One morning in October 2017, Frank Bruni woke to find the sight in his right eye obscured by a “dappled fog.” The widely read columnist for The New York Times had suffered a stroke of the optic nerve. Doctors told him the damage would be permanent – and the same thing could happen in his other eye. Life was irrevocably changed. But when he was contacted in 2020 about a job at Duke, a new path came into focus. He joined the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy in 2021 as Patterson professor of the practice of journalism and public policy. His book “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found” was published in 2022.
Q: Let’s start with the obvious question: What’s a nice Carolina grad like you doing teaching at Duke?
A: Simple answer. Duke approached me. I had been loosely thinking about making a change and I had a vague plan that I wanted to leave New York and recalibrate my professional life at some point in the coming years. I didn’t think it would be as soon as I did it. I also had the sense I wanted to move to an area that felt suitably cosmopolitan, so it wasn’t a total shock to the system but felt like a significant deceleration from New York. As if they somehow knew that I was thinking about it, this search committee at Duke got in touch with me, just on a lark – I don’t know why they got in touch with me – about what is a really good media/journalism teaching job that just happened to be open at that time. Had UNC had this kind of job at the exact moment in time, and had they thought to approach me, I could be there. But that’s not the way it worked out.
Q: Did you have any hesitation, considering the rivalry?
A: I didn't have any hesitation because, when I was at UNC, I was barely conscious of the Duke rivalry. Wasn't a basketball fan, didn't really follow any sports at UNC. I'm not one of these people. I really loved UNC. I feel very loyal to it, and I've tried to give back to it over the years, but I was never one of these people. If you don't have this sort of cultish feeling about your own school, you don't understand these rivalries. So when I told friends, “I'm going to go teach at Duke,” and some of the friends who are alums of UNC were like, “Oh my God, how could you do that?” it almost sort of shocked me. It's like, oh, yeah, there's that rivalry. I don't get it. I don't understand it.
Q: You had an impressive 25 years at The New York Times. White House correspondent, chief restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief, columnist. How did you walk away from that?
A: The answer to that is twofold. I didn't have to walk away from it completely, so it was sort of like a half walking away from it, and that makes it easier. [He still writes a popular weekly newsletter “on politics and life” for subscribers.] And the other part of it is very connected to the book and what happened to me in terms of my medical situation. I have had and continue to have a very privileged relationship with, and platform at, The New York Times.
I still am in the Times about once a week and am lucky to have an incredibly broad and loyal readership. So that drug I did not have to wean myself of completely.
Most of my readers don't realize that I left. I was a contributor to CNN for five years and was probably on CNN three times a week. Never really enjoyed that a lot. Yeah, it's kind of cool to be on TV and to have people say, “I saw you on the Don Lemon show last night.” Not kind of cool is having to get freshly showered and put a jacket and tie on at 9:30 p.m. Go sit in the makeup chair and then to get back to your apartment at 11:15 to take the dog out into Central Park at 11:45 and then to have to scrub the coat of makeup off your face. If you can let the vanity of that go, as a quality of life thing, it's really not that high.
But at a certain point, a person can decide to factor quality of life issues into the equation.
I'm 58 now, so when I moved down here, I was 56. Having been through several years of this medical odyssey involving my vision and losing sight in one eye and being told I could lose it all, when you're kind of staring down a potentially different future that way – staring down being a weird phrase – I’m really lucky. I've had so many wonderful professional adventures, and continue to, but
I wanted to spend more time walking. I wanted to spend more time with my dog. I wanted to bang around more square feet in my house. Now, I'm looking out this really beautiful bay window in my kitchen. I'm looking at trees, I'm looking at flowers, the sun. I think I gained more than I gave up.
Q: You’re clearly a wine-glass-half-full kind of guy, but do you ever miss the hustle and bustle of New York?
A: No, for the moment, I don't miss it. I mean, I might in a year, but I've always thrived on change and variety. For the five years that I was working for the Detroit Free Press, I lived in the suburbs. But after that I was in New York for The Times. And then I was in San Francisco for The Times. Then I was in D.C. for the Times. Then I was in Rome. Then I was back in New York. Living in Chapel Hill is a really nice change and a gift to me.
I live in a very suburban neighborhood. No, I don't miss the bustle at all now because I'm someone who's always liked change and that sort of thing. It could be two years from now, I'm like, “Oh, my God, I need something else. I need to do something.” But that different thing could be, “Now I want completely rural.” I don't know. But right now, I think you and I are blessed to live in this area. I think if you were drawing up a list of areas where you could have a lot of green access to nature, a sense that you were not in a congested metropolis and yet at the same time get a high level of food, a high level of culture, great food! This area splits the difference in a very mixed-metaphor, sweet-spot way. I feel like I live in an ideal circumstance. Miss the bustle? Not at all.
Q: In “The Beauty of Dusk,” you wrote about the aftermath of losing sight in your right eye. It is a beautifully optimistic book. There is no self-pity. How did you get to this place?
