Googly Eyes – First Place, Wallace Prize for Nonfiction

The clock has twelve eyes, one for each hour. Three and nine o’clock are green, twelve and six are gray, and two is hazel. The eye at five o’clock looks as if it’s just been on a bender; its iris is surrounded by a dense network of red veins, and its sclera (the “white” of the eye) is pink with irritation. The eyes are glued onto a standard-issue square office clock, black with white tick marks. From their vantage point on the wall of the New Haven office of Mager & Gougelman, Inc., the eyes can see several chairs, a small table with a stack of magazines, and two paintings of churches. I am staring at five o’clock when a man walks through the door to my left. He looks to be in his early 40s and is wearing a white lab coat. His eyes are slate-colored, but will seem to change every time I meet him over the next few weeks — something to do with the lighting and the color of his shirt. Introducing himself as David Gougelmann, he ushers me out of the waiting room and into the back.

Like generations of his predecessors, Mr. Gougelmann is an ocularist, a maker of artificial eyes. His corner office, high-ceilinged and small, seems to function primarily as a storage facility. He apologizes for the mess, explaining that his company’s New Haven branch is just a satellite; in addition to serving his New England clientele, it must accommodate the paperwork and retired inventory that flows out of the cramped headquarters in New York City. Though the cardboard boxes piled on the floor say things like Crown Towlmastr III Roll Towel Dispenser, they actually contain files — and eyeballs. The files consist largely of appointment books and ledgers from years past, ruled beautifully in red and blue, filled with minute cursive. The eyeballs are mostly made of glass, which means they’re quite old. Though glass is no longer used to fabricate prosthetic eyes, Mr. Gougelmann keeps these specimens around for their historical importance; many of them were made by his forebears. The family business, Mager & Gougelman, Inc., has been accumulating eyeballs for over a century.

The Wallace Prize Issue 2009
Loide Marwanga
The Wallace Prize Issue 2009

Though the New Haven office is interesting for its clock and archives, little goes on there in the way of eye-making. All the action takes place in M&G’s main office, which is located at 345 East 37th Street in New York. I go there one day in late October, taking the elevator up two floors and walking into Suite 316. In the waiting room, two Spanish-speaking women are poring over a Medicaid form. There is a door with a sign forbidding the use of cell phones, and it is from here that Mr. Gougelmann emerges. He is wearing the same boxy lab coat as before; it makes him appear shorter and stockier than he really is. His eyes look blue today, but his hair hasn’t changed: it is the same carefully coiffed brown-gray, longer on the top than on the sides, with sideburns that curve slightly forward. Sometimes Mr. Gougelmann looks up at the ceiling when he’s answering a question, as though a committee in his mind is deliberating and he’s awaiting the results. In these instances, he prefaces his responses with the phrase “We’re gonna say…” Other times, he answers quickly and concisely. Whenever I ask a particularly stupid question — “Why don’t you just paint the pupil freehand?” — Mr. Gougelmann remains silent; he waits patiently while I figure it out for myself.

***

In December 2006, a woman’s body is found in Shahr-i-Sokhta (“Burnt City”), Iran. Little of her is left — a few shards of bone, a fractured skull — but this is not surprising, since her skeleton is as old as Stonehenge and the pyramids. What is surprising is the contents of her eye socket: a small sphere of bitumen paste, a tar-like petroleum derivative, inlaid with capillary-like golden wires. Though the eye looks something like a chocolate truffle — far from real, in other words — it is quite advanced for its time. Five thousand years ago, ocular prostheses were usually glorified patches, painted pieces of clay worn over the eye. The Burnt City woman, however, had enough money and clout to commission an in-socket artificial eye. Though the prosthesis didn’t fit perfectly (there is evidence of an abscess on her upper eyelid), it must have been a striking sight just the same — a glittering chunk of tar in her left socket.

The idea of wearing a foreign object inside one’s skull might seem bizarre to some people. But as Mr. Gougelmann explains, not wearing anything in the place of a lost eye would be even more unsettling. “It would be like walking around with your mouth open,” he says. If left to its own devices, the cavity formerly filled with an eyeball (also called a “globe”) eventually collapses, giving the face a distorted and droopy appearance. Until about a century ago, there had been comparatively little progress in the socket-filling arena. Though a tar eyeball sounds strange, the millennia after Burnt City saw a host of even stranger fillers, including aluminum, silver, gold, fat, platinum, silk, ivory, cartilage, bone, catgut, sponge, wool, cork, rubber, peat, agar, paraffin, and asbestos. Today, ocular implants are typically made of thermoplastics or porous materials like coralline hydroxyapatite, which comes from sea coral.

