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Ellen Bassani

In conversation with Jennifer Richardson

Photo of Ellen Bassani

 

I was born into a world in which I did not have the right to exist, in which I would not be accepted unless I cut out the central part of myself – my blindness. It was discovered when I was 3 or 4 months old. My mother was absolutely traumatised, and a 3 month old baby doesn’t have the capability to separate from the mother, so her trauma was mine. I learned very young to feel terrified. I then became very ill. I think I almost willed myself to die. My family felt cursed. Two of my mother’s five siblings had died before they were 20, and as the next 2 had their first-borns something happened to each. One was bitten by a mosquito and ended up in a coma for 9 months and then was very physically disabled. The next, my cousin, fell down the stairs and severed his facial nerves so his face dropped. So when I was born everyone wondered what the family had done to be cursed. To have a blind child was just too shocking for my parents, so I was brought up as if I was sighted. I still went to eye-specialists, but nothing else accommodated my lack of sight. I was sent off to school, and no one was told I couldn’t see, and I managed to survive as if I was sighted. Even when they did find out, nothing changed, and I went on pretending. I’d caught up the social conditioning around me that who I was, was so shameful that I had to pretend to be someone else, to the extent that I’d put my life at risk, running across roads not carrying a stick... To be seen as blind was worse than being killed – it was that deep. So I know what it is to be relevant.

A pivotal point in my life was when I was 13 and I went to an eye-specialist who had seen me all my life. When I told him I wanted to be a social worker he said to me that that was totally unrealistic. “Now, you be a good girl, and when you’re a bit older if you’re very good you can be a telephonist”. That’s what was expected of me, to be passed on from living with my parents to living with my sister as some kind of burden to her. I was devastated, because that was the first time that someone had actually broken through my denial. I had the expectations of a sighted person – go to university, get married, get a job, like my sisters. It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t. I was gut-wrenched. He said to my parents that I’d have to be slotted into the blind system, which I then was. I learned brail in 6 weeks, and it usually takes people months and months. But I knew that this was my one bite of the cherry, and I had to go from Southport to Brisbane. I was a really fragile being at that time – probably tough as old boots too from all this abandonment stuff. I had to go to a school of 1500 people and I was expected to find my own way. I had one afternoon a week with my own tutor, but I didn’t complain because this was my one chance. I had this deep knowing that I was meant to be a social worker and I worked so hard for it – 6 or 7 hours a day after school. And I got the job, despite everyone telling me how unlikely it was, and that if there were a sighted person going for the same job then they would get it.

I used to work with people who were blind, trying to get them to come to terms with not being able to see, and I hadn’t even started the journey! That was in my 20s. But three things happened that helped me change. One of those was that I married a very sweet, kind and safe man, who gave me little other than safety. But that safety was enough to allow me to stop running. It was a very loving relationship, but it is no longer there. That is equally important. In his leaving I had to finally address the abandonment stuff. Before I met him, I said to the universe, “All right, Universe, I’m ready now to learn how to love somebody”. And within a matter of weeks he came into my life and we were together five or six years, certainly 3 or 4 of which were very happy. But I still felt very burdened by my past, and I said, “All right, Universe, do what is needed to take this burden off my back”. Never for a moment did I think that would mean he would leave. But he did. And it was traumatic. All those old feelings of abandonment were dragged up again. I don’t know how I coped, but I did. I knew even while I was weeping that this was what had to happen.

My marriage was right for the time but it went beyond where it needed to be. I married someone with a condition called dyspraxia, which means that he has organisational problems. For someone who can’t see, living with someone who has such severe problems with organisation was an absolute nightmare. It added a thousand times more to my struggle, to be honest. But we have two wonderful children – Charlotte and Alex. When I married, as a Quaker, I promised to be his friend for the rest of his life, and although the divorce was horrible, I will be his friend. He lives 5 minutes down the road with our son, and the connection’s still very strong. We will see each other right. Now I make good friends with men, and I don’t encourage relationships that I don’t feel will go in the direction that I feel they should. I don’t want to develop relationships with people who are not ready to take full responsibility for their feelings. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. If I ever have another relationship it’s going to have to be with my psychic equal. And if that doesn’t happen, so be it. But I’m not going to toy with relationships just to make that needy part of me happy. In my past a boy or a man was a symbol of me belonging and being attractive, so any attention was better than no attention. I think that vulnerability was abused.  I don’t think I looked after myself in past relationships but I certainly do now. I have become central in relationships where before I held on because I was so abandoned. And now I know that someone as powerful as me is waiting in the wings to come in.

