Joshua Miele: Inspiration from an Unthinkable Crime
Joshua Miele's sight was stolen from him when he was a child. Forty years later, he's giving the blind a bright future.
On October 5, 1973, four-year-old Josh Miele was playing in the backyard of his family’s house on President Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, as his mother, Isabella, cooked in the kitchen. When the doorbell rang, Josh sprinted to answer it.
He opened the door and saw Basilio Bousa, 24, one of his next-door neighbors, standing on the other side of the vestibule’s heavy iron gate. Josh unlocked the gate. Then he slipped his two feet into its lowest rung and grabbed hold of each side with his hands so that his weight would pull open the gate. Basilio didn’t move or speak. Josh stepped out from behind the gate, into the open.
And then, he couldn’t see. He didn’t know why. He felt around with his hands, grasping for the walls. He forced his eyes open and glimpsed the wood paneling in the vestibule. It was the last thing he ever saw.
I was seven years old at the time 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 front gate and made me practice. I thought, Why would anyone do that to a kid? The newspaper provided no clues, just a brief article: “Boy, 4, Is Hurt by Acid Thrower.” For me, it was like a particularly chilling fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Until the day my mother sold the house, when I was nearly 40, I followed her advice from long ago: If the doorbell rang when I happened to be visiting, I hung back, just a little, as I answered it.
The attack on Josh Miele was the most notorious crime of my childhood, and in the end, it destroyed two families. We didn’t know the Mieles, but I always wanted to know why the attack had occurred and what had happened afterward: Had the families held it together? I wanted to know what had become of the “crazy man” and who he was. But most of all, I wanted to know what had become of that little boy.
Jean Miele, Josh’s father, bought the narrow little house on President Street in 1965. The brownstones looked much as they do today, although their facades were worn, and many hid rooming houses within. The day the Mieles moved in, Jean immediately unpacked a shotgun, which he left sitting on his front 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 from Cuba to President Street with their son Basilio in 1955. The Mieles and the Bousas went out to dinner together. Carmen, the Bousas’ daughter, babysat the Miele children. “When his mother brought Josh home from the hospital, I thought he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen,” Carmen told me after I reached her by phone recently.
But there were problems with Basilio. Carmen said her mother had detected something amiss with Basilio when he was one. She said that her parents had tried to get him help. As a young man, he used drugs heavily, was thrown out of Brooklyn College, and started working at the family’s bodega on Seventh Avenue.
For reasons unknown to everyone, Basilio became fixated on the Mieles. He broke one of their windows 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 was absent without leave in October 1973. This is when he went to the bodega and bought a soda-acid fire extinguisher. He opened it, poured the sulfuric acid into a container, walked over to 851 President Street, and rang the bell.
On the day of the attack, Josh’s father was on a business trip to Washington, D.C.; by the time he returned to Brooklyn, Josh was at Methodist Hospital. The elder Jean was shocked at the sight of his son. “His face was a mask,” he recalled. Josh’s skin had turned brown, his features were altered. “I remember thinking, I don’t know anything about what to do about this,” said Josh’s dad.
Doctors crowded around the boy, trying to save his sight. His father began to feel reassured until the next day, when an intern approached and whispered to him that if Josh didn’t get to a military hospital soon, he was going to die. The intern explained that only the military had the ability to deal with the kind of burn injury that Josh had. The elder Jean commandeered a pay phone in the hospital’s waiting room and got through to Park Slope’s congressman, Hugh L. Carey, who reached out to the U.S. surgeon general’s office. Soon a call came in 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.
Dr. Pruitt told Josh’s father that he was sending a medical team and a C-9 transport plane to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to pick up Josh. Josh’s father just had to get his son there. The distraught dad worked that phone some more, shoveling in dimes, and convinced a helicopter pilot at McGuire and a desk sergeant in the 78th Precinct of the New York Police Department to help him and his son.
Later that night, five NYPD officers formed a circle with their police cruisers and used their headlights to shine a star pattern on the Sheep Meadow in Park Slope’s Prospect Park. The pilot landed the helicopter in the middle of the star, and then lifted Josh, his mother, and his father into the sky.
