Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See

Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See

by Robert Kurson

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Overview

Mike May spent his life crashing through. Blinded at age three, he defied expectations by breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, joining the CIA, and becoming a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and family man. He had never yearned for vision. Then, in 1999, a chance encounter brought startling news: a revolutionary stem cell transplant surgery could restore May’s vision. It would allow him to drive, to read, to see his children’s faces. But the procedure was filled with gambles, some of them deadly, others beyond May’s wildest dreams. Beautifully written and thrillingly told, Crashing Through is a journey of suspense, daring, romance, and insight into the mysteries of vision and the brain. Robert Kurson gives us a fascinating account of one man’s choice to explore what it means to see–and to truly live.

Praise for the National Bestseller Crashing Through:

“An incredible human story [told] in gripping fashion . . . a great read.”
–Chicago Sun-Times

“Inspiring.”
–USA Today

“[An] astonishing story . . . memorably told . . . May is remarkable. . . . Don’t be surprised if your own vision mists over now and then.”
–Chicago Tribune

“[A] moving account [of] an extraordinary character.”
–People

“Terrific . . . [a] genuinely fascinating account of the nature of human vision.”
–The Washington Post

“Kurson is a man with natural curiosity and one who can feel the excitement life has to offer. One of his great gifts is he makes you feel it, too.”
–The Kansas City Star

“Propulsive . . . a gripping adventure story.”
–Entertainment Weekly

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812973686
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/19/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 121,286
Product dimensions: 7.82(w) x 5.08(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Robert Kurson earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, then a law degree from Harvard Law School. His award-winning stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. Crashing Through is based on Kurson’s 2006 National Magazine Award-winning profile in Esquire. He is the author of Shadow Divers, and he lives in Chicago. Visit the author’s website at www.robertkurson.com.

Hometown:

Chicago, Illinois

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois

Education:

B.A. in Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986; J.D., Harvard Law School, 1990

