Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1903)
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.