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After a stroke blinded one eye, Frank Bruni focused on the future

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're going to feature an interview we enjoyed that few of our listeners heard because we featured it on a day that our show ended up being preempted on most stations by the Katanji Brown-Jackson confirmation hearings. The interview is with Frank Bruni. He says that one night he went to bed believing he was more or less in control of his life, but woke up to the realization of how ludicrous that was. Before I tell you why, let me tell you more about Frank Bruni. He's a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times who recently stepped down as a full-time columnist. Prior to that, he was The Times' chief restaurant critic, a position he was offered after serving as Rome bureau chief and White House correspondent. He also covered the candidacy of George W. Bush. He'd previously been the film critic for the Detroit Free Press and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. He's written books about George W. Bush, about his passion for food and his struggle with his weight, and the crazy-making process of applying to colleges and the fear of not getting into the right one. You can see he's written about life from several perspectives.

Let's get back to why he woke up one day realizing it was ludicrous to think he had control over his own life. That morning, after blaming his suddenly blurred, smeary vision on a hangover, he realized the problem was his eye. It was eventually diagnosed as a rare stroke in his eye that irreparably damaged his optic nerve. The prognosis - his vision in that eye would never return, and he was at risk of having another stroke in his good eye. His new memoir is about the emotional. It's physiological and professional adaptations he's had to make is called "The Beauty Of Dusk: On Vision Lost And Found." He's now a professor at Duke University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Frank Bruni, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Well, let's get to your eye and to your new memoir. You write on the first page, (reading) I went to bed seeing the world one way; I woke up seeing it another. And you mean that figuratively and quite literally. How was your vision changed when you woke up in the morning?

FRANK BRUNI: There was - it was the strangest thing, Terry. There was a fog, a dappled fog, over the right side of my field of vision. And I thought for hours that there must be some gunk in my eye, or maybe I'd had too much to drink the night before. Then I thought, oh, no, it's my eyeglasses - I just have to clean them - and on and on, until deep into the day, I realized there was something wrong beyond all of that. Even then, I thought, OK, this is going to be fixable. You know, I mean, I'm a boomer with that sort of boomer invincibility and faith in medicine's progress and remedies. And I thought, OK, someone will give me a pill or a drop or eye calisthenics or - I don't know. And everything will be OK in a few days. But that was not the case.

I was told in short order that I'd had a stroke of the eye, of the optic nerve, that I'd never get the vision in my right eye back and that I had to live with the risk forever more that it would happen to my left eye. And that forced me to see in a different way, not just physically, but I had some emotional, psychological and, really, spiritual work to do to accept this and figure out how to go on in the most productive and constructive fashion.

GROSS: So this was, like, a rare stroke that happens, basically, in your eye and damages the optic nerve. And you were told by doctors, you know, corneas and retinas can frequently be fixed, but when it comes to the optic nerve, there's no fix. One doctor told you that optic nerve damage is the holy grail of solving blindness. I've never heard about this before - a stroke in the eye. Had you ever heard of such a thing?

BRUNI: Oh, no, not at all. And it is rare, what happened to me. I mean, now, obviously, because I've written about it, because I've spoken about it, you know, I have an inbox that every week I hear from someone who has been diagnosed with the same thing. But we're a pretty small community of people, all of whom say the same thing - we didn't know this was possible. We didn't know this existed. You learn quickly, you know? And I, as a reporter, immediately launched on a sort of medical education of myself and talked to the doctors, like the one you quoted, because I was picking up the phone and learning all I could, both for the purposes of immediate journalism that I was doing but also because I wanted to be as informed and empowered as possible as I figured out what, if anything, I could or should do about this.

GROSS: So when the doctor told you that there was a chance this would happen in the other eye - and first, you were told a 40% chance, and then you were told later it was probably more like a 20% chance. But, you know, that's a lot of - that's still a pretty big possibility, even if it's only 20 or somewhere between 20 and 40. Did you obsess on that?