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Mike May’s life was near perfect when, on February 11, 1999, he made his way to the dais in the ballroom of San Francisco’s St. Francis
Hotel.
The forty-six-year-old businessman had been invited to present the prestigious Kay Gallagher Award for mentoring the blind, an award he’d won himself the previous year. Dozens in the audience knew his history: blinded at age three by a freak accident; three-time
Paralympics gold medalist and current world record holder in downhill speed skiing; entrepreneur on the verge of bringing a portable global positioning system (GPS) to the blind; coinventor of the world’s first laser turntable; mud hut dweller in Ghana; husband to a beautiful blond wife (in attendance and dressed in a tight black top, short black skirt, and black high heels); loving father; former
CIA man.
People watched the way May moved. He walked with a quiet dignity,
effortlessly negotiating the obstacle course of banquet tables and chairs, smiling at those he passed, shaking hands along the way.
There was more than mobility in his step; his gait seemed free of regret,
his body language devoid of longing. Most of the people in this room worked with the blind every day, so they knew what it looked like for a person to yearn for vision. May looked like he was exactly who he wanted to be.
He was accustomed to public speaking, and his messages were always inspiring. But every so often a member of the audience would turn on him, and it usually came at the same part of his talk, the part when he said, “Life with vision is great. But life without vision is great, too.” At that point someone would stand and jab his finger and say, “That’s impossible!” or “You’re not dealing with your inner demons,” or “You’re in denial.” The objections came from both the blind and the sighted. May was always polite, always let the person finish his thought. Then, in the warm but definite way in which he’d spoken since childhood, he would say, “I don’t mean to speak for anyone else. But for me, life is great.”
That, however, would not be the message for this evening. Instead,
the tall and handsome May spoke glowingly about the award winner, about how much it had meant to him to win the Gallagher,
and about the importance of mentoring. He seasoned his talk with jokes, some tried and true, others off the cuff, all to good effect. Then he presented the honoree with a plaque and a check and returned to his seat. When he sat down, his wife, Jennifer, told him, “You made me cry. You look beautiful in that suit. That was a lovely talk.”
May and Jennifer stayed at the hotel that night. Ordinarily, they would have awoken and made the seventy-five-mile drive to their home in Davis, California, each needing to return to work. But Jennifer’s contact lenses had been bothering her, so she had scheduled an appointment with a San Francisco optometrist–not her regular eye doctor, but a college friend’s husband who had been willing to see her on short notice. Though May was itching to get back to his home office, he agreed to accompany Jennifer to the appointment.
The morning was glorious as the couple strolled San Francisco and enjoyed that rarest of pleasures, an unhurried weekday breakfast at a streetside café.
The optometrist’s office was nearby, so May and Jennifer, along with May’s Seeing Eye dog, a golden retriever named Josh, walked up
Post Street to make it to the morning appointment. Jennifer assured him that the visit would take no more than thirty minutes. May had never accompanied his wife to an eye appointment and was pleasantly surprised to learn that they would be out so quickly.
The waiting room grabbed Jennifer’s attention straightaway. An interior designer, she lived in a world of color and flow, and she began describing it to May: the direction the chairs faced, the nar-
rowing of the hallway that led to the exam rooms, the taupe of the wall behind the receptionist–“whose cheekbones are stunning, by the way.” It intrigued May that he had married a woman whose universe was so dominated by the visual, and it delighted him that she felt so passionate about sharing it all with him, even about the beautiful women.
A few minutes later Mike Carson, the optometrist, greeted May and Jennifer and led them to an office. Carson examined Jennifer,
recorded some measurements, and told her he would write her a new contact lens prescription. May was glad that things had gone so quickly–this would allow him to get home in time to pick up their sons from school.
Carson finished making his notes and flipped on the light. He looked at May for a few seconds, made another note in Jennifer’s file,
then looked back at May. He asked how long it had been since May had seen an eye doctor.
“At least ten years,” May replied.
“How about if I take a look?” Carson asked. “That’s a long time to go without seeing a doctor.”
“You want to examine me?” May asked.
“Just for a second,” said Carson. “Let’s just make sure everything is healthy in there as long as you’re here.”
May thought about it for a moment, then said, “Sure, why not?”
May and Jennifer switched places so that May now was in the examining chair, the one with the chin holder and instrument that looks like the pay-per-view binoculars on top of the Empire State
Building.
“I think you’re going to find that I’m blind,” May joked.
The doctor leaned in and immediately saw that May had a bluecolored prosthetic left eye. His right eye, his natural eye, was nearly opaque and all white, evidence of dense corneal scarring. No pupil or color could be seen at all. Some blind people wear dark glasses to conceal such an eye, but May had never felt the need to do so. His eyelid drooped a bit, leaving his eye mostly closed, so no one reacted badly to it.
Carson stepped away and sat on a stool.
“Mike,” he said, “I wonder if you’d mind if my partner, Dr. Dan
Goodman, takes a look at you. He’s an ophthalmologist, one of the best in the country. I think he’d be interested.”
