I have always felt a certain affinity with Polyphemus, the cyclops that Odysseus meets on his journey home to Ithaca. This creature, this one-eyed shepherd, this son of Poseidon, is made to be a monster in Odysseus’ account of his travels. In The Odyssey, we hear the story of Polyphemus and his single eye only through Odysseus’ own words, as he recounts his journey to Alcinous. Odysseus tells us about this thing, who not only flouts social custom, but whose body, whose single eye, marks him as different.
A group of us gathered at the lake, the sun barely starting to dip down below the horizon. I showed up late; everyone else was already drunk. I had moved to this town, to this graduate writing program in the South, a handful of weeks earlier and still did not know how to speak in these groups. The town was so small, the program so small, that when one person said or did something, it got out, got to everyone.
One of the other people new to the town was sitting on a small wooden pier, their legs dangling in the water, facing the swimmers, their back to those of us still on land. “Ryan Gosling isn’t even that attractive,” they were saying. “Have you looked at his face? His eyes are crossed. It’s so ugly.” Someone laughed. I did not say anything, and no one else did either.
It’s easy sometimes, to forget. That my eyes have a name. That people might look at me and assume something. That people look at me and get uncomfortable, look away. Ugly, they might think to themselves, ugly.
The technical term for it is strabismus. What it is, really, is that my eyes are out of balance, out of sync. A message from my brain to the muscles around my eyeballs is disrupted, ill received. My eyes don’t work together. I can only look out of one eye at a time, and whichever eye I am not using can drift, can float, can point in another direction.
When I was four or five years old, my mother dropped me off at a hair salon at the mall while she went to return something at another store. They cut and cut, while I sat and watched, too shy to say anything, trusting that these adults knew what they were doing. When my mother returned, my hair was sheared down to a soft, light fuzz.
“She looks like a cancer patient,” my father said when we got home. I did not know what that meant, but I knew it was bad.
At the open house the kindergarten hosted for children and families to explore the rooms and meet the staff, I wore my favorite hat, bright pink and covered in drawings of butterflies.
“Remember,” the teacher said, “no hats allowed in school.” I looked up at my mother, to ask confirmation. I did not want to be the girl who looked like a cancer patient, whose eyes made everyone uncomfortable. I did not want to be seen as abnormal. I wanted to blend in, to be unnoticed.
Most of the time, people don’t mention it unless I bring it up first. “Have you noticed my eyes?” I’ll ask, and it comes pouring out, what they thought it might have been, what they think about it. More than one partner has said it’s endearing, it’s cute. We are always in bed when it happens, and they tell me it was hard, at first, talking to me, knowing which eye to look in. I never know what to say to that.
“You know how, if you line up your finger with something, and close one eye, the perspective shifts?” I ask. I demonstrate, holding up a finger, lining it up with the edge of a window. “And depending on which eye you have open, it looks like your finger lines up to a different place? I can do that without closing my eyes.” They hold up a finger to try, and then turn to watch my eyes. I do it, to check, to make sure. I am so used to the way my eyes are, I start to doubt that how I see the world is really that different, that there is something strange in the way I look.
One summer in high school, I got a job at the only coffee shop in our small Iowa town. I was behind the counter when a child looked up at me and said, “Mom, what’s wrong with her face?” I blinked down at them and wanted to believe they were talking about my eyes.
In college, I was working the late shift at the bookstore-slash-late-night-snack-shop. A boy came in who I had met, once, years before. “Hey,” he said, paying for his snacks, “I can do that too.” His facial muscles strained, and his eyes pointed inwards towards each other.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.” When he left, I was alone in the store. I put my head down on the counter. Was that how people saw me?
I was young, one or two years old, when I had my first eye surgery. Someone gave me a stuffed pig named Wilbur before they took me to the operating room. I held on to him as things got blurry and I went under.
