Interview with John Hull, Author of Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness

By Mary D'Apice

head shot of John Hull

As a vision rehabilitation professional, I'm always looking for inspiring books to recommend to the people I serve and their families. Among the many voices that have chronicled their struggles and triumphs as adults adapting to vision loss, Professor John Hull, Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham, England stands out for evocative prose and incisive observations.

[Please note: Since the time of this interview, Professor Martin John Hull, theologian and academic, has died in the United Kingdom on July 28, 2015. You can read his obituary – and learn more about his exemplary life – in The Guardian.]

Losing his Sight Due to Cataracts and Retinal Detachment

As a young university lecturer in the early '60s, Hull had adapted to cataracts and the early signs of retinal detachment brought on by numerous surgeries. He continued to read with the aid of magnifiers and walked to work following the yellow lines in the street.

As a resilient teen, Hull even taught himself braille during a period of blindness between surgeries, devouring Bible passages while in the hospital. For years, Hull meticulously marked and measured the black shadows that drifted in and out of his vision. In 1983, he lost the last bit of light perception. It was then that John Hull realized he was no longer just a visitor to the condition of blindness. "I had taken up residence in another world."

Not wanting to burden his family with his inner turmoil and the grief of his loss, Hull began to record an audio diary on cassette tape where he meditates on the transformative experience of blindness. In this diary, he contemplates a world where smiles are not received and gazes cannot be met and observes the insensitivity of persons who are sighted. Most poignantly he reflects on how blindness impacts his relationships. Hull fears blindness will rob him of the intimacy he shares with his wife and he is pained by the laughter of his son Thomas at play knowing he cannot interact with him the way he used to.

Touching the Rock: Compelling Personal Reflections on the Process of Going Blind

Cover of Touching the Rock

Hull also records his vivid dreams where his visual memories are harnessed to both comforting and sometimes terrifying effects. Three years worth of these compelling diary entries were compiled in the acclaimed 1990 book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, which was reprinted and expanded upon in 1997 as On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness. The Los Angeles Times Book Review had praise: "Hull has talent for—in the words of the blind poet John Milton—making the darkness visible."

While Touching the Rock may have been an accidental work of literature not originally intended to be shared, Hull went on to reach a wide audience writing and lecturing about blindness and disability. In the Beginning There Was Darkness: A Blind Person's Conversations with the Bible is this theologian's response to the Bible as the work of sighted people. In July 2012, Hull was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to the Literature of Blindness from the UK's Royal National Institute for the Blind. In his acceptance speech, Hull described how his diaries were initially an attempt to understand what blindness was doing to him personally but broadened into a probing analysis of what it means to be blind.

I recently had the privilege of talking to Professor Hull from his office at the Queen's Foundation in Birmingham where he works as Honorary Professor in Practical Theology. With characteristic insight and humor, he spoke with me about his writing award, his work, and the current efforts to transform those original cassette diaries into a feature film.

An Interview with John Hull

Mary: Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to the Literature of Blindness. What makes your work unique?

John: Many people have written about blindness, but most people tell the story of how they lost their sight. Very few discuss the state of blindness in a philosophical and religious way. For the first few years after I registered as being blind, I was not, in effect, a blind person. I was a sighted person who couldn't see. It's such a difference. It wasn't until the light sensation completely vanished and I knew there was no way back that I said, "I've got to try to understand blindness otherwise it will destroy my life."

Shortly after Touching the Rock came out I got a letter from a reader who pointed out that I didn't distinguish the experience of the loss of sight and the study of the state of blindness. But after living with it and meditating on it for some time, I realized that blindness is not just a loss but it is one of the great human states which have characteristics of its own.

"A Yearning to Overcome the Abyss Which Divides Blind People From Sighted People"

Mary: I'd like to share a wonderful quote from your acceptance speech.

"My works, are, in a way, a yearning to overcome the abyss which divides blind people from sighted people. In seeking to overcome that abyss I've emphasized the uniqueness of the blind condition—blindness is a world. I've also sought to show that it's one of a number of human worlds. That sight is also a world. And that to gain our full humanity, blind people and sighted people need each other."

Mary: Can you speak more about that?

John: Sometimes people look upon blindness simply as an attribute of a person and as no more or less significant than any other attribute. But I don't look upon it like that. My experience of blindness has been that the way I live and respond in the world is so profoundly different than the way sighted people live and respond in the world. Sighted people live in a world that is a projection of their sighted bodies. It is not the world, it is a world.

Lots of people who've read Touching the Rock have told me that they realized what sight what was when they read it. People don't often reflect on the phenomenon of sight they just live in the sighted world. They take their sighted life for granted. It is not altogether innocent. Sighted people think of us not having worlds because we are excluded from their world.

It is said the blindness is the easiest disability to simulate by closing your eyes but it's the hardest to empathize with. Behind those closed eyelids you have a sighted person's brain. At the beginning of the school year, I have my university students understand how as sighted people they rely on visual images. I ask them to close their eyes and think of someone they love. I tell them not to allow a face to come up. Most people find it hard.

As both a person who has been both sighted and blind, I look upon my writings as stretching out a form of communication. So if these two worlds understand each other than that's what I hoped to do. I think that's the surface of compassion.

Dreams and Vision Loss

Mary: When you first lost your sight, you experienced a very active dream life. Sometimes the dreams were beautiful and comforting, a kind of refreshment from what you describe as the boredom of the newly blind. Other times you are terrified by dreams of being in a spaceship pulling away from the earth or watching your family disappear in inky black clouds. Please tell me more.