May glanced toward Jennifer with just the slightest quizzical look. Jennifer was already wearing the same expression.
“I guess it can’t hurt,” May said.
Carson left the room. For a moment neither May nor Jennifer said anything. Then each said to the other, “That’s interesting.”
A moment later Carson returned with his partner. Dr. Goodman,
age forty-two, introduced himself and asked May how he’d lost his vision.
“It was a chemical explosion when I was three,” May replied.
“Do you have an ophthalmologist?” Goodman asked.
“He died about ten years ago. He’d been my doctor since the accident,”
said May.
“What did he tell you about your vision?” Goodman asked.
“He tried three or four corneal transplants when I was a kid,”
May said. “They all failed. After that, he told me that I would never see, I’d be blind forever. He was supposed to be a great ophthalmologist.
I knew he was right.”
“Who was he?” Goodman asked.
“Dr. Max Fine,” May replied.
Goodman’s eyes lit up.
“Dr. Fine was a legend,” Goodman said. “He was my teacher. I
sought him out when I was young and asked to do surgery with him on Wednesday nights. He was one of the great ophthalmologists in the world.”
May and Goodman spent a minute reminiscing about Dr. Fine.
Then Goodman asked, “Mind if I take a look?”
“Not at all,” May replied.
Goodman dimmed the lights, stepped forward, and, using the thumb and forefinger on one hand, opened the lid of May’s right eye.
The stillness of the touch startled May. Goodman’s hand stayed motionless, absent the vaguest hint of tremor. May had felt that kind of touch only once before, from Dr. Fine, who had held his eye open in just the same way.
Goodman peered into May’s eye. He saw the massive corneal scarring that trademarks a chemical explosion. He shone a penlight into May’s eye, which May could barely detect (most blind people have some vague light perception). But when Goodman waved his hand in front of the eye May could not perceive the movement.
Goodman conducted a few more tests, then looked through the same biomicroscope Carson had used. It took only moments for him to see that May was totally blind.
The exam lasted perhaps five minutes. Goodman turned on the lights and pulled up his stool.
“Mike,” Goodman said. “I think we can make you see.”
The words barely registered with May.
“There is a very new and very rare stem cell transplant procedure,”
Goodman continued. “It’s indicated for very few types of cases. But a chemical burn like yours is one of them.”
Jennifer leaned forward. She wasn’t sure whether to look at
Goodman or her husband. What was Goodman saying?
“Despite your horrible corneal disease, it looks like there’s good potential for vision in your eye, and that it can benefit from a stem cell transplant,” Goodman said. “I’ve done maybe six of these procedures.
Most ophthalmologists in the world haven’t done any. It’s not something anyone specializes in. And I don’t know of anyone who has done one on a patient who has been blind for as long as you’ve been. But it could work.”
All May could think to say was “That’s interesting.”
“If you’re interested you need to come back for something called a B-scan,” Goodman explained. “That’s an ultrasound designed to look into the back of the eye to make sure there’s no gross pathology or abnormality. But if the B-scan is clean, there’s a good chance this could work.”
Goodman’s words sounded surreal to May. His body and brain agreed simultaneously that it was impossible, that once Goodman ran the tests he would see what Dr. Fine had seen–a patient beyond repair. Still, the newness of the science intrigued May–he’d never before heard the term “stem cell” used in connection with vision–
and he fashioned this thought: “I’m in the technology business, and technology changes all the time. Why can’t vision technology change, too?”
“Is it complicated?” May asked.
“The stem cell transplant is complicated,” Goodman said. “By itself it provides no visual benefit. But it sets the stage for a cornea transplant three or four months later. If all goes right, the two surgeries add up to vision.”
May appreciated that Goodman spoke clinically and directly,
and without trying to inspire him. To Jennifer, something seemed amiss. Vision had always been impossible for May, not because science hadn’t caught up to him but because something fundamental was missing or unfixable.
Jennifer watched May for his reaction. There was no hallelujah.
There were no cries of “Oh, my God!” Rather, May pursed his lips slightly and gazed up and to the right a bit, the way he always looked when he was considering the theoretical rather than the wonderful.
“I’d like to think about it, if that’s okay,” May said.
“Of course,” Goodman said. “Take your time. Call my office if you’d like to go ahead with the B-scan. It was very nice to meet you.”
Goodman shook hands with May and Jennifer. And with that he was out of the room. The encounter had lasted less than ten minutes.
After the appointment May and Jennifer were walking back to their red Dodge Caravan, which was still parked near the St. Francis
Hotel. The weather was bright and brisk, and reminded Jennifer of the couple’s newlywed days living in San Francisco, when they walked miles for just the right Chinese takeout and talked about their future on the way.
“Do you and Wyndham have soccer practice tonight?” Jennifer asked, unlocking the Caravan’s doors.
“Not tonight,” May said. “Good thing, too. I’m already behind on a bunch of business calls. It’s amazing–just one day and the whole world seems to rush out from under your feet.”
Josh climbed in and sat on the floor of the passenger side, between
May’s feet. Jennifer found her sunglasses, started the ignition,
and pulled out onto Post Street. With good traffic they would be in
Davis in an hour and a half. May opened his cell phone and began to return business calls, simultaneously making certain that Jennifer didn’t miss the turnoff to Route 80. Though May could not see, he possessed a collection of uncannily accurate mental maps–it was that kind of skill, and others, that caused many to consider him a kind of super—blind man.
