Mary Ingalls’ Blindness Freaked Me the Hell Out
I was unnerved by the images, but I didn’t dwell much on them — until nighttime.
By KELLI MARSHALL
Like many young white girls who grew up the ‘70s and ‘80s, I watched Little House on the Prairie (1974–83).
Every day my mother picked up my younger brother and me from elementary school in Monroe, Louisiana (yes, home to Duck Dynasty — please don’t hold it against me). We scrambled into the car, always apparently “smelling like outside.” After buckling up — wait, no one wore backseat belts then — we’d drive a mile to Gene Cox’s gas station for strawberry Icees and Funyuns. This happened virtually every day.
After traveling another couple of miles home, my brother, our snacks, and I would sit in front of the TV and watch Dukes of Hazzard (1979–85) and Little House on the Prairie. I can’t recall which aired first, but after school, we watched both.
Having not seen Little House on the Prairie in 30 years, I only remember bits and pieces about it:
- Charles Ingalls’ fatherly advice and patience
- that one-room schoolhouse
- Nelly Oleson’s nastiness and starched bows
- Harriet Oleson’s hairdo and matching scowl
- Nels Oleson’s white mercantile store
- Laura Ingalls’ braids
- Almanzo Wilder’s cute smile and blond hair
- Caroline Ingalls’ cooking and darning
- Albert Ingalls’ adoption
But one thing I will never forget about Little House on the Prairie is the episode in which Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) went blind.
In the episodes “I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away: Parts 1 and 2” (4.21-22) the Ingalls family is having dinner. Mary complains her eyes are tired.
Since Mary is the most studious of the Ingalls children, the tiredness is probably from reading too much, everyone thinks. Ever the caretaker, Charles/Pa (Michael Landon) adds that it’s time for Mary’s annual eye checkup anyway. That will fix the problem, if there is one.
At the doctor’s office, Charles learns that because of a previous case of scarlet fever, Mary’s vision is deteriorating. Her eyesight cannot be saved. After hearing this news, Charles is in denial. He does not tell Mary about her possibly hopeless future.
One morning shortly after her eye checkup, Mary wakes up, and she is completely blind. Screaming frantically from the loft above, Mary calls for her father:
“Pa, help me! Help me! Pa, I can’t see! I can’t see! Hold me. Hold me.”
I remembering being unnerved by Mary’s going blind and Melissa Sue Anderson’s performance. But like most TV shows my brother and I watched after school, I didn’t dwell much on the images. Until nighttime.
For several days (maybe weeks?) after watching Mary Ingalls go blind, I found myself alone in my darkened bedroom constantly opening and closing my eyes. Wide. Wider. Looking for the texture in the popcorn ceiling above. Could I still see? Could I not see? Was this fate going to be mine as well?
I mean, Mary was just a white, blonde-haired girl — like me — who went to bed one night after dinner and then woke up the next morning completely blind. Who’s to say this wouldn’t happen to me?
I continued watching Little House on the Prairie until it ended. By then, Mary Ingalls had successfully attended a school for the blind, married her instructor, and had two children, both of whom would die tragically. Poor woman.
Still, it’s that event many viewers remember about television’s Mary Ingalls. A Google search suggests the same. It may also be the event the show’s producers best recall. According to Melissa Sue Anderson, the episodes in which her character goes blind brought up the series ratings significantly: it was #2 the first week and #1 the second.
More recently, the real-life Mary Ingalls is making news because University of Michigan professors have found it was likely not scarlet fever that caused her blindness, but viral meningoencephalitis, which caused optic neuritis or inflammation of her optic nerves.
Whatever disease actually caused Mary Ingalls’ blindness is irrelevant to me — although I understand its importance to others in academia and the medical profession. What I do know is that the representation of that real-life event in the fictional television series Little House on the Prairie freaked me the hell out.
I don’t remember how long my fear of going blind lasted, but it was real. That’s the power of moving images.
Today in South Dakota begins the third-annual LauraPalooza Conference, a convention that celebrates the life and work of Laura Ingalls, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. There, University of Michigan professor Beth Tarini discussed her findings on Mary Ingalls’ blindness.