BOOKS SEPTEMBER 24, 2001
The Education of Laura Bridgman: The First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language by Ernest Freeberg (Harvard University Press, 264 pp., $27.95)
The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl by Elisabeth Gitter (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 341 pp., $26)
Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann (Alfred A. Knopf, 395 pp., $30)
On January 22, 1842, the thirty-year-old Charles Dickens, already celebrated for five successful books, landed in Boston with his wife after eighteen days of a rough crossing. Dickens toured the United States for five months, wrote as he went, and published American Notes by the end of the year. The forty-page chapter on Boston, the longest in the book, opens with brief references to missing a sermon by the great Unitarian philanthropist Dr. Ellery Channing, and to the benign local influence of "the University of Cambridge." An equally brief section at the end of the chapter mentions the "blue ladies" of Boston and a certain "Transcendental" follower of Carlyle named Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dickens approves: "If I were a Bostonian, I think I would be a Transcendentalist." He mentions no other Boston author-not Hawthorne, not Longfellow, not Holmes; and he appears to have heard nothing about the tempestuous religious and political controversies surrounding Horace Mann's championing of the common school.
For the twenty central pages of his account of Boston, Dickens found a subject more to his liking than literature and politics. He visited one of the city's famous public institutions, the Perkins Asylum for the Blind. There he "met" and talked through an interpreter with a remarkable personage, a twelve-year-old girl, fair of face and form, blind, deaf, and dumb since the age of two. The girl's name was Laura Bridgman. Through carefully planned training over a period of four years, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the Perkins Asylum, had taught Laura a language of raised letters forming English words referring to things. Almost simultaneously she learned to finger-spell those words into another person's hand, and to receive such messages. After a fashion, the statue could talk.
TO THIS UNPRECEDENTED encounter Dickens responded with vivid words and dramatic sentiments, and with none of the wry politeness that he directed toward the rest of Boston society: "There she was before me; built up, as it were, in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help, that an Immortal soul might be awakened." Visitors had already begun trudging out to the Perkins Asylum in South Boston on Saturdays to see Laura. The accounts of her plight and her accomplishments published by Howe in his annual reports from 1837 on had created enormous interest in her case, and unbeatable publicity for the asylum. Dickens unhesitatingly quoted ten pages from Howe's reports on the girl's background, her "well-formed figure,' her generally pliant behavior, and her advances in language.
For the following decade, as great waves of philanthropy, reform, and abolition swept across the country, Laura continued to draw crowds to her Saturday exhibitions with the other blind students. Arriving in New England precisely when the cultural and intellectual currents in Boston were swirling into a pattern later to be called the American Renaissance, Dickens chose to pay homage not to writers, but to the young girl distinguished by the severity of her physical handicaps and her response to rehabilitation. His chapter made Laura Bridgman famous around the world. It also celebrated Dr. Howe, the man of "Noble Usefulness" who had saved her soul from darkness.
In neglecting the conventions of polite society in his tale of Boston, Dickens was following his novelist's nose for a good human story. Behind her fair features and her discreetly blindfolded eye sockets, Laura embodied a contradictory mix of impediments and distinctions. Blindness has always been associated—in Homer, in Tiresias, in Milton—with the higher vision of the bard and the prophet. Deafness suggests a pathology so deep as to produce, if left unattended, stupidity, idiocy, and madness. Laura seemed to combine both spiritual fates: she held within her the image of the wild child, untamed, making strange cries, and yet purer than the rest of us.Much of what has been written about Laura transformed her immediately into legend.
Laura was born in 1829 to a poor farming family in New Hampshire. When she was barely two, a lively, normal child and beginning to talk, a severe illness, scarlet fever or meningitis, killed her two sisters and deprived Laura completely of sight and hearing. After a very slow recovery, she was socialized by her overworked mother and by a sympathetic bachelor neighbor. He led her on long rambles in the countryside. Laura lost all language, and replaced it with a few tactile pats and prods, and performed rudimentary household chores.
The man who came on horseback from Boston to claim her was a handsome thirty-year-old medical doctor who had fought gloriously in the Greek revolution and whose philanthropic ideals impelled him to found the New England 0ater the Perkins) Asylum for the Blind in 1832. He would remain its director for the rest of his life. Samuel Gridley Howe was a dedicated doctor, widely connected, stubborn, and a natural publicist. Partially to outshine the competing institution, Gallaudet's American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Howe resolved to find a deaf and blind child to instruct. This would provide the ultimate challenge. No such child had been trained in any language.
