Book Review: Fixing My Gaze by Susan Barry

Fixing My Gaze: a scientist’s journey into seeing in three dimensions (find it at a library | buy it from Amazon.com), is an autobiographical account by Susan Barry about her experiences growing up and living most of her life stereoblind, and then later in life regaining her stereovision through vision therapy.  While that may sound a bit dry, Barry provides a fascinating look in to how the brain works and how it is that we see, along with the interesting story of how she learned to see in three dimensions.

Barry had infantile strabismus (strabismus that develops before 6 months of age), and had undergone numerous strabismus surgeries as a child, leaving her eyes straight, but with no binocular vision.  Her descriptions of life without stereovision were probably the hardest parts of the book for me to read, and I expect that’s likely to be true for any parent of a child with monocular vision. I kept wanting to believe that those parts of the book were exaggerated to make for a more compelling story, and I still don’t much like dwelling or re-reading those parts.  Vision is quite a personal thing, and different people adapt differently to things like stereoblindness, so I asked my mother, who is also stereoblind, about some of Barry’s stories, and was surprised to have them confirmed, though my mother’s problems are not as severe as Barry’s despcriptions.  Like Barry did, my mom does have trouble reading signs while driving and finds it difficult to navigate in unfamiliar settings.  On pages 58 and 59, Barry recounts how her stereoblindness led to her driving difficulties.

. . .  I paid attention to the input from only one eye at a time.  I switched rapidly between the two views, which made my world unstable or jittery, particularly when looking out in the distance.  Not surprisingly, I was a pretty lousy driver. . .

“How far in the distance are you looking? he [Barry’s husband] asked.

“I don’t know.  Maybe one or two car lengths ahead of me.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said.  “Try looking much further in the distance.”

But looking in the distance was unnerving.  I felt disoriented, unsure of my location in space.  I felt like the car was drifting off the road.

But the book is not just made up of Susan Barry’s story alone, and that is one of the great strengths of this book.  The author strikes a very readable, and much more interesting balance between explaining the neurobiology behind how it is that we see, how the field of vision science has developed, and anecdotes from her own life and others who have had similar experiences.

Barry shines when she is giving us the science behind our vision, particularly how it is that we see in three dimensions.  Even more intriguingly, she discusses her thoughts on how the brain can rediscover it’s binocular vision pathways in adulthood, something that had been thought to be impossible.  Her professional background, as a professor of neurobiology is so apparent in these sections.  She is clearly practiced in explaining such complex concepts in a very understandable and engaging way.  My understanding of vision is so much more enriched from reading this – her students are lucky!  Her descriptions of the history of vision science, and how we have arrived at our current understand of vision and vision treatments are similarly interesting and well-presented.  She has done her research, and leads the reader deftly through what must have been pages and pages of articles.  She specifically focuses on strabismus and amblyopia (those being the most common reasons for loss of stereovision).

The other highlight of the book are the almost lyrical, and sometimes quite funny, descriptions that she gives of her first encounters with stereovision after starting her vision therapy treatments, from page 123:

When I gained stereopsis, I felt like I was immersed in a medium more substantial than air, a medium on which tree branches, flower blossoms, and pine needles floated.  I wondered if this sense of the air was what Monet spoke about in the quote at the beginning of this chapter:  “I want the unobtainable . . .  I want to paint the air.

After reading those passages, I found myself staring more intently at the branches on trees, noticing how the leaves and twigs stood out from one another, and truly appreciating my ability to perceive the spaces between them.  This book would have been worth it just for my newfound gratitude in my sight (though I appreciated much of the rest of the book).

At times, some of the anecdotes, particularly those from other people who have had their similarly stereovision restored, read like advertising testamonials for vision therapy, which dragged the book down.  Thankfully, these sections were short, and they did serve the purpose of  making the point that her experiences are not unique.  Barry also refrains from wholesale denouncing Ophthalmology or surgery as an option for some  forms of strabismus, though she calls on them to update their assumptions about the possibilities for treatments later in life.  The most hopeful passage of the book for me is from page 151:

While the best approach may vary from patient to patient, one basic principle needs to change.  The brain may be more plastic, more responsive to treatments in infancy, but this period of high malleability does not exclude the possibility that improvements can occur later in life [emphasis mine].

I would recommend this book to any one who is interested in vision, or in stories of the wonderous ways in which the brain can adapt and change.  I would especially recommend this to parents of children with strabismus or amblyopia, as it provides well-written insights to our children’s vision.  If you are one of those parents, though, do keep in mind that some of passages may be difficult, particularly if your child has not developed binocular vision.

