I woke up on the cold concrete floor of the coffee shop. It was May 2, 2014. A wave of weakness had overtaken me as I moved through the line of customers moments earlier. When I reached the register, my vision narrowed to a pinhole, then faded to black. Now, looking up from the floor, I saw an old man – the cashier who was handing me my change when I fainted. His eyes were on me, his hand doing the sign of the cross over my body.
As I propped myself up on my elbows, lifting my head off the floor, he told me not to move. It was only in retrospect, weeks later, that I realized he’d been doing a stroke test, hoping my eyes would follow his finger as it moved before my face. I wonder if he told the paramedics I’d had a stroke.
Everyone else in the cafe was watching me, and watching him watching me. It was the closest I’d been to being on stage since my years as a gymnast. Back then, as a kid, the force of eyes on my body was grounding. Balance beam was my best event, and it was in arenas where the crowd was on all sides that I excelled. I’d imagine their eyes gluing me to the four inch wide surface, the force of so many gazes powerful enough to defy any of my wobbles or slipups.
After I recovered enough from my fall in the coffee shop to leave the house by myself – one, maybe two months later – I tried to walk to a nearby park. It was summer in Boston. As I walked, dressed in black jeans and a tank top, my usual modest outfit despite the relentless heat, I felt the eyes of each man I passed flicker over my body, resting on my eyes, my lips, my collarbone, my chest. I’d forgotten what it was like to exist in public. Fifteen minutes into the walk, I could no longer breathe. I changed my route, heading instead to the nearest store that sold sunglasses. Maybe that would stop me from feeling the pressure of these men’s eyes on me, allow me at least the appearance of refusing eye contact.
I wore the sunglasses every time I stepped outside after that, only retiring them when winter came.
Monkeys at the zoo get stressed out by the presence of visitors. Until recently we didn’t know why, but experts from the University of Melbourne found that it’s the presence of eyes on them that is the source of anxiety. Researchers placed five monkeys in an enclosure with a one-way screen that prevented them from seeing visitors, while the other half remained in their regular unmodified enclosure. The screened-off monkeys were 68% less likely to display aggression. Concentrations of chemicals linked to stress were a third lower in this group than among the monkeys that could see people watching them.
Summarizing the theory behind a panopticon, a design principle created by Jeremy Bentham as a cost-effective way to structure prisons that involves placing all cells in sight of a central guard tower, Michel Foucault writes “”He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
In the panopticon, the prisoner becomes the guard, so much so that the actual presence or absence of guards becomes irrelevant, so long as the belief in the guard is instilled in the captive.
When he sent me the email about why he was killing himself, Kevin said he saw himself as he existed in my eyes, or at least, how he imagined I saw him: bloodstained from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t live as a monster,” he wrote. If he’d given me the chance, I’d have told him I didn’t see him that way. But maybe it was enough that he’d started looking that way to himself.
That was New Year’s morning, 2014. He hit the send button at 2am, four months, one day, and ten hours before I fainted.
These days, I don’t wear my glasses when I’m out in public. I cannot see much beyond three or four feet in front of me. I can see the world, but it’s out of focus. I can’t make out faces, recognize friends. Most importantly, I can’t tell where anyone is looking. If men’s eyes consume me, I’d rather not know.
I am writing this essay in O’Hare, my laptop balanced awkwardly on my knees. After starting to write, I run out of complimentary wifi, so I give up and turn back to the book I have with me. It’s Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. In an essay on life in the Midwest, Biss writes, “Another friend of mine, a black woman, once described to me her experience of walking through a Wal-Mart in rural Iowa, where she was stared at until she could not bear the attention anymore. Her husband suggested that she take off her glasses so that she could not see the stares, and that, she said, had helped.”
Tonight, from the plane, the city lights below look like tinsel for a Christmas tree, strands of yellow-orange and white winking at me. Without my glasses, I can’t see anything but the tinsel.