For Howe, Laura Bridgman was a godsend—an intelligent, pretty, tractable girl of seven, whose parents agreed to entrust her to Howe's care. Between 1837 and 1850, when her training ended, Laura learned slowly yet steadily to associate written words in raised letters, and then manually spelled words, with the things and the events and the notions of the word. Howe devised this method, relying on a few precedents from French educators in the past.
Howe spent long hours with her, and also delegated much of her painstaking training to three successive young women of remarkable gifts and patience. Laura's inquisitiveness exhausted them and overflowed any set curriculum. All their work was recorded in notebooks, and at intervals it was described by Howe in his annual report to the trustees of his institution. These reports circulated internationally and brought fame to the school, and to Howe, and to Laura. He had accomplished an impossible philanthropic feat. During this period, Howe married a prominent wife, Julia Ward of New York, and espoused many causes, including the abolition of slavery, the common school (Horace Mann was one of his closest friends), and phrenology.
Laura was only partially aware that she lived at the center of a whirlwind constantly set in motion by her mentor. She returned to her family in New Hampshire for most summers. Otherwise, she lived at the Perkins School all her life, and died there in 1889 at the age of sixty. She could never support herself and was essentially Howe's ward. She always called him "Doctor."
FOR HOWE, Laura's education represented both a triumph and a failure. She had learned to communicate fluently through finger spelling, to read raised letters, to take care of herself responsibly in an institutional setting, and to help train other blind students. When she reached twenty, she declared: "I am so glad I have been created: Howe had broken through the wall of the senses. He remained the most respected personage in her life.
But Howe had not been able to carry out a certain number of experiments associated with Laura's training, inquiries concerned with sensory perception, language, innate capacities, and the origins of religious sentiment. The girl's protected environment notwithstanding, Howe believed that others had interfered with his work. Bystanders—her attendants, or evangelizing visitors, or other blind students—must have answered her endless questions about God, creation, death, and Jesus; and their answers would have obliterated or distorted her own spontaneous ideas on those subjects. Unable to shield Laura's intellectual innocence, Howe concluded that he had lost control of her. As a result, he never wrote the book about Laura that he announced several times, and for which he had accumulated an extensive set of files and notebooks. He did not even collect the two hundred pages on her progress that he had already written over the years for the annual reports. Julia Ward Howe assumed that task in 1889, when Laura died.
By then the girl who impressed Dickens so deeply, and who for a decade in the 1840s had been almost as renowned as Queen Victoria, had faded from public view. Howe's two loyal daughters decided to write the definitive book in his place. Their research led to a celebratory volume published by Little, Brown in Boston in 1903, and heavily promoted by the distinguished Howe clan. It was called Laura Bridgman: Dr. Howe's Famous Pupil and What He Taught Her. The highly informative volume deserved to be widely read, but it received little attention.
History had played one of its mischievous tricks: Laura Bridgman and her champion had acquired a rival powerful enough to eclipse their fame. A second deaf-blind girl, this one from Alabama, had learned to communicate with her fingers and to break the silence of her living tomb. In the 1890s she and her young female teacher attained a notoriety equal to that of Laura and Howe fifty years earlier. The new girl was even out in the world and passed the entrance examinations for Radcliffe College. In 1903, she published her first book. Helen Keller's The Story of My Life had every appeal: plucky triumph over misfortune, two young and lovely protagonists, a genuinely moving story, and muffled controversy over the circumstances of the book's composition and significance. Her detractors among the reviewers hinted at some form of imposture.
THE SUCCESS OF Helen Keller's book impeded rather than helped the Howe sisters' book about their father and Laura Bridgman. Yet Helen had been rescued from isolation and wordlessness by a series of precedents set by Laura and Howe. Helen's mother first found hope for her daughter when she read Dickens's American Notes. It was Howe's son-in-law and successor at Perkins, Michael Anagnos, who chose a twenty-one-year-old teacher for Helen and sent her off to Tuscumbia, Alabama. That teacher, Annie Sullivan, herself partly blind, had been a student at Perkins for seven years, and she had learned the manual alphabet in order to talk with Laura Bridgman, who was then in her fifties. And the methods that Annie Sullivan employed to make contact with Helen's mind, and to teach her to communicate with her hand and her fingers, were based on the approach that Howe had developed to train Laura.
