Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend's celebrated diarist, has been chronicling life in middle England for thirty years.
Adrian's best friend Nigel was registered blind in 2002 and Townsend describes Adrian's response to Nigel's sudden sight loss in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004). When I first read this volume, shortly after it came out, I was still in denial about my own blindness and so didn't pay any attention to 'poor blind Nigel' (p. 37). But I've recently gone back to look again at how Adrian deals with his best friend's situation.
Adrian's first reaction to Nigel's news (pp. 19-20) is a mixture of the inappropriate and the selfish. He makes quips about Nigel's love of dark glasses and is disappointed that his friend will no longer be able to advise him on interior decoration. Lovers of the Adrian Mole diaries will not be surprised by these apparently flippant comments. It is fair to say that Adrian has a rather self-centred approach to life and has a sense of perspective slightly out of kilter with those around him. He can struggle with the finer points of empathy and is often awkward in social situations. Despite Nigel's shock, we find ourselves laughing at some of Adrian's responses precisely because they tell us more about Adrian's skewed priorities than they do about Nigel's sight loss.
But at the end of this same episode, on p. 21, Adrian lapses into the kind of patronising behaviour which all blind people will have experienced at some point. When Nigel's cab arrives, Adrian gives the address on Nigel's behalf. This might seem like a rather trivial incident; after all, Adrian is only trying to help. But we, like Nigel, interpret this genuinely well-intentioned slip as a manifestation of the widely-held belief that the visually impaired also lack other physical and mental capacities. Nigel's grumpy riposte: '"I can still speak, Moley!"' is misunderstood by Adrian. His response, 'I hope he is not going to become one of those bitter blind people, like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre' is revealing for two reasons. Firstly, it makes a sweeping generalisation about the blind which is rendered all the more erroneous because it is based on a fictional character (one, indeed, whose blindness has important metaphorical implications of its own). Secondly, it fails to notice that Nigel is not grumpy about his blindness as such. Instead it is Adrian's rather thoughtless treatment of him which has put him in such a bad mood. By both speaking for him, and subsequently failing to understand Nigel's irritation, Adrian unwittingly communicates his deep-seated belief that going blind somehow makes Nigel a lesser person. In this one incident, Townsend underlines one of the most common misconceptions faced by the blind.
Adrian certainly is well-meaning in his attempts to understand Nigel's blindness. Later on in the story, he decides not to help Nigel 'look' for his keys, coat and white stick because he "has often heard blind people on the radio going on about how much they resent other people doing things for them" (p. 94). Adrian's problem here, of course, is his inability to put his knowledge into context. Whilst Nigel does not need help to give his address to a cab driver, he probably would appreciate some help finding that pesky set of keys.
Several more episodes of this kind occur throughout the book. Aside from giving us additional insights into Adrian's character, they are significant because they allow Townsend to denounce the way people treat the blind. Townsend was registered blind in 2001 and given some of the reactions I've had, especially when out and about with my white cane, I'll bet she has been on the receiving end of similar comments. Putting such comments in Adrian's voice means she can demonstrate their dangerously negative reach without ranting or whining. (And we've already seen how any blind person who does that is in danger of being dismissed as 'bitter'.) Furthermore, by showing Nigel's reactions alongside Adrian's misreading of them, she (ironically unlike Adrian) gives Nigel his voice back and encourages the reader - who is already aware of Adrian' s flaws - to see things from Nigel's perspective. By experiencing some of his outrage, readers will hopefully internalise how it feels to be treated as part of a generalised, marginalised and misunderstood group rather than as an individual. Perhaps this new-found knowledge will come into play next time they meet someone who is experiencing sight loss.