Once across the Bay Bridge, the couple relaxed a bit. For a few miles neither said anything. Then Jennifer looked over at May and remarked, “Well, that was fascinating.”
“It sure was,” May said. “It doesn’t sound real, does it?”
Jennifer hesitated for a moment. She hadn’t had time to begin to sort out the implications of Goodman’s offer, but she knew this much: something big had happened, and whatever it meant it was certain to be an intensely personal issue for her husband. For that reason she wanted to say nothing, to simply let him process it for himself. But she also needed to hear him talk.
“So, hypothetically,” Jennifer finally said, “and we don’t know if this would even work, but just for fun, what would it be like? What might you like to see?”
In twelve years of marriage they had never discussed what it might be like for May to see, not even in the playful way in which they allocated imaginary lottery winnings. Since early childhood,
May himself had not thought about what it might be like to see, a fact that struck many who met him as inconceivable. The concept of vision simply was not part of his existence. Just the sound of Jennifer’s question felt otherworldly to him.
“Well, Dr. Fine made it very clear that I would never see in my lifetime, so it’s probably not possible,” May said. “But just for fun . . .”
Jennifer kept her eyes on the road.
“I think I’d like to see panoramas, especially at Kirkwood,” May said, referring to the family’s favorite ski resort. “And I’d like to see beautiful women.”
“That makes sense,” Jennifer said. “You’re always thinking about those things anyway.”
“Panoramas and women are two things I love but can’t go around touching. They can’t really be adequately described to me.
Those are two things you really have to touch with your eyes in order to fully appreciate.”
“Where might you go to see these beautiful women–other than your own home, of course?” she asked.
“Saint-Tropez. Straight to the topless beaches.”
“I need a tan,” Jennifer said. “Mind if I go with you?”
“If you don’t mind me gawking.”
“You’ve been gawking since I met you. What else?”
May thought further. He told Jennifer he might like to see the Eiffel
Tower or the Statue of Liberty or the Galápagos Islands, all places to which he’d already traveled. Definitely the Golden Gate Bridge.
Jennifer nodded and kept driving, past rolling hills and sprawling strip malls. Neither she nor May spoke for a time, each of them content to paw at and then retreat from this new idea. Finally Jennifer asked May if he might like to see their boys.
“Of course I would,” May said. “I would love to share the experience with them–it would be like stepping on the moon with them.
But it’s interesting, Jen. I think about seeing them and I don’t feel like
I’ll see anything I don’t already see. I feel like I already know exactly what those boys look like, not just physically but their entire beings.
So in a certain way I can’t imagine vision making any difference.
That sounds strange, doesn’t it? But I can’t imagine vision or anything else adding anything to how much I love or feel like I know those guys.”
The van rolled along in silence for a few seconds.
“And, of course, I feel exactly the same about you,” May said. “I
already know you.”
“What if you didn’t like how I looked?” Jennifer asked.
“You’re beautiful,” May said. “I think I know exactly what you look like. What would I see that I don’t already see? You’re gorgeous.”
For a while May and Jennifer said nothing. At the halfway point they compared hunger levels and debated whether to stop for lunch.
The consensus was to press forward in order to make it home in time to pick up the kids from school.
“Saint-Tropez, huh?” Jennifer asked.
May laughed. Jennifer took the Davis exit, telling her husband about a new client she had lined up, listening to his ideas for a new driving route to Kirkwood. He appreciated this hour with his wife.
She had never mentioned the myriad practical benefits that would accrue to her if he could see–his ability to drive, fill the gas tank,
read his own mail, sort the laundry, pick up groceries.
“Imagine seeing the panoramas at Kirkwood,” May said. “This really has been an interesting day.”
Jennifer pulled her van into the two-car garage of the Mays’ threebedroom house, which sat at the elbow of one of the town’s shady,
tree-named streets.
Inside, the couple thanked Jennifer’s mother, who had watched five-year-old Wyndham and seven-year-old Carson, and kissed her good-bye. May threw a tennis ball to Josh in the backyard, fixed himself a sandwich, and continued the daylong process of returning business calls. When the boys’ school let out, he strapped the tan leather harness on Josh and walked over to pick them up. Kids called out, “Hi, Mr. May! Can we pet Josh?” As always, May said, “Sure thing, Tyler” or “Is that you, Emily?” On the walk home his sons competed to describe the bugs they’d found during recess.
The rest of May’s day moved like every other: business calls,
wrestling with the boys, feeling a new fabric Jennifer had picked for a client, drafting a business letter, doing the dishes, telling bedtime stories. It had been ten hours since May had returned from his meeting with Dr. Goodman. In that time he had not thought once about new vision.
And that is how quickly life returned to normal for May. His start-up business was primary in his mind. In a risky move, he had resigned his executive position at a major adaptive technology company in order to design, manufacture, and market a portable GPS
system for the blind–the first of its kind. By linking May’s receiver and mapping software to a laptop computer contained in a backpack,
a customer could tune in the global positioning satellites that orbited the earth. Then, with the push of a button, that customer could receive real-time, turn-by-turn directions to whatever location he desired: home, work, grocery store, restaurant, park, Starbucks–
anywhere. May saw his product as liberating. It gave a kind of vision to the blind.