The great difference was that Helen and Annie, only fourteen years apart, immediately formed a symbiotic unit of mutual aid and inspiration. Within three years they became nearly a single entity, independent of the Keller family and of any institution such as Perkins. Helen and Annie were befriended, admired, and supported by Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Dean Howells, and many others among the rich and famous. It was Helen's idea to try for a college degree and to affirm their intellectual independence. Identified by Professor Charles T. Copeland at Harvard as a gifted writer, Helen accepted the help of a young instructor of English named John Macy in producing The Story of My Life. Annie contributed a ninety-page section of letters to a friend in Massachusetts, rather like news bulletins, describing the first years of Helen's training. The ongoing story of Helen and Annie easily displaced the story of Laura and Howe from the previous century.
The Radcliffe degree required as much work from Annie as a reader and an interpreter as it did from Helen as a student. After that exhausting endeavor, Annie married Macy; and they lived with Helen as a highly charged threesome in a house in the Boston suburbs. Helen answered the critics of The Story of My Life by writing another book, called The World I Live In, which appeared in 1908. In fifteen essays and a long free-verse poem, she portrayed the abundant sensory world that she inhabited, the remarkable core curriculum of books that she assimilated (from Plato to Mother Goose to Darwin), and the serenity with which she reconciled naive realism and transcendent faith. "Reality, of which visible things are the symbol, shines before my mind": there are passages in the book of an almost scriptural simplicity and strength.
During this period Helen, but not Annie, moved resolutely toward socialism, women's suffrage, and the cause of the labor unions. The newspapers gleefully followed her participation in the labor demonstrations during the Lawrence textile strike in 1912. When Annie and John's marriage broke up and financial resources dwindled, Helen and Annie went on the road as paid performers—first on the Chautauqua lecture circuit, and later as a vaudeville act among jugglers and comedians. Twice they were invited to Hollywood for grandiose movie projects; Chadie Chaplin became a devoted admirer. Helen almost eloped with a young man employed as her secretary, and continued to receive marriage offers from strangers.
Helen and Annie, accompanied by a companion, traveled all over the world, were welcomed by heads of state, and visited the poor and afflicted. Annie's health declined seriously, and she died in 1936. Helen spent her last years in the employ of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. There were several more books and controversies. Living on into her eighties, she became a public institution of courage and dedication. She lived to see a successful play about herself and Annie, William Gibson's The Miracle Worker. (It was turned into an even more successful movie in 1962.) She died in 1968.
IT SEEMS ALMOST impossible that such a turbulent life could belong to a human being who, after her first nineteen months, never heard the sound of another voice or the sound of her own voice, and never saw anyone else or herself in a mirror, and at the age of seven had to be 'broken" like a wild horse. This is the extraordinary woman who helped to make us aware of how much can be done to help many of the deaf and blind who live and even thrive in our world. But who knows Helen Keller today? Thirty years ago, I visited and lectured at a dozen New England high schools. In most of the schools I noticed in the eleventh-grade classroom a shelf filled with copies of The Story of My Life, often next to a shelf filled with copies of The Diary of Anne Frank. But now Keller's book has disappeared from schoolroom shelves and from many reading lists for young people. Currently available editions of the book often omit the essential section of Annie's letters. The World I Live In is out of print. And Laura Bridgman is all but forgotten. Is it possible that we shall lose these two amazing histories?
They seem almost a single history. Within half a century, two infant females in rural settings were struck totally deafblind by twenty-four months and, exceptionally, suffered no accompanying physical or mental disability. Both grew into attractive little girls—but dumb, dependent, and barely socialized into an overstrained family. At the age of seven, both girls encountered a teacher-savior who imposed firm discipline and trained them to communicate through the manual alphabet. In both cases, this breakthrough to communication gained worldwide attention as a near-miracle of education and fortitude. It is probable that if either girl had been congenitally deaf-blind, the miracle would not have occurred. To an unknown degree, they were both able to rely on early stages of learning while normal. It is very difficult to say which of the two girls was the more intelligent.
