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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich

As his sight fades, author bares all

By Leigh E. Rich

Twilight: Losing Sight, Gaining Insight
By Henry Grunwald
Alfred A. Knopf
November 1999
144 pages

Personalized books about illness, suffering and the “I’ve-got-a-disease” experience often lack clear scientific thought and valuable insight. Those that display medical jargon and faceless statistics leave readers wanting for the human connection. Twilight, Henry Grunwald’s composition on macular degeneration, is none—and all—of these at once.

It is not just Grunwald’s expertise as a writer that makes this short book a thought-provoking read about the progressive loss of eyesight. The former editor-in-chief for Time and previous U.S. ambassador to his native Austria tells his story by unveiling his fears, his philosophic musings and his passions, the last of which few “victims of disease” include in their autobiographic tales. Grunwald, at heart, really bares it all.

As well he should. Macular degeneration is harrowing, frightening and not very well understood. The macula itself is a “tiny area in the retina” at the back of the eye where focal vision originates. As a person ages, spots can occur in this area and can eventually result in macula thinness or bleeding. Scar tissue then forms, thus interfering with focal, as opposed to peripheral, sight. If the disease progresses, total loss of vision can transpire.

A widespread affliction for perhaps millennia, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) was not identified by the medical community until the 1970s. Today, approximately 15 million Americans, with varying degrees of vision damage, are diagnosed with the illness.

“It is the most common cause of irreversible vision loss in the world, yet its origins are unknown.”

And there is no cure.

Rather than focusing on the trials of baffled researchers or the current impracticality of effective treatment, Grunwald instead spends his pages exploring what vision loss means to him. As a writer and an editor literally surrounded by books at home, he has had to find alternatives to his lust for reading. Magnifiers and other specialized, low vision equipment sufficed during the early stages. Now, he listens to books on tape and hires readers.

But this merely scratches the surface. Grunwald reflects on a loss of independence, the inability to watch his grandchildren grow, and the necessity to re-learn ways of getting about and knowing the world. American society, like so many others, is sight oriented: We rely on our eyes far more often than our noses, ears, hands and mouth. Even the English language elevates vision to a predominate position, as in the case of saying “I see” and meaning “I understand.”

Twilight is illuminating in that Grunwald, far past asking that weighty “Why me?” question, gains insight from learning to rely on other senses and, thus, discovers new ways to look at the world. “Perception is an individual process,” Grunwald writes, and even though most children are born with sight, the art of seeing is cultural and must be taught.

Grunwald’s piece de resistance, however, is that his voice, character, passions and fears are beautifully laid out like simple poetry. He abstains from using scientific jargon and polysyllabic, ten-cent words. Instead, his effortless prose is pleasurable but saturated with meaning.

Through his passions, especially his love of watching women, Grunwald’s illness narrative is alive in the flesh and blood, not mired down with hopelessness and death. There is a loss, but for Grunwald it comprises specific pleasures, like observing the faces of family and friends, rather than his entire lust for life.

Twilight is assuredly moving: “A woman’s face,” Grunwald reminisces, “is never more amazing than in the climax of sexual passion, when it may combine joy and pain, satisfaction and protest in ways that make it seem for an instant like the face of a stranger.”

On the other hand, the book is a quick read and doesn’t wax too philosophical; it is written more like a feature article, accessible to all.

Most importantly, though, there is an underlying take-home message in Twilight, one of which Grunwald must remind himself from time to time. While he can only see if pressed against the television screen or sitting in the front row of the movies, the writer still attends his favorite art museums to view the paintings he’s invariably loved. Only now he sees these from a different perspective. When scrutinizing the famous pointillist masterpiece, Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte, Grunwald concludes, “The simple lesson is that there are no unimportant details in a good picture.” 

Rich, L. E. (1999). As his sight fades, author bares all. [Review of the book Twilight: Losing Sight, Gaining Insight by Henry Grunwald.] Rocky Mountain News, December 12.

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