A: It became clear to me fairly early on that if I allowed myself too much self-pity and if I allowed myself to dwell on what I had lost, no good would come of that. It doesn't change anything. And I think I found optimism weirdly when the stakes were raised. I found I could either focus on what I was still and what I am still able to do. I could focus on all that is incredibly charmed and blessed about my life. Or I could stew in the fact that I'd lost some ability. In the grand scheme of the things people deal with, I actually don't think it would be accurate or just for me to dwell on my hardships and on the bad turns of fate. But even if that would be just, and even if that would be warranted, where the hell does it bring you?
I mean, it gets me nowhere. And so I was lucky enough to be able to realize that. And I say that because there's obviously something biochemical about me, constitutional about me. I’m fortunate, because I think there are brains that can do that – and I learned that I had that kind of brain – and there are brains that can't. I do think there are a lot of brains that can do that. I had a megaphone, and one of the things I really wanted to say to people and put out into the world is this: If you can pull that off when you're dealing with your hardships, when you're dealing with your setbacks, when you're dealing with your uncertainties – if you have the ability to cast everything in as hopeful and resilient and positive a light as possible – do that, because it's just going to make for a better life. And I wanted to say that to the world, to anyone who might be listening, because it did me a lot of good.
Q: How is your vision now? Has it gotten worse?
A. No. What I have is almost always not progressive. You essentially have a stroke of the optic nerve and the nerve either sustains enormous damage or subtle damage or dies or somewhere along that spectrum. Once that incident is over, that is your new status quo. That's your new normal. And things tend to get a little better for people over time simply because they become accustomed to living with it and they develop workarounds. My vision will be consistent in its deteriorated state unless I have a stroke in the other optic nerve. And then it's a huge change.
Q: What about driving? One can’t live here without a car…
A. Driving is affected, in that my depth perception is not as good as it was. I'm really glad this is not an area where you have to parallel park, because that would be tougher. I have to try a lot harder to drive at night. All of that said, I'm a responsible person, and it is legal in North Carolina, and in every state, to drive with only one eye that sees. I mention that because it's meaningful. I can see well enough vis a vis the demands of driving. I try not to drive as much as at night because I just don't like the heightened attention I need to pay.
Q: You’ve written about the brain’s capacity to adjust to accommodate our weaknesses. What perception changes have you noticed in yourself?
A: There have been a couple of times when I have mistimed taking my dog, Regan, for a walk. And, to get home, we’ve had to walk along woodland trails after the sun sets. Once we even had to cross Bolin Creek after the sun had set, on rocks, so you have to be careful where you step – even during daylight. And my brain is so good at analyzing and using the more limited visual information it gets from my one working eye – it taps into the memories that it has of the many times we’ve walked this path before – that I've been able to walk home through the woods at night in a way that I don't think I could have done with both eyes, because other senses and acuities are in overdrive.
The book was a real godsend because I was educating myself about things for the book that benefited me in life, too, that were worth educating myself about for my own life. One of the most interesting genres of medicine over the last quarter century is neuroplasticity, which is basically about how your brain continues to change and regenerate and in some senses grow throughout much more of your life than was previously thought. And you see some of the best examples of this, or the most relatable examples of this, with people with vision impairments or legal blindness. You begin to process tactile information – reading Braille being a very good example – in a way that somebody who did not have sensory deprivation wouldn't. You begin to adjust in all those ways. And that's basically about your brain deactivating certain areas and hyperactivating other areas. It's a biomedical example of resilience. That's a kind of perfect complement, and sometimes working in synergy with the sorts of resilience that we attribute to character.
I think it's worth people being more conscious of because it absolutely tamps down the fear of aging somewhat, and it tamps down the fear of “What if something horrible befalls me?” There are medical things that can happen to you for which everything we're talking about is inapplicable. But there is a whole lot that you can adjust to by adapting and having other abilities come to the fore. And it's just good to know that going forward. I mean, the person who put it best, better than any sentence I could write in the book, and I quote him in the book, is a legally blind judge, now retired. When I met him and talked to him, he was still on the bench, and he was in the district appeals court in D.C. That is the most common feeder court for the Supreme Court. So very highly functioning, high level. When we were on the D.C. Metro one day, riding from his chambers back to his apartment where he and his wife were making dinner for me, he turned to me and he said, “Starfish can regrow limbs, but that's nothing compared to what people can do.” And that's true. That is literally true. And I don't think enough of us appreciate that.
Q: So, what’s next for you? We hear you’re working on a new book. What’s the subject?
A: It syncs with one of the public affairs courses I teach. The tentative title is “The Age of Grievance,” and it's essentially a book-length political essay about what an angry, resentful country we've become, both on the left and the right, and about how much that's costing us.
READ: The Amazing Brain
Frank Bruni's suggested reading list
50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know
by Moheb Costandi (Greenfinch)
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
by Sharon Begley (Ballantine)
Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age
by Sanjay Gupta (Simon & Schuster)
by Moheb Costandi (MIT Press)
A Sense of the World
by Jason Roberts (Harper Perennial)