Of Such Small Differences

by Joanne Greenberg

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Of Such Small Differences

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1959

Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1964) and several other novels and short stories, here creates a hauntingly perceptive tour de force that proves her to be one of America’s best and most trenchant storytellers. To enter John Moon’s life is to enter a world wherein mental conceptions matter as relevant only insofar as they can be validated empirically through John’s perceptions. For example, he can “tell time and seasons by the heat of the sun through the windows and where on his body the heat moved through the day,” loss is “ache-anger,” resentment is a “face-hot” feeling, and such a concept as rush hour seems “artificial to him, unreal.” Relying as he does upon his seven senses—location, direction, smell, touch, taste, duration, and rhythm—his is a startlingly poetic world of synesthesia, wherein music is perceived as “a changing sizzle in the floor like hot fat with egg in it, or a heavy rain with beats.” Yet his is also a world of unexpectedly abrupt accidents, inexplicable abandonments, and ceaseless quests into unknown areas which may be mapped only by stepping carefully through endlessly dark silence.

John has known a world of darkness since birth, but perpetual silence began for him when he was nine and beaten by his drunken father. While there were times his “father might come and pick him up and toss him, muss his hair, joke and laugh with him,” there were other times whenhe would be home slamming, breaking, roaring, weeping, and he would scream into John’s ear, “Blind!” and “My little boy is blind!” and hug him to smothering. Then it was the most dangerous. In John’s efforts to get away, to right himself, to protect his head or his hands, he occasionally hit something, broke, spilled, overturned, or spoiled it. As quick as water, the sorrow in his father sometimes turned to rage, and there would be a blow or blows, or he might be thrown against something violently.

The last time such an attack occurred it cost John his hearing, “his father ... hitting and shaking him so that his head flew back and there was an odd-sudden blowing. ...”

One would be mistaken to think from the above passages that John is a bitter malingerer, brooding over the injurious ways his father or anyone else has treated him. He is not; indeed, he loves and wants to see his father almost twenty years after the deafening blows, though the man (filled with self-hatred for what he did to John, and consequently having abandoned his family and attempted suicide before slipping into acute alcoholism) refuses to see his son. And John’s mother? She would rather be dead, she tells him, than to be deaf and blind like he is. Not having seen her in more than ten years and—midpoint in the novel—visiting her in Aureole, Colorado, where John was reared and where she, his two older brothers, and his younger sister (all married) still live, John feels oppressed by them, “their shame and disapproval hanging in the air like the smell of dirty clothes.” Nevertheless, although revealing the wounding matrix from which he emerged and to which he is still drawn by his need for reconciliation and recognition of his hard-earned accomplishments, the subtly drawn and poignantly devastating conflicts between John and his family are peripheral to his day-to-day existence.

At twenty-six John lives alone with Fourbuds, his cat, in a Denver apartment and works with other handicapped people at “the workshop,” where, when the novel opens, he refinishes old furniture; he later requests a transfer to another department, where he repairs two-way radios. After another transfer, by the novel’s end, his job is to size and sort secondhand clothes. To his handicapped friends, such as Luke, Swede, and Madonna, John is one to be watched because he is the only Deaf-blind person they know who lives alone, independently, and if he succeeds at it they may also. John is also a poet, earning money for poems printed on Handicards and sold to Hearing-sighted people.

His publisher, the spokesman for which is Mr. Sherline, wants only poems that deemphasize human differences and speak of life and human experiences from the perspective of a Hearing-sighted person; thus John has been deriving his poems from poems and stories he has read in Braille by such writers as Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. Although he has sensed for some time that the poetic truths he writes are not his, not the real truths of a Deaf-blind person, he has been proud to write “poems on subjects people liked best,” the subjects as prescribed as the end-rhymed and strictly metrical form in which he writes. “Your job,” Mr. Sherline tells him, “is not to state the Deaf-blind experience; it’s to show people that Deaf-blind are just like the Sighted and Hearing; no different.” That John has accepted such a job, as well as the mistaken premise that there is no difference between him and, say, the Hearing-sighted Sherline, is not very surprising when one recalls John’s conditioning:All his life, teachers and tutors and house parents at school had said, “This is the way Sighted do it. This is the way Hearing act!” The highest compliment anyone could have was to be told, if he was blind, “He acts like a Sighted,” or if Deaf, “People don’t even know he’s deaf,” and if Deaf-blind, “It’s just as though he sees and hears.”

Writing formally rigid and essentially meaningless poems for the Hearing-sighted, and having them published by and for such a readership, is a way John can acquire a sense—however illusory—of belonging outside the private, seemingly tribal Deaf-blind culture. Eventually he comes to see the contradiction between his existence and poetic expressions, comes to see that each poem he writes from and for the Hearing-sighted perspective is not only a lie but an implicit apology for what he is as a person. Not by himself does he come to such realizations, however, but with and through Leda Milan and his love for her.

