A Writer's Struggle
(John Daniel & Co.)For seventeen years, Charles Champlin was a reporter with Time and Life magazines. Then, for almost three decades, he worked as film critic and arts editor for the Los Angeles Times. In 1999 he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease of the eyes known as AMD --- age-related macular degeneration. He begins his story with the first symptoms: the feeling that there was never enough light to read by; then, one day, "a smudge of ash, as from a distant fire, falling on the page of my book." It was not ash that was falling; it was his vision that was failing.
Within weeks, Champlin was forced to give up driving, his daily luncheons with friends and --- except, at great strain, using peripheral vision --- going to art shows and watching television and movies. Hardest of them all, for one who had been writing for over sixty years, he lost the ability to read.
There were, of course, compensations. There were books on tape, and the many recordings offered by the Library of Congress. But he complains that it never will be the same; he often finds himself drifting off to sleep after a couple of chapters of, say, The Brothers Karamazov.
Champlin can still compose letters and articles on his computer, but he faces the problem that many of us touch-typists have: when his fingers drift to one side or the other, and smf jr gomfd jo,dr;g etoyomh ;olr yjos [he finds himself writing like this].
It is hard not to be touched by this most ironical of destinies --- for one whose life was reading and writing. And, because he is such a good reporter, in the course of "My Friend" one learns a great deal about AMD. But simple fact-telling can be frustrating for the reader, and possibly for the writer.
As a reporter, Champlin was trained in post-WWII America journalism, where one must keep emotions under control, to let the facts speak for themselves. He is obviously a person who has been programmed to be uncomfortable with feelings.
This becomes apparent in his telling of his meetings at the Center for the Partially Sighted in Los Angeles, where he had an interview with a young social worker:
She asked me many questions about depression. Was I depressed? Did I have to fight depression? She asked the same basic questions in different guises, almost as if they were trick questions and this was one of those devious police interrogations.
He tells us that he shrugged these off "with a show of resistance to the questions as being irrelevant." He then goes on to tell us, "I think I have coped with my new handicap fairly well."
However, those of us who have been in the handicap business all these many years know that coping doesn't always mean stiff-upper-lipism. At times, it means sorrow; at times, it means laughing or crying; at times, it means cursing the gods, raging at the very stupidity of it all. Any kind of disability (physical, mental) is hideously, wearingly, nauseatingly repetitive, and it brooks few delusions.
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I dream as if I were still fully sighted....Perhaps because of my dreams, I awake each morning imagining for one brief, very brief, moment that my full sight has returned."
He offers the possibility that his dreams might be "a psychological truth that is probably worth studying."
Well, yes and no. Denial, as he is rapidly learning, can be a life-saver. But it can also be punishing. Dreams have a truth of their own which has little to do with journalism, and less with logic --- at least the logic of the daytime world. I have been in a wheelchair or on crutches or on a gurney for almost fifty years now, but I still dream of walking --- although it's often as if I am trying to walk through molasses.
The very persistence of these dreams may be telling me that my walking or running (or even wading) is not the key to survival. What we do with what the gods have delivered to us is the crucial element.
We can rage at those around us, be angry at the world, sulk --- or pretend that it never happened. We can also keep on keeping on, and maybe learn a few tricks in the process. In his fine autobiography, John Hockenberry wrote that being quadriplegic gave him a chance to teach himself about a whole new world: of wheelchairs, of getting from here to there without falling, and --- if you will believe it --- of learning to give live network feeds to NPR at a time when there were no pay phones built to handle wheelchairs.
Champlin doesn't spend much time on his grief or anger. I suspect his journalistic self thinks it unseemly to do so. But there are clues of something going on...beyond what he believes he is presenting to us.
He admits to being moved when his brother Joe, a Catholic priest from Syracuse, had the whole family do a laying-on of hands, "touching my head and saying a silent or barely audible prayer." He tells us that it was a "deeply moving experience," reports that the moment of togetherness with his family "reaffirms me when the going gets rough."
It probably goes deeper than "reaffirmation." The truth shows through in his choice of words. In two pages, speaking about his new dependence, his lost independence, and spiritual matters, he wobbles between three different personas --- "I", "you," and "one." (Good psychotherapists invariably examine case --- the use of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person in patient's speech --- to reveal how far we are distancing ourselves from our agony.) On page 38 of we have "Generally speaking, my faulty vision is not a danger to me." [Italics added] On page 39, it's "You are dependent --- most particularly on your wife, who has suddenly added the duties of full-time chauffeur, stenographer, reader, guide to all the functions you had before." And towards the bottom of the page, the final mix: "Wherever one stands theologically, I commend to you the warmth and support of family and friends."
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Champlin tells us that his friends are fond of his sense of humor. There's the quote from George Burns:
He used to say, he read the obituaries in bed, and if his own name was not among them, he got up and shaved.
Describing the simple accomodations that must be made in the morning in front of the mirror, the mirror in which he can barely see himself, there is always the matter of whiskers, teeth, and hair: "Parting my hair is such sweet sorrow."
Most of what he has to tell us, though, is that whatever it is that has him hurts, and he's troubled by how to deal with the hurt. He wants to be brave and stouthearted --- we all want to be brave and stouthearted; we certainly don't want to be accused of whining. But there is a fine line between being brave and working overtime to hide the ache. We have here a heroic man who has trouble negotiating the chasm between anger and woe, between shame and pride, between bitterness and a more benign resignation.
Many writers, writers as diverse as John Hockenberry, Andre Dubus, and Ram Das --- refer to their post-disability world as "a new life." We would hope that Champlain, now an integral part of this new world, with his years of critical and intellectual discipline, will be able to offer insights that will be of benefit to all. We look forward to what he comes up with, to help him and his new brothers and sisters make it through their days without bitterness, and with love.--- L. W. Milam<