Full disclosure: After hearing about this book from many different sources, I ordered the book from my library to review.  When I was about two-thirds of the way through, I noticed an email offering me a free copy to review.  I responded to the email saying that I was already reading the book, but would love to have a copy to give away to my readers.  I was sent two copies to give away, and one copy to keep for myself.  I do not believe that that has colored my review of this book, but I feel it’s important to be open about these things.  Also, she thanked a couple of librarians in her acknowledgements, and as a librarian myself, I have a very soft spot for people who thank us.  That may actually have colored my review more than the free book (actually, I don’t think it did).

Book Give-away: As mentioned above, I’m be giving away two copies of Fixing My Gaze, all the details are in my give-away post.

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6 responses to “Book Review: Fixing My Gaze by Susan Barry

  1. Ann, I just read your review of the eye book and it sounds fascinating. As you have known, (me being the Mom you refer to), I am eager to read the book since it sounds like it eerily explains why I frequently can’t decide what it is that I am seeing even though I think I can see it.

    And I do get paniciky in unfamiliar cities, especially if I have to be the driver, by myself.

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  2. I have a terrible left eye…it is so bad if I lost my right eye I couldn’t read or drive. I wonder about the driving thing. Because my eyes don’t work independently, I don’t get that distance confusion. However, I am easily lost in unfamiliar places. I do have issues at times with hitting curbs when turning and HATE, HATE, HATE parking. I do know how to judge distance from other cars and am a safe driver, but have clipped a few in the parking lot getting out if I’m not completely paying attention…I have to pull out straight completely and then turn carefully. I am what I call directionally disabled too, I forget directions easily, and get turned around easily. I feel I can only focus on the road, not on the world around while driving. And night driving is horrible in areas of many lights. I see big rainbowy rings around head lights and such, so I am a great out in the boonies or highway driver but bad in the city at night.

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  3. Excellent review, Ann. You note that: “At times, some of the anecdotes, particularly those from other people who have had their similarly stereovision restored, read like advertising testamonials for vision therapy, which dragged the book down.”

    I would ask that you consider the reason the anecdotes may read like advertising testimonials is that patients or parents who find help through vision therapy do so at tremendous odds. Invariably when inquiring of their pediatric ophthalmologist about options for treatment of strabismus or amblyopia, most parents are discouraged from pursuing it further. Individuals who do ultimately find help through developmental optometrists have one overarching question: “Why wasn’t I encouraged to consider this?” Therefore when reading these sections in Sue’s book, you might consider that they are passionate feelings of discovery rather than advertising testimonials. These individuals don’t want others to have to find vision therapy by serendipity, and to have its benefits withheld or concealed.

    To wit, the bulk of the information on your website revolves around glasses, patching, atropine, or surgery. One is hard-pressed to find any information about vision therapy. It is therefore refreshing to see how much you enjoyed “Fixing My Gaze”, and thank you so much for bringing it to your readers’ attention.

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  4. Pingback: Web interview with Susan Barry- “School Crossings: A Neurobiologist’s View of How Our System Fails Children With Vision Problems” « little four eyes·

  5. After my last annual eye appointment, my ophthalmologist referred me to a strabismus surgeon whom he was sure could allign my eyes. i went to the consult and last month was told only the fifteenth time, “im sorry, you need surgery, but its too risky. i can t help you.”
    i had to write a research paper for my writing class and decided to use this as my topic in order to learn more about my condition. I used this book as one of my references, and in doing so, I not only wrote an excellent research paper, but i also got a lot of my questions answered.
    i developed strabismus at an early age , and ive had surgery to allign one of my eyes when i was younger. im now 28yrs old and my vision is 20/25 in my corrected eye and 20/40 in the other. I have experienced just about everyhting that Susan Barry talked about in her book: difficulty reading books, i miss a step going down the stairs evey few days. i never got my driver’s license until i was 25yrs old because i was too afraid to drive, and i cant see/read the street signs in a moving car. the part of this book that really hit home for me was when she talked about letting her eyes wake up befor she starts doing anything else in the mornings. after reading this, i couldnt help but bursting into tears. i thought i was seeing spiders on the ceiling or on the walls in the mornings when i wake up, but after a while ther would disappear. i could never explain why this happened to me, until now. tears.. thank you Susan Barry. I’ve been to numerous different opthalmologists and optometrists, and have never been told about vision therapy. Why?
    As i said before, i dont read, but this book was so engaging, and informative for me that i read it in two days. i feel like i cant quite give up just yet until i try vision therapy. i wish somebody had told me about this sooner.

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  6. Thank-you for this. I am a parent of a special needs child but also now a student working on her special ed license and I have a student that I am working with, who is 4, and now diagnosed with strabismus and trying to understand myself now. Would love any other information you can give me to help me work with this child.

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