BRUNI: (Laughter) You know, at first - I think the way we're wired as human beings, there's a lot of mercy to it. And at first, I was in shock. And I think a lot of us go into shock when we get news that's difficult to process. And so I think weeks went by before I really, really took in what was being said to me. And then I was briefly terrified, but then I realized there's no point to that. I mean, I could - if I let myself give in to terror, if I let myself sink into depression, unless I'm willing to live in that state forever more, I'm going to have to at some point pull myself out of it, and the deeper I let the hole get, the harder it's going to be to climb out of it.

So I ended up determined, determined to show myself that I could adapt to whatever was going to happen, determined to talk to people who'd been through these sorts of medical travails - and not just regarding vision. But I talked to people who had lost hearing. I talked to people who had been given Parkinson's diagnoses. I decided it was time to learn about how human beings at their most resilient survive and make the most of these situations. And that was my personal journey and also the journey that I ended up describing in the book, which is not just my story but is a collection of portraits of people who have survived and thrived in ways that I think are profoundly instructive.

GROSS: You ask the deaf or blind a question like, which is worse - to lose your hearing or lose your sight? And a lot of people, including myself, have almost made a game about that. Like, if forced to choose (laughter), would I choose my vision or my hearing? And that just drives me crazy when I go down that rabbit hole. And I climb out of that rabbit hole by thinking, no one's going to ask you to choose, you know. This is, like, a pointless...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...A pointless thing to think about. But you were thinking about it more from, like, a sensory level. Like, you lost your vision in one eye. How does that compare to being completely blind or to being deaf? Can you talk a little bit about reflecting on that?

BRUNI: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. I mean - and it is funny in a - funny - I don't know if funny is the right word, but as you said, it's kind of surreal that there is this parlor game. People wonder, which would I rather lose? And I guess you could extend the parlor game out and say, you know, what about sense of touch? What about sense of smell, sense of taste? You don't want to lose any of them.

I was terrified, you know, of the idea that I would lose my eyesight. I'm not anymore. I hope I never do. I wish what had happened to me so far didn't. But, you know, you learn quickly that the senses that remain often become sharper in compensation for the sense that has been compromised. You learn how nimble the brain is. I mean, I've been shocked at the fact that sometimes, in certain situations, I can take in visual information I didn't before because I'm optimizing what's available to me. I'm, like, focusing on certain details with my one good eye in a way that I never had with my two good eyes. And that's both a physical promise of sorts but also an example and a - a metaphor, an example of just how nimble our brains and our bodies can be when circumstances demand it. And when you realize that, when you see it in practice in your own life, it takes away a lot of the anxiety and fear of what's coming down the road and, frankly, of aging because as we age, we're all going to lose certain physical potencies and be asked to make certain adjustments and compensations.

GROSS: You decided to enroll in an experimental drug trial that you hoped would restore complete or partial vision in your eye. Unfortunately (laughter), this drug trial entailed having injections in your eye, which I just found a really horrifying prospect. The first thing I thought of was that film "Andalusian Dog" by Salvador Dali where there's actually a razor that cuts - that slices the surface of an eye. It's an animal eye, which - I don't think that makes it any better. It's still just, like, gruesome, and that's perhaps an extreme image for an injection medically monitored. But were you afraid of getting an injection in your eye?

BRUNI: I - (laughter). Afraid doesn't even begin to cover it. Yeah, I was terrified. You know, I brought a friend. I made the doctor do not just the normal two layers of numbing cream but, like, four layers even though he said, not going to make a difference. I said, psychologically, it will. And it's funny, Terry, that you mention a movie 'cause a movie came immediately to mind when this was happening 'cause they use this very kind of Marquis de Sade-looking clamp to hold your eye open 'cause obviously, your reflex is going to be to blink if something's coming toward your eye. And I felt like Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange" when that happened. I thought, oh, I've seen this movie. And it wasn't pleasant either.

But, you know, you get through it. It's a horrible moment or a horrible couple seconds and a lot of stinging for hours afterwards. But you go on with it. And you learn in that moment what, I think, most people learn in any kind of journey like mine, which is that when you have to, you can get through moments, through challenges, through pain that you never imagined you could. And on the far side of it, there's, for lack of a better phrase, a sense of triumph and even a sense of pride in having gotten through it that becomes its own minor consolation.