The second thing that changed me was that I went to a new dentist. It was pivotal. My old technique was to follow the vague white blob that was the dental nurse into the room. She would then leave me and the dentist would say good morning, I’d be able to track where the voice was… but on this occasion no one said anything. Eventually a very impatient voice said, “Well, aren’t you going to sit down?”. I had no stick, no sign, no nothing and I don’t look blind. I sat down and told him I couldn’t actually see. Then he did something that not many people used to do – he was honest with me. He said, “When I saw you standing there and not focusing on me, I thought two things. Either, oooooh we’ve got a strange one here, or this one’s very shifty, there’s something not honest about her”.  Now, showing where my prejudices lie, I decided then that I’d rather be seen as blind, because I’d probably been having this effect on everybody. So I came out of the dentist, walked to the zebra-crossing that I’d crossed so many times, with life in hand, and dragged out of my bag the cane that I’d never used in my life. I used it and I saw that cars stopped. I just walked through. It was amazing. I stood at the other side and thought, “My God. That was probably the most courageous thing I ever did”. To actually take out that symbol that I found repugnant, and face up to what I thought everybody else’s prejudices would be – “she no longer has any value, she is no longer an attractive woman…” – I knew what the enormity was.

The third thing was that I went to an eye-specialist who had all his students there, and he said to them “Here’s Mrs Blackwood. She’s a remarkable example of someone who’s come to terms with her lack of sight”. I thought to myself that I absolutely had not. “Now tell us Mrs Blackwood”, he said, “what is the hardest thing about not being able to see?”. This was very impertinent of him. He was showing off, and asking me to reveal my most private thought. I told him that the worst thing about not being able to see was not being able to perceive beauty. And he flustered somewhat before replying, “Well, modern art is nothing to write home about”. I felt as if he’d kicked me in the chest. It was very painful for me to actually say that, particularly in front of a whole group of strangers. And one of the students leant over and squeezed my arm, as if to say, “What a jerk!”. I came out and was really heartbroken, and decided that this was the time to unload all of this stuff. So I began to see a therapist, began my journey.

I had come from a position of feeling totally powerless, from a poor family where security was attached to money; and I never truly felt respected for who I was. There was a very strong woman trapped inside this frail, needy, neglected, abandoned person, and the strong one was determined never to be pushed aside, wasn’t going to be poor. I see the fact that security around money has been such a strong issue for me as a facet that I need to change. I’m working on it, on just letting go, but my Jungian animus, the masculine of me, had to be extremely strong for me to survive. It was determined, focused, ruthless if need be, aggressive. Loving my ex-husband was the beginning of the development of the feminine within me. She’s in progress. I was determined that I was meant for more than being cast aside. Now I know that if a sense of power, abundance and respect is not within yourself, then scrabbling after them is pointless, because you may get them but they’re not real if they’re not inside you. I really believe that no one can take your self-respect from you unless you give it. I have tremendous self-respect. In fact, there was a point in my therapy when I sat there in awe of the human being that had done that journey. In that moment came the real beginnings of self-esteem, the profound forgiveness of those around me. I could let go.

