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A Natural History: David Masiel

13/01/2010

A Natural History of My Exophoria

By David Masiel

When I was growing up, I had to work to see things the way normal people did.  If I relaxed my eyes, I’d see double, or sometimes, during bouts of extreme fatigue, I would come to realize that my right eye was looking in an entirely different place than the other.  I played catcher on my baseball team and could sometimes see the runner leading off first base without taking my other eye off the pitcher.  I thought this was a neat trick, and I’d do it as often as I could.

At the time, my older brother was fond of reminding me that he could do anything I could do, only better, so I said, “No you can’t, I can see around corners.”

My brother was used to this.  I was always claiming to have memories or visions of things that were impossible.  I told people that I could remember being born and that I could even see atoms, which drew reactions ranging from disgust (my father) to lengthy explanations of atomic physics, perception, and the anatomy of the human eye (my teacher).

In the case of my latest claim, my brother merely rolled his eyes.

“You can’t see around anything, punk.  You’re just wall-eyed.  It means you’re a freak.  It means when everybody else is seeing out into the room, you’re looking at the wall.”

I asked my mother for confirmation, and she informed me that the appropriate term was exophoria.  “Does it mean I’m a freak?”

“No, dear, it doesn’t mean you’re a freak.  It just means you have a weakness in the muscles that control your eyes.  They call it lazy eye.  You’re hardly wall-eyed.  And your brother is just trying to get your goat.  Ignore him.”

My mother was an operating room nurse, so I trusted her opinion even if it did seem that my brother had my goat perpetually tied to a chain of his own devising.

Shortly thereafter my mother took me to see the eye doctor, who sat me in a big contraption of a chair and asked me to stare at his pencil.  Rising from the eraser was a needle with a lady-bug impaled on the end of it.  It was a plastic lady bug, but it seemed real enough to me, shining red with black spots, reflecting a light that shone under his desk.  I could see the world in that lady bug.  He drew it closer to my nose.  “Hold on as long as you can.”

My eyes crossed, vision blurred, and I got a headache.

Then the doctor covered one eye with a black spoon and told me keep staring at the lady bug.  When he removed the eye covering, I felt it—the eye spun outward for a moment before acquiring its target.  “I see,” he said.

“What do you see?”

“A medium degree exodeviation.  ”

I couldn’t even say the word.   All in all, “exodeviation” sounded worse than exophoria, which at least sounded happy.

“A tendency of your right eye to deviate off center, to drift outward independent of your left eye.”

Then he put eye drops in my eyes, yellow stuff that made my eyelids stick closed, and my vision go blurry.  I remember complaining that I couldn’t see and how somebody—my mother or the doctor or the receptionist said, “Oh yes, that stuff blinds you.”

Blinds you!   Now it was official.  I was not only a freak, but a blind one.

Fig. 1 - Diagram

I drove home with my mother, keeping my eyes closed against the onset of blindness and the ongoing headache, devastated that I’d now end up like Mike Henderson who lived two doors up, a blind kid who walked past our house daily with his white cane and braces on his legs.  Blind!  I wondered if the braces went along with the blindness.  I had seen plenty of kids with braces on their legs and theirs was a horror unlike any I could imagine—not being able to run and jump.  Then I guessed that being blind meant you couldn’t run or jump either. The thought made my head rock from side to side, like Stevie Wonder, in preparation for the inevitable darkness.

I imagined Mike Henderson and I becoming friends.  We’d be the only two blind kids on the block.  He’d finally have a friend (his house was devoid of them), and I resolved to go visit him as soon as I got home—he would be the only person who could understand my tragedy.

I would miss playing baseball.

Before I had the chance to visit Mike Henderson and proclaim our brotherhood, my mother explained that the effects of the eye drops were temporary, and that I would not be going blind.  Grateful, I settled into the exercises that would strengthen the muscles of my eyes and keep me from being wall-eyed.