GROSS: So what happened to the drug?

BRUNI: What happened with this drug?

GROSS: Yeah. How did the trial work out?

BRUNI: Oh, the trial worked out terribly. In fact, I ended up qualifying for it, like, meeting the criteria for two different clinical trials of treatments for my rare condition, the only two clinical trials in the last five to seven years that have really - were believed to amount to anything. In both cases, after my participation - not because of my participation, but after my participation - the trial was suspended by the pharmaceutical company that was in charge of it because the results that were being obtained for all the people in it were so unpromising that the pharmaceutical company didn't see any point in continued investment. So I went through that first one and then a second one where I basically learned - well, not basically - I learned to inject myself.

GROSS: But not in your eye. Let's just say not in your eye (laughter).

BRUNI: No. I mean, I don't think - I think it would be humanly impossible to inject yourself in the eye. But I injected myself twice a week for six months in either the thigh or the stomach. I learned - I mean, again, on the subject of human nimbleness and adaptation, I'm the least dexterous human being in the world. I can - I struggle sometimes to tie or untie my shoelaces, and it took several relatives - my father and two uncles - to teach me to tie a necktie when I was younger. I mean, that's how un-dexterous (ph) I am.

And yet, I learned to prepare syringes, like, change the - like, the needle from one to another after drawing the fluid out of one - you know, on and on, and to inject myself twice a week for six months. And, you know, by Month 4, I was doing this whole process in 25 seconds. I was in and out the door. And that trial, too, was suspended because, despite my doing that, despite hundreds of other patients doing that, before they reached full enrollment, they decided this compound, this medicine's going nowhere.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Bruni. He's a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and author of the new memoir "The Beauty Of Dusk." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Frank Bruni, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and the paper's former chief restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief and White House correspondent. His new memoir, "The Beauty Of Dusk," is about how his life changed after a rare kind of stroke left him blind in one eye.

You learned - after you were diagnosed with this rare stroke that had blinded one eye, you learned that your partner of nine years had started having an affair just before your stroke. It first started before your stroke. And the relationship teetered for a while. And it ended, then resumed, teetered and then ended for good. What were your fears when you were single after nine years, and single at a time when you didn't know what your vision future was going to be? You were already blind in one eye with no hope of recovering that vision, facing the possibility of being blinded in the second eye.

BRUNI: Yeah. Well, you know, the possibility of being blinded in the second eye was actually one of the reasons - when we had to decide whether to try to repair this relationship or not, it was one of the reasons I decided not to. And I know that almost sounds like the opposite reaction or counterintuitive. But I felt like the question was whether I was loved faithfully enough or just loved enough. And I worried very much that my partner was making his decisions and calculations in the context of, I can't abandon someone who may find himself soon in great need. And I did not want to be in that kind of relationship. I did not want to feel like a drag or a burden on anyone.

But I had a great privilege and blessing there, Terry, which is I have an enormously close family. I have three siblings with whom I could not be closer. And so I never had to worry, nor do I worry now, that in a worst-case situation, I'll be alone and without a support system. Lonely? Sure. And I felt very lonely when that - what was ultimately a 10-year relationship by the time we made the final decision, when it broke up. And sometimes, I'm lonely still. But lonely is endurable. And I want to live - and this, I think, connects with what I've been through medically and psychologically and emotionally. I want to live as truthfully as possible. And that's more important to me than little pockets of loneliness.

GROSS: Do you think that your partner was afraid of you becoming dependent?

BRUNI: I don't think so. But I don't know. Part of the problem with that relationship - and now we're - you know, we're really getting a little far afield. But that's cool. Part of the problem with that relationship was a lack of that sort of deep communication. I should be able to answer about someone with whom I was involved for a decade what was motivating him and what his own fears and qualms were - and I can't. And that's probably the ultimate validation that it was right that the relationship ended.

