Seeing, as the saying goes, is believing, but during my first stereo-viewing year, I had a hard time believing what I saw.
—SUSAN R. BARRY A Scientist’s Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions
It happened again last summer, the shifting of time and space. I was walking alone at night, and I was anxious. The air felt heavy, and lightning fluttered in the sky. I scanned the empty streets. At the streetlight, I pushed the pedestrian crossing button and waited for the light to change. A man approached. I followed his movement with my eyes but did not raise my face to his. I turned my body slightly so that my back was never unguarded.
“Excuse me, miss? Miss? You can cross the street. The world’s wide open,” the man said, throwing his arms wide and grinning. The man looked young, strong.
I ignored him, but he persisted.
“Look, there’s no traffic. You can just go ahead and cross the street,” the man said, stepping closer.
Either he was trying to make me feel foolish, or he was using conversation as an excuse to sidle into my personal space.
“I don’t trust this street,” I said. Even as I said it, my excuse seemed lame, unsatisfying.
The street, normally choked with motorists, city buses, and cyclists, was deserted. I realized that there was really no reason for me to wait for the chirp of the crossing signal. Red and green lights winked in the distance, swayed in the wind. Stop, go.
So I went.
“Have a good evening, miss,” said the shadow man, and I despised him for his pushiness.
I had told the man the truth. I did not trust the street, even when it was empty. But it was more than that. I could not trust my eyes. I knew that there were things unseen, dimensions unknowable. I am stereoblind, which means that I cannot see in 3D. My world is flat, two-dimensional. I did not want to cross the street because it is difficult for me to judge depth, distance, speed. Objects hurtle through space, and I hunker down in the universe. I grit my teeth, squint. I spit through my fingers and call it luck.
• • •
I was a cross-eyed baby. I had my first eye surgery when I was an infant and a second surgery when I was a toddler. My mother remembers the nurses strapping me onto a table as I screamed hysterically. She pushed her way into the room, scooped me into her arms, and calmed me. I have blurry memories of a yellow room awash in tears, the sting of medicine in my eyes, my legs kicking. I’m not entirely certain that this is a memory of the second surgery. There were years of unhappy visits to ophthalmologists with burning eye drops and tiresome eye exercises, brusque nurses and high tables.
What can I really remember of the cutting that would heal, blur, focus, the act that would make the world known and unknown to me?
The surgeries straightened my eyes but did not align them. I was diagnosed with strabismus with alternating esotropia. This means that my eyes work independently of one another. Normally, a person’s brain constructs depth perception by comparing the images received from both eyes. In my case, I learned at an early age to suppress information in one eye, and to use the other for sight. I was lucky to be able to switch back and forth, which meant that I would not lose my vision entirely. This also meant that I could not see the world in 3D, if indeed I ever did. It seems impossible for me to know.
How do we perceive what we have never experienced? If I recognize a color as blue, how do I know that another person’s blue is anything like mine? I can give you close approximations, use words to give you the gist, but these are fine shades of distinction. The doctors never mentioned to my parents that I was stereoblind—they said only that I would likely “have problems with depth perception.” In hindsight (yet another expression that illuminates the ways in which we perceive of the world through vision, through memory), this was an understatement.
So I learned how to walk, to read, and finally to drive a car, though I did the last very reluctantly. I never wholly got over the white-knuckled grip that I keep on the steering wheel. I concentrate so fiercely on the road ahead of me that I usually miss seeing anything else. People tell me that they wave madly at me as they pass, but I am oblivious. Even when I am walking, I keep putting one foot in front of the other, mindful of little shadows.
It does not help that I am also terribly nearsighted, and that my left eye is much more so than my right. At three, I carefully placed my pink glasses on the sidewalk in front of my apartment and tried to crush the thick Coke-bottle lenses under my tricycle wheels. I was punished, but remained defiant. Better to live in a blurry world than one that required the heavy things that slipped on my nose, pinched my ears.
When I was in my early teens, my sight dimmed further. The blackboard was a million miles away. I slumped over my homework, math especially.
What doesn’t make sense about this? My geometry teacher was impatient.
I stared at the flat cubes, the things with shading and nuance that I was supposed to identify. I couldn’t explain why numbers slipped away as soon as took my eyes off the page, why the abstract concepts of many-sided things and spatial-temporal reasoning flummoxed me.
Um. I’m not sure. I felt the familiar flush of shame. I had been shuffled to the “lower” math classes since elementary school. In fourth grade, Mrs. Dietrich told the class that we needed to shape up or we would never make it across the street to the middle school. I hid my hands inside my desk and extended shaking middle fingers towards her hunchbacked frame as she hulked in front of us, a dinosaur in a flower-print dress. She asked why my shoes were on the wrong feet. Left, right, backwards. Rage contracted my world like horse blinders.
