BLESSED AS I AM WITH AN ordinary memory, I am able to reconstruct my first meeting with Audra Thomas, which took place last February at her family’s house, as a series of discrete moments.
One: On the way there, I crept along in heavy Dallas traffic, increasingly discouraged as the hour of the interview drew near, then pulled over at a gas station to call the Thomases and tell them I would be late. The day was cool and windy and thickly gray; I remember shouting into the pay phone.
Two: I drove, some forty minutes later, just past the blinking light that announces the town of Celina and turned into the subdivision where the Thomases live, Morgan Lake Estates. There had been a harsh storm earlier in the week, a pelting of icy rain and snow, and while most of the residue had melted, patches of snow still dotted the winter lawns.
Three: I waited outside the front door of the Thomases’ house until it opened, and there was Audra: a big girl, slightly knock-kneed, with strikingly pale skin and thick brown eyebrows. Her eyes wandered shyly in my direction without making contact directly. Audra can’t really see, and I’d known that before I arrived, yet I felt suddenly shy myself, unsure of what to do instead of shaking hands. We sat down on the living room couch and began to talk.
There are certain things I remember because I happened to jot them down in my notebook: that the couch was covered in a dark plaid fabric, and resting on it was a throw patterned with a golf motif; that on the wall was a tapestry of a forest scene illustrating a Bible passage. There are other things I didn’t write down and don’t remember: For instance, I recall that Audra wore gray pants, but her shirt—a white blouse, maybe?—is lost to me, and though I suspect she had on a silver necklace, I might have merely inferred that because she wore a silver necklace the other times I saw her.
She was soft-spoken at first, but she quickly grew more animated, looking upward and gesturing rapidly as she spoke, a knowing half-smile on her face. She told me that she’d lived in Texas since she was two, that she’d attended elementary school in Plano, that for the eighth grade she’d gone to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, in Austin. While she knew all this, she didn’t remember any of it, for she does not have an ordinary memory. In 1996, when Audra was in the fifth grade, she fell off a playground swing and hit her head, and afterward her mind seemed to turn against her. She lost most of her vision and was able to make things out only if they were an inch or two in front of her eyes. She no longer saw colors, only shades of gray. She lost the ability to tolerate touches and smells and other sensations. She also began to forget past experiences. Worse, her amnesia was ongoing, and at her lowest point the days just fell away. At a time when she should have been starting the sixth grade, she was reduced to playing with infant toys, and her mother was caring for her around the clock.
Since then, Audra has not regained what she lost, but she has grown into her own person; in May she graduated from Celina High School, and this fall she’ll start college. Though she doesn’t remember things that happened to her more than four or five months ago, she can learn and retain information—about places she’s lived or school subjects or what’s been in the news. “I’m a big geek,” she volunteered early in our conversation. In particular, she is a big current-events geek: In the tenth grade she won a statewide Current Issues and Events academic contest by scoring higher than any other student in her division on a test of state, national, and world affairs. As one of the few people in her town to have vocally opposed the war in Iraq, she has tended over the past year to get into arguments with other kids about U.S. foreign policy; in the spring, she was voted the most opinionated girl in the senior class. “I scare people,” she said. “They see me coming with my cane and they are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, get out of the way!'”
As I recall our first interview, what stands out is not any one of the immediate details—the jewelry Audra might have been wearing or the living room decor or even anything she said—but rather my initial sense of her person, which emerged gradually and is much harder to put into words, and has no doubt been influenced by my subsequent visits. I remember how it felt to sit there with her, this bright, half-smiling, wry seventeen-year-old who criticized the Bush administration, who explained that she sometimes walks straight into trees—who charmed me, really. Most of the other moments I remember from that day are also bound up with how I felt: my anxiety about arriving late, my nervousness at the door.
By the time you read this, or not long after, Audra will have forgotten how that day felt to her. And this is what I find most arresting: not that she can’t remember what happened, but that she can’t remember the way things felt, and that lacking such memories, she is nevertheless such a strong presence, such a lively person. She talks about herself with self-deprecating humor, and more than once she said to me, “I have no life.” It’s the sort of thing a teenager says when she’s bored and stuck at home much of the time, yet coming from Audra, it resonates in other ways. After her accident, she was deprived of her regular middle-class girlhood; she really did have no life. In the years since, with the help of her family, she’s built a life for herself—and more to the point, she’s constructed a self for herself, after having been cut off from the girl she was. But what is it to have a life with no lasting memories? A self with so little internal evidence of its own past?
ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS cases of amnesia is that of a young man from Connecticut, identified as H.M., who in 1953 underwent brain surgery in an attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. This was during the era of the lobotomy, of brain operations that now seem unforgivably crude: In H.M.’s case, a doctor used a cheap hand drill to bore two holes in the skull, raised up the front of the brain with a spatula, and sucked out a substantial portion of the middle through a silver straw. Though the removal did ameliorate H.M.’s epilepsy, it deprived him of his ability to remember new things; he recalled his childhood and early teenage years but would forget new experiences minutes after they happened. From that unfortunate case and subsequent research, scientists deduced that the structures that were excised from H.M.’s brain—in particular, the left and right hippocampus, a pair of curved prongs that dip into both hemispheres—are crucial to the establishment of lasting memories. Before that time, scientists’ attempts to locate a seat of memory in the brain had borne little fruit. Since then, however, studies of other patients with brain damage have found that various types of memory can be associated with certain parts of the brain—damage to the front of the brain, for example, can impair recognition. It’s now widely held that memory isn’t one single faculty but a collection of systems, with different parts of the brain performing different roles.
Yet the brain cannot be reduced to its coarse structures. Each human brain contains billions of neurons with multiple branches that are densely tangled together, forming unfathomable numbers of connections: a vast forest compressed to fit inside a coconut. What current neuropsychological theories suggest, moreover, is that our memories are not stored in our brains like goods in a warehouse but as propensities for neurons to fire in certain patterns. An instance of remembering doesn’t rely on a particular, immutable circuit in the brain but rather forges its way through a landscape of prior associations and images, some of which are more easily accessed than others.
In certain cases of brain dysfunction, it’s thought that significant neural pathways have somehow been broken or blocked, but the how and the why of this aren’t well understood. For instance, there are people, like Audra, who experience severe memory losses in the absence of obvious structural damage to any one area of the brain. Might a cascade of stress hormones in the brain somehow sever synaptic connections that are crucial to recall? It’s a plausible hypothesis but no more than that. Especially knotty are cases of amnesia when both a potential physical cause (such as a head injury) and a potential psychological cause (such as severe stress) are present. Sometimes those two factors appear to work in concert: A man falls from a scaffold not long after his girlfriend leaves him, and suddenly he can’t recognize his family members; a woman is hit in the head at work after discovering her fiancé is living with another woman and loses years of her life.
The ancient Greeks deified memory as the goddess Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses, and many of us continue to worship memory, if the popularity of Ginkgo biloba is any indication. Yet much as we may prize it (or at least, worry about losing it), and much as we may have an intuitive sense of what it is, based on our experience of remembering, the concept itself is elusive. In ordinary speech, the term “memory” has multiple uses, referring at times to a particular recollection or else to the act of recalling, to our general ability to recall things or to the entire store of our recollections. For centuries, humans have hit upon artistic and technological ways of supplementing memory—through writing, theater, computers—and then theorized that memory in the brain is somehow like the invention: a wax tablet, a mental theater, an inner data-storage site. It’s a curiously backward tendency, which seems to confirm that even though we consider memory to be essential to our personhood, we don’t have a clear sense of what sort of thing memory is. That’s a mystery we live with, one that most of us are forced to confront only if our own memory, or that of a loved one, fades away.
IF YOU WERE TO MEET Audra and didn’t know about her memory loss, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell unless you happened to ask her whether she remembers some particular incident or person from her past. The second time I was at her house, I inquired about a photograph taped to the wall. “What’s it of?” she asked, and I told her it looked like a family: a man and a woman and two teenage girls. “Oh. That man’s our dentist,” Audra said, “and the girl on the left was my best friend from kindergarten to fifth grade.”
“Do you remember her at all?” I asked.
Another time, she and her sisters were eating pizza at the dinner table, and it came up that her sister Mesa was going to be in a cousin’s wedding. “Whose wedding?” said Audra.
“Oh, you don’t remember him,” said Mesa.
Well, protested Audra, they have a lot of cousins.
Her parents, Dave and Nancy Thomas, are both big-boned and brown-haired, as are all their children: Audra, Katie, Adam, Mesa, and Savannah. Dave works as a purchasing specialist for Electronic Data Systems, in Plano, Nancy as a pricing manager at J. C. Penney; when I first visited them, they had recently had foot and ankle surgeries, respectively, and they lumbered around their house in matching surgical boots.