GROSS: So getting back to your eye and the rare stroke that left you blind in one eye and leaves you with some threat of going blind in your other eye, you wanted to be optimistic. But your mother was this, like, very, very optimistic person in a way that even when she had cancer and went through endless chemo and a couple of surgeries and remained really optimistic, you thought of it as kind of cheesy and full of cliches and bromides. And I think you started to feel differently about that when you were faced with your eye issues.

BRUNI: Yeah. No. I saw what she had modeled for me in a whole different and extremely positive and grateful light. It became clear to me early on, Terry, that when something like this happens, you're really at a fork. And you can spend a lot of time and a lot of thought on what's been lost, on what's been taken from you, on the ways in which you have been rendered at a disadvantage - all of which is true, and all of which it's totally fair for a person to sit with. But none of that gets you anywhere. And I feel like, once you've recognized what's happened, once you've sat with it, once you have, you know, maybe even mourned a little bit, it is so important and so constructive and so right to focus, instead, on all the things you can still do, all the blessings that remain.

And so, like my mother before me - she survived with cancer with a very rare and potent cancer for much longer than she was supposed to. Like her, I decided to be as active as possible. I decided to do as much as I could do rather than to kind of say, oh, wow. I have to do less now. I probably read more books a month since losing vision in one eye than I did beforehand. Read has become a different verb. I listened to two-thirds of them. And I've trained myself to do that in a way I had never imagined possible. I listen to these books at 1.7, 1.8 speed, when I used to not be able to keep track of an audio book if I was listening at 0.5 speed. And I realized there's so much power and agency I still have. And focusing on that, making sure that is always where I point myself and steer myself. That's been a real lesson for me. And I hope it's a lesson for other people, too.

GROSS: So how has this medical change in your life, this vision change in your life led to your thinking about aging and what to expect and what it might be like for you?

BRUNI: I used to be extremely fearful of aging. I used to think, oh, you know, when I lose the ability to do X, I'm going to be inconsolable. When I lose the ability to do Y, it is going to plunge me into a deep depression - because I just assumed the loss of ability would be the kind of event that one could not get comfortable with or spin in any sort of positive direction. I've seen through this ordeal, adventure - I call it more of an adventure now - with my eye, I mean, I've seen that there are many dimensions to losing something, to being physically limited. I've seen that you can be left with enough ability and agency to feel completely whole and to feel completely happy.

And so when I think about what will happen down the line - and I know now more than ever before that I'm not going to be able to predict it - I don't dread it the way I used to, and I also accept it as just part of the process. You know, I think people who have had a kind of vision episode like I did at 52, people who have been diagnosed with serious diseases in their 30s and 40s, I think in some ways they get an accelerated and advanced course in aging. And they learn early what we all eventually learn, which as I say in the book, is that our bodies are time bombs, but each detonates in a different way. The certain thing, though, is the detonation. And the other certain thing is that you control your response to that in a way that can leave you with plenty and that can leave you with a lot of joy.

GROSS: Let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Bruni. He's a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and author of the new memoir "The Beauty Of Dusk." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Frank Bruni, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and the paper's former restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief and White House correspondent. His new memoir, "The Beauty Of Dusk," is about how his life changed after a rare kind of stroke left him blind in one eye. He's also author of the books Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania," "Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush" and a memoir about his conflicted relationship with food and his struggle with his weight called Born Round: A Story Of Family, Food And A Ferocious Appetite."

You did make a big change in your life after losing vision in one eye. You had been a full-time columnist, opinion writer for The New York Times. But now you are still a contributing opinion writer, and you have a newsletter in The Times, but you also moved from Manhattan to Chapel Hill, N.C., and you're teaching at Duke University. You're a professor there. Had you wanted to do a little bit less opinion writing anyways? I always think that people who have to write opinion columns for a long time, like, how do you come up with so many opinions?

BRUNI: (Laughter).

GROSS: You have to have so many opinions every week. And they have to be, like, not only clearly stated, but they have to be written as if, like, you really, firmly believe this (laughter). And so what was it like for you to write opinion columns for so long? You're still doing it, but I don't think as often.

