The last week of June is annually designated as Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, as decreed in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan to coincide with the anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth on June 27, 1880.
The emphasis of this national campaign, as promoted by the Helen Keller National Center, is “to encourage the full participation of Americans with multi-sensory disabilities in our economy by fostering [their] employment […], housing, and recreational options.”
Deaf-blindness affects more than 1.2 million people in the United States, including almost 60,000 children. And while many deaf-blind individuals manage remarkable achievements, such as Haben Girma’s 2013 graduation from Harvard Law School, others are often relegated to the status of “lesser than” even within their own communities.
Helen Keller is remembered in the proclamation as “a guiding example of courage, hope, and achievement,” but in the 19th century she was known as merely “the second Laura Bridgman.” That’s right: Laura Bridgman—does the name ring a bell? Probably not.
Fifty years before Helen Keller, Laura Bridgman was in fact the first deaf-blind person to be successfully educated and at the height of her renown at mid-century was considered the world’s most famous woman, second only to Queen Victoria.
At age 2, Laura lost not only her sight and hearing to scarlet fever, but also her senses of taste and smell. When she was 7, she was taken from her New Hampshire home to Perkins Institution in Boston, to become the pet project of its director, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. She was taught to read from special raised-letter books printed by Perkins, to write on what was called a grooved French board, and to converse by “hand spelling,” with the letters signed into her palm and then into the “listener’s” (now known as Tactile American Sign Language). Thousands already flocked to the institution on Exhibition Days to watch her perform the magic of language, but her fame exploded worldwide after Charles Dickens was so dazzled by Laura during his 1842 tour that he devoted an entire chapter of “American Notes” to her, declaring her the “second wonder of North America.”
When I first read about Laura in a 2001 New Yorker article, I was astounded that I’d never heard of her, an icon so celebrated that Laura dolls proliferated worldwide, with their eyes poked out and covered by her trademark green ribbons.
While the idea of a deaf-blind person who also can’t taste or smell likely evokes for many the prison of a cruelly limited existence, my first impulse was that Laura Bridgman must have possessed a wildly complex and unique inner life. The accompanying photograph of a frighteningly thin young woman sitting ramrod straight, her eyes covered with a shade, hands caressing a raised-letter book, both opened and broke my heart. She posed with stubborn dignity for an image she’d never see, and with a face and body she’d never experience except through touch. I knew immediately that I had to find out why the 19th century’s most renowned educational, philosophical, and theological “experiment” had been virtually erased from history.
I chose to write a biographical novel told mainly from Laura’s perspective because, as E.L. Doctorow advised, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you how it felt.” The book’s title, What Is Visible, refers to the ways in which we, as individuals or groups, are visible or not to others—emotionally, physically, intellectually, and even historically.
Even now in America, the deaf-blind are often regarded with an uneasy mixture of curiosity, admiration and repugnance, while in some developing nations, such as India and Tibet, they continue to be shunned or exploited.
In 1889, the year before Laura’s death at age 58, she and the 9-year-old Helen met for the first and last time. Though the press was there, no one knows what the two discussed. In my version of events, Helen begs Laura to tell her about her difficult and illustrious life, and by extension, the role Helen is being groomed to play. And play it she did: Helen wrote later that she had planned to be “the best damn poster child the world has ever known.” With her relentlessly sunny public disposition and her beautiful blue glass eyes, which her family succeeded in keeping secret until after her death, Helen stood in stark contrast to Laura, who had not been allowed to learn to speak as Helen did, and was forced to squat in the institute’s kitchen closet to make the “disagreeable” noises she refused to give up.
Still, she found a way to make her opinions known on Exhibition and Visiting Days, and her disavowal of the Unitarianism of Howe and the New England elite who had supported her factored largely in her downfall, especially after she became a dreaded Baptist. It didn’t help that she had grown anorexic due to her lack of taste and smell, or that she couldn’t abide most men, with the exception of her complicated relationship with Howe.
When the Boston Evening Transcript proposed sending Laura to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 as “the showpiece with which no nation could compete,” Howe adamantly declined. When she was 20, he turned on his once beloved prodigy, claiming in the press where he had long trumpeted her virtues that he had come to the realization that she was “small-brained” and even “subject to derangement.” He sent her home to New Hampshire, and only after she had starved herself to the edge of death did he allow her to return to Perkins, though he never again gave her a teacher or companion.
She lived out her days there, and even helped teach the young student Annie Sullivan hand spelling, which Annie then taught to Helen, who was chosen as her heir based solely on the basis of a charming photograph. In her biography, Helen wrote that if Laura had continued to have someone to interpret the world for her, as Helen had had Annie, that Laura would have far “outshone me.”
The indisputable fact that Laura remained true to herself and her beliefs under the direst of human circumstances elevates her to the status of an inimitable heroine, a forgotten icon in a world where not looking or acting “normal” enough, and not doing what she was told eclipsed her remarkable, almost unbelievable, accomplishments. Laura Bridgman didn’t slip into obscurity; she was booted there.
And yet her greatest desire, as I write in the novel, was to be viewed by her public as “a present to them all from God, to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.”
So while it is imminently important to support Helen Keller National Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, it is important to remember, as philosopher William James declared, that “without Laura Bridgman, there could never have been a Helen Keller.”
Kimberly Elkins is the award-winning author of the novel What Is Visible, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, now out in paperback. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, The Village Voice, Glamour, and Best New American Voices, among others. She lives in New York City.