FOR ALL THEIR similarities, however, Laura and Helen cannot be assimilated to one compound case history. Howe had a plan for Laura, which entailed close supervision, systematic instruction in many standard school subjects, and systematic avoidance of other subjects, in which she should be left free to develop "naturally" according to her innate capacities. Laura was Howe's private enterprise, to be kept within his institution as a scientific experiment under controlled conditions. But Helen and Annie, locked together like Siamese twins by their constantly talking hands, threw themselves directly into the world and the fullness of experience—from eating flowers to hugging trees to riding horses to traveling in trains. Curriculum and schedule fell by the wayside. Annie's instruction released Helen's lust for life. As a result, Helen learned finger-spelled English as if it were a new sense organ, an unexpected proxy for both sight and hearing. She was devouring books in Braille long before she reached age ten. She became a writer, and published over a dozen books.
And there lies the rub. Did the language that Helen Keller learned, stripped of sound and rhythm and inflection, verified only by touch yet extended by many writings that described a world of visual and aural sensations—did this language free her from what Dickens called the "marble cell" of deaf-blindness? Or did her intensely valued language, her lifeline, paradoxically imprison her in a different sort of prison house of language? By what right could she say "sunset,” or "fireworks,” or "opera"? Had Laura and Helen learned "mere words,” whose physical and social referents they could never examine? Laura astonished her audiences with her geographical knowledge of river systems and mountain ranges that she had never seen and would never visit. (Howe had her learn a large portion of the common school curriculum without leaving her desk at the Perkins School.) But it was Helen Keller's published writings that repeatedly raised the issue of a "false self" and "false knowledge" created by an environment made entirely of words.
When she was eleven, Helen composed in Braille a story called "The Frost King,” which she sent to Michael Anagnos, Howe's son-in-law, at the Perkins School. When he published it in the alumni magazine, it was recognized as copied, in places nearly word-for-word, from a published story that had probably been read to Helen three years earlier. She did not recall the fact. Within the Perkins community, the ensuing scandal about the possibility of plagiarism traumatized Helen and outraged Annie. Could a seriously handicapped gift of eleven have intended to pass off someone else's composition as her own? But a different question might also have been asked: Did she possess an adequate sense of the meaning of originality?
The "Frost King" episode was never fully resolved. Twelve years later, when The Story of My Life received generally favorable press, a few critics questioned not so much her originality as her authenticity. "All her knowledge is hearsay knowledge; her very sensations are for the most part vicarious." This criticism appeared in The Nation and was reprinted in The New York Post. It was this rebuke to which Helen devoted a large portion of The World I Live In. She explained that in her view our senses interpenetrate and feed one another. Through the power of imagination based on others' descriptions of the physical world, and thanks to the correspondences and analogies that link together the far-flung parts of the world, inner and outer, Helen claimed she could without falsification use the verbs "see" and "hear."
But the carping continued. When Midstream: My Later Life appeared in 1929, it provoked the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune into protesting: "But Miss Keller has never seen the moon and never seen a scarf. She doesn't know what pink is." In a few books about the blind by psychologists and neurologists, Helen Keller was seen as "the dupe of words,” the victim of "word-mindedness," someone practicing "implicit chicanery" because she had been victimized by her teacher's methods. Could the angel be a fraud after all? Many people defended Helen's integrity; but the charge of being a charlatan precisely because one has, in the face of profound handicaps, attained a vivid command of a common language, does not fade rapidly. Keller's greatest accomplishment threatened to become her greatest handicap.
BY NOW WE may begin to recognize how complex a set of contradictions surrounds and embeds these two cases. These girls who seemed less than human came to seem more than human. Howe, a medical doctor running a school for the blind, presented Laura as a challenging psychological and educational experiment, and he succeeded in "deciding the question so often asked, whether a blind-mute could be taught to use an arbitrary language." That is the way Howe, writing in 1857, described Laura's accomplishment of the 1830s and 1840s. At the same time all of Howe's reports reveal his wish that Laura would discover the notions of deity and soul for herself, naturally, by a spontaneous revelation. For there had to be something divine about this child. Everyone felt it. She would show us the truth and smite down Calvinist error.
