Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

September 2011

Chomping at the Carnival House Door:
Fetisizing Freaks, Lusting For  "Monsters"

If we're politically correct literati, politicians or dutiful adult children sitting with our moms at breakfast, we won't say this out loud.  But in our heart of hearts, we know it's true: nothing turns us on, yet repels us as much as freaks or horrifies, yet titillates us as much as monsters.  Few things give us that much needed thrill more than seeing a deliciously creepy horror movie or entering the world of the sideshow at the carnival.

Why do we shudder as we lust after Creatures of the Black Lagoon?  Because these creatures are "the other."  They are different from us. 

Because I'm legally blind, I know this well.  I'm one of the "monsters."  As I walk the street, tapping my white cane, I feel you compulsively staring at, yet averting your eyes from, me.  Fortunately, as a writer and poet, I can stare back.  As you drink me in, fearful that you might catch my blindness, wondering what it's like to live in "the dark" or if "the blind" close their eyes when they make love, I'm chomping at the bit at the carnival house door.  Deciding if I'll leave the carnival or fulfill your fun house dreams.

What's got me in such a lather?  An exhibition "Dialog in the Dark" which opened last month at the South Street Seaport in New York City.  "Welcome to the dark!  Leave your inhibitions behind," this exhibit  exhorts, "Have a very good time!"

This exhibit, which has toured 30 countries and been visited by six million people, promises to show sighted people (in two hour guided tours) what it's like to be blind. It's dark as the scariest horror flick! Visitors experience what shopping in a supermarket, standing on a subway platform, or hanging out at a cafĂ© would be like – if they could not see.  How exciting! All those sounds and smells!  The terror of the dark!!!  Touchy-feely stuff, too!  Being able to grab a blind guide's arm!  Never knowing if you might fall!  This is theater, baby!

Led by blind tour guides (imagine these people can actually lead a walking tour!), the sighted patrons (after watching a short video) can even use white canes (just like real blind people!).  There's chills and thrills!  In just 120 minutes, you'll "see" what not seeing's all about!   Talk about a picture at an exhibition!

How fab!  Except this picture is no more true to life – than images viewed through a fun house mirror. Visitors to this exhibit may see their own fears of blindness more vividly, but they won't gain meaningful insights into the lives of blind people.

To begin with, there's a profound difference between experiencing "darkness" for a brief period in an unlit setting and living a lifetime (or many years) as a blind or visually impaired person.  At least in the United States and first world countries. The situation may be different in other parts of the world.

After becoming blind, you go through extensive training ('rehabilitation" is the jargon used).  You learn everything from how to cross streets safely to how to cook to count money to working on computers.  Any visually impaired person who tells you that rehabilitation is a breeze is lying to you (or to his or her self).  Becoming comfortable crossing the street if you're newly blind is as easy as getting on familiar terms with a lion during your initial days in the wild.  When you first try cooking blind, your stove seems like an armed intruder.  Navigating around your kitchen, you feel like a general in an unfamiliar, losing battle field.

But as the months go on, it gets easier.  Until, at long last, you're no longer a "monster" stuck in an airtight box.   

Losing one's sight is painful.  Being blind can be difficult.  But life as a blind person is no more tragic than being, say, a single mom.  As with any life, there's much that's hard, but much that's joyful.  We're all "monsters" both inside and peeking into the fun house mirror.

To be fair "Dialog in the Dark," as is the case with most such efforts, seems motivated by good intentions.  It's a generous impulse to want to help people learn about those different from themselves.

At $22 per ticket, there's money to be made from the exhibit.  With the bad economy, I don't begrudge the exhibitors their bucks.  And, the exhibit during its tour has provided jobs to 6,000 blind and visually impaired people.  (This is gratifying when the unemployment rate for blind people in the United States is 70 percent.)

But, unfortunately, there's truth in the old dictum: hell is paved on the road to good intentions.

"Such exhibits {as "Dialog in the Dark"} show us to be tragic," said my friend Penny, who is blind, a fabulous cook and holds an M.A. in Special Education, "they make people think we can't do anything.  It makes us look like freaks!"

"Dialog in the Dark" and other such exhibitions are "carnival houses of horrors," my legally blind, writer friend George told me.  "They invite the 'non-monsters' in to meet 'the monsters,'" he added, "they can go in and out.  But, we 'the monsters' can't leave."

"It makes us – dwellers of the Land of the Dark – seem both titillating and morbid," George added.

Theater in exhibitions like "Dialog in the Dark" is the theater of stereotypes. To put it plainly, in it's fetishizing of blind people – in its making us out to be tragic, but exotic figures – it's blind porn.  There's nothing wrong with that.  But let's not confuse porn with art or with the true lives of people like me.

One reason why this is porn and not art is that blind and visually impaired people aren't seen as characters – as fully rounded human beings-- in exhibits like "Dialog in the Dark."

Until recently, most works of fiction, drama or poetry haven't depicted people who are blind or who have other disabilities as authentic, non-stereotypical characters.  Thankfully, this is changing.

If you want to see theater featuring actors and writers with disabilities, check out Theater Breaking Through Barriers (, a New York City troupe of actors with and without disabilities.  November 3-December 2, they will perform "The Merchant of Venice" at the Lion Theater.

Art doesn't literally "teach" us what it's like to live in the skins of people who are different from us.  Thank goodness.  Such didactic "art" would be sleep inducing!

But good art (fiction, drama, poetry–pick your genre) makes us suspend our disbelief.  It makes us "see" inside the world of others in the way that no two-hour tour of the World of the Blind ever could.  A terrific work of art connects us to "the other" in a way that's unmatched in life.   

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©2011 Kathi Wolfe
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

September 2011

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