From the Editor: A life lived in darkness

Editor of gr Rowena Morcom ruminates on Girl in the Dark, the incredible memoir of a woman allergic to light. See below for a chance to win a copy from Bloomsbury. 

Imagine not being able to read. 9781408858264Not because you don’t know how to, but because you can’t see the words. Why? Because you live in constant darkness. And not just a bit of darkness that you can still navigate by, but wave-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face-and-not-see-a-thing blackness. You can’t bear even a sliver of light that tries to slip through the edges of windows and under doorways. You have spent many hours desperately covering windows, taping up corners and finally and successfully ensuring total inky blackness. You are exhausted and relieved. You live in this room, mostly by yourself. You can venture out occasionally into other gloomy rooms, but your excursions must be very brief and you will have to scurry back to your strange, blind existence. This is the life of someone with the rare but well-documented condition of photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis.

When I first picked up Girl in the Dark the jacket led me to believe it was a thriller. But on closer inspection it turned out to be a memoir of an English woman named Anna Lyndsey. Anna was a happy, average young woman, excited to have just bought her first flat. She was living in London, working at a job in the Blair government that she enjoyed. Then her life changed abruptly and in an almost unbelievable way.

While typing at her computer she noticed that the skin on her face began to feel like it was burning. She didn’t know it, but she was beginning to suffer from photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis. The condition started out mildly, but it would get worse. To an extreme. Fluorescent light triggered the same terrible burning sensation. It wasn’t long before any light – sunlight, the light of a torch or a soft glow from a lamp – would set off an intensely painful reaction all over her body. It would affect skin that was covered by clothing and wasn’t exposed to light. Often the pain would last for days. She eventually became imprisoned in her darkened room, unable to tolerate any light from any source.

I am only part way through this book, but it has me shaking my head constantly in disbelief that this girl can live like this and forge ahead with life, no matter what. I don’t know that I could have done the same. She comes up with word games to play to occupy her, which she calls Games to Play in the Dark. Game 1 is Transformation. Think of two words with the same number of letters. The idea is to change one word into the other by changing one letter at a time. Each time you change a letter you have to make a new word. For example, ‘black’ can become ‘white’ by doing something like this: ‘black’, ‘slack’, ‘slick’ and so on until you make ‘white’. You can’t write the words down. It has to be all in your head.

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Anna tries listening to music but she finds it devastating. Music feeds the emotions. So she turns to audio books, voraciously listening to them on a cassette deck. CD players are too difficult to use as you can lose your place too easily in the dark.  It’s a small circle of actors used for audio books, so she gets to know the voices well. She feels she knows them personally. Anna discovers that she loves SAS thrillers. She revels in the practical information they offer, such as the tip to keep one eye shut when looking at a map at night. The eyes takes 40 minutes to adjust to darkness after being in light. By keeping one eye shut, SAS members can quickly adjust back to the dark. She now also knows how to cover her scent if a dog were to track her. She sees the irony in her acquiring all this information, as she is the least likely person to ever need it. She even tries knitting, but it was frustrating because if she lost track she could not work out what stitch she was up to.

Anna has telephone friends and an amazingly supportive partner and family. They are a strength, but the true strength lies in her.

It’s an incredible story.

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And Baxter, who’s relieved that it’s getting chilly! After all, he’s Irish!

For a chance to WIN a copy of Girl in the Dark, send your mailing address to comp@goodreadingmagazine.com.au and tell us what the author of the book is allergic to. Comp closes 27/05/15.

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