The man who was most concerned with Helen Keller's early training was also a scientist. Like Samuel Gridley Howe, Alexander Graham Bell knew the manual alphabet and could talk directly to this beautiful and hugely deprived creature. He regarded Annie's inspired instruction as a successful experiment. Bell's deepest hope as a speech therapist and elocutionist was to persuade Helen and Annie to develop Helen's vocal apparatus so that she could speak orally. But what the pair had accomplished already impressed Bell beyond the realm of therapy and scientific progress. This unpretentious and generous inventor was reported as saying: "I feel that in this child I have seen more of the Divine than has been manifest in anyone I ever met before."
There is nothing strange or new about the mixture of religious sentiments, sublimated infatuation with a lovely prepubescent girl, and dedication to a scientific case history. In both Laura's and Helen's cases, the public responded to the rich blend of circumstances by transforming news into legend. And so it is little wonder, especially in respect to Helen Keller's sixty-year semi-official public presence as virtue embodied, that some critics wanted to puncture the legend.
AND THERE IS another contradiction that merits mention. The condition of deaf-blindness, when it occurs before the lingual stage beginning around twenty-four months, and even more so when it is congenital, seems to lead off the map of the human condition into the furthest terra incognita of isolation and incapacity. These regions overlap autism, monstrosity, insanity, and confinement. Where there is only silence and darkness, can there be real human life? Laura and Helen escaped this fate by sustained resolve and effort on their part, and on the part of their mentors: perhaps we are right to call their stories miracles. And yet, in spite of their status as disabled and deprived persons dealt with through radical courses of treatment or confinement, the deaf-blind lead us less to an extraterritorial island of exile than to the very heartland of the human.
Indeed, their predicaments and their accomplishments broach many quandaries of contemporary culture. We would do well to recognize them not as freaks but as revealing exceptions, capable of mobilizing around them enterprising people, powerful ideas and institutions, significant research, and the making of myth. In Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller, and in other deaf-blind persons variously restored to language, what is eccentric circles back to what is central. For they oblige us to ask many powerful questions of ourselves.
To what degree do we think in words? Can we think without words? Are we all (and not only the deaf-blind among us) entirely creatures of language? Are we subject to the "false self" of the words that construct our world? Are we endowed with innate capacities or tendencies—language, or reason, or conscience, or faith? If learning a conventional language subjects us to a form of social determinism, and if biological inheritance subjects us to a complementary form of genetic determinism, is there any room left for individual agency, for free will?
To such questions the case histories of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller do not provide abstract philosophical answers, or statistics from which to generalize. Instead they afford us idiographic knowledge-the truth of the specific occurrence, which can be lost in the process of scientific abstraction and statistical generalization. This aspect of knowledge directed toward the particular was beautifully caught in Helen Keller's calm communique out of the dark: "Philosophy is the history of a deaf-blind person writ large."
THERE HAVE NOW appeared two fine books on Laura Bridgman and her mentor, following quickly on the appearance of a dear-eyed biography of Helen Keller and her teacher. Fortunately, all three biographers are eclectic historians willing to chronicle the motleyness that makes the word go round: these books benefit from a wide aperture, without running to excessive length. Each one, without sacrificing critical acumen, arises from an act of recognition and sympathy. The three books reveal that, behind their crushing disabilities, Laura and Helen were both fully endowed women: emotional, enterprising, unafraid, highly intelligent, playful. One is tempted to ask if they attained such a fully developed character in spite of their disabilities or because of them. And how much of their appeal and their significance lies in the fact that they were women?
Ernest Freeberg begins with social history. He examines the argument of some contemporary Americanists that the reform movement which founded asylums and schools and prisons in nineteenth-century America was driven by a resolve to impose control over threatening social disorders in the wake of Jacksonian populism. Freeberg wisely declares that genuine philanthropic purposes and the sincere hope of social progress had greater importance than the hunger for social control. He examines the intellectual background of French and Scottish philosophers from whom Howe drew his ideas and procedures for training Laura. Freeberg does not hesitate to show where Howe touches up the progress of Laura's training; but he gives full credit to Howe as the first to train a deaf-blind person to communicate. (Freeberg does not tell us that when Howe stated that there were "no precedents to go by," he should have acknowledged Diderot's suggestions in "Letter on theBlind" in 1749, which Howe knew and admired, and Itard's fully documented—and finally unsuccessful-course of training to teach the Wild Boy of Aveyron to read and to speak.)
