I recently read the moving memoir NOW I SEE: How I Battled Blindness, Mental Illness, an Espresso Habit and Lived to Tell the Tale by peer advisor Mariagrazia Buttitta. I encourage you to read the book as well as Mariagrazia’s personal story, which as a new peer advisor, she has written for VisionAware.
The Beginning of the Memoir
Mariagrazia’s memoir begins with all the gripping intensity of the first act of a play—only it’s her life.
The setting is her room—dark, late at night, in a small two-bedroom apartment she shares with her parents in northern New Jersey. Mariagrazia’s emotions are heightened—or dulled, depending on how the reader interprets her pain. Her personal darkness mirrors the darkness around her. She is unable to even stand up, although she feels jittery from having drunk several shots of espresso. As her cell phone flashes, she retreats from it as it represents “the outside world,” with which she doesn’t feel worthy to interact. Thoughts of suicide loop through her mind. The reader doesn’t see what has brought the author to this point.
It’s not until Mariagrazia glimpses an old childhood journal belonging to “Little Maria” that she sees a glimmer of hope. Little Maria is introduced through her diary, almost as another character. The reader sees a cheery little three-year-old who loves parties, her family—especially her Mamma—sweets and who’s a little bit naughty. The author latches onto the younger version of herself as if she alone can save her.
It’s easy to understand how Little Maria whispers life to her. The author’s story swings to Sicily, Italy as she recalls her childhood and how, through her writing as a third and fourth grader, Little Maria silences the bullies and achieves whatever she wants at the stroke of her pen. Gradually, the reader becomes aware that Little Maria faces challenges at parties, in school, and at social events. She gets bumps and bruises and falls all the time. The reasons are stated subtly, but the repercussions are seen by her parents as an ongoing worry.
I loved the cultural aspect of this memoir—the food, holidays, the well-defined roles, her family and extended family, even neighbors. And it especially demonstrated the relationship she had with her mother.
There was one stirring poem in Little Maria’s diary that touched me called “Ode to Blue.” It captures the optimism of Little Maria. Her mamma told her blue was “lie your gorgeous blue eyes,” and so she knew the color blue had to be magical. The poem was simple but very joyful.
It emerges through the author’s storytelling technique that Little Maria has a sight problem, and the various specialists can’t find the cause. The stories go on, and readers see Mariagrazia’s struggles deepen as she faces bullies at school and teachers who haven’t a clue to her sight loss. They believe she is slow and treat her accordingly—with strong cultural bias.
The hope that Little Maria demonstrates is carried through at various ages. As a teen it comes out in stubbornness, her ironic thoughts, and her description of the three specialists who cannot agree on the cause of her problems. She names them “the three stooges.” This courage and humor lift the reader out of the sadness we feel for her.
At a certain point, Mariagrazia is told she should be in a school for blind children, although that never happened. She decides she wants to study fashion design a visual field of study. What came through was that the author knows what she wants and why and cannot be deterred. I felt it represented a strength of purpose, character, determination, and hope, itself.
She points out the cultural bias encounters in the blind community and how that hurts. She finds the courage to voice her anger, something difficult for authorities in charge to deal with.
Facing Sight Loss and Mental Illness
It becomes clearer that the author faces both sight loss and mental illness, especially after emigrating to the US and having panic attacks in college. A friend takes her to a play, perhaps guessing at her psychological state, and opens her eyes to help.
Throughout the book, Mariagrazia demonstrates how the support of her family has provided the basis of her own strength. Even in the dark hours, she desires to protect them from finding out how her mental and emotional state would hurt them.
The rest of the book chronicles her journey to safe mental health and adjustment to vision loss from cone dystrophy. I most enjoyed discovering the elements of the author’s character that demonstrated her individuality and stubborn nature, the flashes of her humor and witnessing her resilience.
This memoir taps into Italy, culture, childhood, the effects of long-term bullying, sight loss, mental illness, family ties, bias, disabilities, and more importantly, abilities, resilience, and hope. I highly recommend it.