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"'Eyesight Compromised. Could Go Blind,'" (Review of Frank Bruni's The Beauty of Dusk)

The New York Times, February 2022

One October morning in 2017, the writer Frank Bruni woke up unable to see clearly. During the night, he had suffered a stroke, and the drop in blood pressure damaged an optic nerve, resulting in blindness in his right eye. After a series of doctors’ visits, Bruni learned that he had non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, known by its acronym, NAION. While undergoing an experimental drug trial involving many needles, Bruni discovered that his partner, Tom, was unfaithful. Then Bruni’s father, the pillar in his life, developed dementia. Life keeps knocking.

What happened next and how Bruni managed would have made for a valuable story; however, what makes “The Beauty of Dusk” far more remarkable than one man’s triumph over life’s cruelties is how Bruni persevered through the difficulties: by seeking the counsel of others who had suffered physical losses. This isn’t the sad story of a man who lost his sight; it is the generous narrative of a student who sought wisdom when trials appeared in his life.

Bruni’s biography is relevant here. A lifelong journalist, he has served as a White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief, restaurant critic and Op-Ed columnist for this newspaper. Early in his career, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has written one book on President George W. Bush and another on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — demonstrating his knowledge of institutions of power. A memoir, “Born Round,” dealt with body image, eating disorders, mental health, sexual identity, being a restaurant critic and the loss of his mother to uterine cancer. And he published a compendium of 49 meatloaf recipes with his fellow Times journalist Jennifer Steinhauer.

He has covered wars, child abuse, elections and the advantage of tortilla chips as a preferred binder for meatloaf. The scope and range of his writings remind me of what M.F.K. Fisher would reply when asked why she wrote about food and drink. She would say she was writing not about food but rather about hunger, and “when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it.” Bruni’s prodigious output inspires awe, and as with anyone who does that much work so faithfully and so well, it raises the questions: What do you do when your body says you are no longer in control? What will you do with your vast hunger for life?

Early on, a doctor tells Bruni that there is a 40 percent chance he could lose sight in his working left eye, and he thinks, “These bodies of ours are time bombs, but each detonates in a different way.” The possibility of greater impairment and limitations becomes so troubling, Bruni turns to what he knows how to do well: He begins to interview people who have faced down physical decline with hard stares and wise hearts. The volume curates an extraordinary collection of miniature profiles in courage and perseverance — a college friend with Parkinson’s, a blind Rhodes scholar turned lieutenant governor and many more. As Bruni walks alongside those who have heard the unwanted news, suffered the terrifying and somehow found intimacy, purpose and joy, he metabolizes his own loss into a muscular wisdom.

Like his mother, Leslie Jane Frier Bruni, who tended to her family despite a devastating cancer, Bruni is indefatigable in his search for greater knowledge and acceptance of the random insults to his body. He refuses to back down from life’s demands and joys: He figures out how to fly on planes even though this could damage his left eye; he keeps his deadlines and public engagements; he cares for his declining father. Unwilling to give up any more of life, he returns alone to his beloved Italy, a place he had traveled with Tom, and when he tires of coming home to an empty apartment, he wheedles a rescue dog from his brother and sister-in-law and finds love again in Regan. He pushes past countless closing doors. In jest, he calls himself Cyclops, the one-eyed, man-eating giant described by the poet Homer. But as time passes, Bruni develops another way to see, bringing to mind what Mrs. Johnson thinks of Mr. Armitage in V.S. Pritchett’s perfect story “Blind Love”: “He had made her forget that blindness meant not seeing.” Bruni persuades us to adapt out of loss.

To do this, he relies on his writing weapons: He names the issues, asks the knotty questions, then writes toward the truths that the reader may need. There is some perspective in data: “An estimated one million Americans, or about one in 320, are legally blind,” and “By some estimates, nearly one in 10 adults between 55 and 64” have “disabling hearing loss,” so we need to accept that most of us either know someone who is dealing with physical diminishment or we are dealing with it ourselves.

He points to those with hidden symptoms in a chapter reflecting on the deaths of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Alan Krueger. There is mental and physical agony in this life, and Bruni does not judge anyone’s decisions; rather, he grieves the losses and appreciates the grace. There is virtue in stoicism, but there is also danger in what strong people can hide. His own situation has made him even more keen to understand the other whose public face contradicts a private suffering. He proposes that each person should have a sandwich board listing her pain and how she adapts: “Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons, our pain were spelled out for everyone around us to see.” Bruni’s sandwich board would read: “Eyesight compromised, could go blind.”

You ask, why announce your troubles? Doesn’t everyone have something? “Well, yes. Tell us anyway,” I think Bruni would reply. Maybe if we knew, we might slow down, turn and fumble toward each other. Perhaps, then I could say that you’re not alone, and I’m rooting for you, because I am.

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