almost broke up with my boyfriend Alex. I wanted to break up with him before he could break up with me. I felt my random, deep depressions were too much for him. It didn’t matter that he’d just spent the past three hours holding me as I cried, or that he’d told me dozens of times he loves me no matter what—everything in me screamed that he was going to end things with me, so I should do it first.