The doctors told me that the younger a person is, the quicker they heal from surgeries and injuries. When I had my first eye surgery, as a toddler, I was playing by nightfall. They had done something to my eyes that I still do not understand. Tightened and snipped at the muscles, so that the drift would not be so bad, so noticeable.
Stiches inside your head can only hold for so long. Over time, gradually, things fall out of sync.
In seventh grade, I was painfully self-conscious. The drift was back, and it was getting worse. I did not want to be the girl dressed in hand-me-downs, who no one wanted to look in the eye. At twelve, I went in for my third surgery.
After the surgery, I woke up dizzy. I woke up spinning. There were bandages and ice packs pressed to my closed eyes. They put me in a wheelchair and into the car. At some point, I threw up. They laid me down in the big chair in the living room, put the television on, and I drifted in and out of consciousness. Time got lost around me.
There was noise, the television, people coming and going, voices talking around me. Food in my mouth. Sleep. Fresh, cold ice packs. Family taking turns, setting alarms to give me ibuprofen every six hours.
When the medicine wore off, it hurt so badly I thought my eyes would fall out of my head. A throbbing, a constant sharpness. I held the ice to my eyes and waited.
I stayed that way for five days, my eyes clamped shut, ice and cold washcloths held over them. On the fifth day, when it was bearable to remove the ice, I opened my eyes slowly. After five days with no light, my vision was tainted yellow. I went to the bathroom, squinting. It hurt to look. In front of the mirror, I raised my eyes to see myself. Even through jaundiced sight, it was impossible to mistake. The whites of my eyes stained a bright, solid crimson.
Theocritus is called the father of pastoral poetry. Born sometime around 300 B.C., he wrote bucolic poems, tranquil verses set in the Greek countryside. One of these poems is from the perspective of Polyphemus, set before Odysseus lands on the cyclops’ island. Polyphemus serenades a water nymph with whom he has fallen in love, saying:
I know, my beautiful girl, why you run from me: / A shaggy brow spreads right across my face / From ear to ear in one unbroken line. Below is a / single eye, and above my lips is set a broad flat nose. / Such may be my looks, but I pasture a thousand beasts, / And I drink the best of the milk I get from them. / Cheese too I have in abundance, in summer and autumn / And even at winter’s end; my racks are always laden.…
Polyphemus knows he is ugly, that his single eye is his defining physical characteristic. But here, in Theocritus’ poem, he is a sweet, almost silly creature, telling his love that she could eat his very own homemade cheese in every season, if only she would come be with him.
Though Polyphemus acknowledges his physical difference, it is only when Odysseus arrives, when we hear the story through Odysseus’ perspective that we understand the cyclops to be a monster.
The things that make some people grimace, look away, and use words like “ugly,” like “monster,” are often things that are just different from a perceived norm. As Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock writes, “…monstrosity is a socially constructed category reflecting culturally specific anxieties and desires…” We name things monster, ugly, to let the world know that these things are not us.
It is only in Odysseus’ perception that Polyphemus is made monster. Shift the perspective, and he is just a creature with eyes that look different, a self-conscious shepherd, a besotted cheesemaker.
On my face, sometimes, it is small. A facial tick. It is there, needling. The question, the suspicion. Is that pity in a person’s eyes when they look at me? Do they wonder to themselves what is wrong with my face? Do they talk about it when I’m not in the room? Do they bite their tongues on the knowledge that I am ugly in a way that is permanent, unfixable?
In a writing workshop, a peer submitted a piece with the sentence, “…the stories felt wrong to me, misshapen, like a baby born with a single eye.” I stared at the line. What is it about me, about people whose bodies challenge the form of what a body is supposed to be in more pronounced ways than mine, that make others think it is okay to use us as metaphor? I circled the line and made a note, couched my words in politeness. “Maybe change this,” I wrote, “so it doesn’t come off as ableist?”