BRUNI: Well, you have clearly been inside my head 'cause you just described (laughter) crazily accurately, you know, my qualms and frustrations over time with opinion writing. When you have a firm opinion and when circumstances really inspire you, there's no privilege or blessing greater than having an opinion column and having that space to kind of share your thoughts and your thinking with the world. But I did find it hard over time, not just because deadlines are such that you have to mint passionate opinions where maybe you don't immediately feel one, but I also see the world, in many regards, in shades of gray. There are a lot of issues that when I think about them, I see multiple sides to them. I'm not sure where I land. I believe there are more unanswered than answered questions.

And that's sort of - on the one hand, on the other hand, that sort of healthy ambivalence or humble ambiguity, that's not really a nice fit these days or a tidy fit these days with what opinion writing calls for and what the opinion-writing audience wants. So it made a lot of sense for me just in terms of my long-standing habits of mind and temperament to get at least one foot out of the opinion-writing game and maybe not be on the line for so many passionate opinions a year.

GROSS: When you became an opinion writer at the New York Times - and this was after you were a restaurant critic - you became the first out opinion writer at The Times, and you were - used that as an opportunity to often write about LGBTQ-related issues. Did you feel, like, a responsibility, too, since you were out and were very aware of LGBTQ issues, to make sure that you wrote pieces about that?

BRUNI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I felt that responsibility less so as time went on because I'd written about them quite a bit in the beginning, but I felt that responsibility both in terms of my having this role as an out person that no out person had had at The Times before, but also, I became an op-ed columnist in 2011, and if you'll recall, 2012 was sort of the peak year for the national discussion of marriage equality. That was the election year when there were many measures on ballots when, you know, for the first time, when it was put to a popular vote in certain states - Maryland, Maine - a majority of people voted directly for, yes, we want the legalization of same-sex marriage; we want marriage equality.

And then in short order in the coming years, the Supreme Court took up the position - took up the issue and, obviously, ruled in a way that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. And so those early years of my columnizing life were ones in which the marriage debate was very, very much at the center of the nation's attention. And it was important to me. And it felt like an extraordinary privilege to be able to write about that in The Times' opinion pages as an openly gay man who could understand on a deep, cellular level why being told you couldn't - or couldn't marry seemed like an enormous statement about your dignity as a human being.

GROSS: You came out when you were 18. And were you already out of high school?

BRUNI: I was out of high school. I told maybe two or three very close friends in high school, and that was it. And then I kind of came out - to the extent that that word is applicable - when I was a freshman in college.

GROSS: Yeah, because you wrote that you thought obsessively about suicide when you were in high school. Can you talk about that a little bit? Like, how much of that had to do with being gay and not being able - and thinking that you couldn't really tell people? I don't know if you were bullied or just feeling that there was something wrong with you. Like, tell us what was - if - to the extent that you're comfortable, tell us what was upsetting you so much.

BRUNI: Well, I think that - I don't know how much of my suicidal thoughts were connected to being gay and fearful about what that meant for my future in my life and how much, you know, were a function of just kind of psychological disposition, wiring, that sort of thing 'cause I think it's always an interplay. But, you know, this was - I graduated from high school in 1982 - so late '70s, early '80s. It was a much, much different time and a much, much different country in terms of the messages that were sent out regarding LGBTQ people, you know, in terms of what you would conclude or be led to believe your future held. And I was really worried that mine was going to be a future of being ostracized, of being marginalized, of living in the shadows, so to speak. I knew that I would not be able to hold onto and keep my secret, and it felt like a secret. And I had no idea what the repercussions of being honest about myself were going to look like and how they were going to feel.

And I - you know, the statistics show that there were a great many young people like me who didn't make it out of that period or who made it out of that period with really, really deep psychological scars because it's not just that they didn't get any kind of affirmation from the culture around them; they got signs of condemnation, and they got harbingers of doom.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Bruni. He's a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and author of the new memoir "The Beauty Of Dusk" about losing his vision in one eye. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Frank Bruni, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and the paper's former chief restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief and White House correspondent. His new memoir, "The Beauty Of Dusk," is about how his life changed after a rare kind of stroke left him blind in one eye.