But he needed funding, so much of May’s life centered on pitching potential investors. He had bet it all on this company (which was still without a name), drawing on personal savings to support both business and family. Neither he nor Jennifer was of independent means, which meant that he had maybe a year to make the business work. After that, he would need to return to the corporate world.
The restraint on freedom that came with a traditional executive position was discordant with May’s DNA.
He worked eighteen-hour days, testing the GPS between coffee shops in Davis, on the ferry to San Francisco, in airplanes as the unit’s cables spaghettied onto the shoulder of the person seated beside him. In Anaheim he raced a group of blind cane users from their hotel to Disneyland. Even though he had to stop along the way to hot-glue some loose wires, he still won. May believed in his product.
And he was able to work from home, a godsend in allowing him the time with his family he so deeply desired.
When Wyndham’s soccer coach quit before the team’s first practice,
parents gathered at May’s house to determine what to do next.
He told them that he would coach the team, practices and all, and that he would mail them schedules immediately. The parents applauded.
When May got up to adjourn the meeting and reached for his cane, some of the mothers said, “Wait a minute–you’re blind?”
May said, “Yep.”
He ran drills like Sharks and Minnows, set up orange cones in a mostly symmetrical field shape, and taught the five-year-olds ( Jennifer called them “widgets”) to run together in packets toward the correct goal. They loved his stories about playing soccer in college,
like the one where he made the other team use his beeping ball for an entire half, and how he got a bloody nose when the silent ball hit him in the face.
Many of the players knew May from school. Every year, he’d bring Josh to area classrooms to tell children what it was like to be blind. He loved their questions: Do your kids get away with stuff because you can’t see them? No, because I have secret techniques to stop them.
But they always try.
Were you all bloody after your accident? Super bloody. When you met Bill Clinton, how did you know it was really him? I asked him to talk so I could make sure. He demonstrated his talking gadgets with the robot voices, set up a maze of chairs to show how he could zigzag around with Josh, and printed each kid’s name in braille on a card they could take home. Carson and Wyndham thought they had the coolest dad in the world. The couple had never taught the boys to be proud of May. As Jennifer told people, “They just are.”
In the time between working and parenting, May squeezed in the remainder of a full-blown life. Much of this was made possible by his exceptional ability to move through the world. Often, sighted people would observe him walking smoothly through a banquet hall or an airport or an unfamiliar house and insist that May could see.
Some would even challenge him on it. He was hard-pressed to explain his skill in simple terms.
Part of it stemmed from May’s highly refined ability to detect echo. Over the years, he had learned to distinguish tiny differences made by the sounds of voices or footsteps or canes as they bounced off various objects and openings. The information was so subtle that it vanished if May tried to think about it. Many blind people cannot use echolocation–some can’t hear the echoes; others refuse to trust them. Echoes were sewn into May’s instinct.
Spatial perception and spatial memory were also critically important.
As he moved about a place, whether in a friend’s dining room or New York’s Penn Station, May’s brain vacuumed in the relative locations of obstacles, openings, and passageways, then assembled them into mental maps he could recall at will. He attributed this understanding of space–and his ability to memorize and utilize it so fluently–to his lifetime of participation in sports.
And May was flat-out good with his two primary mobility instruments,
the cane and the dog. Few blind people use both, but May saw power in each. The cane was simpler to use and didn’t need feeding,
but it bogged down in crowded situations and never picked up overhead obstructions, the enemy of the fast and free. The dog was difficult to take overseas and had to be fed and walked during business trips, but he was able to detect overhead obstructions,
could move quickly through crowds, and was nice company. Of the
1.3 million legally blind people in the United States in 1999, the great majority used canes, while only 7,000 used dog guides.
May’s mobility skills lowered the drawbridge to the world. But it was his approach that took him places. To go where May wanted to go–which was everywhere–one had to be willing to get lost, a terrifying prospect to many blind people. To May, getting lost was the best part. He told people, “I’m very curious. So getting lost doesn’t feel like a bad thing. It’s part of the process of discovering things.”
When they asked how he’d gotten so adept at cane travel he told them it was his curiosity, not his cane.
Weeks had passed since May had met Goodman and still he’d given little thought to the doctor’s offer. Every so often, Jennifer would ask her husband for his thinking on the subject of new vision, and it was at these times that May appreciated her most. There was no longing in her question, no subtext of urging him along. May confessed to
Jennifer that he hadn’t thought much about Goodman’s offer. He also told her that life already felt good and busy and full. And that’s how they left it as winter turned to spring.
As the months passed, however, May did not feel that it was responsible to allow the matter of new vision to linger dormant on his to-do list. He respected the import of Goodman’s offer and knew that he should give it the serious consideration it deserved. He began to turn things over in his head.