Nancy, who grew up in a large, close-knit family in rural Oklahoma, is the more naturally outgoing of the two, the storyteller, and it’s she who cared for Audra full-time after the accident, which has made her the bearer of Audra’s story in a way that Audra herself can’t be. A former basketball player with serene blue eyes and an open manner, she is chattily stoic, but she does not downplay what happened to her eldest daughter: “I sent one child to school that day and the child I brought back that afternoon was not the same child, and she never was again.”
In the spring of 1996, Audra was a stocky fifth-grade girl with long hair and glasses, generally cheerful but also quite stubborn. She played sports and loved country music; in photographs from that time she is almost always smiling. One day toward the end of the school year, Nancy went to Audra’s school to help with an afternoon pizza party and upon arriving discovered that Audra had tumbled backward off a swing when the seat became detached from its chain. Another girl on the swings had run to get help, a nurse explained; possibly Audra had lost consciousness in the interim, but now she seemed all right.
That night, however, Audra was dizzy, and the following day she started to see double. Nancy took her to a doctor and to a neurologist, but she tested fine. Over the next month, “we could see her getting a little fuzzier,” says Nancy. Then she and Dave overheard Audra asking her little sister Savannah whether some clothes matched. “So I went to Audra and I said, ‘Can’t you see?’ and she said, ‘No, Mom, I just don’t see anything anymore.'”
It was then that Nancy noticed how Audra would feel her way around the room, touching the walls and furniture. She was constantly dizzy. She seemed to lose interest in music, and one day as a tape was playing, she grew agitated. “She said, ‘Mom, I hear a guitar. I hear another guitar. I hear drums,'” recalls Nancy. “She could hear the tape in the tape player, and she knew it was people singing, but it didn’t blend for her—it was separate things.” Her parents now believe that Audra’s memory was deteriorating also, but as with her vision loss, she didn’t let on at first.
They consulted a psychologist, who diagnosed Audra with conversion disorder: a psychiatric condition in which severe stress or trauma induces the brain to subconsciously mimic symptoms such as vision loss—the classic example being the witness to a murder who goes blind. Audra didn’t take well to the diagnosis, apparently thinking it meant that no one believed her symptoms were real. That summer she grew increasingly depressed, and so dizzy that she couldn’t get around by herself. It seemed that she was losing some of the basic functions we acquire as babies: balancing, filtering out stimuli, making sense of noise.
In September Audra and her parents traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for another opinion. After several days of MRIs and brain scans, a doctor told them that Audra was, from a physical standpoint, perfectly healthy. Then, to explain what was wrong with her, he pointed a finger to his head and whirled it in a circle: Audra was crazy. “Even though she couldn’t see him do that,” says Nancy, “I think she knew.” Back home, Audra continued to regress, becoming more and more like an infant, forgetting the names of things and playing with big plastic toys. She would forget her own family members, except for Nancy, who was always with her.
Because of her extreme physical sensitivity, she wouldn’t let anyone touch her, not even Nancy, and periodically she went into rages, lashing out until someone restrained her. Once, after a rage, “I just sat there and held her and rocked her for the longest time,” says Nancy. “All of a sudden I felt tears on my hand, and I realized she was crying for the first time since that accident. She asked me, ‘Why, Mommy? Why is this hurting? Why doesn’t anyone believe me?'”
Right after Thanksgiving, her parents admitted her to the psychiatric unit at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. Over the course of a month there, her mood seemed to stabilize, and she didn’t get worse, but according to her mother, she didn’t really improve either. Nancy wasn’t satisfied: She researched; she read; she kept asking questions. She bought her children a Super Nintendo and started playing it herself. “Sometimes, late at night, when I’d got them all to bed, I would sit there and play Super Mario Brothers. It was a major stress relief when I couldn’t sleep. I got through about the first five levels. That’s how I coped.”
In the spring of 1997 Nancy attended a lecture in Dallas by Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist. She had noticed in his books that many of the patients he described suffered from symptoms like Audra’s—deficiencies of memory, of balance, of vision—so she wrote to him. Sacks called her shortly thereafter, referring her to a clinic in New York City. In June Audra was admitted to New York University’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, where doctors attached electrodes to her scalp and monitored her brain activity for several days straight. Once again, no significant malfunction was detected. Her parents then agreed to let the doctors give Audra a dose of sodium amytal, a so-called truth-serum drug that often prompts patients to report traumas they have repressed. But according to the report by one of her treating physicians, there was no evidence of physical or sexual abuse. All that her doctors concluded was that Audra’s complaints seemed to be the joint result of head injury and conversion disorder.
