Noe Valley Voice May 2005

Going Blind Brings Deeper Vision for Noe Valley Author

By Suzanne Herel

Noe Valley resident Susan Krieger began her study of "things no longer there" by searching for an old summer camp back East, where she and her sister had spent their teenage school breaks.

Or at least she remembered a lake, and a pier, and a white farmhouse where the two women who ran the camp had lived. But when Krieger and her sister's family piled into a station wagon one day in 1994 to revisit their past, the camp was gone, replaced by tidy new homes.

Eleven years later, Krieger has published a memoir, Things No Longer There, which was started that day by an investigation of a geographic landscape that didn't jibe with her inner memories.

But the book soon would evolve into a study of the complexities of vision--that which we see with our hearts as well as our eyes--after the author was diagnosed in 1996 with a rare eye disease and began to lose her sight. She now is legally blind.

"I hope people will come away with valuing more their inner vision, their own and others', that creates their inner world," says Krieger, a New York native who moved to the Bay Area in 1967 to study city planning at U.C. Berkeley.

She now teaches feminist studies at Stanford University, as does her partner, Estelle Freedman--also an author--with whom she has lived in a house on Day Street since 1983. They share their home with three cats and two dogs, including Krieger's guide dog Teela, a golden/ Labrador retriever mix.

Krieger has written several previous books on social topics, among them The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships Among Women (1996); Social Science and the Self: Personal Essays on an Art Form (1991); and The Mirror Dance: Identity in a Women's Community (1983)

The 11 tales that make up her current memoir--which concludes with an intimate novella about a relationship from the late 1970s--navigate exterior landscapes as well as interior heartscapes.

Sometimes, as with the summer camp story, physical changes to the land have taken place. Other times, it's Krieger's own perceptions that have changed--as when the avid walker she once was goes from being able to discern the trim on a Victorian in Noe Valley to not being able to spot dirt on the sidewalk.

She also covers the way her dimming vision plays tricks on her--as when, for example, she taps her foot against what looks like a flat sidewalk and finds out it's actually a curb.

Then with a twist of the kaleidoscope, Krieger turns the focus on her self, sharing her fears of being invisible to others because of her physical condition, and also because of her lesbianism.

"I am much more sensitive about my lesbianism," she says. "There are much more feelings of vulnerability and rejection."

Krieger's stories chronicle incidents in her life over the past decade, with the ending novella being an edited version of stories she wrote in 1979-80. They create a colorful, time-shifting mosaic.

Although her stories are based in reality, Krieger says, "my writing is always a fiction, even though I try to make it true."

Several of the tales are set in the Bay Area, with two particular to Noe Valley. In "Blindspots," Krieger recounts being hit by a car a few years ago while crossing Sanchez at Day Street. "Saving a Tree" details how she and her neighbors intervened when a developer began hacking down a shade tree that sat beyond Krieger's back yard.

Since writing that story, Krieger has had to save the tree again, she says. Both stories reflect the two main changes Krieger has witnessed in Noe Valley since 1983--increased traffic and burgeoning development.

The day she was hit by a car--one that she did not see until the very last second--was a watershed moment for Krieger. She was forced to realize that she was not the same person she was when fully sighted, and that it was time to accept that her life was changing--bringing with it consuming fears of the future.

"I was upset about things and afraid," Krieger recalls. "What will happen if I can't see the color of the plants? How will I be happy? How will people like me?"

She also worried that not being able to read would cause her inner world to disintegrate, that she wouldn't be able to continue her work in writing, that she wouldn't be independent if she could not drive a car.

In the nine years since she was diagnosed with an inflammatory eye disease called birdshot retinochoroidopathy, she has seen most of her vision slip away. But with each small loss there has come a gradual adjustment. "I remind myself that each time I got to where my vision got worse, it wasn't terrible."

She hired a blind woman who programs talking computers to build her a machine she could use. She prints her work out in 42-point type, which she can still see. And driving, which she thought she would miss the most, has been easy to give up.

"I thought giving up driving would be harder," she says. "But it was so scary--what I would miss would be the fear that I would bump into other cars and hit people. I don't miss that."

Recalling her own frustration in finding accessible versions of current reading material, Krieger is making sure that Things No Longer There, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, will be made available in digital form for blind readers at the same time the print book is distributed.

"I tried to contribute a little to the crusade," she says.

Her next project will extend her vision even further. She's writing a book about traveling blind.

Susan Krieger will read and sign her memoir Things No Longer There on May 22, 2 p.m., at Modern Times Bookstore, 888 Valencia Street (near 20th Street).

From Chapter 10 "Blindspots" in


A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision

By Susan Krieger

Because my vision has been gradually growing worse, last summer I took a series of lessons in the use of a blind person's white cane.... A man came out to my house. He walked with me along the streets nearby, showing me how to use the cane, feel the sidewalk, go up and down steps, know if a car was parked across a driveway and then how to get around it. As I walked with him, I learned to listen.

"I'm feeling things," I said to him at first. "You're hearing them," he told me. And I learned to hear the buildings as we passed them, to hear the sound of a tree deflecting the wind, to hear the changing pattern of the air when I stepped away from a building. I learned that a sudden gust of wind and some sun told me I was at a street corner. I learned that when my feet pointed up, I was headed toward the crest of an asphalt street; when they pointed down, I was headed toward the sidewalk on the other side.

I stood on a corner and my teacher told me to listen to the cars approaching in order to know whether they had stopped or kept going. I should gauge where they were by noting the position of the loudest noise in relation to the center of my forehead. He told me to listen at traffic lights for the car movement patterns, to wait until a cycle came around to my turn, then go quickly when the traffic went.

As I walked along the streets, I often walked crooked. He told me to go straight by paying attention to the buildings at my side. The space in front of a building would be quiet, it would feel rather dead. I could walk with the quiet by my side. In other places, however, there were many noises. I walked and closed my eyes and the world without vision in which I was being mobile felt very noisy and busy--full of different ways the air felt when I approached a tree or a street sign, or was about to bump into a garbage can. I heard a house on my left, then a driveway; I felt a staircase coming toward me. I heard construction noises in the distance. I felt the sun and the wind of a corner. I walked up a hill and sensed that up ahead there was something interesting going on. People were talking. Machinery was at work. I felt that the world of walking up a street and not seeing the buildings but hearing them was richer, less flat, more busy, more alive than the visual world. Then I went back to what I could see, because it was easier and I was used to it.

I learned many techniques for the proper use of a white cane from my teacher, but the real lessons for me lay in feeling I could be mobile--without a car, without a license, without seeing. I was not less good as a person for not having sight. I'd be okay.

Copyright q2005 by Susan Krieger. Reprinted with permission from Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision, published by University of Wisconsin Press.