I want to talk with you a little about the subject of your previous memoir, "Born Round," which is a memoir about your issues with food. You know, you love food - very passionate about food - and often went through periods of eating too much of it. And those periods resulted in periods where your waist would, you know, expand by - you say, like, 6 inches. So given the issues that you had with food and with your weight, what was your reaction when you were asked to be a restaurant critic where eating, like, fantastic food and having to sample as much of it as you could was going to be your professional life?

BRUNI: (Laughter) I mean, I cackled, I think. It was surreal. It felt to me like the first scene of some crazy, crazy movie that I wasn't sure was a comedy or a tragedy. But that offer, that proposal came along to me at a time in my life when I had just felt like I'd turned the corner in my relationship with food, where I'd gotten healthy again after a period of enormous weight gain, where I was living in a manner that felt kind of disciplined and healthy. And I somehow knew, Terry, in a really counterintuitive way that if I accepted the restaurant critic job and every day was about dealing with food, that I would kind of approach it in a methodical and conscious enough way that it would be sort of the best recipe for not being undone by food that was possible. It's difficult to describe, and that's why (laughter) I devoted much of a book to it so I could have the space to describe it.

But I was probably at my food healthiest, at my trimmest and all of that during the 5 1/2 years when I was The New York Times restaurant critic than I ever was before or since. I'm heavier now than I was when I was eating professionally.

GROSS: How did you discipline yourself when you were reviewing restaurants?

BRUNI: When you - so if you are someone with a history of bingeing and purging and fad diets like I was, you're constantly telling yourself, I can pig out today 'cause I'm going to be better tomorrow. And then tomorrow comes. It's like, well, I'm just going to pig out again today because I'll be better the next three days. When you wake up every morning and you know that you have to eat an enormous meal that evening because it's your job and maybe even go out to lunch, you can no longer lie to yourself about these incredible episodes of deprivation that you're going to commit to to make up for tomorrow's excesses. And so you mete out your eating, and you measure it in a way that you didn't before because there is no makeup period. There is no tomorrow when you're going to fast. And so I ate steadily as a restaurant critic, but I finished nothing on my plate.

And being a restaurant critic is about tasting, not gorging. And that is, in fact, how - one of the healthy ways to eat that is often encouraged. And so it kind of kept you on a schedule and kept you to a discipline that wasn't so different from what some nutritionists' advice would be.

GROSS: Did you find that when you were at your heaviest, in terms of your weight, that it really changed your self-image and your - how you saw your place in your world - in the world, and your ability to be social and be visible in the world?

BRUNI: Oh, completely. I mean, I would - I mean, not only did it completely shut me down romantically, there were years when I didn't go out on a date, you know, or have any sort of sexual contact with anyone. There were also so many times when if I didn't have to be somewhere, I would cancel at the last minute because I would start to put on a pair of pants. And I would note that its waist size was one that made me ashamed. Or it would be even tight at that weight's waist size. And I would sort of hide. I mean, there were many things I couldn't hide from. I was working as a reporter for The New York Times. During the worst of it, I was covering a presidential campaign. And so I had to be out in the world to a certain degree. And there was no hiding.

But in response to that, I would often elect, when I could, to withdraw because I felt so - I don't know if shame is the right word. I felt so self-conscious about the way I looked. And it has made me much angrier about the way we treat people with weight struggles, people who are overweight, maybe just because that's the way - you know, that's the nature of their physiology. We can be so cruel and judgmental about that. We can make people feel a magnitude of shame and self-consciousness that is crippling. And we really need to watch ourselves in that regard because we have no idea what people are struggling with. We have no idea what they are or aren't capable of. And forcing people into hiding, it's just no way to behave.

GROSS: You hid your identity in ways that New York Times restaurant critics frequently do. You had, like, pseudonymous credit cards. And I was interested to learn that the - at that time, anyways, American Express and The New York Times had a relationship where they would give you these pseudonymous credit cards so that you could use different ones at different restaurants and never be recognized as the food critic. But didn't they eventually have pictures of you on the wall in the kitchen? That's what I always hear about restaurant critics.