Until I did my journey I had always wanted to see. I thought that the other senses weren’t good enough, that my whole being was designed visually and that I couldn’t bear not to see beauty. But then I did a sculpture course, hung out with other blindies! And did feel at home. They weren’t drop-out misfits, just ordinary people. I created a sculpted head that just flowed out of me. I suspended my intellectual judgement, thinking that I wasn’t a sculptor, that I was hopeless, and just opened my channels. Everyone said it was very beautiful and that was the first time that I got pleasure from another sense. Also I’ve got a painting that I did myself. I’m really proud of it. This is really important to me because I once again suspended all my self-criticism, thinking blind people don’t paint. I just hovered my hands over the brushes and then over the paint, and felt which was right. Each block of colour was a mood, a day… whether it’s good art or not, I don’t care, quite honestly. Everybody sees in it what they want to see, and I did it as honestly as I could.

Most blind people are fearful. That’s why I’m unusual. Of course I still have fears, but what’s changed is my sense of powerlessness. There aren’t people that I’m afraid of, because I know that if push came to shove I could out-tough most people. The human being would be scared, but I don’t think my spirit would be. I still am frightened of saying the wrong thing, something that may come out as offensive or rude. Most people aren’t as up-front as me and so won’t tell you if they find something wounding. I’m afraid of physical pain and of growing old. That triggers into my original feeling of despair that when you’re vulnerable, you’re alone. I’m scared I’ll feel irrelevant. But I also know that you don’t lose relevance unless you give it away. I’m afraid of dying alone but not of dying. I hope and expect to die peacefully with those I love around me. That’s what I’ve asked the universe for. Whatever thought comes in that feels uncomfortable is me running away from it, but I have survived by being able to read those thoughts and that discomfort. So I don’t ignore them very often now, and if I have an argument with somebody it’s because I’ve been displaying behaviour that I didn’t know I was displaying, so I do try to understand what that’s about. When you’re frightened and feel powerless, fears overwhelm you and you don’t feel you have any real solutions. I still get frightened, but now I know that I can pull over, be quiet, ask someone for help. The stimuli are still there but I can take control of the fear. We imagine things are scary, and what I’m good at now is distinguishing between real and imaginary. Fear is only human, and there are so many things out there that could damage us, but I live my life choosing to think that each and every person is an ally if I need them. Each situation is something to learn from, and will lead me into the next phase. It’s just an attitude, but it works.

I have made friendships because I’ve needed allies. I know within seconds whether I can trust a person, whether I’ll love a person. And I’m never wrong with that. I keep those friends for a very long time. I don’t really have enemies other than people that I am furious with in that moment. And I will shoot my mouth off! My ex-husband said I could kill a man at a hundred paces with my voice. I have Italian in me, and I don’t get angry easily, but when I am, I don’t control what I say, and I can wound very badly. But one of the great qualities that I have is that I will always go back and say sorry, if they will let me, and explain that that anger is part of who I am. Friendship is important to me. I nurture it. I respect it. I keep up contacts, reinforce friendships and show people that they are relevant in my life. I do a lot of stroking, because I think that’s what they deserve. And increasingly I feel I’m picking up friends who give me what I deserve, whereas before they were perhaps too needy.

But I have a real problem with people who are weaker than me – isn’t that awful? – people who don’t use their resources like I’ve used mine. I find it difficult to talk with people who are stuck in the victim position. People who are saying, “Poor me, poor me. Isn’t it awful.” I just want to shake them and say, “For Christ’s sake! 40 000 sperm raced at one egg and made you. That must mean that you’re here for a reason. You’re not here just to do all this complaining and not live your life as richly and fully as you can”.I’m impatient for people to know the joy that’s inside themselves. I’m impatient at prejudice and ignorant lives. You have to have the courage to live, and people give up and sit in front of the telly. One of the most powerful and loving women I ever met was in the last stages of MS and could only just blink one eye. She had such an effect on those around her, so it’s not that people aren’t doing anything, but rather people who veg and don’t live their lives richly. That’s why I get impatient with this consumer economy constantly telling people that they can only be happy if they have even more of everything…I can’t bear the Earth’s resources being squandered and I don’t like the surrender that we are giving to American culture. I think it’s corrupt, sick and superficial, and I think it’s going to crack and have ramifications everywhere. There’s going to be great trauma, but I hope it happens. I want people to stop being so selfish and realise that we are part of a whole. I just love saying yes to life.

