Potok, Andrew 1931-
POTOK, Andrew 1931-
PERSONAL: Born July 12, 1931, in Warsaw, Poland; immigrated to the United States, 1940; naturalized citizen, 1943; son of Leon (an engineer) and Anna (a designer; maiden name, Maximilian) Potok; married Joan Henley, January 30, 1954 (divorced, 1963); married Charlotte Clifford (a designer and ceramist), October 10, 1967; children: (first marriage) Mark, Sarah; (second marriage) Jed Clifford, Maya Clifford. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1953; Union Graduate School, Ph.D., 1976. Politics: "Liberal." Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—East Hill, Plainfield, VT 05667. Agent—Phyllis Wender, Rosenstone/Wender, 3 East 48th St., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10017.
CAREER: Painter, 1955-72; writer. Counselor to the blind.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Vermont Association for the Blind (member, board of directors), Vermont Council on the Arts (member, board of trustees).
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts fellow in creative writing, 1983.
Ordinary Daylight: Portrait of an Artist Going Blind (memoir), Holt (New York, NY), 1980, reprinted, Bantam (New York, NY), 2003.
My Life with Goya (novel), Arbor House (New York, NY), 1986.
A Matter of Dignity: Changing the Lives of the Disabled, Bantam (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Quest, Moment, and Life.
SIDELIGHTS: Andrew Potok, a former painter, is the author of several books, among them his memoir, Ordinary Daylight: Portrait of an Artist Going Blind. Ordinary Daylight is an account of Potok's loss of eyesight and that event's meaning in terms of his work, his identity, and his personal relationships. The author inherited a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa from his father. This disease causes the retina to become more opaque, so that it has difficulty distinguishing form, light, and color. Beginning in his early forties, Potok gradually became completely blind. Having been an artist all his life, the author at first could not accept his inability to paint. But despite his diminishing sense of self-worth, he grew determined to continue living a full life. At a rehabilitation center in Massachusetts, Potok learned to walk with a cane and to read and write using the Braille system of raised dots. He was also taught by a sculptor to imagine colors and forms so that he would not lose his visual memory. After he left the center, the author decided to work toward a doctorate in psychology and begin a new career as a counselor, helping other victims of his disease learn to accept and cope with blindness.
Several years after embarking on his new career, Potok read of a woman in England who claimed to have a miracle cure for retinitis pigmentosa. He left his clients behind and traveled to England, in desperate hope that his sight might be restored. The woman subjected Potok to repeated stings from bees she claimed were specially treated in order to cleanse him of his affliction. Having learned that he had passed the disease on to his daughter Sarah—for which he felt tremendous guilt—the author subjected her to the treatment as well. But it soon became clear that the cure was ineffective, and the author returned to his family in Vermont. After spending some time feeling sorry for himself, Potok realized "something that should have been clear to me from the beginning: the only thing that could replace the creative activity in the center of my life would be another creative activity." He substituted writing for painting and used words to describe the painful loss he had experienced. In order to review and edit what he had written, Potok had someone else read each draft into a tape recorder. The author was now able to see beyond his pain and appreciate his wife's success as a potter. David Mamet, writing in the Chicago Tribune, referred to Potok as "anecdotal, funny, charming, and very direct." New York Times Book Review contributor Anne Roiphe stressed the universal element of Potok's experience. "Ordinary Daylight," Roiphe stated, "concerns not just a blind artist but the human ordeal."
Following Ordinary Daylight, Potok's next book was a work of fiction. My Life with Goya, which he published in 1986, deals with a young Polish Jew's new life in America following World War II. Ten-year-old Adam Krinsky, an artist who emulates the eighteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya, escapes from Warsaw in 1940 with his uncle, Bolek Casimir. Four years later, they are living in New York City with old friends, including Maggie, who is Adam's age. Each of the main characters pursues a dream: Bolek re-creates the fur business he left behind, Maggie becomes an actress in Hollywood films, and Adam finds success as a painter. Potok—who has crafted his main character using details from his own life—explores Adam's relationships with his uncle, with Maggie, and with his art.
Taking an advocate's stance, Potok produced A Matter of Dignity: Changing the World of the Disabled in 2001. Using interviews, the author presents portraits of therapists, researchers, and activists—some disabled, some not—who have worked to more fully integrate disabled persons into mainstream American life. It is not a simple task; as recently as the 1960s, Potok notes in his book, many U.S. communities enforced what he calls "ugly laws," prohibiting people with disabilities "or in any other way deformed" from being seen in public places. More recently, as the book reports, some seventy percent of the disabled were reported as unemployed; those who do work have often been underutilized because of perceived deficiencies of skill. The author categorizes disability "politically, as another form of ethnicity." A Matter of Dignity chronicles the work of such people as Ted Hunter, a blind computer expert who created JAWS, a screen-talking software; Mary Lou Breslin, founder of the Disability Rights and Defense Fund; and Chai Feldblum, who helped craft the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Potok also narrates the story of how he was paired with his first guide dog, "a giant move, not only in shrugging off my natural fears about putting my life in the hands of a dog, but in being unequivocally identified from then on as a blind man."
At the same time, in A Matter of Dignity Potok takes a stand against individuals, organizations, and issues he considers counter to the cause of the disabled. Actor Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic, is criticized for lobbying for spinal-cord injury cures while "losing sight of the pressing need for civil rights and ongoing care," as Potok writes. He also addresses the research into genetic selection, prenatal diagnosis, and the human genome project, which theoretically could alter the genetics of generations to come. To these issues the author comments: "It is interesting to consider this rage for cleanliness and 'purity' in light of the human genome project, which dreams of perfectibility, a disease-free, disability-free humanity, a more efficient and happy workforce, the conquest of death."
"While careful not to present a completely cheery portrait of the world of the disabled," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Potok "discusses such positive developments as the new academic Society for Disability Studies." The author's message of empowerment in A Matter of Dignity lifts the book beyond a work that "evokes pity," in the words of St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic Stephen Lyons. "Instead, Potok reminds us that the attributes of ingenuity, compassion and justice come from the heart and mind, and are always present in every human being: 'disabled' or not."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Potok, Andrew, Ordinary Daylight: Portrait of an Artist Going Blind, Holt (New York, NY), 1980.
Potok, Andrew, A Matter of Dignity: Changing the Lives of the Disabled, Bantam (New York, NY), 2002.
Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1980, David Mamet, review of Ordinary Daylight, p. 3.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2001, review of A Matter of Dignity, p. 1669.
Library Journal, April 1, 1980, Joan Kapstein, review of Ordinary Daylight, p. 851; June 15, 1986, Marcia G. Fuch, review of My Life with Goya, p. 79.
New Yorker, October 27, 1986, review of My Life with Goya, p. 144.
New York Times, March 3, 1980, "For Blinded Painter, a New Meaning to Words," p. D7; April 18, 1980, Anatole Broyard, review of Ordinary Daylight, p. C26.
New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1980, Anne Roiphe, review of Ordinary Daylight, p. 12; September 7, 1986, Jay Neugeboren, review of My Life with Goya, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1980, review of Ordinary Daylight, p. 97; Mary 2, 1986, review of My Life with Goya, p. 64; November 12, 2001, review of A Matter of Dignity, p. 45.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 10, 2002, Stephen Lyons, "Author Focuses on Accomplishments, Not Circumstances of Disabled People," p. F8.
Washington Post, July 7, 1980, review of Ordinary Daylight, p. D2.*