He tried to imagine a life with vision. But his thoughts always returned to his current life, his real life. He had risked everything on his business, which was now in its most critical phase and demanded his full attention; a single misstep could tear it from its moorings and drown the project. After two recent close calls during similarly stressful periods, his marriage was now thriving and hopeful.
He was focused on raising his boys and being present for the moments in their lives–especially the small ones–which already seemed to fly past too quickly.
He tried to imagine what vision could offer. He could already go virtually wherever he chose–and loved the adventure of finding his way. He could already do whatever he desired–sometimes better than the sighted. And he continued to believe that he saw Jennifer and his boys in the real sense of the word–the sense that speaks to what it really means to know a person, what it means to connect to another’s soul.
Vision was not calling to May. He knew that the idea of a blind man refusing sight would strike most of the world as unthinkable.
But he thought of it this way: What if a sighted person was offered a new sense? What if he was offered, say, the ability to foretell the future?
At first, that prospect might seem thrilling. But if the person was already leading a full and rich life, would he really want it? Might it not disrupt an otherwise wonderful life? And what if it turned out to be something wholly different from what the person had bargained for? May wondered how many happy people would proceed if offered a permanent crystal ball or sonar or the ability to read minds. How many of them would say yes to a new sense? And that is how May felt about vision. His life was already complete without it.
And yet, during the breaks in his days, May found himself wondering about what it might be like to see. He might be touching one of Jennifer’s fabrics and think, “What would my favorite color be?”
Shooting hoops with his sons he might ask, “Would I recognize my boys right away?” At the neighborhood coffee shop where he loved to listen to the lilting conversations and high-heeled clicks of women, he wondered, “Would I still prefer blondes?”
May continued to focus on his work and his family. This was no time to be distracted from what was most important. Still, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge he might ponder, “What would I find beautiful?”
Walking in the park he might ask himself, “What would look familiar to me?” Shaving in the bathroom he thought, “Would I look like myself?”
And he wondered about the red hat.
When he was a very young boy, just before his accident, his father had taken him deer hunting, a mystical adventure that had required awakening before dawn, carrying weapons, and wearing a bright red hat for visibility, one that could be seen from distances of forever. This was May’s first memory in life. Since losing his vision,
he had felt himself just a whisper from being able to see that red hat in his mind; it was always just a hairsbreadth beyond his grasp–
there but not there. And he asked himself, “Would I see that red hat if somehow I were made to see?”
One night in August, after the boys had been bathed and tucked in,
Jennifer and May sat on lawn chairs under the orange tree in their backyard. She had asked him little about the prospect of new vision.
Tonight, she wanted to know.
“So, where are you on this?” Jennifer asked. “Do you think about it?”
“I do think about it,” May said. “Every time, I ask myself if vision would really change my life. And every time the answer is the same:
I don’t think it would. Life is already so full. I don’t need it. I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.”
For a minute neither of them said anything. Then Jennifer leaned over, kissed her husband’s cheek, and said, “Okay.”
of Jennifer’s fabrics and think, “What would my favorite color be?”
Shooting hoops with his sons he might ask, “Would I recognize my boys right away?” At the neighborhood coffee shop where he loved to listen to the lilting conversations and high-heeled clicks of women, he wondered, “Would I still prefer blondes?”
May continued to focus on his work and his family. This was no time to be distracted from what was most important. Still, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge he might ponder, “What would I find beautiful?”
Walking in the park he might ask himself, “What would look familiar to me?” Shaving in the bathroom he thought, “Would I look like myself?”
And he wondered about the red hat.
When he was a very young boy, just before his accident, his father had taken him deer hunting, a mystical adventure that had required awakening before dawn, carrying weapons, and wearing a bright red hat for visibility, one that could be seen from distances of forever. This was May’s first memory in life. Since losing his vision,
he had felt himself just a whisper from being able to see that red hat in his mind; it was always just a hairsbreadth beyond his grasp–
there but not there. And he asked himself, “Would I see that red hat if somehow I were made to see?”
One night in August, after the boys had been bathed and tucked in,
Jennifer and May sat on lawn chairs under the orange tree in their backyard. She had asked him little about the prospect of new vision.
Tonight, she wanted to know.
“So, where are you on this?” Jennifer asked. “Do you think about it?”
“I do think about it,” May said. “Every time, I ask myself if vision would really change my life. And every time the answer is the same:
I don’t think it would. Life is already so full. I don’t need it. I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.”
For a minute neither of them said anything. Then Jennifer leaned over, kissed her husband’s cheek, and said, “Okay.”
May’s summer got even busier. He amped up his efforts to recruit investors, took his sons to minor league baseball games, kept up with his father, who was not feeling well. He had less time than ever to think about a topic like vision. And yet, something about the subject didn’t sit right with May. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. But it felt like it was something that went back a very long way.

