Rising Up Against Adversity

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http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/nyregion/40-years-after-an-acid-attack-a-life-well-lived.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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By WENDELL JAMIESON
Published: March 2, 2013 : 

On an October afternoon 40 years ago, on a beautiful block in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a crime occurred in a split second that was as permanent as it was cruel. Grown-ups tried to make sense of it, even use it as a cautionary tale for their children, but in the end, many just put it out of their minds. How could they not? It was just too awful, its lessons too hard to fathom.

The victim was named Josh Miele. He was 4. On that day, Oct. 5, 1973, he was playing in the backyard of his family’s house on President Street while his mother, Isabella, cooked in the kitchen. The doorbell rang, and Josh sprinted to get it.

Standing on the other side of the heavy iron gate beneath the stoop was Basilio Bousa, 24, who lived next door. Josh unlocked it. Then he slipped his two feet into the gate’s lowest rung and grabbed hold with his hands so his weight would pull it open. But Basilio just stood there. So Josh stepped out, into the open.

And then, he couldn’t see. He didn’t know why. He felt around with his hands, grasping for the walls. With great effort he forced his eyes open and glimpsed the wood paneling in the vestibule. It was the last thing he ever saw.

I was 7 years old and lived four blocks away, on St. Johns Place. My mother came into the kitchen that day or the next, her hands shaking. “Wendell,” she said, “Whenever you answer the door, never go out to the gate until you know who is there. Always look through the window of the inside door. Because you know what happened? This little boy on President Street answered the door, and this crazy man poured acid on his head.”

She took me to our own front gate and made me practice. I thought: why would anyone do that to a kid? The newspaper provided no real clue, just a brief article: “Boy, 4, Is Hurt by Acid Thrower.”

For me, it was like a particularly chilling Grimms’ fairy tale, featuring at its heart the most terrifying of all villains, The Acid Thrower. Until the day my mother sold the house, when I was nearly 40, I followed her long-ago advice if I happened to be visiting: I hung back, just a little, when I answered the bell.

It was the crime of my childhood, of another, rougher Park Slope, and in the end it would destroy a family. We didn’t know the Mieles, but I always wanted to know what happened, and what happened afterward — how they had held it all together, or not. I wanted to know what happened to the “crazy man,” and who he was. But most of all, I wanted to know what had become of that little boy.

Jean Miele bought 851 President Street in 1965. The house is narrow and quite distinctive, with pilasters and spandrel panels and a keystone above the parlor floor window in the shape of a bearded man. The brownstones looked much as they do today, though their facades were worn, and many hid rooming houses within. The day the Mieles moved in, Mr. Miele first unpacked a shotgun that he left sitting on the stoop for all to see. He and Isabella had a son, also Jean, and a daughter, Julia. Josh was born in 1969.

Felipe and Clara Bousa moved into 849 President Street with their son Basilio in 1955. The family had come from Cuba. “The Bousas were lovely people,” Mr. Miele said when I spoke to him not too long ago in his house on Carroll Street. The Mieles and the Bousas went out to dinner together.

Carmen Bousa, their daughter, baby-sat. “When his mother brought Josh home from the hospital,” she said when I reached her by phone recently. “I thought he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen.”

But there were problems with Basilio. He “was a space cadet,” said Ruben Torres, who used to hang out on the block. “We all looked at him as someone who had done too much LSD. He was toasted.”

Carmen said her mother had detected something amiss with Basilio when he was 1. She said they tried to get him help. He used drugs heavily, was thrown out of Brooklyn College and started working at the family bodega on Seventh Avenue. Then, for reasons clear to no one, he became fixated on the Mieles. He broke a window, and later tossed a flaming bottle into their backyard, prompting a call to the police and an arrest.

He was released. He joined the Army, but in October 1973, was absent without leave. This is when he went to the bodega and got ahold of a soda-acid fire extinguisher. He opened it up, poured the sulfuric acid into a container, walked over to 851 President Street and rang the bell.

Jean Miele had been on a business trip to Washington; by the time he got back to Brooklyn, Josh was already at Methodist Hospital. Mr. Miele was shocked at the sight of his son: “His face was a mask.” Josh’s skin had turned brown, his features altered. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know anything about what to do about this.’ ”

Doctors crowded around the boy, trying to save his sight. Mr. Miele began to feel reassured until the next day, when an intern came up and whispered to him that if they didn’t get Josh to a military hospital, and soon, he was going to die. Only the military had the ability to deal with that kind of injury. There was a pay phone in the waiting room. Mr. Miele made it his.