Reading never presented this problem. I propped books an inch away from my face and read hungrily. Sometimes I allowed one eye to simply go unfocused, and sometimes I covered it with the palm of my hand. I began to sort out the gradations in language that I could not perceive in space.
• • •
When I was fourteen, my parents took me to get contact lenses. I finally inserted the lenses after many squeamish attempts. I walked outside and felt stunned. The frames of my glasses had always been a borderland between the crisp and the blurred; now my world no longer had edges. The sunlight made my eyes tear in rivulets down my cheeks. As my mother drove me home, I shut my eyes against the harsh light that shone from other cars as the sun moved across chrome. At night, the high beams of other drivers created a tunneling sensation; the distance between our car and an approaching car never felt safe or controlled. Every car that I passed as a passenger and as a driver on a two-lane road at night felt like a train bearing down on me, stuck on the railroad tracks. Every driver on the road was about to spin out of control, and so was I. Light was a problem. Dark was a problem.
After years of carefully navigating the three-dimensional world based on experiential cues learned with glasses, I needed to learn how to make new judgments using the sharper focus of the contact lenses. Even in normal activities, the differences could be exhausting. When I drove in inclement weather at night, it was terrifying. The smear of sleet on a car windshield, or simply the narrowness of two-lane roads, sent me into full-blown panic. I could never tell how close the oncoming traffic was actually getting to me.
I did not understand why I was so afraid to drive, or why I so often would completely miss objects obvious to other people. I was ashamed of these differences. They made me feel stupid, inadequate. I could find other people who were perplexed by geometry concepts, but fewer individuals who seemed to flounder about in the physical world as much as I did.
I was nearly thirty when I realized that the way I interpret the world around me is not the same way that most other people do.
Ironically, I was driving when I first understood that I was stereoblind. On the radio, Terry Gross was interviewing the neuroscientist Susan Barry about her experience gaining stereovision in middle age. Like me, Barry had been a cross-eyed baby with alternating esotropia. Like me, Barry sorted out her orientation in space through cues and judgment she perceived in the world around her.
The difference is that Barry, through vision therapy, was able to gain 3D vision in her fifties. This was a tremendous surprise. Until recently, scientists thought that this was an impossibility—it had been theorized that this vision could only be achieved before the critical developmental period that children have in their first year of life.
As Barry described being able to see the space between falling snowflakes and the richness of true depth perception—in appreciating beauty in leaves and the creases in clothes, in gaining confidence as she moved through the world—I was astonished. It made so much sense, the way that I could miss objects on a table two feet away, the embarrassing number of times that I have hit my head or stubbed a toe, the paralyzing fear that makes me sweat when I drive. I was filled with a longing to experience this third dimension, this world unknown.
Stereoblindness is my world, and 3D is the other, this parallel universe where people don’t lean down and bump their heads on cabinet doors they know to be right in front of them, not unless they’re in a slapstick routine. I hit my head not because I am unaware of the objects in space around me but because I have suppressed the actual information in one eye or the other. If I were to account at all times for the two different camera angles in my eyeballs, my brain would scramble the information and simply give me double vision.
Each is a different world. When my eyes are tired, it is an effort to wear contacts, but I feel as if my world narrows when I wear glasses. When I wear my contacts, there are more conscious decisions to be made: to allow one eye to go unfocused means that the contact itself might become uncomfortable, blurry, dry. I won’t notice that I have suppressed one eye until I try to switch back to it, and the effort is a strain. It makes my eyes tear, blur. I must sit and actively try to focus the unused eye back to “normal.” Meanwhile, the focused eye is also out of commission as it tries to stop tearing.
With glasses, I can allow my eyes to go unfocused without much conscious effort to control them, but I also have more trouble judging depth than with contacts.
The older I am, the more difficult it feels to navigate this difference. My eyes feel tired. When I am exhausted, or have been drinking, one of my eyes will wander away from the other. This can unnerve people. Once, when I was working an early barista shift at a coffee bar, a customer called me out on it.
“I can’t tell who you’re talking to,” she said.
And so I repeated myself. I tried to focus, slow down. I had been shamed again by a stranger from the third dimension, and it revived all my old resentments. I seethed as I worked, clenching my teeth and twisting my mouth into a grim smile as I handed the woman her drink. I dreaded going into work for days afterwards, thinking only of how clumsy and small this interaction had made me feel again.
Occasionally, my old childhood nightmares return. In these terrible dreams, my eyes roll back in their sockets. I stagger, my eyes sting and tear. I am running from danger, something in the shadows, but I have no way of knowing what.
