Classics Club: The Story of My Life

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1903)

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1888

Almost everyone must know who Helen Keller is: the girl who became blind and deaf due to illness before she was two years old, enduring several agonizing years of isolation before being reconnected to the light of thought. The play and film “The Miracle Worker” dramatizes this event, and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the moment when Helen connects the idea “water” with the word W-A-T-E-R. Every time we see this happen, it reminds us that the ability to communicate through language truly is an everyday miracle.

The Story of My Life is Helen’s account in her own words of the time before and after this momentous event, along with a selection of her letters, as well as a description from the point of view of the teacher who facilitated the miracle, Anne Sullivan. While the title suggests someone looking back from the perspective of many years, when it was written she was in fact only in her early twenties, a student at Radcliffe College. The focus is really more on education than on living, since Helen’s admission to Radcliffe was itself a landmark event, and there was great interest in how a “disabled” person had come so far in her studies. Native intelligence, tireless work, and the dedicated commitment of her teacher enabled her to undertake a course of study that would challenge anyone, however “abled.”

Helen took on the mission of showing that a blind and deaf person could accomplish much more than was previously thought possible: learning four languages, becoming a writer, passing college entrance exams in mathematics and geometry (always her least favorite subjects). Her greatest wish was to learn to speak, so that she could communicate with people who did not know the finger alphabet that had first given her the gift of language. She accomplished this too, although it was not always easy for listeners to understand her. Reading her words, it is fascinating to consider how language, thought, memory, speech and comprehension can develop without the two sensory faculties that are usually so central to our experience. Human relationships are revealed as paramount, and the teacher-student bond becomes as essential as light or air.

Since I knew little about Helen’s story beyond the early years, I was surprised by the weight given here to a plagiarism scandal that caused her great suffering as a child. While she was learning to read and write (“reading” being largely through the help of others who would spell books into her hand), she was delighted to be able to create a story of the Frost King that she thought was original. After it was published, its resemblance to another author’s work was discovered, and Helen was subjected to a grueling questioning process and lost one of her dearest friends. She must have “heard” the story somewhere, though it was not quite clear when or how, and it became part of her developing memory for language in an unconscious way. The insensitivity of some of the adults around her, the way they treated her like a criminal over this mistake without trying to understand her immense challenges, was disturbing. It must have made a deep mark on her, making it even more impressive that she continued her education and her life in the public view.

Also surprising for me was how often Helen used images related to sight and hearing, perhaps because of her wish to fit into the “normal” world. For me, it would have been more interesting to learn about her actual sense experiences, how she felt and smelled and tasted the world, but perhaps she felt a need to translate her sensations into more ordinary terms in order to connect with readers accustomed to such descriptions. She was a pioneer in a field that few had ever attempted before, and there was little awareness of human rights for people with disabilities at the time.

There’s an intriguing passage in one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to one of her professors to explain why she has stopped writing compositions for his class:

I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any. When I have written something that seems to be fresh and spontaneous and worthy of your criticisms, I will bring it to you, if I may, and if you think it good, I shall be happy; but if your verdict is unfavorable, I shall try again and yet again until I have succeeded in pleasing you…

Helen had a lot more life to live, and she wrote many other books, but this is by far the most well-known, and probably one of the most famous autobiographies in history. I would like to read some of her later writings to find out if and how she came to “describe the experiences peculiarly [her] own.” In the meantime, I have been given some insight into the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of our time.

Classics Club List #57

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Don Quixote: The Next Adventure

I’ve been meaning to read the second half of Don Quixote, having taken a break after Part One. When I found out Emma from Words and Peace was interested too — a chapter-a-day readalong she’d been following seemed to be defunct — I offered to read along with her.

We decided to do alternating posts every couple of weeks – I will start off on March 31, after I’ve read the first ten chapters or so. Next time it will be Emma’s turn, and so on. I hope we can keep it up through all seventy-plus chapters!

If you’d like to join us, please do — or just follow along as we embark on our reading adventure.

Beyond the gender wars: Three books by Terrence Real

Terrence Real, I Don’t Want To Talk About It (1997)
Terrence Real, How Can I Get Through to You? (2003)
Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage (2007)

After going through a major relationship crisis last summer (now thankfully resolved), I was searching for solace in the used-book section of my favorite bookstore and came across the title I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. I devoured it in a matter of days, and quickly sought out psychotherapist Terrence Real’s other two books, amazed at the light they cast upon not only my immediate dilemma, but on larger familial, cultural, and indeed global issues. These are some of the most helpful “self-help” books I have ever read, and have been real game-changers for me at a difficult time.

Real’s argument is that boys are systematically discouraged from experiencing the nurture and connectedness that all humans need in order to become psychologically healthy and strong. Even without overt trauma in their lives — which is all too common — the cultural expectations for males in our society tend to leave them inwardly wounded and emotionally inept. The symbolic image for this is “separating from the mother,” which is forced upon most boys much too early. There is so much fear in our culture of being consumed and engulfed by the female realm that boys are subjected to shaming, criticism, and outright abuse for not being strong and independent at far too young an age.

In adult life, these men carry a burden of depression that is not recognized or treated — depression itself being considered a “female disease.” They carry on a cycle that was generally handed down from their fathers, and pass it down to their children, who often act out the dysfunctionality that they refuse to recognize and heal. And their marriages frequently fall apart, when their women have had enough.