Freeberg comes increasingly to paint the story of Laura and Howe in dramatic, even tragic terms. Virtually deprived of sensory experience, Laura could not develop her ideas by associating sensations, as Locke and the empiricists say we must. Her mind had to develop from within, according to its innate tendencies—unless extraneous ideas crept in through language. Howe strictly controlled Laura's program until he went abroad for a year and a half on his wedding trip. During that interval, religious terms and ideas found their way intoLaura's mind: the damage was done. Her later conversion to an evangelical Baptist church shattered Howe's hopes that in the absence of religious indoctrination she would herself discover a form of "natural" religion.
A certain sadness hangs over the final pages of Freeberg's book, as if he, too, must somehow fail to encompass the full dimensions of his undertaking. "In the end," he writes,
these attempts to resolve age-old questions about human nature by probing the experience of a single handicapped individual seem doomed to failure. A sampling pool of one person, struggling against severe liabilities, can hardly be used to draw meaningful conclusions about all of humanity. And, as Howe realized, our moral responsibility to help the disabled imposes sharp limits on this line of research, protecting people who desperately need the stimulation of social interaction, not the further isolation of a laboratory.
By underestimating the scope of his own project, Freeberg has misunderstood a major premise of the humanistic tradition. A single case may not "resolve age-old questions about human nature," but one outstanding individual, by her actions and by her thoughts, may illuminate those questions more vividly than a large sampling pool treated statistically. We continue to learn about ourselves from Socrates and Jesus, from Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne, from Victor the Wild Boy Aveyron and from Laura Bridgman. Idiographic knowledge, gleaned from thorough familiarity with a single instance, and furnished in the form of a story or a case history or a biography, certainly competes on an equal footing with the knowledge gleaned from generalizing about partial familiarity with many cases. In his dosing pages Freeberg seems to lose confidence in the very faith that supported the years of investigation and writing he devoted to Bridgman and Howe. He brings the story into clear focus and supplies the rich historical background to go with it—and almost loses his nerve.
ELIZABETH GITTER has a different set of hesitations and vacillations. She knows that her book tells a compound story about two people: "She created his life, just as he created hers. Together, they earned a place in history." Yet her title, The Imprisoned Guest, and her opening reference to Laura as "the perfect Victorian victim-heroine," prepare us for the fact that she will make sure Laura has "her say." Gitter casts a somewhat feminist eye upon Bridgman. To be sure, Laura has a place in women's history and in the history of the disabled; but that is hardly the most significant point of regard from which to view this rather special kind of imprisonment. Fortunately, once launched onto Laura's story, Gitter sticks to it, and does not subordinate her account to political causes.
Gitter's book is longer and more detailed than Freeberg's, and does not hesitate to criticize the way Howe manipulated Laura and the facts of her training as he recorded them in his annual reports to the Perkins trustees. "In the light not only of Howe's idealizing," Gitter remarks, "but also of the relentless pressure on her to live up to her image, Laura's feistiness is surprising." And Gitter quotes Laura's abrupt, marginally grammatical communications to show her spirit: "Doctor [Howe] was wrong to open little girl's letters. Little girls open their self." Even without a powerful command of language, Laura was not to be pushed around. Gitter's closing sentence echoes Laura's feistiness: "Through all her sorrows and disappointments, Laura managed to remain her unalterable self: witty, irritable, curious, demanding, and, in her way, brilliant." Gitter makes Laura come to life as a fully rounded person. She learns, she grows up, she bridles at her routines, she makes friends, she finds a precarious independence from Howe, her virtual creator.
Like Freeberg, and like Howe himself, Gitter fails to emphasize that Howe was trying to carry out two incompatible experiments at once. One was to teach Laura enough language to compensate for her enormous sensory deficit and to restore her to effective communication with others. The other was to restrict what she "heard" about religion, soul, and death, so that no traditional or popular beliefs would reach her. Since Laura was gregarious and inquisitive, the first experiment made a shambles of the second. She picked up religious gossip everywhere. At first Howe blamed everyone else for the leaks, but later he allowed himself to say that things had worked out just fine: "It was a source of the highest satisfaction and pleasure that … alone and unaided she sought her God, and found him in the Creator." But if he had really believed in his success, he would have collected his annual reports and written his book on Laura.