BRUNI: Oh, yeah, they did. And sometimes, some of them would, like, snap a photo of one of those and show me. I remember being told that when I was named restaurant critic, Eric Ripert, the owner and chef of Le Bernardin, did such a deep dive that he actually contacted ABC's "Nightline" when he realized that I had done some commentary for them about the George W. Bush presidency. And he either paid them or somehow arranged to get a copy of the footage. And he made his employees watch it so they could not only see what I looked like, but be familiar with the sound of my voice in case my looks had changed. It's a high-stakes game because then - and I believe now, too - for a certain kind of restaurant, a good versus a negative review in The New York Times can be life or death. And so they treat it that way in terms of wanting to know if the critic is in-house so that they can make sure to the best of their ability that everything is perfect for that meal and on that night.

GROSS: It's a real responsibility to know that you have a restaurant's fate in your hands, depending on whether you give it a good review or a bad review. How do you deal with that responsibility?

BRUNI: It is an enormous responsibility. And I think if you're any kind of moral person, you think about it. And one of the main ways you deal with it is if you are visiting a kind of mom-and-pop restaurant or a restaurant that not everyone's asking enormous questions about or has great curiosity about but that is more a kind of restaurant that would be a discovery if you liked it, but, you know, would just not be in anyone's consciousness if you didn't, you don't pan those restaurants. If you go to that kind of restaurant hoping to find a hidden gem and it's terrible, you move on because there's not an audience clamoring to know what that restaurant's like. Taking it down could literally shut it down. And you don't want that responsibility. And you don't want to be that kind of force.

But when it comes to the better capitalized restaurants, the ones that are advertising heavily, that are the subject of great reader curiosity, you have to remember that when you're disappointing a restaurant by giving an honest but negative review, you're also doing an important service to a lot of customers who are spending hard-earned money, you know, sometimes making decisions to spend money that's not easy to spend. You are saving them from a broken promise or an experience that they shouldn't have to have. And so the moral calculus is a little bit more complicated than just propping up or shutting down a restaurant.

GROSS: One of the things that made me laugh, reading about your life as a restaurant critic, was that you learned, I think, maybe after the fact that some people made reservations in your name. Like, you're hiding your identity so people don't spot you as a restaurant critic. And at the same time, people are making reservations in your name, hoping they'll get a great table and terrific, special service.

BRUNI: (Laughter) I am told that still happens to this day. Although, now the funny thing is since a chef or restaurateur is not supposed to hold me at a distance and is not worried that reaching out to me or interacting with me is going to be seen as inappropriate and end up being punished in some way - now if that happens, I might actually get an email from the chef or restaurant saying, hey, we're a little doubtful about this reservation we have for Friday night in your name. Are you even in this area?

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BRUNI: And do you have any plan to come into our restaurant? And I'll say, no, no. I think you found one of my imposters. And what I don't know, Terry - and I very much wish I did - is what goes down when that person walks in the door, what kind of conversation they have with the non-Frank Bruni Frank Bruni, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Frank Bruni. He's a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and author of the new memoir, "The Beauty Of Dusk," about losing his vision in one eye. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Frank Bruni, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and the paper's former chief restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief and White House correspondent. His new memoir, "The Beauty Of Dusk," is about how his life changed after a rare kind of stroke left him blind in one eye.

You covered George W. Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000. And one of the ways that the Republican base was rallied was culture war issues, including anti-LGBTQ positions. So what was it like for you to cover that campaign? And also, you wrote a book about George W Bush. And so you had personal contact with him, too. Did you ever try to convince him or really feel him out personally about where he really stood on LGBTQ issues, if he was really as anti-gay as some of the base was?

BRUNI: I didn't do that back then, and I was careful not to also because, you know, there were certain lines that you had to be conscious of in terms of I am a reporter in this situation. You know, I am not here to have a political debate with a candidate I'm covering. I have my strongly held personal convictions, but I'm simply reporting here on what the candidate advocates does and advocate says doesn't say. It did occur to me, though, that George W. Bush certainly knew I was an openly gay man. He knew about other openly gay reporters at The Times who had covered him. And, I mean, I can say that he treated all of us with respect and courtesy. What did that mean about his personal - about his most personal feelings about these issues that the Republican Party was using in culture war ways? I don't know.