I’ve done a lot of adventurous things. White-water rafting! I wasn’t anticipating. I was just being. I once went on a tour ship and climbed so high up the mast that you couldn’t fit both feet on a rung. The crew who we were with for two weeks became like family. I put on a concert and for the first time in my life I took control of another group of people with the aim of getting a project finished. I went on a ride around Costa Rica on a tandem. We rode for 300 miles in 8 days to raise money for Mencap. That was amazing. I was truly happy. All our basic needs were taken care of: we didn’t have to cook; we had wonderful stodgy Costa Rican food; our tent at least was dry; we were in a group of people with focus, aim and purpose; those people became our family; we were riding, having physical exercise; the smells… It was just stunning.

I feel at home with any human being that shares the values that I hold of saving the Earth and showing another way of living fully and richly, anybody who’s open to that, however they express that, and anyone who cares to tune in. I can be any place in the world where people are daring to be themselves. That’s what I love – being around people that are flamboyant and full of life’s energy and warmth, people who love eating! I love people who love to cook. I don’t love to cook but I love to eat. I’d like to taste all the different foods in the world. I love anywhere you can experience life and music and dance and food, the primary factors of life. I experienced that when I went to Nepal. I went trekking there and lied about how much vision I actually had. I just couldn’t manage and had to come back, leave my other friends. I didn’t speak Nepalese and the guide who took me back didn’t speak English, but he loved me like a sister. He was so protective. We came across some itinerant musicians, and they played for us, we sat around and ate and drank… that was joyous. I got the worst case of jelly-belly the next day! But that vital, alive, taking in the moment what comes…

Travel gives you more stories and when you tell these stories you touch the lives of people who haven’t been there. When I was in Costa Rica, for example, one of the guides was a chef. Apparently he was startlingly good-looking, and he decided to cook a banana flambé for all of us. Apparently he came in bare-chested – he knew he was an Adonis – and wearing an apron, carrying this flaming banana dish. He turned the lights down and made it so theatrical. Everyone was just gob-smacked! Now when I tell that story it shows that male vanity is everywhere. He was such a showman, everyone laughed, and it was funny and warm… I tell people about the best porridge I’ve ever tasted. The Costa Ricans made that, and it was soaked in milk and cinnamon and other spices with dried fruit…it was just glorious. When I came down from Nepal we found this Swiss girl almost dead from hepatitis. She could barely move any more, so we arranged for a porter to come down and carry her to the hospital. So there was her on the back of a porter who looked consumptive – skinny, elderly and yet only 40, and carrying this yellow hepatitis-girl in a basket on his back. Then there was me behind on a little mountain-pony, and following me was the owner of the pony, a Tibetan man with long flowing hair and robes. My porter turned out to be a precious gem of a person… and that’s how we went out of the mountains of Nepal, and I cried leaving those mountains. Aside from having children it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because there is something amazing about being in the mountains. I can share that magic with people.

It was when I was in Japan that I first really became aware of my intuition. I was going to stay at a convent and I couldn’t find it. When I came out of the metro  - that was difficult enough – I was just confronted with this six-lane highway. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and there wasn’t anyone to ask. I must have stood there for about 20 minutes, and as I stood, this nudging voice was just saying, “Put your hand up and a taxi will stop”. I thought, you’re joking! There was no way I was going to stand there and humiliate myself with my hand up in the air. But eventually I had no other option so I put up my hand, and I tell you that within three seconds a taxi had arrived. That taxi-driver turned out to be one of the nicest, most gentle people I’ve ever come across. I lost my purse, we couldn’t find the place… I was with him for an hour, and for the whole thing he only charged me one American dollar. I have so many stories, though travel, that bring home not only that people feel the same throughout the world, but also what I’ve learned, which is universal equality.

