When John Berger created the groundbreaking BBC series 'Ways of Seeing" in 1972 (which later led to a book of the same title), he hoped, among other things, to raise questions about our cultural aesthetics. According to Berger, how we "read" a visual image, like an advertisement or a painting or a person we come across as we walk down the street, very much reveals our hidden biases and ideologies.
Now, more than 30 years after Berger presented his theories, 23-year-old Kevin Michael Connolly has written Double Take, an unflinching memoir about life without legs (Connolly was born a bilateral amputee). In an opening epigraph, Connolly invokes Berger: "Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world."
More than just a series of provocative reminiscences, Connolly's memoir is as much about perception—the way we see—as it is about Connolly's life. And, Connolly should know. As a young man, as well as a championship downhill skier, world traveler, photographer and writer, who makes his way through the world by way of a skateboard that reads "THIS IS A LEGLESS GUY'S SKATEBOARD. PLEASE, PLEASE, DON'T STEAL," Connolly has been the subject of many a look and his profoundly memorable book engages in a discussion about the way we stare.
"Every question or assumption people made," Connolly writes, "pushed me a little further from feeling human, and more like an act in the circus—something to stare at and wonder about."
Born in 1985 in Helena, Connolly was born without legs, a condition his doctors called bilaterial amelia and for which there was no direct cause. Though Connolly's parents struggled financially, they were able to provide for their disabled son through perseverance, good humor and a little inspiration from the television show, "MacGyver."
"Since Mom and Dad didn't want to put me in a wheelchair, and books on how to help a legless kid get around didn't exist, 'MacGyver' was the best thing going," he writes.
Like the fictionalized former government agent who used common household objects to thwart his enemies, Connolly's father used the same kind of ingenuity to make life manageable for his son. He built rails along the staircases, and replaced doorknobs with levers that could be used to open doors from a much lower height. Something called "the toilet seat throne" gave Connolly the opportunity to go to the bathroom without falling into the toilet itself (sparing Dad the task of rescuing his son in the middle of the night).
His parents' enterprising spirit rubbed off on Connolly, who learned to ski at the championship level. Furthermore, Connolly's proclivity to be as active as possible is why he rejected prosthetic legs early on. Though the fake limbs allowed him a measure of aesthetic normalcy, they actually restricted his activities, since he had to use crutches to haul the fake legs "that collectively weighed more than me" around with him. With prosthetic legs, Connolly certainly would have attracted fewer stares, but it would have been at the cost of being "virtually stationary." Though a wheelchair was slightly more convenient than prosthetics, Connolly learned during his travels abroad during college that a skateboard was, surprisingly, far more practical. Not only was a skateboard cheaper and more readily replaceable than a wheelchair, but it also allowed him to travel lighter and faster.
Ironically, the device that handicapped Connolly the least was what drew the most curious glances.
"Being on a skateboard brought up too many questions," Connolly writes, "Why is he riding that thing? Can't he afford a wheelchair? Is he homeless? Suddenly, I wasn't packaged neatly into the socially acceptable script of being wheelchair-bound; I was more of a spectacle, a foreigner breaking the mold of how a disabled guy should act."
Frustrated by how he attracted attention, Connolly began snapping photographs of the people who stared at him. At first, the pictures were a means to reclaim control of the situation, to give him a measure of comfort. After returning from his semester abroad and subsequently winning $7,000 in the 2006 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., Connolly used his winnings to fund a worldwide tour that turned his handful of photographs into a now-famous project titled The Rolling Exhibition. In total, Connolly covered more than 17 countries and snapped more than 30,000 photographs of people staring at him.
In the pictures, many of which line the flyleaves of the book, the faces look downward, caught by a camera that sits at the waistline of a young man on a skateboard who is only a few inches off the ground. The expressions show pity, shock, curiosity, befuddlement. The stares of children are perhaps the most understandable; the disoriented gaze of a Romanian priest, perhaps the most extraordinary. But, collectively, they narrate a larger story, like a medieval tapestry that tells one tale of how we see.
Double Take is full of joyful moments and it's a story of personal survival, one that's written engagingly, but its legacy will be this larger story of Connolly's penetrating gaze—through a camera lens—into the disabled view of the collective unconsciousness.
Kevin Michael Connolly talks about Double Take at Fact & Fiction Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 PM.