The National Catholic Review

Why does God at times seem to take the wisest among us so terribly early?

John Howard Griffin was only 60 when he died in 1980, partly of complications from diabetes, partly from his brave experiment more than 20 years before.

He had chemically darkened his skin to see for himself and, since he was a very fine reporter, for others, what life was like in the post-Brown v. Board of Education South that was not yet able to let Jim Crow die. It did not surprise himhe became a Catholic in 1951that those who sheltered him and often picked his sharp mind were mostly Catholics.

After all, the Papists were already outlaws on the turf of the Klu Klux Klan; not for nothing were the Missionary Servants of Most Blessad Trinity, founded in the early 1920’s, given habits that fit right in with the way women really dressed.

What is so astonishing and heartbreaking at once about this book (published here for the first time), written as something between a journal and a memoir Griffin kept between the early 1940s’ and the late 1950’s, is its honesty. It is couched in faith so tough and lovely that the whole disability issue becomes irrelevant.

After surviving an attack at close range in the Pacific during World War II, Griffin began to go blind. He was extraordinarily lucky in that both his own native intelligence and the enlightened circles in which he had already begun to move lifted him well above the usual pity trip that often befalls those who suddenly find themselves disabled.

Still, there was a real world with which to deal. He rejected, with understandable anger, the patronizing culturestill kept alive by pseudo-events like the Special Olympics and the Jerry Lewis telethonthat sought to help him, because not being able to see somehow required him to depend on others to be whole.

That he did not buy into that while his spiritual life took root is the most beautiful part of this book. Though a convert, he, like Thomas Mertonwho would later become a close and cherished friendtook nothing about his faith for granted. It seeped into his skin the way tactile sensations did as his sight grew weaker and weaker.

The blind person’s greatest unhappiness too often comes from those who tell him how tragic he is, Griffin wrote in the introduction to a monograph designed to help those who could see who worked with those who couldn’t. It has become a commonly accepted social belief that blindness is unequivocally a tragedy. This is absolutely untrue, and it is the hope of most people who suffer with this so-called handicap, to prove it wrong.

That’s nothing new to the nascent but growing disability rights movement. But in 1949? That is wisdom bred in the bone, out of the bone.

The other mesmerizing thing about Scattered Shadows is that at a time when the self-involved memoir has become a staplethe celebrity tell-all, the earnest accounts of recovery from abuse, addiction and whatnot, which are often also celebrity tell-allsGriffin always keeps his ego in check. He is intelligent enough to know that self-pity is one of the greatest traps he faces. His writing about how he deals with that temptation captivates the reader. Of course he sometimes fails; of course he has moments of rage and sadness at what has happened, and is happening, to him.

These experiences, however, lead Griffin to remarkable insight for someone so young. He has no intention of giving up keeping a journal simply because he has lost sight. But losing the sense on which most writers rely so heavily is no big deal to him.

If a journal is honest, he writes, it will contain the tremendous advantage of giving him a truer self-knowledge, which can be horrifying, sometimes overwhelmingly so, for it is humbling to see oneself without illusions.

Griffin’s eye is so fine it quickly ceases to matter that, organically, it is a device that does not work. Like others with disabilities, he learns to compensate, and usually does so extremely well. Once back in Texas, he tries to keep a hand in music. He also takes up animal husbandryGriffin had also planned to study medicineat which he proves to be gifted, and so is deservedly proud.

Above all, though, Griffin is a writerthe calling he had been unknowingly preparing for most of his life. It is only when a career in music is no longer feasible that he begins to recognize that perhaps there was divine reason for all of this. That recognition, in turn, makes him realize that although he had found great spiritual comfort in staying at a monastery, he had forgotten the sensation of peace and awareness that contemplation had given him.

The last third of the book is devoted to the clashing of serenityhe publishes his first novels, becomes a Catholic, marries and starts a family. Then comes more bad newsthat he has diabetes. Walking involves excruciating effort and pain. He is angry and frustrated.

Perhaps by sheer will, he begins to walk more easily again, and in an astonishing series of events that occur with tumbling speed, exactly a decade after he went blind, Griffin’s sight begins to return. He handles this with a mixture of fear and curiosity, but not an ounce of sentiment.

He is not arrogant enough to wonder what it all means. He simply accepts it for what it is: a gift that is not really his at all.

Kathy O'Connell is a columnist and copy editor at The Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn.