In ‘Snow Blind,’ St. Louisan Finds Path Forward After Losing Sight In Random Shooting
Thirty years ago this summer, William Johnson was in Atlanta, walking to a subway station with two business associates, when his world suddenly went dark.
“My head felt like it had been slammed with a baseball bat,” the St. Louisan recalls in a new memoir. “I hit the pavement, face down on the Atlanta sidewalk. Everything was black. I closed my eyes and kept my hands over them. The little bit of light that seeped through caused excruciating pain, like hordes of needles were piercing my eyes.”
In a violent act without an apparent motive, the shooter had approached Johnson and his companions from behind, firing at them with a .25-caliber pistol. One colleague died on the scene, and another soon succumbed to his injuries.
Johnson survived. But the bullet to his left temple had passed just behind his eyes before exiting, leaving him blind and facing a profoundly changed future.
In “Snow Blind: Recovering After The Random Shooting,” Johnson reckons with what it took to move from acknowledging that he had lost his sight to truly accepting it, and then finding the best path forward.
The book charts his journey from hospital bed back to his home, the office, an independent life and even a renewed love of skiing. Johnson crossed many of those milestones within one year of the shooting. But his path started with truly accepting his new reality of blindness.
“There was a day when it kind of crashed in on me, which was fairly emotional for me,” Johnson recalled during Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.
“And fortunately, I just couldn’t deny any longer that I couldn’t open my eyes. I had, I think, been in denial for that period of time, and I sat in the hospital bed and thought to myself, ‘You know, I really can’t open my eyes. I’ve been keeping a stiff upper lip and acting like I’ve got this all under control.’ But I really couldn’t open my eyes, and it was a shocking time.”
In conversation with host Sarah Fenske, Johnson described some of the most challenging and frustrating moments he remembers shortly after returning home from the hospital, as he learned to live on his own again.
“I wanted a can of pork and beans, and I went in the cupboard in my kitchen, and I guess figured I could find a pan, I could get it heated up,” he said. “But when I reached for the can of pork and beans, I grabbed a can, and then I realized I didn’t have the slightest idea if it was pork and beans, green beans, tomato sauce or anything else that came in a can. And I just decided to open one up, which happened to be green beans, and put it down the garbage disposal and tried another one.”
Before long, Johnson committed to an out-of-state occupational therapy program, where he mastered everything from reading Braille, to walking with a cane, to using an adaptive computer. And in the spring of 1992, Johnson was welcomed back by the management consulting company where he’d been building a career up until the shooting.
The following year, Johnson took a trip to Aspen, Colorado, in hopes of making a return to downhill skiing, something he hadn’t done in many years at that point. He explained what that adventure looks like for him.
“Basically a guide skis behind me and says, ‘Left, right, left, right, hold your next right, hold it, hold it, hold it, left, right, left, right,’” Johnson said, “and skis very closely to me … [the guide] has to think ahead, has to think about the other people that are out there, and has to plan our course down the mountain.”
He’s continued skiing each winter since.
“It is just a kick,” Johnson said. “I get such joy out of it, it’s unbelievable.”
Johnson ends his book with the hard-won optimism he’s found in his decades of blindness: “There is always a little light.”
“I hope that anybody that reads the book can gain a little strength and then hope and a little courage to go on and do what needs to be done,” he said, “what’s in front of you to take care of yourself, and if some people can benefit from reading this, I’ll just be thrilled.”
Copies of “Snow Blind” are available at the Webster Groves Bookshop, in addition to on Johnson’s website. He’s working on an audiobook version as well.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.