He managed to get through to Park Slope’s congressman, Hugh L. Carey. After some misplaced jocularity — “I’ve had 14 kids and they’re always getting into trouble” — Mr. Carey got in touch with the Surgeon General’s Office. There was a conversation with Josh’s doctors. Then a call came to the pay phone from Col. Basil Pruitt, a doctor who was head of the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, the only military hospital at the time dedicated to treating burn victims.

Colonel Pruitt said he was sending a medical team and a C9 transport plane to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to get Josh. All Mr. Miele had to do was get his son there. He worked that phone some more, shoveling in dimes, talking to the duty officer and a helicopter pilot at McGuire, and a desk sergeant in the 78th Precinct. He came up with a plan. They all went along after he explained what had happened to Josh.

And so it was, later that night, that the whoop-whoop-whoop of an Army chopper filled the air above Prospect Park, and five police cars with their lights on formed a star pattern on the Sheep Meadow, and the pilot saw it through the haze, and landed right in the middle, and then lifted Josh, his mother and father into the sky.

Colonel Pruitt ran the Brooke Army Medical Center from 1968 until 1995, and still practices today in Texas. He had thousands of patients in those years but remembers Josh and his family quite vividly. “For such a devastating injury, they were very realistic about what to expect,” he said. Josh was burned over 17 percent of his body, with 11 percent third-degree burns, mostly to his face. Colonel Pruitt said his chief goal was to save the boy’s sight. But he knew right away that this was hopeless.

“He had these terrible injuries to his eyes,” he said. “The globes had been irreparably injured. They were totally collapsed.”

Josh underwent endless operations. Skin was taken from his leg and grafted to his face. Dead tissue was cut away, a hugely painful process, again and again.

Isabella Miele, then and now an artist, would explore San Antonio when she had a few moments away from the hospital. She walked along the river that crosses the city, and found a food market on a dusty plaza. But it was hard to escape what brought her there: “I’m looking at the sky and here are these clouds, and I’m crying in the middle of the street, thinking, Josh is never going to see clouds.”

When Josh’s brother, Jean, saw him for the first time, back in New York about six weeks after he’d been burned, he worried his legs would go out. Josh sounded the same, had the voice of the same little boy who missed his big brother, but his appearance had been so radically altered, and the injuries were so fresh. Many of his features were gone, and what was left was roughly scarred. Julia was shy around Josh. He’d barely been out of toddlerhood, had yet to come into focus for her as an individual, and now he looked different from anyone she’d ever seen before. “My parents were quite normal about it, but in my own memory I was timid,” she said.

Josh learned to use a cane and situated himself at the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn Heights. His father built a bunk bed that was part jungle gym, with all kinds of bars and levels, so Josh could climb and stretch his scarred underarms.

His mother had her own approach. “There were many times where I put him in less-than-acceptable situations,” she said. “I would let him touch things in museums. I would let him climb on things that people don’t ordinarily climb on. He would say, ‘Mom, is this really all right?’ and I’d say: ‘It’s O.K. Do it.’ ”

Jean and Isabella Miele separated. There are differing opinions about whether the attack made the break come sooner or later, but everyone in the family believes that a divorce would have been on the way even if Basilio Bousa had never rung that doorbell.

Julia and Josh found themselves alone a lot. They listened to talking books for hours on that jungle-gym bunk bed. They fought and argued as any siblings. They played outside with friends from across the street.

She makes it sound like a fun time. But it wasn’t always. The two of them would range around Park Slope, two little children, 9 and 5, running errands, shopping — and more often than not someone would comment loudly on Josh’s appearance. Or ask Julia, within his earshot, what had happened to him. Or a child would scream: “Mommy, mommy! A monster! A monster!”

Julia grew angry. Once, after Josh had an operation to restore his upper lip, he had to wear a gauze bandage for weeks, and his mother drew a mustache on it. The next time someone on Seventh Avenue asked what had happened to Josh, Julia snapped, “He had a mustache transplant.”

Josh’s brother, Jean, had a different way of dealing with the looks and questions: he got into fistfight after fistfight.

Josh was mainstreamed at Public School 102 in Bay Ridge, where he learned to read Braille. And then his mother moved with a new companion to Rockland County, taking him and Julia with her. The operations continued, including a failed cornea transplant, but when Josh was either 11 or 12, a big one loomed: there was a plan to stitch his arm to his burned nose, with the hope that the live tissue in his arm would cause blood vessels and tissue in the nose to restore themselves.

Josh put a stop to it. He had had enough. He told his family he was always going to look different — why go through all this pain just to look a little less different? This is how it was, and it was time to start accepting his blindness and his face, and for him to start living his life.