For a long time, of course, artificial eyes were made neither of asbestos and catgut nor of polyethylene and sea coral. For a long time, they were made of glass, like the specimens in Mr. Gougelmann’s New Haven office. The practice of blowing solid glass eyes appears to have begun in 18th-century Venice, though it is generally accepted that the Germans perfected it. The craft spread throughout Europe, quickly becoming the mainstay of ocularists. In many ways, glass eyes were superior to what came before; they mimicked the colors and general appearance of a human eye better than most other materials, and were not rejected by the patient’s body. But they were also extremely hard to fabricate, and could not be altered once they had hardened. As Mr. Gougelmann put it, “If your glass eye maker was having a good day, you’d get a good eye.” The 20th-century glass eye, light and hollow, was little better. It would sometimes explode in the wearer’s socket due to temperature changes, like an ice cube dropped in warm water.

One of the best descriptions of glass eye-making comes from the British writer Henry Vizetelly. In his memoir, Glances Back Through Seventy Years: Autobiographical and Other Reminiscences, Vizetelly describes the office of a Parisian ocularist in 1868:

… collections of artificial eyes were displayed in hermetically-closed glass cases for the admiration of visitors on the look-out for a visual organ … Most of them were brilliant and so piercing that they seemed to look through one. On one side were laughing children’s eyes, next to them liquid-looking, love-sick eyes of young girls, languid eyes of middle aged women, eyes with an amiable or sinister expression, severe official eyes, then old men’s eyes that were slightly filmy.

Though the eyes Vizetelly saw were varied, the Parisian ocularist’s clientele was singularly elite; these were people who “would no more think of wearing an artificial eye of home manufacture than a pair of gloves that had not come from Jouvin’s.” Though the masses generally couldn’t afford glass eyes — as Vizetelly remarks, “we all know that superfluities are not for needy people” — botched or secondhand eyes trickled down, and nice ones were sometimes available for rental. Really screwed-up eyes, the “waste eyes” that not even the poor wanted, were given to the only people who would accept them without complaint: “that section which enjoyed the honour of being embalmed.” In other words, they were pawned off on dead people. I do not ask Mr. Gougelmann if he engages in this practice.

Another peculiar habit of the Parisian ocularist was to employ a one-eyed manservant, whom Vizetelly affectionately dubbed “Jean Polyphème.” This “liveried cyclops” received a custom-made glass eye as part of his service. When prospective clients seemed anxious at the thought of getting an artificial eye, it was the servant’s job to “introduce a knitting-needle under his eyelid, remove his eye, and place it in the hand of the astonished spectator as unconcernedly as though it were a shirt stud.” The idea was that if the ocularist could make a fine eye for his servant, he could do the same for a gentleman.

There are no liveried cyclopes lurking around Mager & Gougelman, Inc., and there are no longer any glass eyes either (other than the curios in cardboard boxes). By the time Mr. Gougelmann started apprenticing in the summer of eighth grade, acrylic was the norm. World War II was largely responsible for this, as German glass became scarce and plastics technology improved. (The War also accounts for the missing n in the name of the business; the Gougelmanns dropped it to avoid sounding too German.) Though he began by sweeping floors and polishing color samples, Mr. Gougelmann was painting eyes by eleventh grade, and sitting in on appointments by the summer before college. He practiced his skills by making joke eyes for his friends. These found their way into earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and guitar picks. Some ended up in ice cubes, and one especially large one was used to adorn a transmission shifter. As Mr. Gougelmann says, “Growing up in the business, we put eyes in lots of places.”

