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Book Review: Crashing Through by Robert Kurson

Posted by on May 1, 2014

One character in my Rustic Knoll Bible Camp series is a teen named Steven. He’s blind, but has been coming to camp since he was five years old. His parents brought him to family camp every summer and his dad used the time to teach Steven how to get around, how to orient himself from one place to get to another, and purposely allowing him to experience unexpected events so that he would learn to respond, not just react.

I’d planned to make Steven the focus of my third book, bringing him back after an operation that allows him to see. But as I researched what have caused his blindness and how it could be corrected, I learned of a real life man who lost his eyesight at age 3 in a chemical explosion. At age 43, he regained sight in one eye. His story is amazing, as told by Robert Kurson in Crashing Through.

Michael May was an active three year old boy when he went found a jar high on a shelf in the family’s garage and tried to wash it out to use it as a container. He had no way of knowing it contained a chemical that would react with water, exploding in his face and damaging both eyes so that he lost his vision. But his mother refused to make allowances for him, fighting to send him to school with all the sighted kids and expecting him to learn how to live without sight in a world that largely depends on the ability to see.

Michael  possessed a rare kind of determination and spirit. He learned to play most sports right along with sighted kids, using his hearing and other senses to warn him of objects in his way. This resulted in many collisions with trees and other obstacles, but he developed a fearlessness and confidence that made him a talented downhill para-Olympic skier.

Forty years after the accident that destroyed his vision, an eye doctor offered a chance to regain his sight in one eye. Mr. May debated for weeks. He felt he already lived a full life and didn’t need vision to make it better. But in the end, his lifelong principle of trying everything demanded that he also try to regain his sight.

This was where the book fascinated me in describing the process of learning to see again after forty years. Because vision is learned. As toddlers, we learn to distinguish distance and depth by crawling and reaching and exploring and falling. We learn to associate faces with voices, smiles with pleasure and facial expressions with other emotions like anger and fear. We pick up visual cues that tell us whether someone is male or female. And we learn to distinguish shades of color.

All these things Mr. May had missed by losing his eyesight at age three. His brain hadn’t developed those associations because they simply weren’t there to experience. So when he saw again for the first time in forty years, he discovered that faces meant nothing to him. He couldn’t recognize people by their faces, even after seeing them often. Color amazed him, but he found it difficult to comprehend how his wife’s hair could be one color, his dog’s coat another color, and his son’s hair a different color, yet they were all considered blond. Shadows were simply darker colors, not the clue to depth that sighted people understand them to be.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was his first shower experience after regaining his sight. The author described it as strings coming from the shower head, exploding onto his face and sending shrapnel in every direction. After a while, Mr. May noticed the room becoming gray. He reached out to touch the grayness but his hand went right through it. After a moment he realized he was seeing steam, and wondered at how something could be there, yet not be there. No one could have accurately described this to him.

Reading of Mr. May’s experience gave me a deep appreciation for the gift of sight. Reading of his experience made me wonder at all the things we take for granted because our brains learned these things when we were babies, toddlers, children. Learned them without any effort on our part, and yet, they form such a vital part of our daily experience of sight. The book is not written from a Christian perspective, but it deepened my amazement at the intricacy with which God created our bodies, the detail He incorporated into our brains and our gift of sight.

As it turns out, I won’t be able to bring Steven’s sight back. It would be fun to explore this experience with him, but I fear it would take over the book. But I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read Crashing Through. This is an incredible book, a story of an incredible man.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Crashing Through by Robert Kurson

  1. Peggy Wirgau

    Interesting review, Mary. Does the author say if his ability to process what he saw improved over time? And was his vision completely or partially restored with the surgery?

    • Mary Hamilton

      He did learn some visual cues but always had trouble with depth and faces, etc. He learned how to adjust by thinking through those cues, although it simply doesn’t come as quickly to him as it would to us. Interestingly, he found that by relying on the abilities he’d developed without sight first and then applying what he knew to what he was seeing, his ability to interpret the things he saw became a little more automatic.
      His sight was restored only in one eye, and I believe the only limitations to it are the learned things such as I mentioned. The other eye was too damaged.

      I forgot to mention reading was also a problem because he’d never learned the alphabet by sight. So the symbols we know as letters and numbers meant nothing to him.

I welcome your thoughts on this.