Cover image for Slackjaw
Knipfel, Jim.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, [1999]

Physical Description:
xi, 235 pages ; 21 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RE661.R45 K65 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
RE661.R45 K65 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



A staff writer and columnist with the New York Press describes his battle with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and untreatable genetic disease that results in blindness, and an inoperable brain leasion, in a memoir that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and determination.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Knipfel was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease in his early twenties, and he focuses on that aspect of his life, detailing the small compensations that grow as his eyesight diminishes. He dismisses an inoperable brain lesion that causes rages and depressions with a brief mention of medication for it; he labels his divorce as friendly and tucks it away; he leaves an obvious drinking problem unexplored. All this is somewhat baffling, but what he does cover is engrossing. He fell into a part-time job, writing a counterculture column for a small newspaper, and eventually became a full-time receptionist at the publication. His emphasis on the limitations placed on his life by developing blindness, coupled with his stubborn determination to avoid using a cane, winds up being fast-paced reading, enhanced as it is by quick, quirkily dark wit. Readers can only wonder what more thorough, forthcoming disclosures of the other areas in his life might have revealed. --Whitney Scott

Publisher's Weekly Review

Readers of the alternative New York Press newspaper who are familiar with Knipfel's irreverent "Slackjaw" column won't be surprised to read that this memoir of his grudging capitulation to a degenerative eye disease is the antithesis of the therapeutic memoir. Knipfel is honest, but not earnest; if he has any epiphanies, he presents them with more than a grain of salt. In the introduction, he explains the rare genetic disease, retinitis pigmentosa, and mentions the ensuing complication of a brain lesion and its alarming physical and emotional symptoms. Knipfel's writing is marked by bitter wit and manic irony. His ability to be funny about what happens to him leaves the reader no choice but to laugh along with him. Knipfel wore glasses from the age of three, but his parents seem to have had no inkling of the seriousness of his vision problems. An uncle, however, appeared prophetic when he said to the 12-year-old Knipfel, "You'd better start learning Braille now." But an accurate diagnosis wasn't made until Knipfel was in his late 20s. Knipfel claims to have had a natural contrariness and, to illustrate the point, informs readers that he habitually wore a Chicago Bears jersey in Green Bay. Later, in New York City, Knipfel's marriage went into a tailspin, his sight worsened and he blundered through a series of ridiculous encounters with the bureaucracy of blindness organizations‘all of which he makes sound quite funny. Beyond the humor, however, his sharp sense of the absurd and his candor about his own considerable failings of character provide a moving reflection on what it is to face blindness and not, under any circumstance, to feel sorry for himself. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One the world is your oyster "SUICIDE HOTLINE?" the chipper young woman on the other end of the phone seemed to ask me when she answered.     When I dialed the phone, I had no idea what I was going to say. I hadn't thought that far ahead. What: "I'm about to open my veins. Now what the hell are you gonna do about it?" That wouldn't do. I get into trouble when I don't think about things beforehand. I've never been a good improviser. So instead of saying something moronic, I opted to say nothing at all.     "Hello?" the voice at the other end returned. "Anyone there?"     All the Nietzsche I had been immersed in went right out the window.     "Hello?" she asked again. "I can hear you breeaathing !"     "Shut up," I snapped. I was tempted to say, "That's it, you blew it," and hang up, but I wasn't that cruel, yet.     "So what's goin' on?"     "Oh, what do you think? That I just called to chat?"     "I meant , what are you planning?" She meant business.     "Razors. I guess. At least that's what I have in front of me."     "Razors rarely work, you know."     Terrific, I call for help, and I get someone who critiques my style.     "Got any better suggestions? I can't afford a gun."     "That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to help."     "Well, you're doing a bang-up job of it."     "Hey," she said, "we got off on the wrong foot." I could hear the exasperation in her voice. "Let's start again. What's your name?"     "Name doesn't matter."     "Okay," she said. "Why don't you tell me why you want to kill yourself?"     "A man has to have a reason? I didn't break up with a girlfriend, I didn't lose a job, and I wasn't just told that I have Hodgkin's disease. Nothing that simple."     