I ONCE KNEW A young man, 19 years of age, who lived with absolute outward confidence and self-possession for a number of years before I discovered that he could not read or write. His various methods of deception, which were also instruments of self-protection, were so skilled and so desperate that neither I nor any of his other adult friends were aware of his entrie helplessness in face of written words until we went to dinner one night at a local restaurant -- and suddenly discovered that he could not read.
Even here, it was not the first time we went out to eat, but something like the second or third, that Peter's desperation hit me full force. The first time, he was clever enough to study the menu for a moment, then look up to the waitress and ask her if he could have "just a Coke and a hamburger." He told me later that he had been through the same thing many times before and that he had learned to act as if he were examining the menu: "Then I ask for Coke and a hamburger. . . . Sometimes they give me hamburger on a plate with salad and potatoes. . . . Then I ask them for a roll and make my own hamburger."
As we began to go out to eat more frequently, Peter would ask to go to Howard Johnson's. I soon discovered the reason for his choice: The photographs, attached in cellophane containers to each of the standard items on the menu, spared him the necessity of struggling with the shape of words at all. Howard Johnson's, whether knowingly or not, had provided the perfect escape hatch for the endangered pride of an adult nonreader.
I say "escape hatch" purposely, because the whole mood of the moment, whenever we were out in the ordinary world together, was permeated by Peter's feeling of entrapment. It was as if he were afraid of being "caught." His hands would tremble slightly and his forehead would break out in perspiration. Once, during a long ride to New Hampshire, I remember that we stopped to eat at a good seafood restaurant. Peter said that he was tired and that he preferred to wait in the car. Only much later did he tell me that he had been stricken with a sense of terror. Even though he had already shared with me the "secret" of his inability to read and knew that he could count on me to help to cover for him, there would still be times like this when the sense of anxiety would overwhelm his sense of confidence altogether.
There came a point when Peter's anxiety began to be obsessive. He did not dare to leave his father's two-room flat for days on end. When he did go out, it would be only to the corner store and back. (He lived, during most of the years I knew him, almost exclusively on precooked frozen foods and soups that came in cans. He memorized the labels, so that he could pick out what he wanted without asking.) His isolation from the daily patterns of the outside world come, after a while, to be virtually complete. Night turned into day for Peter. Stereo music and an average daily diet of twelve hours of television became his sole reliable companions. His mother was dead. His father, nearly illiterate himself, was seldom home. His father's girlfriend was illiterate as well. Four or five friends from grade-school days would come by now and then to say hello. They were, for the most part, illiterate too. Those who could read and write had long since disappeared into that world of hope, employment, aspiration which Peter regarded no longer with longing as much as with alarm.
If I were even to ask him what he wanted most, Peter would give me 10 or 15 other answers before he would mention "learning how to read and write." It was my first experience in the risk and the romanticism of cheating somebody like Peter by naive, noncritical acceptance of his spoken wishes. If I did not know him very well, if we were not neighbors and if he did not view me as a friend, I doubt that I would have felt the right to press him to the point at which he would have dared to tell me, in response, that -- more than anything else in the world -- he wanted to have the chance to learn to read. But how much energy had already been squandered in those many months and years of desperate evasions? If only that energy could have been channeled, from the start, into a program of self-liberation.
This situation -- fear, anxiety, at length a growing arsenal of self-protecting mechanisms -- repeats itself in numerous ancedotes and stories told by those who have worked with illiterate adults.
In an excellent documentary produced by Dorothy Tod, a film maker from Montpelier, Vermont, a formerly illiterate cattle farmer speaks, in retrospect, of the anxiety he used to feel as a nonreader and describes the deceptive mechanisms he contrived to obviate the constant danger of humiliation: "You just feel so backward, so out of place a lot of times. You have to be careful not to . . . get into situations where it would leak out -- or be with people that would make it show."
The man describes some of the strategies he used: "You always try to act intelligent, act like you knew about everything even if you did not . . . If somebody gives you somthing to read, you make believe you read it . . . You must make out like you knew everything."
The patterns of deception, for this man as for so many other illiterate adults, seem to have begun when he was in the early years of school.
"I asked for help several times in school," he says. "The first year in school I learned to read like I was learning to memorize a poem. I could 'go through' the book . . . I could look at the pictures and tell you everything that was said underneath. She thought I was reading . . . I could repeat what was on the page without making a mistake . . . So I never did . . . learn anything."
Another example of the same syndrome -- fear, deception, barely submerged alarm -- is reported in an interview published by Philadelphia Magazine. An illiterate young man, given the pseudonymn of Tommy, explains to a reporter the devices he would use to get himself a job. He would take with him a friend who knew of his problem and who would fill out the job application for him. If this was not conveient, or not possible, he would "tell the personnel people" that he "had to go to a wake" and would return the application form a little later. That would provide him with the time to take it home and ask his wife to fill it in.
As a result of device of this kind, many adult illiterates (very much like Peter) are able to put off for very long periods of time an ultimate confrontation with the problem of their peculiar form on bondage.
In Tommy's case, there was the familiar sequence of postponement, sudden panic -- and abject surrender. He was able to hold a job in a dairy laboratory testing milk, butter and bottles for impurities. He was very thorough and managed to do well by memorizing the crystals, the acids and their various reactions.
His boss, in fact, told him that his work was superior to that of two college graduates who had preceded him in the same job. A decision was made, therefore, to give him a promotion. First, however, an exam was necessary. He took home with him the books that had been given him by his boss for preparation -- and, or course, he never went back.
This story, one of hundreds that journalists, teachers and political organizers have begun to compile in the past few years, suggests at least one additional form of servitude suffered by the functional illiterate. This is the secret reliance of a wife upon husband, or husband upon wife, or even of both (as is frequently the case) upon their children.
Many stories reiterate the painful syndrome of humiliation, of loss of autonomy, sometimes even of a pathological dependence that has power to destroy a family. In the cinematic portrait I described above, the Vermont farmer speaks of his former dependence in these words:
"I was alone without her guidance [i.e., that of his wife] . . . when it come to readin'. . . . In order to find out what's goin' on . . . you've got to read. . . . And if you're handling money all the time, you've got to know how to . . . figure good . . . and fast. It's embarrassing to make mistakes in money. . . .
"When you're on the farm with the cows, they don't ask you no questions. They're happy the way you are. But when you're out in the public . . . you got to know it all." w