Vague as that diagnosis was, says Nancy, it was a turning point. Although the doctors hadn’t found any neat solution to the puzzle of her illness, Audra was heartened by the fact that they believed that her head injury had something to do with it; also, they prescribed anti-depressant medication, which helped to calm her. The Thomases at last could set aside the search for absolute answers and concentrate instead on Audra’s rehabilitation. Which was no easy task in itself. After a therapist recommended skin-brushing techniques for Audra’s sensory problems, Nancy resolved to see whether it would help. “To get her to do it,” she recalls, “I’d literally have to go tackle her and hold her down and brush on her. It was four or five times a day.”
Nancy says she’s a multitasker, which is an understatement. Besides having five children and a full-time job, she was, at various times that I was in Celina, substitute-teaching on her day off, collecting items for a yard sale to benefit the senior class, working at the yard sale, and attending a school-board meeting. Audra calls Nancy a busybody and insists that she herself takes after her dad, but in her stubbornness she perhaps more closely resembles her mother. After spending some time with both of them, I came to suspect that the plain obstinacy of both mother and daughter had played a large role in Audra’s recovery.
I also came to believe that Nancy’s suffering might have been, in a way, more intense than Audra’s. For not only did Audra forget each day’s torments once they were past, she’d also forgotten what her life had been before. Nancy remembered. “Her real generosity, her real lovingness—it seemed like it was gone. For a long time she was just blank. You couldn’t call her sweet; you couldn’t call her hateful. Just blank.
“On the darkest days, it’s not that I wished her dead,” she says. “It’s just that I wanted Audra back.”
ONCE I ASKED AUDRA WHAT she thought a portrait of herself ought to look like. “It would have a round head and cute glasses and a small nose,” she said. “A dimple on my chin—I have a dimple, right? Wide-set eyes, oh, and a very distinguishable v on my upper lip. If you were to draw the inside of my mouth, I have a giant tongue. I don’t have very distinguishable cheekbones. I have pretty straight-across eyebrows and loopy ears. Well, they feel loopy. My favorite color is purple, and I’d have me with books, even though I don’t like to read books that much. And my pupils could be little globes, because I like the world so much. To symbolize my worldliness.”
From her bedroom in Celina, she keeps close tabs on world events. Her mother can’t recall a time when Audra didn’t like to watch the news. These days she peruses the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time online (with the help of special software that reads the text to her) and watches (or more accurately, listens to) BBC news and C-SPAN; her plan is to major in political science or international relations in college. After that, a master’s degree and maybe a law degree, and then “I want to live overseas, and I want to work in an embassy,” she says. “I’d also like to work for the U.N. ambassador. I don’t want to be the front person, but I’d like to be the behind-the-scenes expert in whatever my field is and be called upon to advise. That could be really fun to do.” Audra also hopes to travel widely. “I just want to live all over the world,” she says. And while she’s at it, “I want to learn, like, ninety languages: French, Russian, Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic, Farsi, Swahili, and there’s another African one, I can’t think of the name. Also Mandarin. There are some others.”
For a few days every spring, certain Texas community college campuses fill with teenagers quizzing one another on the names of world leaders, the current administration’s latest initiatives, and other ephemera of recent history, as they prepare to take the Current Issues and Events test, consisting of an essay and forty multiple-choice questions, given by the University Interscholastic League. Audra first competed in the tenth grade. She’d started at Celina High the year before, and from the beginning, says Nancy, “she had to be in regular classes. Some people wanted to baby her, but Audra was very adamant.” Still, in ninth grade she had to be trailed by an aide all day and take special-ed math. She had undergone inner-ear surgery to help with her balance and had to learn to walk all over again. As her balance improved, her memory seemed to improve as well, as if her brain, no longer focused on the task of keeping her upright, could devote more of itself to remembering events, at least from the previous couple of weeks.
The following year, when Audra’s special-ed teacher recommended that she participate in the current-events contest, no one had much faith in the quiet, blind girl. That changed when she won first place at the district meet. Placing third at the regional contest, she advanced to the state competition, held at the University of Texas at Austin. After the test, when Audra, her mother, and a teacher from Celina went to a crowded auditorium to learn the results, “it was really bothering her to be in there,” says Nancy. Then, she says, “we got this paper with her score on it, but we didn’t make the connection.” In fact, Audra had won the state title for Division 2A. “When they announced it, we just cheered and went nuts. It was so exciting,” says Nancy. Audra’s response was more measured: “She just did that half-grin of hers—she was doing all she could just to be in that room.” It was the first time anyone could remember a student from Celina winning a state academic meet, and when she got back home, the local papers ran stories. Speaking of his daughter, Dave Thomas once said to me, in all seriousness, “She’s got a good memory.” When it comes to factual knowledge, this is true.