But I will tell you, Terry, I remember this one conversation with him. I'll never forget this. And I thought, I don't know what the moral of this is, but I've at least maybe expanded his notion of what a gay man is or can be. But I was interviewing him about something, and, he made a fleeting reference to a football playoff game of the past. That was the Buffalo Bills against the team that was then known as the Houston Oilers. And he mentioned that at halftime the Houston Oilers were so far ahead that it was clear they couldn't lose. And so he went out to take a long run as he was training for the marathon. And I piped up and interjected, yes, and you returned home from that run to find out that the Buffalo Bills had staged the greatest playoff comeback in football history on the strength of the arm of a backup quarterback named Frank Reich.

And honestly, Terry, I don't know this for a fact, but it looked to me like his jaw was going to hit the floor. And I couldn't help but wonder if he was thinking, how does the gay reporter on my campaign know football that well? Because I did and I do, and I'm something of a football savant. But that always kind of sticks in my memory as, I don't know what was going on there, but maybe, just maybe at that particular moment in time, my presence did help educate him a little bit.

GROSS: You came out when you were 18. So Reagan is president. The moral majority is really active. So you have all of these Christian fundamentalists, preachers at that time preaching this really anti-gay message, sending out literature to all of their members that were really anti-gay. And, you know, it's - this is part of what was being used to rally voters. Were you immune to that, or did that get to you?

BRUNI: Oh, I wasn't immune to it. I mean, I full - I knew full well who Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant were, you know, very much so. And on top of everything you just mentioned, along comes AIDS - right? - in the early and mid-'80s. And so not only does the AIDS crisis, like, heighten and amplify all of that preaching that, ah, see; this is the biblical punishment of the evil gay people. But being gay, all of a sudden, you're told that is a physical epidemiological risk. Like, if you become intimate with people as we all want to be, you are risking your health and your life. That was the message.

But, you know, history - life works in very strange ways. And it's pretty clear from the vantage point of today that one of the accelerants of gay rights in this country ended up being the AIDS epidemic. AIDS made it imperative that gay people not blend in and hide any longer. It spurred them to an intensity and a breadth of political activism that became political activism about more than just AIDS treatments but about gay dignity. It showed so many Americans who would not have otherwise known it that their loved ones included these vulnerable people who were either coming down with AIDS or who were worried about it. And so that ended up, I think, being a real hinge moment for the culture in the country as in relation to awareness of and treatment of gay people.

GROSS: I assume that because of the AIDS epidemic, you lost some friends who were in your age group, maybe more than you care to count. But what impact did it have on you to know that, you know, intimate relations would leave you vulnerable, possibly to death, and to see friends your age have AIDS and die?

BRUNI: It was heartbreaking. And it was heartbreaking - it was doubly and triply heartbreaking because not only did you see friends and acquaintances die, but in some cases - thankfully not all - you saw friends and acquaintances die who were dying estranged from their families or, you know, who were not being embraced in their final moments or mourned after their final moments in the way that another person would have been embraced or mourned. And that was just wrong. And I think if anything, what it did, Terry, is it made me determined, as someone who had already come out - but there are degrees of openness - it made me determined to always live as openly as a gay man as possible. It made me determined when I had the opportunity and where I had the opportunity to try to move the needle in the direction of acceptance and equality and dignity.

And, you know, I thought about all that. I thought about those friends lost to AIDS, you know, on the day when The New York Times said, will you be an op-ed columnist? And that - someone observed to me, oh, and you realize you'd be the first openly gay op-ed columnist. I thought about the AIDS chapter and all the people lost. And I felt like I really wanted to do justice to this opportunity and their memories.

GROSS: Frank Bruni, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much.

BRUNI: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Frank Bruni is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and a professor at Duke University. His new memoir is called "The Beauty Of Dusk: On Vision Lost And Found." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll remember George Floyd as we approach the second anniversary of his murder. Our guests will be Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. They spoke with Floyd's friends, family, teachers and coaches for their biography, which is called "His Name Is George Floyd." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.