• • •
Once, when I was a teenager, I saw something else that I could not process. I was huffily waiting for my younger sister Molly to relinquish the house phone. It was the mid-nineties, and cell phones were for city people with briefcases, not scowling teenagers in rural Ohio. I crossed my arms and paced in the hallway, picking up the kitchen line every once in a while to growl threats that went ignored. Molly had the cordless phone and was not giving it up for me. I steamed in the hallway, looking into the living room.
Through the large bay windows, I saw Molly bouncing on the trampoline, the cordless phone pressed to her ear. This was too much. I turned around, walked down the hallway, and insisted to my mother that Molly’s time on the phone was up, that she should make my sister come inside already.
My mother looked over my shoulder. “She’s not out there.”
I insisted that I had seen her, not even thirty seconds ago, jumping up and down with impudence. Just then, Molly opened the door to her bedroom upstairs and peered down at us. My mother and I stared up at her. There is no physical way that Molly could have traveled from the trampoline outside to her bedroom inside in that span of time. Not in this universe. Not without passing me in the hallway, or my mother at the bottom of the stairs.
The information my eyes received that day made no sense whatsoever, and yet it was real. I believed what I saw—that my sister was hopping up and down on the trampoline outside, that she had the cordless phone pressed to her ear, that she was as solid and three-dimensional (or so I would have said years ago, before I had ever heard of stereoblindness) as she always was.
As I typed this description, the word three-dimensional sprang from me as some sort of veritable truth or evidence—when, in fact, I have no concept of it at all. But this truth-telling is common, describing something as “real,” “three-dimensional,” “clear,” etc. Movies are released in 3D, and that is supposed to heighten the pleasure of watching them. Amusement park rides are built around the 3D experience. How can I not feel as though I’m missing out, when people who live in the third dimension seek to experience it even when they are passively viewing a screen for a mere two hours?
It’s been nearly twenty years since I saw Molly—or some version of her—hopping impossibly on the trampoline. Our family still talks about this odd story. We love to remember it, partly because it is so exquisitely strange, and partly because it feels like a glimpse of an other-world, a realm beyond the ordinary, perhaps even beyond the dead.
When people see a vision of another person who promptly disappears, we often call the vision a hallucination. Or a ghost.
If we are to accept, for instance, that ghosts are real—and ghosts, in this sense, are defined as the spirits of people who have passed on—then this story still wouldn’t make sense. Molly is alive and well and just as puzzled as I am. The person that I saw on the trampoline was Molly as I knew her then, a little girl wearing my sister’s usual clothes, though I cannot remember the specific outfit. More tantalizing: What is the point of receiving such information?
People like ghost stories where the motive for the haunting is clear. A woman is murdered on her wedding day, so she returns to the scene of the crime and weeps. A businessman hangs himself in an old house and therefore is doomed to rattle and moan about the place for eternity. Whether the stories themselves are believable or not, they are at least satisfying to recount. A few seconds of an impish little sister on a trampoline—what in the hell is that supposed to communicate?
Recently, I read the British journalist Will Storr’s exploration of the supernatural. In his nonfiction book Will Storr vs. the Supernatural, he interviews mediums, ghost hunters, demonologists, psychologists, and, naturally, the Vatican’s primary exorcist. One of the theories that Storr uncovered was the idea that hauntings are actually glimpses of people in other dimensions, in other times.
“Apparently, Einstein’s theory of relativity says that time isn’t linear, but all twisted up like a ball of wool,” Storr writes. “So, if we’re all barreling . . . around in these tangled woolly time-strands, it’s possible to rub up against a strand from a completely different era, like the 16th century, or the 27th, and when this happens, information can leak through. Thus ghosts.”
Though Storr obviously doesn’t buy this theory completely. He goes on to point out that reported ghost stories usually feature apparitions with clothing that can be identified with an historical period, rather than, say, strangely clothed people from the future.
This had also occurred to our family. What if Molly was just thinking about going outside with the phone that day, and a version of herself in another dimension actually did?
What if there is a version of myself in a parallel universe, one who can see in 3D? What would I think of my 2D life? Would I think it sad, limited, strange, interesting? Would I be intrigued by this altered worldview, this flat life that does not actually feel flat to me at all? After all, it is not as if I think of my world as sad, or as a single plane of a screenshot. But I am curious. I would like to know what it would feel like to be assured by the realness of shaded things, to know the beauty of space between leaves, to understand without effort the time it takes for a car to pass, and that I am perfectly safe in my lane. It would be a tremendous satisfaction to understand what it was, exactly, that I am missing, or if those shaded things are just another approximation of reality. Those things that people assume are immutable and fixed, without any consideration at all that there could be parallel and intersecting versions appearing and disappearing through time and space.
• • •
The trampoline broke when an overweight uncle bounced through it at my high school graduation party. But my mother still takes pictures of the area where the trampoline was. She’s looking for orbs.