Reading Group Guide

1. Mike has often said that his life story is as much about his mother as it is about himself. Why is this?

2. Do you think you would allow your children to take the risks that Ori Jean allowed Mike to take?

3. Mike complied a big list of reasons to decline new vision. He could list only one reason to go forward: curiosity. Why was curiosity so important to Mike?

4. There came a time when Mike's struggle with his new vision became so difficult that he nearly destroyed his anti-rejection medication. Why didn't he simply let his vision go and return to his very full and satisfying life as a blind person?

5. Mike chose not to read about his predecessors in history, all of whom seemed to suffer a profound depression for having dared to see after a lifetime of blindness. Why did he ignore these case histories?

6. How would you describe Mike's new vision? Is it what he, and the scientists, expected? How is his sight different from traditional sight, and what challenges does his new vision pose?

7. Robert Kurson describes the world Mike sees as similar to a modern abstract painting. How is this so?

8. Describe Mike's relationship with his wife, Jennifer, before and after the surgery. What challenges does his vision pose in their relationship?

9. Early in MIke's new vision, he is astonished to learn that highay signs hang over the road and that stop signs aren't yellow. What are some other visual aspects of our world that sighted people take for granted and never discuss?

10. How do Mike's children react to their father's new vision? Was it what you expected? Was it how you would expect your children to react? Is it how you might have reacted if it was your father who came home with new vision?

11. Why do you think those pateints who came before Mike had such bad results emotionally? Why do you think Mike's results were so different?