John and Leda’s violent introduction to each other itself foreshadows the author’s conclusion that an intimate relationship between them will be full of conflicts, and a long-term relationship impossible. Here is their first meeting, two pages into the novel, as he walks toward the workshop’s entrance one morning:He was trying to remember something from long ago ... and he wasn’t caning this very familiar place and suddenly, he was collided, knee, shoulder, with sudden unknowing, and he went down. Then, he found parts of someone entangled with his own arm and leg, a flower smell, familiar but not nameable, and it was all moving, struggling, so that he tried to grab for the arms to find the top of him—her, the mouth, the face, to see if she was hurt or crying or if her eyes had disappeared in pain. ... With all his winter clothing and hers, he couldn’t seem to unwind himself from her, to know whose clothing was whose.

That he cannot seem “to unwind himself from her, to know whose clothing was whose” is telling, inasmuch as John’s subconscious need for approval and acceptance by the Hearing-sighted, the need that has prompted him to write the type of poetry he has written for Handicards and precluded his writing instead about his empirically discovered truths, also compels him to pursue an intimate relationship with Leda, a Hearing-sighted actress who drives a van for the workshop to support herself at the beginning of her career. It is to Leda’s (and Greenberg’s) credit that, from early in her relationship with John, she not only works hard to enter, communicate in, and understand his world but also forcefully insists that he stop pretending in his poetry and write about his Deaf-blind reality.

While writing authentically would require John to move “over some border,” to abandon prescribed content and form, to “think away” everything he has been told or read about a given subject or experience, and “to start over, from nothing, to tell only what he himself knew,” ultimately he has the courage to accomplish all of this even though it means Sherline (read “sure line,” “safe line”) buys fewer and then none of his poems. As an illustration of the transformation that takes place in his poetry, two poems about John’s cat Fourbuds are noteworthy here, the first written before Leda’s influence:

Midnight, my cat, has wide green eyes;Midnight, my cat, is still and wise;And when she comes to drink her milk,Her purring sound is soft as silk.

Aside from its triteness, this poem would seem to have been written by a Hearing-sighted person who owns a presumably black, green-eyed, and purring cat. Several weeks after Leda, upon reading the above poem, asks him to write instead about Fourbuds and “how you perceive her,” John struggles through prescriptive barriers to write the following:

Sometimes she plays cool-nose-hot-teeth.Her teeth game says consent is not surrender.The teeth are dots of pain but she is playing.The pain is no pain more than her biting decides.

Moving beyond the shackles of prescribed poetic utterances, as John does, is not to escape a society’s preconceived notions of what human beings and their behavior should be, as Greenberg makes devastatingly clear when John and his Deaf-blind friend Luke enter a bar one evening, sit close to each other to speak through their hands, fingers across palms, and are attacked and beaten senseless by some of the bar’s customers, who presume that the two men are homosexuals. Different but no less destructive are the preconceived notions held by John’s family, as well by his and Leda’s friends, about their relationship. After John moves into Leda’s large house to live with her, his family accusingly presumes that she is using him for his money. Even before they are living together his friends attempt to dissuade him from his involvement with a Hearing-sighted woman: “It was better with one of their own, nice Deaf-blind women who would understand how things were.” Similarly, Leda’s friends—particularly Bennet, one of her several former lovers—believe that John is using her. None of the accusations by family and friends is true, but this fact does not prevent their destructive eating away at the bond between the two lovers, does not prevent their making the small but immutable differences between John and Leda unmanageably burdensome.

Before his involvement with Leda, John “never thought of himself as handicapped except in ... one way, the grinding daily need to be taken and brought back, interpreted, explained to, bordered, bounded, made to go and come by other people’s needs and laws.” Before Leda, his “whole life was continually being defined and interpreted to him because direct experience was too perilous to dare.” With her, he learns that in the realm of the human heart the Deaf-blind and Hearing-sighted are wise or unwise in the same way, and that his essential aloneness must be accepted no less than the occasional loneliness he feels “leaking through his middle-moments like water through his fingers.” While the “grinding daily need,” though modified, remains more or less his after Leda departs from him, John’s triumphs in overcoming obstacles in the material world have increased and extended into triumphs of the human heart over mental constructs that often darken rather than illuminate human potentiality. “He would miss Leda,” the reader is told, “but the dream of putting on her life as his garment had long ended.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

Booklist. LXXXIV, June 15, 1988, p. 1689.

Chicago Tribune. October 30, 1988, XIV, p. 5.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, July 1, 1988, p. 921.

Library Journal. CXIII, October 1, 1988, p. 101.

The New York Times. CXXXVIII, October 3, 1988, p. C25.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 30, 1988, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, September 23, 1988, p. 50.

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