I didn't have an answer to her question. I had begun to notice that my failing eyesight--which in the past had affected me only at night--now was affecting me in the daytime as well. I couldn't cut it in physics, I couldn't cut it at the University of Chicago. So here I was in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin, a nondescript state school that would admit autistics if they could pay the tuition, studying philosophy, which wouldn't do me a damn bit of good in the future. Those facts weren't reason enough, either.     "Any possible reasons you could give me?"     I was in it now. I might as well try. "I guess you could say I'm a fuck-up."     "Yeah?" Her voice dropped to a throaty whisper. She must have thought that she was getting someplace, that she had finally broken through. "When was the last time you fucked up?"     "About five minutes ago, when I picked up the phone to call you."     "That's not very nice." She was attempting to hold on to her sincerity.     "Sorry," I said. I suppose I was, too, a little.     "Let's try something else. Let's turn things around. Tell me some of the things you like."     I thought for a minute.     "I'm pretty hard-pressed to come up with anything just a, very moment, ma'am."     "C'mon, there must be something. You must have friends."     "Nope."     "None at all?"     "Nope."     "What about your family?"     "My family's cool. I've got nothing but kind things to say about them."     "There, you see? Can you imagine how they would feel if you killed yourself?"     "So, what, I should go on living solely out of guilt? Guilt over how they would feel if I were to end it? That's not much to work with." I chuckled.     "See? You just laughed! If you laugh, that must mean something. Everything's not completely dark."     "Well, Wagner said," I responded, one more young man who took his Wagner too seriously, "`Amidst laughter should we face our doom.'"     "Who?"     "Never mind," I told her, knowing the whole thing was a mistake. It wasn't going anywhere, and never would go anywhere. "Thanks for taking the time, but I'm suddenly real tired. I'm going to bed."     "Are you still thinking about hurting yourself?"     "Well, yeah. But right now I'm just too damn tired." These few minutes on the phone with her had completely sapped what energy I had left. She began to say something else, but I hung up. Useless. I lay down on my mattress, still dressed, and fell asleep.     The next morning was brisk and clear outside. There were things I was supposed to be doing, but for the life of me, I couldn't remember what. I put on my hat and coat, left the apartment, and started walking in a direction I'd never gone. I had started wearing a black fedora everywhere when I was sixteen years old. At the time, I thought it made me look like Bogart. I was mistaken. So many of us go through life trying to be Bogart or Cagney, but we mostly end up like Elisha Cook, Jr. I certainly did. But the hat stayed. It was my most identifiable feature.     I walked for hours, hoping I could exhaust myself and walk the bad thoughts out of my head. Once my legs started getting numb, I turned around and started back home. While I walked, I took inventory, only to discover that there was nothing to count.     When I got home, I opened the door, threw my hat and coat on the mattress, snatched the razors off the desk, took them into the bathroom, and searched in vain for a comfortable spot on the tiled floor. After a few minutes I gave up on that silly notion and set to work on the right wrist. I KNEW THE JIG WAS UP when I heard a knock on the door. I was on my knees over the toilet. There was blood everywhere, on the floor, on the toilet seat, smeared on the walls. The puddle of water in the toilet was dark red. I stared down at my arm and saw the razor blade sticking out of the deep wet maw that used to be my wrist.     I had blown it again. It looked as if I was going to live. To make things worse, it was my upstairs neighbor Steve at the door.     I stood slowly. I hadn't lost enough blood to be light-headed, but my knees were shaky. I leaned against the wall, pulled the blade out of my wrist, and dropped it into the sink. Now there was blood in the sink. I stepped out of the bathroom and went to the door, where Steve was still knocking, and pressed my forehead against it.     Steve, I said without opening, "things are kind of a mess in here.... "     "But things are always a mess in there," he said back.     "This is ... different."     There was silence.     "Steve, I hurt myself in here. I want you to be prepared."     There was more silence. "Okay," he finally said.     I turned the lock and opened the door. He saw the blood on my shirt and looked at my arms.     "You don't want to see the bathroom."     Steve, who'd always been sort of motherly, stepped past me into the apartment. "I don't imagine you have any bandages," he said. "Do you have any paper towels?"     "Sink ... under the ... you know," I gestured feebly. Steve went to the sink, bent down, grabbed the roll of paper towels and ripped some off.     "Here, wrap those up. I'm taking you to the hospital. Put on your coat."     I slid into my trench coat, and Steve grabbed my army jacket and led me into the hallway. I gave him my keys, he locked the door, and we stepped outside.     There was a hospital five or six blocks away. Steve held my arm as we walked to the emergency room, the paper towels soaked and dripping a trail on the sidewalk.     