It’s tempting to draw too neat a picture here, though, of Audra as an information fiend, a data processor with no experiences of her own. For much as she may like to debate the wisdom of going to war with Iraq or demonstrate her familiarity with what’s been in the news recently, she’s more likely to talk about the kid who annoyed her at a recent Model U.N. session or about the time last week when she and her friend Chris led their entire Spanish class in a protracted discussion of politics. Even with such an impoverished base of remembrances to draw from, Audra still tells stories, lots of them. The events of Spanish class may not constitute the most compelling of yarns, and she’s liable to forget the story later on, but through these narratives she seems to place herself—to keep on placing herself.
Audra also loves movies. One of her favorites is Contact, in which a scientist, Ellie Arroway, receives a message from an alien civilization. She especially likes one of Arroway’s father’s lines: “If it is just us [in the universe] . . . it seems like an awful waste of space.” She also likes the fact that when the aliens ultimately communicate with Ellie directly, their representative assumes the form of her father, who dies early in the movie: A woman travels to another galaxy and meets her own memory.
Last January Dave had heart surgery, and according to Audra, this has made him more philosophical. He has asked his children what of his they want to inherit or what sort of funerals they themselves would like to have. “I want to be shot up into space,” says Audra. “To have a portion of my ashes taken up into the shuttle. I think I saw it on the news, and that has stuck with me—that sounds so cool. You circle the earth in orbit for, like, two hundred years, and then you come back down to earth, collected with other things, as a shooting star. I’m a big geek. I believe in aliens, and maybe the aliens will get me. But if the aliens haven’t gotten me, I should come back to earth as a shooting star.”
IMAGINE HAVING NO RECOLLECTIONS OF high school, or even feelings about high school: A few months from now, Audra won’t have either. Even before she graduated from Celina High, she’d already forgotten most of her four years there. Nonetheless, at the end of her senior year, she knew she wasn’t too fond of the place. “It’s small, it’s football-crazy. I don’t like it that much. It has nothing interesting that happens,” she said.
For two days last March, I went to school with Audra. It’s common for people with visual impairments due to brain injury to be able to see familiar things better than unfamiliar things; accordingly, Audra charged through the halls of her high school with the assurance of someone who knew exactly where she was going, barely using the skinny white cane she carries with her. Because she’d taken courses at the local community college over the summer and had only a few scheduled classes during her last semester, she spent much of the school day in the computer lab, at a desk in the corner where she would set up her laptop. For the past year, Audra had been in charge of maintaining the school’s Web site. She would code away, or else work on a project for another class, as other students came and went from the room. None of them greeted Audra, who told me, “I’m kind of in my own little world a lot of the time.”
Before the accident, says Audra, she had a few really close friendships. “I’m starting to get those again now, but it’ll take awhile. It’s like I’m missing out on something, things that we’ve done together, different things. If it’s something really important to remember, I have told myself, repeated it over and over so that it’s in there.”
It used to be that Audra would have to meet all her schoolmates again every fall, having forgotten everyone over the summer, but this year, “I started keeping in touch with people somewhat, and I started keeping a database. If it’s someone I know I’ll meet in the future, but not for a while, I’ll write down and keep information on them.” This is something she has resolved to do more as she prepares to leave for college—”create a list of people, with what their relationship to me is, what I like about them, what I dislike about them, if they have siblings, and if they like my siblings. I think I used to have some more of those files, but then my computer crashed.” This year Audra’s two closest friends at school were Ashlee and Chris, and in her database of people, Audra has entered the fact that Ashlee has an allergy to pork and that she can cheer you up because she’s always smiling and happy. As for Chris, Audra has noted that he’s not afraid to talk about anything and that he has brought her out of her shell.
The only real class I went to with Audra was Spanish, where, two days before spring break, the mood among the students was lethargic. It was a small group: just Audra and a handful of pretty girls with blank expressions. They all watched part of a Spanish-language DVD of the first Harry Potter movie, and then the teacher, Mrs. Franco, asked them to open their books to a vocabulary list. Suddenly, the pretty girls all wanted to go somewhere in great haste:
“Can I go talk to Coach Jones real quick?”
“Can I run to my locker and get my notebook?”
“Can I use the restroom really fast?”
