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Notes on Blindness

February 20, 2017

nobMy RE colleague, John Hull, was an Australian academic theologian living in the Birmingham who went blind in 1980, and died, aged 80, in 2015. Determined to make sense of his experience, he started an audio diary on an old-school cassette recorder.

The transcript of his diary was eventually published under the title Touching the Rock, but I hope that this film will make his story more widely known.

To compliment this archive material, the filmmakers recorded over twenty hours of audio interviews with John and his wife Marilyn. These audio interviews are interwoven throughout the film’s soundtrack, forming a lyrical narration, with the couple reflecting on events from a distance of thirty years.

John developed a theodicy and a passion for disability rights. He was also a passionate believer in and campaigner for social justice – he was arrested for the first time in his 70s, blocking the entrance to the Faslane base, where Trident was being built.

To the outside world John appears to be adjusting well. But alone with his tape recorder, he describes his quiet desperation. He identifies the pain of the newly blind as a ‘hunger’. His mind longs for visual stimulation as the lungs gasp for air.

His memories, too, no longer replenished and renewed, are forever suspended in the past. By September 1983, John realises these precious memories are beginning to fade. He is forgetting what his wife and children look like.

In sleep – his last remaining state of visual consciousness – John is haunted by

visions of crashing waves sweeping away his family. He describes a recurring

nightmare of being trapped in a coal truck descending deep into a mineshaft, looking back at the receding pinprick of light. He longs for it to stop, but it remorselessly carries him deeper and deeper.

After a severe panic attack over Christmas, John insists he will never be able to accept blindness. He equates acceptance with defeat, with the breaking of his will, with death.

The arrival of New Year 1984 brings a small epiphany: John notes how the sound of heavy rainfall gives shape, detail and contour to his environment. The experience offers him a lifeline, a sense of reconnection to the world. Inspired by this discovery, John begins to use the tape recorder not only to document his inner thoughts but also to record tender interactions with his wife and three young children. In turn, blindness becomes a world of adventure, awakening a new appreciation of sound and touch, and an expanding sense of territory and control. He resolves that he must not reside in ‘the nostalgia’ of sighted life, but ‘live in reality and become blind.’

With this growing sense of confidence, the family embarks on a holiday to Australia – the first time John has returned to his country of birth since losing sight. But any hope of a joyful reunion soon dissipates. Struggling to communicate with his elderly parents – and unable to reconnect with the landscapes of his childhood – John is gripped by an acute sense of separation from his past self. The experience sends him into free fall, a profound existential crisis that threatens to engulf all he holds dear.

Returning to England, John is relieved to be in familiar surroundings, to find his world restored. He feels a renewed sense of belonging, which in turn inspires a new conviction. Having at first rejected the idea of ever accepting blindness, John registers a profound transformation in his state of consciousness. He now feels ‘more excited, more adventurous, more confident than I have ever felt in my life’.

Following the birth of his fourth child, we find John a confident and contented father. With this newfound sense of stability, he comes to view himself not as someone hindered by a disability, but empowered by a new capacity. At the close of the film, John re-conceives blindness as a ‘gift’ which, after almost five years of refusing, he is finally able to accept.

John’s wife, Marilyn, said: As to my reaction now that the real centre of this story can no longer speak for  himself: well, I know that John would have been immensely proud and pleased with the work of these young and gifted directors and their team. As an extension of the considerable work he had already made on the literature of blindness, he would have said to the film, ‘Go well, with my blessing. I hope for some of the people who see it there will be good and useful outcomes’.

‘As one goes deeper into blindness one begins to live by other interests, other values. One begins to take up residence in another world.’ JOHN HULL

The only question now is not, “why me?”, but rather, “what should I do with it?”

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