It was a slow night in the emergency room, so it wasn't long before we were seated in front of a young woman who typed my vital statistics and insurance information into her computer.     "How did it happen?" she asked. Neither Steve nor I said anything.     "How did it happen?" She looked up from her screen. Steve glanced at me nervously and gave me a nudge.     "Fishing accident," I said.     She stared at me hard.     "Okay, it wasn't a fishing accident." I held up both arms. "What do you think it was?"     After she was finished with me, she told us to sit in the waiting room, where someone would come for me.     Wooden trains and stuffed animals were piled in one corner of the room. The walls were covered with lurid paintings of cartoon bunnies and cows. Everything was bright and happy. We were in there alone, and after a few moments I began to giggle.     Steve looked at me, frightened. "What?"     I pointed at the wall. "The bunnies."     Soon I was hysterical, shaking in my chair while the blood dried on my arms. Maybe it was the spooky euphoria that follows survival of a life-threatening experience. Maybe it was the horrifying laughter of a madman who simply didn't care anymore. But at the time, everything around me seemed silly. Steve was laughing just as hard as I was.     After we had waited laughing for twenty minutes, a tall woman came into the room and sat next to us.     "I was afraid you had left," she said kindly. "You were supposed to be next door, in the adults' waiting room."     She asked to see my arms. I pulled back the blood-soaked sleeves of my trench coat. My wrists were a clotted mess.     "Let's get that cleaned up." She left the room and returned with alcohol, cotton balls, and bandages. As she wiped the blood away, she explained that she was a social worker from the psych ward upstairs, where I would be spending the next few days.     She asked some more basic questions: Had I tried before, did I know why I did it, did I have a shrink. Before leaving to get things ready for me upstairs, she wrapped a bandage around my now clean wounds.     "Just keep those on, keep things covered up. We wouldn't want anything noxious falling into your wrists."     The idea of something noxious dropping off the ceiling into my wounds set Steve and me to laughing again as we waved goodbye to the social worker.     "Did you want to go to the adult waiting room?" Steve asked.     "Oh, why bother?"     Steve agreed, and there we sat and chuckled until an orderly arrived with a wheelchair to take me to be sewn up.     "Can I ride in the wheelchair?" Steve asked him.     "Are you hurt?"     "No, I just like wheelchairs."     "Then you can't."     I took my seat, and the orderly pushed me down the hall to an examination room, Steve tagging along behind.     "Get up on the table," the orderly said when we got to the room. "The doctor will be in here in a minute."     I crawled onto the crinkly paper, lay back, and waited. Steve wandered around the room, studying the tongue depressors and the blood pressure contraption on the wall.     When the doctor came in, he wouldn't look me in the eye. Graying beard, balding on top, glasses, stethoscope around his neck, officious.     "That was a stupid thing to do," he said.     "A happy hello to you, too," I answered.     He didn't say anything, just rooted around in some drawers. After he found what he was searching for, he turned to me. He held something in his hand. "First, I'm going to poke you with a pin," he said.     "What, as punishment?" Steve started to laugh, but swallowed it when the doctor shot him a glance.     "I'm going to poke you with this pin," he repeated, "to see if you caused yourself any nerve damage."     The rest of the time we were with him, I didn't say anything, except for yes and no. He didn't find any nerve damage, so he sewed up both wrists.     "You can go back out to the waiting room now," he said, still not looking me in the eye. "Someone will come and get you shortly." He paused. "Maybe someone upstairs can help you." With that encouragement and my wrists newly wrapped, I went out to wait again with Steve. It was well past midnight, but he stayed with me, and kept talking, and kept me laughing. When two social workers showed up to take me to the psych ward, he tagged along again, and they let him.     "I just want to see where you'll be putting him," Steve explained.     The four of us got on an elevator, and one of the women pulled out a key that gave access to the sixth floor. The women showed me to a room near the bank of elevators, with a single bed, a table beside it with a lamp on top, and a window. No roommate, thank God. They let Steve see the room and then informed him he had to leave.     I thanked him for his help and shook his hand before one of the women led him to the elevator. The woman who stayed had me clean out my pockets to make sure I wasn't carrying any sharps. She took the pen I had and handed me an awful, wrinkly bathrobe. Then she told me to sit on the bed and answer a few questions for her.     She pulled out a form several pages long and set to work. "What is your name?" she asked. "Do you know who the president is? Do you know where you are?"     