LAURA BRIDGMAN and Helen Keller became deaf-blind at approximately two years of age, and began systematic, disciplined training in language at about seven. Laura's training continued until she turned twenty, after which time she established a self-reliant and regular life as a resident of the Perkins school. Helen's education never stopped, and her varied career as a writer, a public performer of her own story, and a publicist for political and philanthropic causes allowed her to travel widely, to become a celebrity, and to appear to have a large degree of independence. Yet she was acutely aware of her dependence on others: on Annie, on her mother, on several generous men who helped to support her, on a series of devoted female companions. Dorothy Herrmann's biography vividly tells this story and evokes its characters with great skill. It is a balanced and reliable account, which occupies a median position between Van Wyck Brooks's brief and anecdotal Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait (1952) and Joseph Lash's immense, admirable, and slightly disheveled Helen and Teacher (1984).
Herrmann looks beyond the plaster saint and the carefully groomed, socially presentable freak. She expresses a certain ambivalence about Helen's true status. A chapter called "The Eighth Wonder of the World" deals with Helen and Annie's trip north after the first dazzlingly successful year of language training. Early reports from the Perkins School had made them famous at the respective ages of eleven and twenty-five. They were invited to visit President Cleveland at the White House. Alexander Graham Bell could barely restrain his admiration for the lovely pair. And so on. But at the end of the chapter on Helen and Annie's triumphs, Herrmann is reduced to growling.
Five short years after her amazing breakthrough, Helen Keller was still in chains. Her new jailers were the very people who purported to help her communicate with the outside world, but who fought to possess her as if she were an exotic specimen. Completely helpless, a true victim, she had emerged from her lightless, quiet dungeon to enter a society that accepted a handicapped person only if he or she was physically unrepulsive, intellectually and morally superior, and heroic about their affliction.
A 'luxurious captive": Herrmann accepts the phrase as accurate about Helen's mature years. But there were times—the four years when Helen and Annie and Annie's husband John Macy inhabited the house in Wrentham near Boston, and her final years, which she called "the fun years," of mink and martinis-that were in no sense a captivity. And Herrmann also insists, quite rightly, on Helen's resolve not to be like everyone else, not to be as normal as possible. Herrmann quotes a letter from Helen, barely twenty, to Charles T. Copeland, her writing professor at Radcliffe. Copeland had encouraged her to write about her own special world. It was something of a turning point for Helen: "I have always accepted other people's experiences and observations as a matter of course. When I came to your class last October, I was trying with all my might to be like everybody else.… Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life, and write my own thoughts when I have any.…" Helen kept her resolve most aggressively in politics. Her left-wing associations almost made her a target in the McCarthy hearings.
So the dilemma remains, the ambiguity that gives a curious iridescence to Herrmann's book and to almost everything about Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman. Had these two attractive, intelligent, and incorrigibly inquisitive girls been restored by demanding and resourceful teachers to the fullness of human existence? Had they been born again through language and communication to respond to the wonders of the world and to the presence of other people around them? Or were they tailor's dummies trained to act out the roles that they had learned through the categories of an artificial language? People remarked on the animation and the expressiveness of Helen's blue eyes. But they were glass inserts. How could Laura and Helen be anything other than prosthetic people? They saw and heard nothing around them, and yet they disported themselves as if nothing was lost on them.
THE FEMINIST REDISCOVERY of women's literature has not, to my knowledge, recognized Helen Keller as a figure of historical importance. Much of the same can be said about the treatment of Laura Bridgman's case at the hands of several generations of philosophers of language, linguists, and developmental psychologists. Lev Vygotsky's seminal Thought and Language (1934), for all its literary examples and its attention to "inner speech,” never mentions either Bridgman or Keller. Oliver Sacks's ebullient book about the deaf and the marvels of their sign language, Seeing Voices (1989), mentions Keller once in passing and ignores Bridgman entirely. I do not recall that Benjamin Lee Whorf, Eric Lenneberg, or Noam Chomsky find occasion to discuss either ease. Only Ernst Cassirer, in An Essay on Man (1944), insists on their pertinence to his examination of the role of language in the evolution of animal into human.
Nature itself has here, so to speak, made an experiment capable of throwing unexpected light upon the point in question. We have the classical cases of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller, two blind deaf-mute children, who by means of special methods learned to speak ("communicate" would be a better word). Although both cases are well known and have often been treated in psychological literature, I must nevertheless remind the reader of them once more because they contain perhaps the best illustration of the general problem with which we are here concerned.