I rely heavily on that inner voice, intuition, what connects us. I believe there is just this ocean of us and other. We are an essential part of it all and to know what out part is we have to feel all the vibrations. My idea of utopia is everyone listening to that inner voice. Part of our job is to give people courage to connect and to change their way of thinking. That’s why I want to be not just a speaker, but known, nationally and internationally. I knew when I was 5 or 6 that I was meant to be famous, and of course you could say that was just my low self-esteem speaking. But I do think that people have to stand up and say what their truth is. The truth about trust is fundamental. If we trust we get trust back. But if we don’t, people get damaged. You need self-loving to trust.

For me the real joy in life is getting up and speaking and having people respond to what I’m saying, or to be in a situation like a party where people are laughing and talking and I don’t have to be the central communicator. Laughing, talking, communicating – the people stuff is my stuff. I love conversations that connect. I have to ask for a lot of help, and consequently I have had the most fabulous conversations with a whole range of people that are amazing. And it’s not even what we’re saying, it’s that glow that both of us leave with, that we’ve connected very powerfully for those few moments. One of the gifts of not being able to see is that I have the reason to approach people. I approach them as if they are the most honourable person on the planet, and I would say 99% of people behave that way. It starts with my expectation. I expect people to behave that way, so my whole manner, demeanour, how I carry my body says that I’m confident, “you are trustworthy, you have the right to say yes or no and I have the right to ask”. If you’re clear and precise and respectful, then people will be responsive, but people can’t bear being dumped on.

Realising that I can actually do things now to connect is so important to me, because if you’re not nurtured as a baby you don’t feel connected. Loneliness has been something I’ve had to wrestle with all my life. The feeling of the desolation still haunts me and it comes out when I’m ill. When I went into hospital as a baby it was because I was asthmatic, and when I find that I’m not breathing well it triggers all those feelings off again – no one around for me, still me walking by myself. When I was at school I just had no friends because I couldn’t see to connect with them. In primary school my friends were Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I’d sit lunch-hour after lunch-hour without anybody coming. It’s indescribably painful. I now know that I can control those thoughts. If I’m lonely it is usually by my choosing. But I’ve got to keep working at it. Early scarring is early scarring.

I have always felt spiritually loved, held, supported. I’m slightly less able to say that this is just a construct that I developed as a traumatised child, because it goes on working. I’m not a traumatised child now. If I need something, poof, there it is. I don’t know what I’m tapping into but it’s great. As a human being I feel loved and valued. When I really reach nirvana the unique individual will no longer be necessary.

I come from a long line of survivors – solid, strong survivors – and I have a lot of genetic love in me. I talk to my ancestors too. I feel very surrounded by the living and the dead. If you only tune into loving, then it’s there. If you only tune into what’s missing then it’s there. I’ve met a lot of people that have loved me in my life so there’s cosmic and human love around me. And I am getting the most loving parenting now. They’re both 82 now! When I last went to visit them in Australia in January it was just wonderful. They’d cook me meals; dad and I would stand and do the washing up together; we’d talk…just being with them in their latter years. On my 50th birthday they were here, and when they were leaving, I just thanked them for giving me the life that made me who I am, and for their being who they are. Whatever I achieve in my life is thanks to them, and their life has not been in vain. I think that’s the greatest gift a child can give back to their parents – relevance. Parents put in a lot of effort, and whether they get it right or wrong is another question. I now know that I’ve made my peace with my parents, because they did nothing maliciously.

You can never know how hard a job is until you’ve tried it yourself, so having my own kids has given me a whole new perspective on them. I love cuddling with my daughter, talking with her and hearing her share what matters to her, what her concerns are. My son is more difficult to get to, but when he does open up to me it’s so satisfying. But it was difficult when they were little. I did not cope with being a mother of little children very well, but I did my best. I found that so hard. I was always tired. I was probably depressed. They were very energetic children. I just felt very frightened all the time and didn’t think I could give them the kind of things they wanted. Whenever I tried to they would reach out and muck everything up, like when I tried to cook with them. I’ve been loving but I haven’t been as mumsy as my daughter wanted. She wanted one of those types who cook with them and all that, but I’ve nurtured her in other ways. I’m conscious of the fact that these aren’t just children. They’re people who belong to this world and I’m just part of the journey. I’m very proud of them. They’ve both felt very loved and held and listened to. But I didn’t do it easily.