Josh Miele lives today in Berkeley, Calif., on a beautiful block of 1920s cottages, with his wife, Liz, and their children, Benjamin, 10, and Vivien, 7. Josh was deeply ambivalent about participating in this article. We sent e-mails back and forth, and met for coffee in the fall while he was staying with his dad. I was a little nervous: I wondered how I would react to his appearance. But I found it less off-putting than fascinating, his intelligence and sense of humor blazing through, and he quickly put me at ease. By the time I went to his house for dinner, the children running around, I had ceased being conscious of any difference between us.

Josh has a degree in physics and a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics from the University of California at Berkeley. He took several breaks, years long, while getting his undergraduate degree, and worked full time for the technology company Berkeley Systems on software to help blind people navigate graphics-based computer programs.

He worked for NASA on software for the Mars Observer. He is the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. He plays bass in a band. And he works as an associate scientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, a nonprofit research center. “It’s not that I don’t want to be written about,” he said. “I’d like to be as famous as the next person would, but I want to be famous for the right reasons, for the work I’ve done, and not for some stupid thing that happened to me 40 years ago.”

He has helped develop tactile-Braille maps of every station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, exquisite things with raised lines of plastic and Braille labels. They elegantly lay out information that can be heard by using an audio smart pen.

His enthusiasm for the Braille maps is infectious, but it’s nothing like the way his voice goes up when he describes his latest project, a cloud-based software program, the Descriptive Video Exchange, that in theory will let anyone narrate any video or movie to describe what they see for those who can’t. It’s a kind of crowd-sourced service that would allow, for example, a Trekkie to describe a “Star Trek” episode in a way that other devotees would appreciate. The first version, out this month, will work for any video on YouTube.

Josh remembers the day he was burned with precise detail — the little ride on the gate, that last glimpse of wood paneling, his mother crying and saying, “My baby, my baby” as they raced to the hospital. He remembers the ride in the helicopter — “It was so loud and jiggly” — and making the nurses at McGuire laugh with elephant jokes. (“How can you tell there’s an elephant in the closet with you? You can smell the peanuts on his breath.”)

He remembers his time at Brooke as a horror show: he never knew when a new soldier would be moved into the cot next to him because the last one had died. And he remembers those days when it was just him and Julia ranging around Park Slope, a little amazed, as she was, that they had so much freedom.

His perception of himself as being blind shifted over the years, from not identifying with those who had no sight to becoming aggressively proud of his blindness. He tried to bring his family on this journey, with mixed success. “In those early days of being overly cool with being blind, I said to my father: ‘Dad, c’mon, when are you going to get over it? I am who I am.’ He was surprised, and he said, ‘You know, I’m never going to get over it.’ ”

It was only when he had his own children that he realized what this experience must have been like for his parents. He better appreciates his father’s never-wavering optimism, his sister and brother’s protectiveness, and how his mother told him again and again how he could do anything a sighted person could, even some things that they couldn’t, like touching priceless art in museums.

“I never doubted that it was all going to work out,” he said. “It was a foregone conclusion that it was going to be O.K.”

That’s not how it was for the Bousas.

Basilio was arrested and charged with first-degree assault. He said that he heard voices, that people were following him and that, somehow, the Mieles were bothering him. He was given a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. At one point, out on bail, he returned home, prompting fierce protests from the Mieles and a court hearing.

He was treated at a psychiatric hospital until he was deemed ready to stand trial. Josh, then 7, testified. But in the end, Basilio was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and ordered to undergo more treatment. Eventually, the Bousas moved to Florida. The bodega closed. Basilio died in 1992, after getting emphysema. His sister, Carmen, said he smoked continually and obsessively in his last years, and in moments of lucidity was horrified by what he had done. His parents died around the same time.

“Nothing was ever the same after that day,” she said. “This thing destroyed my family. We were so sorry.”

When we first met for coffee, Josh — or, to give his full name, Joshua A. Miele, or Dr. Miele — was in New York to lead a panel discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about improving the museum experience for blind people. His dad still lives in Park Slope, as do Julia — now Julia Miele Rodas and a professor at Bronx Community College who teaches and writes about disability in literature — and his brother, Jean.

He worried that Carmen Bousa still suffers so, and wondered about calling her. He said he had tried to visit 851 President Street, but whoever lived there now had not responded to notes he left; maybe they know what had happened inside that gate, maybe not. And he was surprised when I told him about my mother’s lecture.

But he said hers were wasted words.

“That’s so fascinating,” he said, “but you know, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was a cautious kid. I knew who was outside the gate. I knew Bassy. You would have opened it, too.”

 

 

2 Comments

  1. WOW.. awestruck! Just wow, incredible story that should be made into a movie.

  2. Wendy says:

    This is the most AMAZING and inspiring story about the 4year old boy who was blinded 40 years ago and never did anything but move towards the light.

 
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