It was way past my bedtime. I just wanted to sleep, but I answered her questions the best I could. When she asked me to count backward from a hundred by sevens, I had to protest.     "I'll give it a shot," I said, "but it's late and I'm real tired."     "We still have a ways to go. If you'd come in sooner, we wouldn't be doing this at two in the morning."     I answered her questions and let her read me my rights as an incarcerated loon, and signed the bottom of the form. Then she told me she was going to give me a tour of the ward.     "I really don't care to take a tour now, ma'am," I said. "Can't we do this tomorrow?"     "We have to do it tonight. I'm not going to be here tomorrow."     I slid off the bed and followed her into the hallway. Things were quiet, all the other doors were shut, but down the hall I saw a young woman sitting on the floor, knees to her chest, rocking back and forth against the wall.     "Don't mind her," my guide said. "That's Missy. Missy does that."     She showed me the communal bathrooms and showers. "You can use these in the morning," she explained.     I don't think so , I thought.     She showed me into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. A brown-yellow light shone on its sad contents. Food for the insane.     "You can have anything in here to eat. Except that piece of pie." She pointed at a piece of runny chocolate cream pie on a paper plate on the bottom shelf. "That's Bubba's pie."     I looked at that pie and remembered that I hadn't eaten anything since the morning. My head hurt worse than my wrists.     The woman led me back to my room, told me that someone would come talk to me in the morning, and wished me a good night. Then she closed the door.     I took off my clothes and put on that damn bathrobe and got in between the scratchy psych ward sheets. I lay there for a while, feeling my stomach and my head and my wrists, then got out of bed and sneaked into the hallway. There were no guards around, no orderlies. Just Missy. I tiptoed past her to the kitchen, where I ate Bubba's pie. THE HOSPITAL LET ME OUT a few days later, with a promise from me that I would start seeing a shrink. I went through the phone book, but the doctors all looked expensive. I asked around among people I knew, and they suggested the university might offer some cut-rate service.     I wound up assigned to a shrink named Gerry. Seeing him required a mile-and-a-half walk from my apartment to the university hospital, where he had an office hidden away in the basement. Gerry was a short, fat, fuzzy man. A grad student working on his Ph.D., who saw me for cheap. Twice a week, negotiating with my class schedule, I made the trek to the hospital and sat in his office while he chain-smoked, nodded, and took notes. And I talked.     I had never been much of a talker, but things unspoken started spilling out, and Gerry took them seriously. He didn't blame my parents for all my troubles. They were innocent here, they never gave me anything but love, and I wasn't about to sit by while someone badmouthed them.     And he didn't.     I could feel my personality mutating in a radical way. I wasn't the silent, smart kid anymore. I had reopened Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and found that his narrator was speaking all the things that had been pounding through my head--the paranoia, the rage, the isolation, the fear.     I tried to explain this to Gerry. While I would make reference to "the Underground Man" to characterize this personality shift, he insisted on calling it the "Under-the-ground Man."     "I'm not dead yet," I pointed out.     Gerry never did get that name business right, so at our last meeting, four months after our first, I gave him a copy of the book and told him that only by reading it would shrinks like him ever be able to understand people like me.     Before I gave him the book, though, Gerry said something that cemented a change of attitude in me. It saved my life time and again over the next few years--and almost ended it just as often.     "Jim," he said, grinding out his last cigarette as we wrapped up, "you are not a terrible person. But the world is a terrible, horrible place. What you've got to do is take all that rage and all that hatred that's inside of you and turn it around. You've got to stop trying to destroy yourself. Turn that rage outward, go out and try to destroy the world instead."     Something in me, some high brick wall, crumbled at that moment, some heavy force floated out of me. On the way back to my apartment that bitter cold January evening, I balled up my gloved fist and punched it through a series of windows in an abandoned warehouse. I was starting to feel much better. "Die at the right time," Nietzsche wrote. At that moment, I did. Copyright © 1999 Jim Knipfel. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. ix
The World Is Your Oysterp. 1
Exposurep. 12
Slackjawp. 30
A Real Americanp. 40
Dan Ratherp. 63
Welcome, Neighborp. 82
I've Gotta Be Mep. 94
Kicking a Gift Horsep. 108
Square Pegs in a Round Museump. 115
If I Can Make It Therep. 129
Public Transportationp. 145
Flubbity-Flubbityp. 164
Dealing With Itp. 175
The Cane Ladyp. 189
Encounter Group Faces Deathp. 207
Getting Hip to the Lights-Out Wayp. 219
Acknowledgmentsp. 233