Reviewer Cynthia Morrison Phoel’s first book of fiction, Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories, will be published in June 2010 by Sourthern Methodist University Press. She holds degrees from Cornell University and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. Her short stories have appeared The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Harvard Review. She lives near Boston with her husband and three children. Cynthia has reviewed Doug Eadie’s The Blind Visionary for Peace Corps Worldwide.
The Blind Visionary
by Doug Eadie (Ethiopia (1965–67) and Virginia Jacko
Reviewed by Cynthia Morrision Phoel (Bulgaria 1994–96)
ABOUT SIX MONTHS after I returned from the Peace Corps, I was diagnosed with retinal detachment. I was 25 at the time and an unlikely candidate for a condition that more commonly occurs in older people. Retinal detachment is a serious problem and can result in permanent vision loss. I had immediate surgery, followed by two more surgeries in rapid succession. Fifteen years later, I still see evidence of the detachment in my vision. But I still see — which is a thing I’m grateful for every day.
I certainly consider myself lucky to have kept my vision. But I’m sure Virginia Jacko, the subject of The Blind Visionary, would tell you she is lucky, too. Together with Doug Eadie, Jacko chronicles her journey into blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa — a condition that started with the loss of her peripheral vision and ultimately led to complete blindness. Simultaneously, Jacko journeyed to a mission she otherwise would not have found.
Over the course of the 10 years it took for Jacko to lose her vision, she scarcely paused in her professional life. An executive at Purdue University, Jacko had risen quickly in her career and envisioned herself becoming a university treasurer. When she discovered she was losing her eyesight, she did not consider whether she would continue her career, but how she would do it. Eventually, Jacko went to the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to learn how to function as a blind person — and within four years became its CEO.
Set up as a dialogue between Eadie and Jacko, The Blind Visionary is best when Jacko is telling her own story. A champion debater in high school and college, Jacko admits she loves the podium, and she is well aware of the types of information and anecdotes that will engage her readers.
It is fascinating to experience Jacko’s encroaching blindness, which she manages to keep secret for years. Jacko bumps into tables and unintentionally snubs people she doesn’t see. One day, she unpacks her lunch at a staff meeting, unaware that she has brought a can of beer rather than diet Coke. Through all this, Jacko remains relentlessly composed. But as readers, we wonder how long she can keep it up. Our tension rises along with hers when she arrives at a meeting with the new president of Purdue and realizes he has all new furniture — much of it glass.
Shortly thereafter, Jacko leaves Purdue for the Miami Lighthouse, where she learns to function as a blind person and emerges as a high functioning blind executive. She develops tricks to get by — such as clipping her shoes together with clothespins. More importantly, she has great belief in the abilities of blind people. “I detest low expectations based on the fact that a person has vision problems!” Jacko tells us and shares the story of a talented blind musician who takes a job doing office work. This waste of talent is something Jacko cannot accept, and she helps create a musical pathway for him. This is representative of what becomes Jacko’s larger mission as a resolute advocate for the blind.
It is refreshing that Jacko isn’t capable in every regard. About not mastering Braille, she says, “Shame on me, but I just haven’t had the time.” Instead, she creates acronyms so she can memorize talking points. Jacko knows that her best bet is to stick with her strengths as a positive, self-assured, and intensely likable leader.
As compelling as Jacko’s story is, the book’s presentation of it can feel awkward. The Blind Visionary devotes inordinate attention to how the story is told. Starting with a section titled, “The Structure of Our Book,” the book repeatedly draws our focus to elements of craft. Each section begins with “Doug’s Overview” and then moves into “Doug and Virginia in Conversation.” And the way the conversation moves back and forth between the Jacko and Eadie can feel stilted and rehearsed.
DOUG: Tell me more about how you dealt with your advancing blindness beyond educating yourself, Virginia.
VIRGINIA: I had two very clear goals, Doug.
The dialogue is most forced in the third section, where the book provides concrete, motivational take-aways from Jacko’s story. When Eadie, who helms a consulting firm focused on Board/CEO relationships, asks her to comment on stakeholder relations, Jacko resists the terminology. She goes on to underscore things like abiding by the golden rule and being authentic as keys to her success — things the reader has picked up along the way.
If, at times, Eadie’s admiration for Jacko is heavy-handed (we admire her already!), he nevertheless deserves credit for recognizing, through his work with her, that Jacko’s story was one worth telling. It is. Clearly, Jacko has the potential to do important work for blind people. More broadly, it is inspiring to spend time with her and to see the world through her eyes.
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