In class, I stared at the sentence and my own toothless commentary, spent the entirety of the discussion wondering if it was worth it to voice this critique out loud. I stayed silent. To call attention to the sentence was to call attention to myself, to the ways my body might be misshapen.
I don’t know why, but it gets worse when I’m tired. When I’ve stayed up too late working, or when my chronic insomnia keeps me awake, my eyes, too tired to function, drift apart.
I only know it’s happening if someone else tells me. I can’t feel it, can’t control it. When I stare into my own eyes in a mirror, it’s only possible to see in the periphery. My right eye stares into itself, as I watch the left, not paying attention. If I move to look directly at the left eye, something happens, the perspective shifts. While it’s true that we will never be able to see ourselves as others do, I will never be able to see this thing about me at all. I can only see it in pictures, in selfies, this asynchronicity.
It is small, this flaw in my eyes. It is impossible to see or feel when it happens. But there it is, and the wonder, the unasked questions: what do people think of me? Does it make people uncomfortable to look me in the eyes? Do people have to train themselves, learn which eye to look in? Am I something that people have to get used to?
My friends tell me that when another person says something insensitive, something cruel, about my eyes, it’s a reflection of them. But, when a boy crosses his eyes to look like me, it is an honest reflection of how he sees me. Sometimes, I think it is the only honest reflection I have.
The doctors told me that people born with strabismus can go blind in one eye. If a person only looks out of one eye, the unused eye gets weaker, then atrophies until a person can’t use it at all. To make sure this didn’t happen, I wore eye patches.
When I was a toddler, the patches were pieces of adhesive stuck to the skin around one eye, to cover up the dominant eye, to force me to use the other one. In kindergarten I had glasses, and the patches were small pieces of fabric that slid over the lenses, decorated with images of butterflies, to match my hat.
In seventh grade, when I returned to school with blood in my eyes, I smiled at the people who balked at me. People who barely knew my name would ask me what was wrong, what had happened. It felt good, to be able to see the ways I made people uncomfortable.
When I went to school with patches over my glasses, or walked through the halls with scarlet splattered eyes, it was a relief. To know without doubt what people were staring at, what they noticed. To be able to have that conversation, for them to forget feigned decorum, to look me in the eyes and tell me what they saw.
As I’ve gotten older, I no longer want to go unnoticed. I just want to know how you see me.
When I started to see my therapist, when we were starting to suss out the threads of my stories, he said, “People probably said some things about your eyes, huh?”
“Not really,” I said, and it was true. Years pass, and no one says a word, and I can almost forget. And then, just like that, it comes rushing back.
That evening at the lake, I froze, silent and unsure. “Ryan Gosling’s eyes are crossed, it’s so ugly.” If something so small, the slightest ill harmony, can make someone like Ryan Gosling ugly, what does it mean about me?
It’s possible that this acquaintance sitting on the dock, their back turned to me, had never noted the ways my eyes move on their own. It’s possible that if they had noticed, they never would have said anything about the ugliness of crossed eyes. It’s possible that if they had remembered their words later, if it had not been a flippant, throw-away comment, they would have seen me and apologized.
Even now I tell myself that if they were looking at my face, they would not have said it. But then, I wonder, what would they have thought, not only about Ryan Gosling, but the woman standing in front of them? The unsettling thought is that they would not have said anything, and they would not have been honest.
I was on the shore, surrounded by strangers laughing at the ugliness of a celebrity whose eyes were not right.
Polyphemus was on the shore, singing to his beloved water nymph, until Odysseus came and showed him his monstrosity.
 Theocritus. Idylls. Translated by Anthony Verity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 34.
 Weinstock, Andrew Jeffery. “Introduction: A Genealogy of Monster Theory,” in The Monster Theory Reader, ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020, 25.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Theocritus. Idylls. Translated by Anthony Verity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Weinstock, Andrew Jeffery. “Introduction: A Genealogy of Monster Theory,” in The Monster Theory Reader, ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.