(It was largely from Cassirer that Walker Percy learned that his own fascination with language was embodied most completely in what he called alternatively "the Delta Factor" and "the Helen Keller phenomenon.'' In The Message in the Bottle, Percy described Helen's revelation at the water pump as a unique breakthrough from animal to human.)
How, then, after general neglect of the cases in the twentieth century (with Joseph Lash's double biography as the great exception), can we account for the nearly simultaneous appearance of a new life of Helen Keller and two books designed to put Laura Bridgman and Dr. Howe back on the historical and cultural map? The improved status since the 1970s of the handicapped and the disabled surely has something to do with it. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, has helped to establish the DB-Link, a national clearinghouse for the deaf-blind and their caregivers. From three locations—including the Perkins School—it offers information, advice, and assistance by means of its website, its newsletter, and its devoted staff. The Perkins School has recently published a volume called Remarkable Conversations, edited by Barbara Miles and Marianne Riggio, as a comprehensive practical guide to the training of different categories of the deaf-blind. Its three hundred pages overflow with illuminating contemporary case histories. (Strangely, the book pays minimal attention to Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller: special education has become a professionalized bureaucracy that sometimes neglects its own long and fascinating history.)
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN special education and the deaf-blind is evident. Other connections with contemporary debates may escape our notice. A deaf-blind person, deprived of all input from the two senses most important for communication, challenges us to scrutinize the nature of the human mind and how it develops. The deaf-blind, in other words, carry us to the problems of cognitive science, which they may even help us to understand. There are two theories of the mind currently loose in the land: that the mind is like a computer, an essentially cybernetic entity; and that the mind is structured like a language, an essentially psycholinguistic entity.
But consider this episode from Laura Bridgman's history. While she was training eleven-year-old Laura Bridgman, two weeks before Dickens's momentous visit, Mary Swift Lamson recorded that the death of a Perkins student provoked in Laura an early memory from a period at home before she had learned any language. Lamson gave Laura's own words: "I thought about I was afraid to feel of dead man before I came here, when I was very little girl with my mother; I felt of dead head's eyes and nose; I thought it was a man's.… "Lamson called attention first to the traumatic nature of the incident and then, like an amateur psycholinguist, to the import of the first and last verbs. "Does not this little sentence,” she asked, "settle beyond dispute the question, 'Can we think without words?'"
Well, no, the dispute has not been settled; but such an incident helps to explain our philosophical fascination with these two cases. A mature Helen Keller, looking back at her speechless self when she was seven, raised the same question about how she understood, when given a hat, that she was being taken outside: "This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure." It is a received idea in medicine, after all, that the pathological will usually have a revealing light to shed on the normal—a notion that is somehow related to the belief that adversity endured leads to humanity enhanced. Laura and Helen and indeed Annie displayed moral stamina in circumstances more credible than the circumstances of Oedipus and Job. For this reason, their stories are utterly exceptional; and for this reason, their stories are pertinent to our ordinary lot in life.
In 1857, Howe published a new account of how, for months, with no success, he gave Laura exercises to establish an association between the letters B-O-O-K and the object itself. How did he avoid discouragement? "It was as though she were under water,” he explained, "and we on the surface over her, unable to see her, but dropping a line, and moving it about here and there, hoping it might touch her hand, so that she would grasp it instinctively. At last it did touch her hand, and she did grasp it; and we pulled her up to the light; or rather, she pulled herself up." This brief parable, which puts one in mind of Jesus's promise that "I will make you fishers of men," goes a long way toward explaining why these two deaf-blind girls deserve a lasting place among the stories that we tell and retell. They are redemption stories.
And Plato, too, comes to mind. These women actually lived the parable of the cave. At the opening of Book VII of the Republic, Socrates introduces the tale with a sentence that seems to lead directly into the universe of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller: "'Next, then; I said, 'make an image of our nature in its education and its want of education.…'" There follows the famous parable, in which some individuals may gain freedom to turn away from the shadows playing on the wall to regard the objects that cast the shadows, and even to seek out the source of light. Plato's fable was political, and concerned the training of a ruling class. But what difference is there, really, between the "marble cell" that Dickens witnessed and the cave of the ancient philosopher? The great writer's excitement was not out of place. He had come upon and recognized the most primal human scene of all.
This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.