“For such a devastating injury, we were very realistic about what to expect,” said Dr. Pruitt. Upon examining Josh, Pruitt determined that the boy was burned over 17 percent of his body, with third- degree burns covering more than half of the affected area, mostly his face. Dr. Pruitt said his chief goal was to save the boy’s sight. But he knew right away that this objective was hopeless. “The globes had been irreparably injured,” he said. Josh underwent endless operations. Skin was taken from one of his legs and grafted to his face. Dead tissue was cut away, a hugely painful process, again and again.
Isabella Miele, then and now an artist, explored San Antonio during the few moments she spent away from the hospital. She walked along the river that bisects the city and discovered a food market on a dusty plaza. But it was hard to escape what had brought her to the city: “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 saw him for the first time, about six weeks after he’d been burned, the younger Jean worried that he might collapse. Josh sounded the same, had the voice of the same little boy who missed his big brother, but his appearance was radically changed. Many of his features were gone, and what remained was roughly scarred.
Josh learned to use a cane and spent time at the Industrial Home for the Blind in nearby Brooklyn Heights. His father built a bunk bed that was part jungle gym so Josh could climb and stretch his scarred underarms.
His mother had her own approach to Josh’s rehabilitation. “There were many times when I put him in less-than-acceptable situations,” she said. “I’d 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 OK. Do it.’ ”
In 1975, the elder Jean and Isabella separated. After their father moved out, Julia and Josh found themselves alone a lot. They listened to talking books for hours on the jungle-gym bunk bed. They fought and argued as any siblings do. They played outside with friends from across the street.
The two of them would roam around Park Slope, two little children, nine and five, running errands, shopping—and more often than not someone would comment loudly on Josh’s appearance. Or would ask Julia, within earshot of her little brother, what had happened to him. Or a child would scream: “Mommy, Mommy! A monster! A monster!”
The rude comments and questions made Julia angry. Once, after Josh had undergone 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 Julia what had happened to Josh, she snapped, “He had a mustache transplant.” Josh’s brother had a different way of dealing with the looks and questions: He got into fistfight after fistfight.
Josh attended Public School 102 in Bay Ridge, where he learned to read Braille. When his mother moved with a new companion to Rockland County, New York, Julia and Josh went with her. Josh’s operations continued, including a failed cornea transplant.
When Josh was either 11 or 12, he learned that doctors were planning to stitch one of his arms to his burned nose. The surgeons hoped that the live tissue in the arm would trigger regrowth of blood vessels and tissue in the nose. 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?
After the attack,Basilio Bousa was arrested and charged with first-degree assault. He said that he heard voices and that people were following him. He was given a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and was treated at a psychiatric hospital until he was deemed ready to stand trial. Josh, then seven, 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.”
When Josh-or, to give his full name, Joshua A. Miele—and I first met for coffee, he was in New York City 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 his sister, Julia, now Julia Miele Rodas and a professor at Bronx Community College who teaches and writes about disability in literature, and his brother, Jean, a photographer.
Before we met in fall 2012, 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 blazed through, and he quickly put me at ease.
Today Josh lives in Berkeley, California, on a beautiful block of cottages built in the 1920s, with his wife, Liz, and their children, Benjamin, ten, and Vivien, seven. By the time I went to their house for dinner, I had ceased being conscious of any physical difference between us.
Josh has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a PhD in psychoacoustics from the University of California, Berkeley. As an undergraduate, he worked for the technology company Berkeley Systems on software to help blind people navigate graphics-based computer programs. He developed software for the Mars Observer for NASA. 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 nonprofit Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. “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,” Josh said.
He has helped develop tactile-Braille maps of every station of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system, exquisite creations with raised lines of plastic and Braille labels. The maps also elegantly convey information via an audio smartpen. Josh’s enthusiasm for the Braille maps is infectious, but it’s nothing like the way his voice goes up an octave as he describes his latest project, a cloud-based software program, the Descriptive Video Exchange, that, in theory, will let someone narrate a video or movie and describe what they see for those who can’t.
Josh remembers the day he was burned with precise detail. He remembers riding in the helicopter and making the nurses at McGuire laugh. 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 previous 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 had so much freedom.
His perception of himself as being blind has shifted over the years, from not identifying with those who had no sight to becoming aggressively proud of his blindness. He has tried to bring along his parents and siblings 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 Josh 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 that 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 OK.”