But secretly, I still practiced the wandering eye maneuver.  I liked seeing the first baseman without looking or the wide receiver going on a sideline route when the rest of me was looking over the middle.  I would perform an eye trick for people at school, making my right eye flare off to the upper right and wiggle around.  Girls would shriek and jump up and down and put their dresses between their legs.  They’d laugh and come up to me and say, “Do the eye trick, David, do the eye trick.”

I rarely got attention from girls.

That summer I got caught looking out of my right eye when a fastball blew in from the left, slapped the tip of my catcher’s mitt, and flew against the back stop.  Runners advanced.  I vowed to stop my first-base gazing.

I did my exercises faithfully until I didn’t see double anymore.  I forgot all about my exophoria and no girls ever asked to see the eye trick.  It wasn’t long before I couldn’t do it at all.  I tried once, at a school dance in the sixth grade.  I was bragging how I could make one eye go off on its own, causing several girls to gather around for a look, but when I tried, nothing happened.  It might have moved a millimeter.  “I guess I saw a little bit,” someone said.

I couldn’t see around corners anymore, or see the runner leading off first base without turning my head, or see the stars out my window at night without rolling over to look.  But maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to be able to do all that, what with runners advancing and all.  Now I saw just like everybody else, and that wasn’t a bad thing.  There was great comfort in knowing I wouldn’t be blind or wall-eyed.

Fig. 2 - Sartre

Later, in high school—12th grade, World Literature with Mr. Hewitson—long after I’d stopped playing baseball and started writing stories, I saw a photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre on the wall of our classroom, looking like he was blowing a kiss at the camera or exhaling imaginary cigarette smoke.  Then I really knew what wall-eyed meant.  Mr. Hewitson was talking about Existentialism and Herman Hesse, while my classmate Glen McClish—future professor of rhetoric—was telling me about the open marriage between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.  While Hewitson and McClish lectured, one in one ear, the other in the other ear, I kept both eyes glued on that poster of Sartre, figuring only a wall-eyed freak could have come up with Existentialism, and how I sort of  wished I could see first base without looking and do the eye trick still and have the girls giggle and say “freaky!”

That night, writing an essay on the topic of “existential anxiety,” I kept trying to get my right eye to drift, to see my name at the top of the sheet while watching the pen make its marks on the page, but my eyes jetted around in unison, and in the end all I got was a headache.  I suppose I wrote a decent enough paper, for a high school kid trying to be a writer, anyway.  But in other ways I thought maybe I was already finished.  My exophoria had died an unceremonious death, and needless to say I had very few original thoughts on existentialism.

Fig. 3 - The Author Trying to Recapture His Youthful Vision

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David Masiel is currently teaching his students how to see double.

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Notes:

“A Natural History of My Exophoria” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

David Masiel was born in Oakland and grew up in Richmond, California.  He
has worked as tugboat deckhand, longshoreman, golf instructor, and high
school English teacher.  He is the author of 2182 kHz, a New York Times
Notable Book, and The Western Limit of the World (both Random House).  His
work has appeared in Outside Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and The
Washington Post Book World. He teaches in the University Writing Program at
U.C. Davis.

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2 comments

  1. […] David Masiel wrote  “A Natural History of My Exophoria” […]


  2. Hi David, this was a fascinating article for me to read. I’m heavily myopic, but I do not have exotropia or exophoria, at least not naturally. However, I have body identity-integrity disorder (BIID), and for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to have severe exotropia (e.g. wanted to be wall-eyed, much in the same degree that Sartre has exotropia)

    I’ve tried to approach the medical community regarding my need for surgery to become exotropic, and they’ve never taken me seriously. I’ve now resorted to doing eye muscle exercises on my own and wearing base-in prism glasses to induce exotropia. Even then, I’ve only achieved very minor outward eye deviation. In fact, it is barely noticeable.

    I find strabismus in general (and exotropia in particular) to be extremely fascinating and also attractive in women. (I’m a heterosexual male).



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