Because men do not learn how to be intimate, connected, or emotionally aware while still remaining appropriately themselves, they can’t understand why their wives are unhappy with them. Trained to mask their underlying sense of inadequacy and shame with grandiosity and belligerence, they may frighten women and children into silence or flight, or trade a difficult spouse for a more admiring and compliant one. Or they may simply retreat into a confused state of baffled hurt. Through multiple case studies, Real describes how men and women in his therapeutic practice have been able to come through this impasse, when they bravely take up the work of facing covert depression and the underlying trauma that created it.

How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women extends this view, focusing on methods of communication and interaction that build intimacy within male/female partnerships. Real reiterates the message that the bifurcation of human experience into two mutually incompatible categories serves no one. For true healing to take place, we need to recognize and honor needs that are universally human, even though they may present differently in male vs. female experience.

And we need to recognize the abusive legacy of “false empowerment,” through which men are encouraged to cover up a core of buried shame, fear and rage by keeping themselves in a position of dominance over others. This is not a man-only phenomenon, of course; women, too, are now able to empower themselves out of relationship and intimacy as well. The problem is not in either gender’s tendencies, but in the imbalanced relationship between them, the deeply ingrained contempt of one side for the other.

In fact, the traditional privileging of masculine over feminine qualities is one of the most destructive forces in our world. Feminism has made great strides in allowing women opportunities traditionally granted to men — which was necessary, but not enough. The opposite, equally necessary movement has not taken place, for obvious reasons. What man wants to give up his grandiosity and privilege to become “downwardly mobile,” to become humble, receptive, and vulnerable? What person in a “one-up” position wants to give up that power, in order to receive the greater gift of true intimacy and connectedness?

Only the truly courageous ones, many of whom are profiled in Real’s books. They want to reconnect, they don’t want to lose their wives and children, and they are willing to work hard to make this happen. They embark on a journey of facing their own early trauma, learning new skills and techniques for workable, respectful relationships, and recovering the heartfulness they lost in childhood.

It’s not only men who have to do the work, although women have a head start in recognizing and trying to do something about the problem. (Nearly all couples’ therapy is initiated by the woman.) There’s a therapist’s catchphrase: “Everyone is either blatant or latent.” If men in general tend to be the “blatant” ones, acting out with more overt behavior like addiction, battering, and infidelity, women tend to be the “latent” ones whose sharp perception of the faults of others often functions like a screen protecting them from their own unhealed wounds. Once a man has begun to change, they need to learn how to accept and adapt to that change, and not continue to punish him in lieu of others who have hurt them in the past.

When such unhealthy patterns can be transformed, an amazing kind of inner alchemy takes place. As Real puts it, “vicious cycles” are turned into “charmed circles,” with one partner’s positive steps reinforcing and encouraging the other’s. The New Rules of Marriage is a manual with systematic steps for creating such a relationship, through wise and loving practices that leave each partner feeling heard, respected, and empowered.

Even if you are not married and never plan to be, I think these books are worth reading. If nothing else, they shed light on the phenomenon of the wounded, falsely empowered child-men who are currently running our country and our planet — and on the premature, misguided separation from our great Mother (the Earth) which is driving us into the coming environmental catastrophe. We all need to learn that we can be intimate and strong, independent and connected. Each of us, whatever gender we identify with, needs access to the full range of human capacities, if we are to stop the cycle of destructive rage which results from the split into polar opposites. It may have played a role once, but that time is over.

Books like these give me hope that a better world is possible, that change is in the air and that we can move in a positive direction when we commit to living with honesty, integrity, and love. Marriage, with all its trials and challenges, is the goal of life — marriage to our true selves, to one another, to our world. I’m so glad to have encountered these helpful guides along that path.

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Who wants to read Robertson Davies?

DiscussionNEW

 

A couple of days ago I saw the following tweet by librarian Nancy Pearl:

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Well, I’ve read all of Robertson Davies’s novels, and as much of his nonfiction as I could get my hands on, and even his published diaries and letters and a biography … you could call me a fan. I agree with Nancy Pearl that he deserves more attention, and I’ve been surprised at the lack of coverage he gets within our usually literate book blogging community. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a Robertson Davies Reading Week, to celebrate one of my favorite writers, and help introduce him to some new readers.

When should it happen? I’m thinking maybe in August, to celebrate his birthday — or perhaps earlier in the summer. It will be a pretty free-form event, with posts focusing on various books and the chance to share thoughts about whatever you may have been reading yourself.

I have some bloggers in mind to ask for guest posts, but if you’d like to volunteer, please let me know. In the meantime, go to your local bookstore or library and get whatever RD material you can. You can read my post about Tempest Tost to learn more about why I think he’s so great.

Who would like to join me? Let’s give Nancy one less thing to be depressed about!

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Month in Review: February 2019

This month I continued to do a fair amount of rereading. I’m making decisions about which books to keep as I prepare to move abroad, and also sticking to my resolution to only read books that are already on my shelves for three months. One more month to go … but even after that, I hope to do more purging than acquiring!

How has your reading year been going so far?

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Reviews

  • I wrote about reading a poem a day from a collection created by the Poetry Foundation.
  • I read Watership Down with my son and rediscovered its universal appeal.

 

Other Books Read

  • A London Home in the 1890s by Molly Hughes
  • The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon – Reread
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman – Reread
  • A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley – Reread
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Reread
  • How Can I Get Through to You? by Terrence Real – Review to come

 

Other Features and Events

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer, the Month in Review linkup at The Book Date, and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction