A generation before Helen Keller captured the world’s imagination, Laura Bridgman, born in 1829, lost her sight, hearing, taste, and sense of smell to Scarlet fever at age two. When she was seven years old, educational reformer Samuel Gridley Howe brought her to Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind, where he treated her like a living experiment.
Could this tabula rasa be taught language? Could he control her belief in God? Equal parts phrenologist and male chauvinist, Howe brought all his elite, misguided knowledge to bear on Bridgman, who proved to be a brilliant a young pupil.
Bridgman acquired language quickly. As was common in the early 1800s, she was regularly exhibited, along with her Perkins classmates, to audiences who came from near and far to gape. Charles Dickens wrote admiringly of her in American Notes, sealing her fame. She was considered both a natural wonder and proof of Howe’s genius.
As Bridgman grew older, acquiring a will and wishes of her own, Howe lost interest in her. A Unitarian, Howe was particularly disgusted by Bridgman’s increasing religiosity. By the time she died, at age 59, her star had faded. A near-recluse, Bridgman rarely left her room at the Perkins Institution, where she spent her entire life.
In What Is Visible, Kimberly Elkins fictionalizes this largely forgotten woman. She begins the novel by re-imagining the meeting between young Helen Keller and Bridgman. Bridgman is unimpressed by her “replacement”. Her sarcasm sets the tone: those expecting an angelic disabled woman will experience a rude awakening.
Elkins’s Laura Bridgman is an extraordinary imaginative feat. Demanding, clinging, arrogant, selfish, as perceptive as any individual possessed of all her faculties, she is far from sympathetic or winning. Hungry for contact, she literally gets into people’s hair, preferring women’s hair, adoring thick curly hair above all. Her extreme need for tactile stimulation—her sole sensory input—often crosses the line from pleasure to pain, and she refuses to comprehend why others find her constant fondling, stroking, and pulling of their braids intolerable.
No amount of punishment stops her from crawling into the beds of fellow Perkins students, whom she disparagingly refers to as “blinds”, as if the loss of only one sense renders them lesser than she.
Indeed, Bridgman’s sensory deficits often lead to misunderstandings, as when Howe marries Julia Ward. Bridgman is 12 years old at the time. Initially she believes Ward will be as a sister, and creates a special “naming noise” as a gift. Ward is appalled by Bridgman’s incoherent whooping. Howe must intervene.
He must maneuver further when Bridgman attempts to join them on their honeymoon, worming her way on to the R.M.S. Britannia. The couple is absent over a year, during which time she issues a flood of correspondence to her beloved first teacher, receiving a bare trickle of responses.
When Julia gives birth to daughter Julia Romana, Laura is smugly certain of her role as sister and caregiver. Julia, meanwhile, wants Laura as far from her daughter as possible.
Later in life, such miscues are even more painful. When Miss Wight, a favorite teacher, is being courted by her future husband, Bridgman is certain she is the potential bride. It speaks of the prudish Victorian era and her overly protective interpreters that such mix-ups continually occur despite Laura’s intelligence. A final insult involves both sexual and financial naïveté, leaving readers to wonder whether Bridgman isn’t being exploited.
Bridgman’s naming noises are a tragic part of her repression. Longing to speak, Bridgman vocalizes a great deal, cultivating a useful repertoire of “naming noises” recognized by those close to her, but as she grows older, these noises become less charming. Howe is busy with his new wife, their many children, and demanding political causes. Taking on the laborious task of teaching a deaf-blind adolescent to speak is not appealing.
Laura’s teachers ask her to be quiet. Enraged, she refuses, famously responding: “God gave me much voice!”
Like many other young women, Bridgman fusses over her appearance. She loves pretty dresses, running her hands approvingly over fine lace and hungrily inquiring about colors. An adept seamstress, she earns money selling her needlework.
She is acutely aware of her damaged eyes, always hidden behind ribbons or tinted glasses, so unpleasant to behold that she hides them even from her teachers. Bridgman desperately wishes for pretty blue glass eyes, but in a crushing scene, Howe verbally demolishes her, his wife, and Sarah Wight for even considering such a vanity.
If Laura Bridgman is portrayed as needy and, in today’s psychological parlance, lacking boundaries, then Samuel Howe is nothing short of monstrous. The inner weakness and egotism fueling his male chauvinism make him a revolting individual. His marriage to Julia Ward, poet and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is little more than a sham: he is by turn abusive and condescending. Julia’s continued desire for his company in bed is especially puzzling; in the modern era somebody would gift her with Women Who Love Too Much.
There are times when Elkins takes the narrative possibly too far, defending her choices in the epilogue. Would Laura, so closely monitored, been able to have a lover regularly visiting her room? The improbable affair is a brief and passionate storm, blowing over quickly, leaving the reader wondering, again, about Bridgman’s naïveté and the limits of biographical fiction.
Yet it must be recalled that Elkins is working with a character for whom all is internal; even the most banal remarks about weather are impossible, as are more important markers like facial expression, vocal cues, or body language. Bridgman had so very little in life. She was dependent on others for a great deal, and her caregivers had difficulty seeing her as an adult woman.
In too many ways she was kept in a childlike existence, never permitted her adult desires, literally silenced. In reanimating an idea of her, Elkins hopefully enlightens readers about a singular individual who lived in a singular and lonely way.
Note: In writing this review, I consulted Dorothy Hermann’s excellent Helen Keller: A Life for biographical information about Laura Bridgman. I also drew on personal experience working with deaf/blind individuals as an interpreter.
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