“The business” has been around for 158 years, ever since Swiss immigrant Peter Gougelmann founded it in 1851. Though it has grown and shrunk amoebically over the decades, Mager & Gougelman, Inc. continues to be one of the most famous makers of artificial eyes in the world. Its clients have included Peter Falk, Joseph Pulitzer, Helen Keller, and several thoroughbred racehorses. (There was also nearly an old Central Park Zoo lioness, but she “reverted to youthful vigor” upon the ocularist’s entry into her cage, and was therefore never fitted.) One article from the New York Daily News even alleges that the Gougelmann name is responsible for the phrase googly eyes. This is an etymological claim with which other sources, most notably the Oxford English Dictionary, disagree. Besides, the whole point is that Mager & Gougelman, Inc. does not manufacture googly eyes, which are defined as “large, round, and staring.” They tailor the eye to the patient, easing the transition back into normal life and scrupulously avoiding what Mr. Gougelmann calls the “mannequin effect.”

***

To the one eyed golfer all greens are flat.” According to George Godber’s November 1987 letter to the editor of the British Medical Journal, the “one eyed individual” must engage in a number of compensatory behaviors, including:

reaching nearly to an object quickly, but feeling for the last few inches; always touching the cup or glass rim before pouring into it; constantly turning one’s head and watching for kerb edges or raised paving stones; always feeling with one’s foot for the height of the first step down; never hitting across the line of a moving ball, whether at cricket, tennis, or squash.

Other concerns include transitioning to spectacles when “one’s aging skin fails to hold the monocle reliably,” and circumnavigating half-open doors so as to avoid walking into them.

At the most basic level, loss of stereoscopic vision means a damaged sense of depth perception. But the trauma of eye loss is also accompanied by a wide range of psychological problems. Some patients react apathetically, says Mr. Gougelmann, while others seem suicidal — he often refers people to therapists. (This may be why the American Society of Ocularists recommends studies in “communicative skills and applied psychology.”) For those who have lost both eyes, the difficulty is of course even greater. Many of the associated effects are relatively predictable — decreased mobility, difficulty with the techniques of everyday living, the possibility of unemployment and financial insecurity. But there are also ramifications that sighted people might never expect. Many of these are enumerated in Father Thomas J. Carroll’s Blindness; what it is, what it does, and how to live with it. Though the book is far from recent (one chart makes reference to “professionally recorded 33 rpm records”), its psychological insights remain relevant. Some blind people experience a loss of kinesthetic pleasure, the satisfaction of seeing themselves moving “against a background of nonmotion.” There is also what Carroll terms a “loss of obscurity,” the inability to blend into a crowd. For many blind people, the most profound and tenacious loss is a constant feeling of incompleteness. It is perhaps no accident that the surgical procedure for removal of the contents of the eyeball is called evisceration, suggesting that the eye is at least as important as the liver or the spleen.

Even for patients who have come to terms with eye loss, the idea of wearing a prosthesis can provoke anxiety and fear. From the online forum of the Royal National Institute of Blind People:

toni9101 said on 24 August 2008 at 11:25 PM

My optician has told me that i have to have a prosthetic eye … i am so scared of having this operation and wonder if it will be the best thing to do or shall i just leave it? Will i be able to do normal things like swimming having a shower, lifting things – will i be able to drive? Will my eye look normal will it move with my other eye there are so many things i need to know has anyone else been through this?

The answer to toni9101’s question, as Mr. Gougelmann would doubtless say, is that a plastic eye can do all of the things a natural eye can — except see. An artificial eye’s verisimilitude and motility (ability to move) will depend largely on the patient’s physiology, on the state of his tissue and muscles. But even a patient with extensive trauma and an immobile prosthesis can expect some relief. Tinted lenses and thick frames go a long way; self-confidence goes further, as nicolawyatt, one of toni9101’s respondents, proves. A neighbor of hers, she says, has a prosthetic eye — but he still “seems to get the girls lol.”

***

Mr. Gougelmann takes me to see his lab, which is in the back of the New York office. My first impression is that it stinks; my subsequent impression is that it’s tiny. Mr. Gougelmann has to go see a patient, so I am left in the room with his brother, Andrew, who is at his workstation polishing a finished eye. (Andrew is the one who made the New Haven eye clock.) I spend some time looking around, not wanting to disturb him, and it is then that I become aware of the origins of the smell. The desks are strewn with hazardous materials — a jug of Sunnyside Denatured Alcohol Solvent, several canisters of Blazer Triple-Refined Butane, globs of Winsor-Newton oil-based paints, a number of seedy-looking bottles simply labeled monomer — and there is no ventilation system to speak of. When I ask Andrew whether the smell bothers him, he seems surprised. The fumes have become such a fixture that he doesn’t register them anymore; it’s only after he returns from long weekends and vacations that they become noticeable.

The flammables are scattered among the usual tokens of office life: form letters, family pictures, themed calendars (one puppy, one classic car), and a wayward bag of Mrs. Cubbison’s Onion & Garlic Restaurant-Style Croutons. Altogether, there are five workstations, only four of which appear to receive regular use (the fifth looks like an abandoned dumping ground for eyes). The lab is barely large enough to hold everything. It consists of two rectangular areas, the top of one joined to the bottom of the other by a small crosspiece. One area contains the workstations, and the other has an array of polishing and casting machines.

When they’re not scurrying between exam room and lab, the ocularists take time to work on their eyes. David Gougelmann’s desk has a three-tiered carousel that looks like a tiny lavender wedding cake. It has little holes on each level for tools. The tiers are filled with various drill attachments — there are grinding stones like thimbles, brushes like Brillo pads, and metal bits shaped like the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Next to the carousel is a white ceramic tile covered with tufts of paint. David Gougelmann uses orange, green, black, white, two shades of blue, four shades of yellow, and six shades of brown. Andrew likes to keep his palette cleaner, so he has fewer colors (only four shades of brown). Unlike his brother, Andrew prefers to polish eyes at his workstation rather than at the wheel in the back, so there is a cratered block of rouge on his desk. It looks like pink Swiss cheese.

***

Modern artificial eyes are not spherical. Patients’ sockets are filled with either their natural blind eyeball or a tissue-covered implant, so they have no need of anything to replace the globe. Because of this, ocular prosthetics come mostly in the form of the scleral cover shell, a piece of plastic that sits just behind the eyelids. Like a contact lens, it floats on top of the globe and, to some extent, moves with it (some implants even have a small peg that connects to the shell in order to improve motility). Unlike a contact lens, however, the scleral cover shell is opaque and quite large, fitting over the entire visible part of the eye. The shell is made from white acrylic and has all the aesthetic characteristics of a natural eye — iris, pupil, veins, tint.

The first step in making a scleral cover shell is to take an impression. When injected into the patient’s eye socket, ocular impression material has the consistency of pancake batter. Like Bisquick, it begins as a white powder. Mr. Gougelmann combines the powder with distilled water, mixing with a spatula to create a thin paste that he promptly pours into a large syringe (no needle). Behind the patient’s eyelid, he places the fenestrated acrylic tray, a turtle-shell-shaped piece of plastic with a tube protruding from the center — it sits against the patient’s globe. Mr. Gougelmann fits the syringe to the tube and injects the batter; if too much is injected too quickly, it goops out of the overflow holes in the tray, streaming down the patient’s face. The impression material goes in cool and sets for several minutes, hardening and absorbing moisture, slowly warming to body temperature. When it is removed, it leaves the underlying globe feeling gritty and temporarily dry. The impression is firm but squishy, like the white of a hardboiled egg. It perfectly mirrors the shape and contour of the patient’s globe.

A cement-like liquid is poured around the rubbery white impression, creating a stone mold that separates into two halves. Mr. Gougelmann then mixes up a batch of scleral dough, a white material similar to sculpting clay, which will provide the base for the eye. He packs the dough into the mold, then cures it with heat and pressure. It emerges as hard plastic. When I ask Mr. Gougelmann what this thing is called, he says, “We’re gonna say… the scleral piece.”

The scleral piece is fitted to the patient. Mr. Gougelmann may go back and forth between exam room and workstation several times, grinding the piece to the desired proportions. This is the hardest part, since the shape will determine how the prosthesis interacts with the underlying tissue, and therefore how normal it looks. Once he is finished sculpting, Mr. Gougelmann uses a blue marker to draw the outline of the iris, carefully matching its size and orientation to the sighted eye of the patient in front of him. He places a small dot in the center where the pupil will go. Then the scleral piece goes back to the lab.

Mr. Gougelmann casts a new scleral piece, this time with a dark “iris button” countersunk into it. The iris button is a small plastic cylinder that juts out from the center of the eye, indicating how the pupil will be pointed. Mr. Gougelmann “exposes” the iris, grinding down the button he has just inserted. Now he has a white shell with a dark plateau in the center. This is where he will apply the paint. For inspiration, he uses color samples, eyes previously fabricated by apprentices. Since each apprenticeship lasts for 10,000 hours, there is quite a large selection — about 80,000 eyes. Of these, one might match a given patient’s iris closely, one might have a similarly yellowed sclera, and one might have the same vein structure.

