2019 Irene Adler Prize

Susan Purr is the winner of the 2019 Irene Adler Prize for women writers for her essay, “Spider Woman.” It appears below.

Purr, who receives $1,000 toward her education, is pursuing her M.F.A. in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University.

Honorable mentions go to:

Elena Castro (“To Propagation”), who is seeking her B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration at Yale University.

Nicole Nielsen (“Bangkok Blues”), who is pursuing her B.A. in communications studies with an emphasis in journalism at Brigham Young University.

Spider Woman

By Susan Purr

Ronnie asked if I was Spider Woman. I’ll never forget it. Seven and sensitive in my huge new shades from the eye specialist, I kept walking, deciding not to give the bully his due. “Hey kid, can’t ya see me? I’m talkin’ to you… how many fingers I got, Spider Woman?” I had a finger for him alright. My big brother called it a bird, but it didn’t sing. It sure made that boy’s friends laugh, and though I couldn’t see Ronnie’s face, I hoped his mouth was open, catching flies.

If he said anything else, I never heard it, concentrating on my landmarks: down Prospect Street to the big intersection, wait for the green, breathe, the parking lot, a small hill and office building, across the bridge, breathe, up the long street and across the neighbor’s yard, then home.

As soon as I reached my room, my shades came off, sliding down my nose with sweat and tears. I stared at them in my hand, and those dark green orbs peered back – my bully-proof armor, my shields against the too-bright light. I wiped my eyes, so sensitive, sat down at my desk and began to write.

What do you call it when you can see just enough? Some doctors say “blind” (that’s too little), while others say “impaired” (that’s too much). My truth is different. Born with a rare eye condition, I found my own unique vision in words, learning to spell Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis long before I couldn’t see it on a blackboard. I started spinning poems and small stories to catch the snippets and snapshots of my childhood, and the more I wrote, the more I saw.

Now I find myself a 44-year-old woman with darker shades and a well-traveled, well-loved vocabulary. I have a husband and a daughter, an amazing group of close friends, and an ever-growing community of colleagues, classmates, and mentors. They don’t know that I can see them, or if they do, they don’t know how I see them. It is time to let them know.

I study creative writing to stretch, and to explore new ways of expressing my vision. There are so many textures within experience, as well as tastes, smells and sounds of situations. I want to reach out and touch people’s voices, the places I visit, and the everyday encounters that can surprise and enlighten with their simple beauty and hidden depth.

As I continue my journey into darkness, or perhaps it is simply a different understanding of light, I want to write it well. I will learn my landmarks: read the classics, study my contemporaries, breathe, write what I know, experiment with what I don’t, remain honest, breathe, edit, edit, edit, take criticism, then go home and write some more. I will present the world with my words, so sensitive, showing that Spider Woman still has so much more to see.