In recent years, ghost hunters have claimed that the strange, round anomalies that occasionally show up in digital pictures could be supernatural in origin. They’re known as orbs. On ghost hunting expeditions (on TV and in real life), people compulsively snap pictures of mundane rooms, quiet barns, the inside of closets, just to see if they can capture the bright little specks.
It feels too easy. I have not seen an orb yet that would convince me, even though I would love to be convinced. Dust, I think. Precipitation, camera smears, light refracting off the camera itself. My mother insists that it must be something more.
Mom used to work as a photographer, back in the days of chemical photography. She says she never looked for orbs in those days.
“It never occurred to me that you could get something supernatural on film,” Mom told me when I asked about the difference between eras. “But with digital photography, you can take as many pictures as you want—no more waiting to take it to the developer, then paying for the results. If you see something interesting, you can stand in the same spot and take twenty pictures, just to see what you pick up. I wouldn’t have wasted the film in the old days. The digital camera gives you the freedom to see things right away, in real time.”
I do like the immediacy of digital photography. But I haven’t really caught up with the technology. Most of my wedding day, which contained some of the most beautiful moments of my adult life so far, floats in a digital netherworld. The pictures exist, and yet they don’t. It is far less satisfying to flip through a digital Facebook album than it is to hold the things in your hands.
For Christmas two years ago, my mother-in-law sent a few printed pictures of my husband and me on our wedding day. We lean into one another, smiling, fixed in time and space: me in my wedding gown, Jonty in his borrowed tuxedo. Behind us, it is June in Tennessee forever, the bright green foliage blazing against the soft glow of stringed lights. People are laughing as if nothing could ever go wrong. The cake pops that my sister-in-law made fan out on one corner of a nearby table, melting a little in the heat. I wish now that I had eaten more of those things. Before they were gone.
• • •
What is lost? What is hoped for?
At The Ohio State University Havener Eye Institute, I slump into an uncomfortable plastic chair. My eyes are exhausted from squinting through scopes, staring at letters on the wall. Spirals float in my line of vision, leftover temporary blind spots from the bright flashlights that the doctors keep shining in my eyes.
I had come to the OSU clinic because I wanted to undergo the vision therapy that Susan Barry had. I wanted to know if it was possible to see the creases in clothes, the space between snowflakes in a way I could never have imagined. I knew that it would take a year or more of rigorous therapy. I knew that it would be difficult.
The doctors are not unkind, but I am beginning to resent the constant stream of medical terminology that they trade between themselves after each test. It is a language that I have listened to all of my life but still cannot fully understand. Here I am again, slouching towards a borderland. The lead researcher, a slim, blonde woman with a professional smile, translates for me.
“If you can see in 3D with our machine, you might be a good candidate for our research team. Depending on the results, you could be admitted to our program. However, your eyes have a severe vertical alignment, something that might only be fixed with surgery. We would really feel more comfortable if you at least consulted with a surgeon before beginning therapy. We wouldn’t want to waste time.”
The blonde researcher brings a large metal contraption to my face. I am to nuzzle the thing, to fit my nose in the gleaming silver indentation and settle my gaze into the two peepholes. When I peer into the lenses, I see a different image with my left eye than I do with my right. I rest my chin on a machine and try again to see what the researchers wanted me to see.
“I see Wilma Flintstone driving the car with my left eye, and Fred Flintstone driving the car with my right,” I say. “Wilma has her left arm up. It looks like she is waving. She’s wearing a white smock; he, an orange wife beater.”
“You should also know that the risk of surgery includes permanent double vision—that is to say, you could lose the imperfect but reasonably well-adjusted vision that you have now.”
I know that if I could see in 3D like other people that my brain would fuse these two images without effort. That it would be real, verifiable, trustworthy.
“What happens when I adjust the machine? Now? How about now?”
Pause. More adjusting.
There is a strange shuddering of my eyes. I feel as though I am standing on a beach and peering out over the ocean, trying to distinguish between shark fins and the white foam swells along the horizon. It is a tremendous effort; my eyes suddenly feel sun-tired, dry, irritable.
“Now?” she asks again.
For a few seconds, I see a flash of the other world, and I feel my heart thud with hope. Wilma isn’t waving after all; she’s got her arm around Fred. They ride in the same car, speeding toward the same place. They smile as if they know how lucky they are to be simple, shaded things in a white space, hurtling towards the unknown.
MEGAN KERNS’s essays and poetry have appeared in Yemassee, The Pinch, The Rumpus, and Hawaii Pacific Review. Her essay “This Is East Tennessee Punk Rock” was a finalist in Yemassee’s 2015 Inaugural Nonfiction Contest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from The Ohio State University, where she is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.