Mr. Gougelmann perches eyes in progress on what he calls a “toadstool” (actually just a bottle cap packed with sculpting clay). He mixes and dilutes paints in an “inkwell” (an upside-down shot glass). He begins laying down striations of oil-based paint on the eye, mixing it with a substance called molypoly (pronounced Molly-Polly) that hardens almost instantaneously. Each layer, though paper-thin, will help to give the impression of depth and richness of color. He punches a pupil from a sheet of black paper, gluing it onto the center of what will be the iris. He pulls apart strands of red cotton, placing them on the sclera and adding wiggles with his paintbrush to simulate veins. When the eye looks right, Mr. Gougelmann puts on the finishing touch: a thick coating of acrylic. This will round out the eye, magnifying and lightening the details he has just painted. He polishes the eye using progressively finer gradations of pumice and rouge. The gloss he establishes will help to make the eye look moist (patients with dry eye syndrome sometimes request duller finishes). The final product takes three or four visits to perfect, and will fit the patient for five to seven years. Some people can go months without ever removing their eyes, while others must do so every night before bed; it all depends on body chemistry. Whatever the routine, the process for insertion is always the same. It calls for a suction cup and some lubricating drops, and is described succinctly on Mager & Gougelman’s website:

1. Dip the open end of the suction cup in water

2. Place the suction cup on the color of the prosthesis

3. Rub a “wetting solution for lubricating” on the surface of the prosthesis

4. Lift your upper lid by the eyelash margin so that there is a space between the eyelid and the blind globe or tissue covered implant

5. Place the top of the prosthesis … underneath the upper lid

6. Release the upper eyelid

7. Depress your lower lid and place the prosthesis behind the lower lid

8. Squeeze the suction cup to release from the prosthesis.

***

By the time I leave the New York office of Mager & Gougelman, Inc., the wind has picked up and it’s colder. The sun is perfectly aligned with 2nd Avenue, shining down its length and shedding light even on the storefronts beneath scaffolding. As I walk, I think about one of the last things Mr. Gougelmann showed me: the case of novelty eyes. Instead of a normal-looking iris, these bear an image of the client’s choice. There is a cat, a dog, a turtle, a heart, a rubber ducky, a bald eagle, a smiling moon, and a skull and crossbones. One eye is mottled to look like a golf ball. Another, ordered by a patriotic bartender for the Fourth of July, has a tiny American flag. Yet another eye carries the image of an 8-ball, and belonged to a professional pool player. Mr. Gougelmann tells me about a man who asked for a Nike swoosh. When the sneaker company wouldn’t pay him for advertising, he had the logo removed. A for rent sign went up in its place.

Where a natural-looking eye helps the wearer blend in, a novelty eye demands attention — there is no illusion of normalcy. Because of this, novelty eyes are usually meant for special occasions. The 8-ball once appeared on ESPN. The turtle, a symbol of some kind of club, crawls out only during weekly meetings. The skull and crossbones go with a patient’s Harley, and are worn in the brisk air of the open road. Though the images they carry are showier and more exciting than a humdrum iris, novelty eyes are just like regular prostheses. In fact, Mr. Gougelmann usually makes them by painting over an outdated eye that has recently been replaced. The result is a kind of palimpsest, with the patient’s chosen image placed over his old iris. A thin layer of paint, measurable in fractions of a millimeter, separates the flashy from the understated.

Of course, the bulk of Mr. Gougelmann’s output is natural-looking rather than novelty. The steady stream of browns, blues, hazels, grays, and greens is punctuated only occasionally by the image of a pointy-eared Doberman. Most of the eyes around the office look the same to me. But I find myself wondering whether Mr. Gougelmann isn’t more discerning. Two conventional brown irises — this one with traces of copper and burnt sienna, that one with tinges of mahogany and sepia — might look identical to the uninitiated. I bet Mr. Gougelmann can distinguish them in the blink of an eye.

Comments

  • Ginny Bales

    Great article! I had no idea about any of this. Intriguing topic. Beautiful writing.