So there’s been a contradiction in my life of really hard, tough, struggling times alongside this great, undefeatable zest for life. My “RICHES” list has been my way of making it possible. There have been many occasions when I’ve thought this life was just too hard, that I wanted to get out. But the little voice just says “nudge, nudge…keep going”. R is for risk-taking. I is for intuition. C is for Compassion. H is to do with Holding on, tenacity. I’m a mistress of tenacity. E is for Ethics because I truly believe that the core of good living is honesty. And the S is debunking this myth that we’re separate, and in that one I look at how I have to work with other people.

I wish to change the hearts and minds of as many people as I can reach. I’m not saying anything that’s new, but the power of what I’m saying is that it’s my story, and I believe everyone has their story. I want to demonstrate the importance of telling your story, of sharing, of being true to yourself so that the story is authentic. I want to demonstrate the power of being open, being truthful. When we listen we hear through our own ears and not through another’s voice. But one of the great advantages of living here in Oxford is that you meet people with enthusiasm. I listen and I know how to ask the questions, because people are interesting. There are only so many issues that we can deal with. My issue is to demonstrate the power of authenticity. That’s why I get such satisfaction out of the work I’m doing – preparing to be a speaker. Each thing is not right or wrong it’s just you being real or otherwise in that moment. But it’s a constant battle having to maintain momentum.

To this day I still can’t bear not being able to see beauty – my daughter’s face, my son’s expressions, a great vista… I can’t bear it. But what I say to myself is “Ellen, you get a lot of gifts out of not being able to see. There are some downsides. This is part of your journey and you must be open to feel grief and sorrow if it needs to be felt”. I’ve made a pact with the universal god that I will get to see beauty before I die, if there’s anything left to see. That’s why I’m so passionate about saving the Earth, this beautiful place. And I think one of my fantasies would be just to sit in a café and watch people, the way they move, the way they express themselves, what they eat – the minutiae of life. I’m greedy. It’s impossible for someone else’s description not to be tainted by their own views, and I want the purity of it. I am grateful for people’s generosity, but there’s a hollow…   

I want it all, you see. I want all the experiences, and I want the strength to be able to enjoy them. I feel very much at home here in Oxford because it’s an intellectual soup. I love that. So there’s nowhere else I want to live, but there are certain people I would like to meet. When I’ve got my speech together I’m intending to make contact with Max Clifford and see if he will do something with me, make me well-known. Other people that I need to meet will come – I trust that. I feel very positive for my future. I now that I will be a very well-known speaker, nationally if not internationally known. That feels good. But I also know that that’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. I will get the name and the power so that then I can be some sort of ambassador for a good cause. Then I’ll retire, hopefully with a partner, and have a place where people can feel held and loved. Hospitality is a very big thing.

But I feel a lot has to change for the future of the world. Attitudes have to change, greed has to change, people have to address their inner terror, this belief that they’re not good enough. I think that we have to get back to experiences that truly nourish. That’s why I’m trying so hard to touch people. Whether people are ready to hear what I have to say is not my business. I just say or do what I need to, and trust that the universe will take care of things from there. That’s what’s happened to me.

And here I am now. I no longer accept the fact that I can’t see. I truly celebrate it. I know that I’ve had a culture that is unique. And out of this culture I have learnt these very great gifts that are relevant for everyone, not just people that can’t see. You have to take control of your thinking, to control all the feelings and all the attitudes that you hear, that are ploughing through our head as we walk along. I finally know that I can do that so more and more now I just allow things to flow. Most of my life was in my head, in my being even as I walked along not experiencing what was actually happening. We are constantly looking for that glorious rose-field, not noticing the roses by the window. I read that the other day. I’m doing that less these days, and I don’t feel I waste time any more. My problem is permitting myself time to lie down and rest. I do that now, I’m kinder to myself. I’ll just let myself listen to trashy novels! I do regret that I haven’t been in the moment as much as I am now, but I would not have changed any of it. It is absolutely who I am.