12. In what ways, if any, was Mike worse off for gaining vision? Were there things he saw that he wished he hadn't seen?

13. Were you surprised at Mike's reactions to the sight of certain things? The homeless? The heavyset person in Costco?

14. Dr. Ione Fine must teach Mike to do a lot of "cognitive heavy lifting" in order to make sense of what he sees. What is meant by this? How does Mike teach himself to see?

15. The book often stresses that vision is dependent on knowledge. How is that possible? What is the implication for Mike's new vision?

16. If you were in Mike's place, and given all the risks he faced, would you have gone forward with new vision?

17. Discuss the significance of the titles Crashing Through. Have you ever had a similar experience in your own life, of meeting challenges by throwing yourself headlong into a risky adventure?

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Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was my first Robert Kurson book but will definitely not be my last. He takes you into the world of Mike May, a man filled with the curiosity and a willingness to take opportunities that come his way, even when some dangers may be looming. Kurson tells this true story with such skill, you will believe you are right there with Mike. If you are afraid of books with some science in them, dont be. This book is so well written, it is neither dry or hard to understand at all. The story of Mike and his family, reads like a wonderful love story too. Don't miss out on this amazing book about courage and some of the most fascinating things about sight that you will ever learn, just as Mike did and just as Kurson did. Thank goodness for men like Mike May and Robert Kurson, who both share their curiosity of the world with us. This book is a must!
xollo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Despite the fact that Mike May was a rather remarkable blind person, I found this book to be much less than remarkable. The storytelling plods, the details of Mike¿s life bore, and even when Mike was learning to see, I grew quickly tired of figuring out along with Mike: that must be a shadow! Is that a giraffe? Etc. It seemed like the author left out interesting details (how does a blind man take a geometry class designed for sighted people anyway?) in favor of the mundanities of married life, or being a father. Mike is portrayed as a nearly flawless human (relationship trouble between he and his wife were glazed over, for example) and a hero, and I came away, after forcing myself through dry, telling prose, frustrated, and wanting to know the ¿real¿ story. His story could have been told much more engagingly and to greater effect in a magazine article rather than 300 trudging pages of and then Mike did this, and then he did this, and then he thought this. This is a book you ¿get¿ from the title: Crashing Through: A Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See. What more do you need to know?
alaskabookworm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kurson's other book, "Shadow Divers" is one of my very favorite nonfiction adventure pieces of all time. "Crashing Through" was also very interesting: the story of a man who regains his sight after a lifetime without it, and his attempts to "learn" how to see. Kurson came to Anchorage to promote this book, and there were only a dozen or so people at the signing. He was a very nice guy; very passionate about his stories. His interest, empathy, and research come through in his books.
mandolin82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A reasonably written book on a fascinating subject: a man who gains sight after 40 years of blindness.
khuggard on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Crashing Through is the true story of Mike May, a man who regained his sight after losing it in an accident at age 3. The author uses Mike's story to explore issues of risk taking, decision making, family, and vision itself. Indeed, the most interesting parts of the book were the portions that explored vision from a neurological perspective. Kurson did an excellent job of condensing complex scientific concepts into accessible and understandable passages. The pictures he selected to illustrate his points, were effective and well-chosen. In fact, I think you would lose a lot listening to the audio version of this book without looking at the pictures. One of my favorite parts of the book occurs when Mike gradually begins to make sense of the visual world. Although Mike can see after his surgery, his brain has a difficult time making sense of the incoming visual stimuli. Mike eventually learns to use the tricks he utilized as a blind man to make sense of the sighted world. I found this to be a interesting metaphor for the human ability to turn our weaknesses into our strengths and to use them to make sense out of the world. At times, I felt the the biographical detail in the book was a bit extraneous. I also felt like the author repeated himself excessively, often mentioning details that he had just shared within the previous few pages. The first time I noticed it, it seemed like a slip, something an editor missed. After a pattern of it, it just became annoying. Fortunately, this book has enough merits that I would still recommend it to nonfiction readers.
princesspeaches on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Truly inspiring. I loved Kurson's work in Shadow Diver's and was not disappointed by this book. Without giving too much away, the basic idea is a man who lost his vision in a childhood accident, but who never allowed it to be a disability, faces a possibility of regaining his sight as an adult.
dogrover on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Who, being blind, would think twice about taking an opportunity to see? The answer and the reasons for it define the man, Mike May, as much as the title of the book itself.This intimate narrative is part love story, part drama, part documentary, part case study, and completely compelling. As I read some of the exploits of the main character, I had to double-check that this was indeed a true account. The author spent hundreds hours interviewing May's friends and family, as well as May himself, and weaves their accounts together into an emotional, if sometimes simply-told, recital.The descriptions of May's first experience with vision, after losing it for over 40 years, brought tears to my eyes and made me feel as if I were part of the story myself.
sbenne3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating read - I could not put this down. I love biographies especially on such an interesting life.
debs4jc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See by Robert Kurson truly tells an amazing story. Robert May wasn't born blind, but a childhood accident when he was three years old caused him to become blind due to the chemical burns his eyes received. His mother's refusal to treat him as handicapped coupled with Mike's own tenacity enabled him to grow up defying the typical streotypes associated with blind people. He literally "crashed through" them by using his brain to develop ways of doing the things he wanted to do--like ride a bike, hike alone in the woods, ski, travel, and many other things that even sighted people hesitate to try. His philosophy is that getting lost is part of the fun and it is truly inspiring to hear about his adventures and courage when facing challenges. The book shifts back and forth from telling the story of May's life to explaining how at age 46 May discovered that due to advances in the treatments available for blindness he was a good candidate for a procedure that could enable him to see. As the story follows May through his decision process, the reader learns a lot about this particular medical procedure and a lot about May, who has to weigh his current contentment and satisifaction with his busy life with the risks of the procedure and the uncertain benefits sight would give him. I am thoroughly enjoying listening to every bit of this story. The narrator, Doug Ordunio, reads with a nice even tone well suited for this non-fiction memoir. One annoyance--I don't like audiobooks that give you no cues at the end of each CD but rather leave it to the listener to figure out it is time to change to the next disc. Anyway, I find May's enthusiasm for life and determination to not let anything stop him totally inspiring. Here is a man who skied in the Olympics, travelled to Africa (alone except for his seeing eye dog), worked for the CIA, started his own business, and I could go on and on. What is stopping the rest of us from following our dreams like this? I also thought the medical information was fascinating as were the descriptions of the perception problems of blind people who have their vision restored. This book informs, inspires, and challenges the reader to use his or her senses to their fullest potential. I highly suggest giving it a read or a listen. A bonus on the audiobook is that the last disc has an interview with the author and May which adds even more insight into this fascinating story.
LisaDunckley More than 1 year ago
Crashing Through is the story of a man who was blinded at age 3 and who never let it slow him down—then who underwent a radical new procedure to regain his sight at age 46. One of the things I found interesting in this book, was the information about the procedure and about eye surgeries in general. However, the part of this story that was fascinating was about vision in general. When Mike regained his vision, he couldn't comprehend faces or details. He could not tell the difference between men and women, he couldn't identify his wife's face, he could spend all day with someone and not be able to recognize them 2 minutes later. He couldn't tell who was in a photo, and barely could tell WHAT was in the photo. The problem for the doctors was that in the entire history of time, there had only been about 25 people who had gotten their sight back after a lifetime of blindness—so no one knew what was going on, why it was happening, or if it would ever improve. Mike's case broke new ground—this was evidence that sight continued to develop during childhood and when people didn't have sight during that critical time, the part of their brain that developed to process sight, just didn't have any reason to develop. Those neurons were allocated by the brain to other functions. Part of the book showed different optical illusions to normal visioned people, which were seen as entirely differently by Mike. MRIs showed that Mike's brain circuitry operated differently in some areas. The scientists were literally able to make new discoveries about how brains operate, and how vision develops and works. Interesting book, gave me a lot to think about. Recommend to anyone interested in science, exploring new discoveries, brains, and people who live courageous lives.
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I enjoyed this book. It evokes emotions and discussion about what you might do if faced with a medical decision. Or perhaps if a loved one has to make a decision like this that could impact the family. For book clubs, like ours, it will evoke a lot of discussions on several levels.
kodellpt More than 1 year ago
I tell everyone I know to read this fantastic story. An easy read and so very interesting. One of my favorites!!!
mansfield333 More than 1 year ago
this is by far one of the best books ever......mike may is one of the most fasinating men i have ever heard of!!!
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DoctorJ More than 1 year ago
The book has a lot of purple prose and is not particularly well written (in my opinion) but the personality of Mike and the facts of his story are incredible. I keep rememebering it -- and am on the website today to buy another copy because I foolishly gave mine away. This book is a testimonial to a truly unique, adventurous and indomitable spirit -- who is also a good reporter of the facts from the user's perspective at the frontiers of visual science. One of the things I found the hardest to stomach was the incredible STUPIDITY of the ophthalmologist who did the stem celll transplant that helped him regain his vision. The doctor's failure to tell Mike about the possiblly devastating emotional consequences and his failure to refer Mike to an occupational therapist to assist with his rehabilitation were just stunning to me. . . . and I'm a doctor. What an indictment. For an insight into another mystery of the human brain, I suggest you also read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomy professor who suffered a stroke and is able to describe what it was like to have only one half of her brain working!
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