John: I describe 50 dreams in Touching the Rock. I began by thinking that blindness is something that just happens to your eyes and you find new ways of doing things, But it's far more profound. When I started listening to my dreams I realized how profound it was. I knew that my subconscious was telling me, "Wake up—this is a crisis—you can't tough this one out. You've got to really face it. "

How Not to Treat Someone Who Is Blind

Mary: Touching the Rock can be read almost as a primer for sighted people on how not to treat someone who is blind. Your experiences, unfortunately, are not unique. For example, waiters will ask your dining companion what you'd like to order instead of asking you directly. What would you like sighted readers to take away?

John: One is don't expect me to recognize you by your voice. Face recognition is instant but voice recognition can take weeks. I ask my incoming students to identify themselves when they greet me.

Another is don't help me—wait until I ask for help. People don't realize that they can help by simply taking you for granted and letting you work it out for yourself.

I find that if I'm pressing the buttons on the key pad to enter my office, inevitably someone comes bounding up the stairs, "I'll help you! I see you are having a problem!" Every time you offer help it's an attack upon our confidence. You are assuming we can't do it. People project onto blind people their own fears of blindness. That's natural. It's inevitable. So we have to have a lot of mutual understanding and a lot of good humor. Humor is so important.

Blindness and the Challenges of Social Mobility

Mary: Sighted people try to be compassionate but they make a lot of assumptions about the things that are challenging for you as a blind person. In Touching the Rock, you described the challenge of mingling in a pub or at a party and the techniques you use to socialize without the benefit of facial recognition or body language. Can you talk about that?

John: People think my disability lies in mobility but it is really social mobility. I am socially immobilized by blindness but everyone seems to want to help me get from here to there. When I'm at church sitting in the pew no one takes notice of me. I get up to move and helpful people ask where do I want to get to. I'm in a church building. What is there to get to? I just want to talk to people. That is a difficult thing for sighted people to understand.

On Allowing Other Senses to Surface

Mary: In your writings you indicate that initially your blindness caused a crisis of faith but eventually you learned to accept it as being "a dark, paradoxical gift." As you turned inward, creativity blossomed as your mind seemed to burst with new ideas and insights. Gradually, you integrated blindness into your identity and relationship with the world. Can you elaborate?

John: Sight is so powerful that it tends to drown out lots and lots of information of which sighted people could become aware. But certainly they don't need it; they haven't got time for it. I suppose in a way certain subliminal awareness become conscious more when you are blind. But we mustn't exaggerate. I love music. Blindness has made me more sensitive to music. But I know sighted musicians who are far more sensitive. I don't think [blindness] changes you relative to others. It makes you more sensitive of certain awarenesses that you may not have noticed in yourself before.

One change was the experience of what they call echolocation. It dawned upon me when I was walking down the road and suddenly I sensed there was an obstacle in front of me. It's quite striking really.

This ability mystifies sighted people, doesn't it? Sighted people think blind people have super powers.

(Laughs) I don't think we have super powers. But if I trip and stumble sometimes I get the feeling that I'm letting blind people down!

Mary: I was very pleased to learn that Touching the Rock, which first came out in 1990 is being republished. Any other books in the works?

John: Touching the Rock was expanded in 1997 and republished as On Sight and Insight. The original Touching the Rock has a brevity and starkness which is to some extent lost in the expanded version so I'm pleased it is coming out in its original form. It will be released in the UK on the 14th of May. I've got another book on blindness coming out this summer. It is amazing how much you can say about this condition! The Tactile Heart is a series of philosophical and theological essays about the blind condition.

Touching the Rock Becomes a Feature Film Called "Notes on Blindness"

Mary: I understand a company in London is interested in turning those original audio tapes into a feature film called Notes on Blindness. How did the filmmakers find you?

John: A few years ago some filmmakers were interested in making a film about how blind people travel in snow. They came across Touching the Rock and asked if they could come to my office and make a video about my experiences. We got on so well together that they called me up later and asked if I still had those original audio tapes. I hadn't looked for them in 25 years but I did find all of them. We found out that the publisher did not have the copyright for the tapes themselves so the film company, Fee Fie Foe films, was free to go ahead with a project.

You might not know that the BBC made a 50-minute documentary based on Touching the Rock back in 1991. That was difficult because the experience was so fresh. Well, a short documentary is one thing but a feature is different. I said to the filmmakers, "But there is nothing to film! I never sailed the Atlantic as a one-man crew, hand behind my back. I never climbed Mt. Everest." They told me not to worry. They said all the drama was in those cassettes.

Mary: How are you participating in the making of the film?

John: I am frequently in touch with Peter Middleton (the producer/director of Notes on Blindness) who comes up quite a bit with his collaborators. They like to talk through associations with the past to see if I can conjure up images they could use. I don't act in the movie, someone plays me. But it's my voiceover. You'll hear my voice from the original audio diaries. It's quite exciting really.

Mary: Are you still keeping a diary?

John: No—well, my secretary keeps an appointment diary. (laughs) I'm busy doing my work. Remember blindness is only a hobby, my sideline. My main work is writing, teaching, contributing to research and running committees at the Queen's Foundation. (Editor's note: The Queen's Foundation is an ecumenical institution, training women and men for ministries within the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church.)

I also continue doing speaking engagements although I don't travel extensively. I used to travel by myself all the world, just me and my cane, taking a person's elbow at train platforms etc. But I'm 77 years old now and don't venture as far. I lecture about theology and church life, and general life issues as well as blindness. Recently, I gave a talk on loss and was invited to speak at a symposium on the blind experience of time.

Mary: We are lucky then that you have no plans to retire.

John: No, I'll keep working as long as they have me. You know, as they say, there are no old people, just young people later in life.

I appreciate your talking to me. Stay in touch and let me know how you like Notes on Blindness.

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