Blindness no barrier to Jewish Home writer

Frances Lief Neer sits quietly in her room at San Francisco’s Jewish Home. The lights are out, the drapes drawn, but the darkness doesn’t matter to her. Neer, 88, has been blind for years. The light coming from her room originates in her resilient spirit and ageless, ever-active mind.

Spend a little time with Neer and it’s easy to see why she named her latest book “Too Busy to Die.” This is her fourth published volume — she wrote a trilogy about blindness — and there are others on the way. Just give her time.

Time is the unstated theme of “Too Busy to Die,” Neer’s autobiography. In it, she looks back on a long and full life: her girlhood in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., her unsatisfying marriage, motherhood, her work as a teacher and the new life she created as a single woman in California. She writes of love affairs, creeping blindness and her ultimate acceptance of the hand she’s been dealt.

For a woman who is infirm, old and blind, writing a book was not the easiest of endeavors. But Neer found a way. In 2001, a mutual friend put her in touch with literary agent Nancy Friedberg. She hooked Neer up with a writer who visited her for weekly sessions.

“I would put my notes on a tape recorder,” says Neer. “And I had a whole week to think about it.” The process took more than two years, but the book is now available online from Trafford Publishing.

“All my life I’ve written,” she says. “I just continued to do what I knew best how to do. Since I’m blind and can’t walk around independently, I stayed with books.”

Neer was a bookworm even as a child in her Long Island seaside home. The youngest in a family of much older brothers, Neer showed an independent streak at an early age, emerging as a feminist long before the term had been coined.

She married a man she didn’t love and had two children. Neer was the first in her family to go to college, and she enjoyed a long career as a teacher. At midlife she moved to California and split up with her husband of nearly 40 years.

That was when life began for her.

Raised in a secular home, Neer admits her Judaism never meant a lot to her. “God is made in man’s image,” she says.

After she left her husband, Neer entered into a string of love relationships, each of which lasted till death did they part. In her book, she writes forthrightly about physical intimacy, a need that never goes away no matter what age.

In fact, her autobiography describes her most recent relationship, with David Steinberg, a former San Franciso Examiner columnist, with whom she has had “the most meaningful relationship of my life.”

But ever since she became single again, she has eschewed marriage. “I am,” she proclaims “a bureaucracy of one.”

Neer still enjoys talking to “interesting men,” and she has met a few at the Jewish Home. “One is a psychiatrist,” she says. “I said to him, ‘I don’t trust you guys.’ He liked that.”

The other key relationship in Neer’s life is with her granddaughter, Christine, whom she raised from the teen years on after her son Mike died of AIDS. They remain close today. In fact Christine, now 33, painted the portrait of Neer that adorns the cover of “Too Busy to Die.”

Though things aren’t so easy anymore, Neer gets out of the Jewish Home from time to time, lunching with family members and attending occasional lectures. And she’s busy planning future projects, including an anthology of stories about food, human foibles and family. She also manages to stay fit, having recently won a bowling match at the Jewish Home. How does a blind person bowl? Just have a friend tell you where to aim, she says.

And though she always prefers to look forward, looking backward for her autobiography turned out to be a pleasure. “There were things in my life that hurt,” she says. “But they don’t hurt anymore.”

“Too Busy to Die” by Francis Lief Neer ($19.52, Trafford Publishing, 223 pages),

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.