A couple of them dashed off, and Mrs. Franco implored the remaining few to read the vocabulary words aloud; when that didn’t work, she pronounced the words herself and asked the students to give their English meanings. Although everyone but Audra could see the translations, which were provided on the list, no one said anything. Except for Audra. “Disolver,” said Mrs. Franco, and Audra said, “Dissolve.” “La negociación,” and Audra said, “Negotiation.” “Encabezar.” “Ocultar.” “Irreverente.” Finally one of the girls returned from the restroom and chimed in with a couple of definitions, and then class was over.
Observing all of this, I remembered that I myself had been careful to keep relatively quiet in my high school classes, having learned that it wasn’t cool to pipe up too often. That was an unspoken rule, and to break it was to risk embarrassment. So I wondered, did Audra know such rules and just not care? Or had she simply forgotten them?
This year Audra was accepted by her first-choice college, Mount Holyoke, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, but her parents decided she should go to Austin College, in Sherman, some thirty miles from Celina, which was a big disappointment for her. (Afterward, Audra refused to speak to her mother for weeks. “She and I go at it big time,” says Nancy. “I know I’m her least favorite person right now, and that’s okay.”) One reason for the decision was that Austin College costs less, but other factors weighed heavily. I asked Nancy whether she’d worried that if Audra went far away to school, she would forget her home. “Partially, yes. We wouldn’t see her until Christmas. I think she would lose it. But it’s also how she handles things. I’m just not sure she can help herself yet. Later, when she shows me she can live on her own, then we’ll see.” The college decision followed close on the heels of another disappointment—in this year’s UIL current-events competition, Audra didn’t qualify for state.
Around her family members, Audra blows up easily. After Adam watched TV in her room, lying on top of her brand-new comforter, she badgered him about it and then spent all night washing her sheets. When Katie borrowed some of her clothes without asking, it made Audra so mad that she yelled and argued and eventually started crying. “That was the first time I’d cried in, like, two years,” Audra told me. Of course, she doesn’t remember most of those two years, and I wondered whether this could be true. When I pressed her on it, she admitted that she did cry sometimes in private but never in public. In general, she said, “I don’t have as many emotions as other people. And when I do have them, it’s, like, rage.”
ONE SUNDAY IN APRIL, AUDRA and I went to the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth because she is interested in art and art history. None of the other visitors seemed the least bit surprised to see a blind girl with a cane making her way through the galleries, but I was still trying to figure it out: How is it that a person who can’t see colors except as varying shades of gray, who can make out forms only from very close up or through a magnifying viewer, likes to look at paintings?
A new exhibit had just opened, a retrospective of the work of Philip Guston, and we proceeded through it as follows: Audra would walk right up to a canvas and eyeball it, sometimes tracing a contour in the air with her finger, because tracing helps her to see things better. “Oh, hello,” she’d say when she came across a new figure or a change of color. She asked questions: “Okay, there’s a big splotch here where it’s lighter?”
“Yeah, it’s pink there, and the paint’s applied really thickly,” I said, trying to help her and feeling inadequate to the task. Every so often a museum guard would tell us we were too close to the canvas. “Hey, cut us some slack, will you?” I’d think. “The girl can barely see!” Audra would back off and look at the painting again through a little black telescope she’d brought, which helped her see the picture in its entirety.
After a while I thought I was beginning to understand Audra’s way of looking. She didn’t care for busy or complex paintings, in which it was hard to connect all the pieces, or paintings without much color contrast, in which she couldn’t tell different sections apart. “I like stuff more on the abstract side, stuff that’s simpler,” she said. “I like to look until it clicks with me.” She seemed to be actively assembling the images in her head, laboring to perceive each painting in a manner superficially different from how a sighted person would look at anything, but perhaps not entirely different. To some degree, we all create what we’re looking at and imagine what we remember.
Guston’s later works are cartoonish and obstinately strange, full of big round heads and disembodied legs and figures wearing Klansman-like hoods, and as Audra was surveying one such painting with her scope, going along from part to part, I was attempting to describe the whole: “It’s two of those Klan-type guys sitting in a tire and smoking, and there’s some sort of junk in the tire, and the name of the painting is Edge of Town.”
“Maybe they’re in a junkyard,” she said. “A junkyard is at the edge of town. They’re sitting in the junkyard and smoking.”
“You’re probably right,” I said.
Then, having made sense of the painting, Audra moved her scope away from her eye, turned her head toward me, and said, mischievously, “See, I’m smart!” It was the first time I’d seen her without her glasses, and her bared eyes were bright and sly. It was unnerving: In that instant I was sure Audra could see me perfectly.