Learning to See
by Emily Kaplan
When I first start working with Finola, I haven’t begun to carry a camera everywhere; my eyes are not yet the eyes of a photographer.
When I first start working with Finola, what is in front of me is fact.
Finola is a girl who is so ill that she cannot go to school. Joan pulled her two years ago, in the middle of seventh grade, when the weakness and fatigue became too much. Years have been spent searching for a diagnosis, Joan tells me; Finola confounds doctor after doctor.
In the meantime, Finola has been asking for a tutor, Joan explains, and Joan eventually agrees: she wants her daughter to feel as if she’s learning, even though her cognition and her memory are severely compromised.
I just don’t want to see her suffer, she says. She’s already suffered so much.
My friend Katie connects us: I’m a public school teacher looking for some extra income, and Joan and Finola are looking for a tutor who’s gentle and understanding, someone young enough to be relatable.
I meet Joan and Finola at a Starbucks the summer before Finola would have started ninth grade. I find the two of them at the back, perched awkwardly on those skinny gray-brown stools. Finola is looking out the window. She’s fourteen, self-conscious, tall and broad-featured, her straight brown hair frizzing up around the temples. Joan is beside her, a study in inheritable difference: she is pale-skinned, stout, with big round eyes and a curly gray bob that once was red. We find each others’ gaze; she waves.
Here is what I see that day: a mother whose only goal is to help her daughter, oppressed by illness. Finola is suffering.
What is in front of me is fact.
We talk for maybe half an hour, during which I get the gist of what they want from me: to compensate, in a casual way, for what Finola is missing at school, which wouldn’t be worth going to even if she weren’t ill. School, Joan explains, had been a waste of time for her two sons, who were homeschooled in their early teens before they transitioned to fully teaching themselves. The family had sued the school district at one point, too, for reasons she doesn’t fully explain. I have since realized that one of Joan’s primary tactics is strategic vagueness; at the time, though, the family’s history of hardship seemed to indicate mere lucklessness. Both sons, now thirtyish, have turned out exceptionally well, Joan explains: one joined the army and the other just taught himself to be successful.
Joan is emphatic: Finola, too, could go to Harvard if she wanted to—which, Joan makes clear, she does not. She just needs time to get better and to learn at her own pace.
I look over at Finola, who hasn’t spoken the whole time.
I begin to meet Finola and Joan at a library every Thursday afternoon. Joan works on her novel on the ground floor while, two floors up, Finola and I graph lines and solve for variables. Finola’s mathematical foundation is lacking—she hasn’t been exposed to new concepts in two years — but her facility with numbers is impressive. She is eager to learn and intellectually agile. “I remember learning about this,” she says, over and over, her fog-gray eyes sparking to life. “I think this is the same thing, right? Just with variables instead of numbers?”
The next year, we start meeting at a café. I’m taking a photography class, and I begin to carry a camera with me everywhere. I’m beginning to view the world differently: I find myself searching at all times for a subject, looking for ways to frame what stands out. I’m at once more alert and discerning; in many ways, I am learning how to see.
Once we start meeting at the café, Joan sits closer to us, often at an adjacent table, almost always within earshot. Through the perceptive frame of hindsight, I see that with each move to a new location—the library, this café, and, eventually, their home—she inches closer, as if tightening a noose.
In the moment, though, what is in front of me is fact: it may be odd, and a little uncomfortable, but I see nothing more to it than that.
Two years after I start working with Finola, Joan calls to explain that driving to meet me is taking its toll on her; could I come to their house, forty-five minutes away? She wants me start working with Finola on English, too, but of course not too much. Finola should not be asked to read or write a paragraph; even a sentence is too much.
I wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at her, she explains, but Finola’s health is more imperiled than ever. She absolutely cannot even leave Joan’s side.
As Joan speaks, I do the math in my head: Finola, now sixteen, has not read a book in four years.
Somewhere within me, a lens begins to click into place.
A few weeks later, I get a long and rambling text from Joan, chastising me for giving Finola a reading assignment on non-fiction. Finola has started complaining, she says, that she’s falling too far behind other kids her age, that she’s missing out on too much.
The lens twists in and out of focus: the world sharpens and softens, sharpens and softens.
I begin to take dozens of pictures a day, moving away from the clearly anomalous—the beautiful, the transient—and begin to focus my camera on the everyday facts of my life. I begin to see what had before been hiding in plain sight.
My phone buzzes: another text from Joan. Your job is to make her feel like she’s learning, she writes, not make her stressed out about what she’s missing. She needs to focus all her energy on getting healthy.
That week, I meet with Finola, who is avid and peppy as ever. She read everything I gave her, and she highlighted and underlined and wrote in the margins. She bubbles with an energy I haven’t seen in her before. What does this mean? she’d written, her adolescent scrawl confident and messy. I definitely do NOT agree with this at ALL!!! She shows me the checkmarks she’s made in the index. “I’m going to read this next,” she says, her voice bubbly and light. “And then this, and then this, and then this.”
At the end of the session, Joan, muted and solemn, pulls me aside. “We’re still searching for a Lyme-cognizant doctor,” she whispers, “but I’ve been doing a lot of research. Lyme kids have very poor concentration. They have trouble reading. It explains a lot.”
I look over at Finola, scribbling away.
I call my friend Annie. I tell her what I see, my plan to expose the image. “Am I wrong?” I say. “What if I’m wrong?”
Annie pauses before answering. “It’s possible,” she says.
A photographer’s lens is made of ground glass and life experience: a photograph is never objective. But a photographer, like a writer of non-fiction, cannot insert what isn’t there.
A photograph can distort, or it can clarify. Sometimes, it does both at once.
I drive out to Joan’s house for what I know will be the last time. A few days later, she sends me a battery of texts, accusing me, correctly, of reporting her to child welfare. I’d told the caseworker that I suspected Munchausen by Proxy: fabricated illness and baseless deprivation.
You’re wrong, Joan says, again and again. You’re not seeing the whole picture.
There’s a blizzard here in Boston today, and I’m stuck inside, taking pictures. I direct my camera outside the window—and, for the first time in weeks, I can’t see what I know is right there: the tangle of phone lines, the withering plants, the sky. I take the pictures anyway, and they all come out white.
Published February 4th, 2018
Emily Kaplan is a teacher and writer living in New York City. She has studied writing at Harvard College, the Yale Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop; her writing and photography have appeared in The Progressive and The Washington Post. Find her online at emilykaplan.net.