Booktalking "The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller, edited by Roger Shattuck
- March 7, 2013, 12:45 pm
At 19 months of age, Keller loses her sight and hearing. A girl spends five years in darkness and silence, yet she runs with strength and is healthy and vigorous. Frenetically, she reaches into everything, is fascinated by people, and is in constant gestural communication with her mother and family members. She remembers the layout of the house, so she is able to freely run through it. She loves being with her dogs and her pony, but she cannot grasp sophisticated meaning from her limited world until her teacher, 21 year old Anne Sullivan, arrives in 1887 to greet the 7-year-old Keller.
Keller is not used to following the directives of anyone else, and there are some epic battles between these two strong-willed individuals. Sullivan isolates Keller from her indulgent family to live with her in the cottage house to teach the young girl obedience, while she continues finger spelling words into Keller's hands to elucidate the world to her. Arguments between Sullivan and Keller last hours; the 7-year-old knocks out at least one of her teacher's teeth. However, Keller eventually realizes that she will not win, and she is pleasantly distracted by the light of knowledge.
When Sullivan explains the meaning of "water" at the well and Keller understands, she becomes ecstatic. She realizes that everything has a name, and she begs her teacher to label every object she can think of to satisfy her inquisitive mind and give her the greater and more specific tool of language to communicate with other people.
This is a brilliantly edited volume. From reading the Foreword, I learned that The Miracle Worker contains an inaccuracy regarding the well water scene. Helen said "wa-wa" to signify water prior to losing her sight and hearing at 19 months of age. Keller spent her childhood in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At the time of the well water scene (when Keller was seven years old), she did not speak. Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 and died in 1968; while she was living, people thought that her story was a hoax.
I loved the short chapters of this book that had distinct ideas. I read the book's section in the following order: Foreword, Helen Keller's The Story of My Life, Helen Keller's Letters, Anne Sullivan's account, John Macy's account, Appendix, and Notes. I wanted to read the material by Helen Keller together. Sometimes she despairs at the darkness and silence in which she lives, but then she casts aside the bitter thoughts to explore her world.
This edition, edited by Roger Shattuck in 2003, includes Helen Keller's The Story of My Life, supplementary accounts by Anne Sullivan, her teacher, and John Albert Macy, assistant to her teacher (and husband, for a time). The Foreword, Afterward, Appendix, Notes and Helen Keller's letters are also worth reading.
In her adult life, Helen lived with Anne Sullivan, her teacher, and John Macy, married to Sullivan, until his drinking broke up the marriage. Helen Keller became a staunch advocate for blind and deaf people, and she wrote some spiritual books as well. The most intriguing excerpt from this book is from Helen Keller's Teacher, published in 1955 when Keller was 75 years old. Teacher describes a more elemental Keller, who was impulsive, demanding, and suffering from a disconnect with the world. It contains none of the airy, positive dreamy feel of The Story of My Life, which was published when Keller was 23 years old. In The Story of My Life, Helen is optimistic and full of flowery language about all that is good in the world.
At the age of 19 months, Keller was struck with an illness that plunged her into a dark and silent world. For five years, Helen communicated as best as she could until she met Anne Sullivan, her teacher, when she was seven years old. Laura Bridgman was also a deaf and blind girl who was helped before Keller. Apparently Keller's parents were wealthy and resourceful enough to find the appropriate people to talk to and they were able to pay for a private tutor for their daughter.
Anne Sullivan was 21 years old when she met 7-year-old Keller. Sullivan was in for a shock, and she probably did not anticipate exactly how exhausting it would be to teach Keller to listen to her authority. Right away, Sullivan began finger spelling words into Keller's hands to facilitate some connection to and meaning about the world. Keller was grabby and lacking in manners, but she was also very curious, frenetic, and in good physical shape. The girl rarely was still. Sullivan reached the conclusion immediately that one of her first tasks would be to teach Keller discipline and get the girl to obey her. She believed the obedience was at the root of both learning and love. Sullivan would show her love and be her eyes and ears, constantly finger spelling the world into her hand.
Helen Keller was friends with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Bell recommended the school that sent Sullivan as a tutor to Keller. Keller visited Niagara Falls with him and wondered at the majesty of nature. He explained electricity to her. Keller also knew Samuel Clemens (aka "Mark Twain").
In October of 1896, Keller entered a prep school (high school) prior to her study at Harvard University. Sullivan assisted her in the classrooms with seeing and hearing girls. A few people in the school learned sign language (including the principal and German teacher). Keller also learned French. Her younger sister Mildred joined her at the school, and she received honors in English and German. Keller also learned algebra and physics. She played solitaire and chess (she could feel the differences in the pieces.) Keller found it much more pleasant to teach herself than be taught in a classroom. She produced higher quality work and learned much faster by herself. After all, she was used to a private tutor. It seems that she studied how she learned so that she could expedite her own discovery of the world.
Keller found mathematics particularly challenging to decipher. Not many books were printed for the blind, so she needed many books to be spelled into her hand. Her ideas about human memory, cognition and learning ring very true to me. She started reading at age seven and she learned much from books that she could not learn from sight or hearing. She was a bibliophile, and she was very grateful to people who helped her get her textbooks embossed into Braille. Her sense of touch was more developed than that of sighted people. When taking exams that she was typing on her typewriter and were not allowed to have read back to her, she would keep the essay in her short-term memory. If she finished before the end of the time alloted, she would type corrections at the end of her essay.
On June 17, 1887, 7-year-old Keller wrote a letter to her cousin Anna in pencil declaring what she was doing. Most of her letters are very positive. She told everyone how happy she was to be writing them, and her love of life shines through. Readers can see the progression of her thought patterns and literacy skills as they scan her letters throughout her young childhood and teenage and adult years. One can see how her intellect developed. Keller learned to speak by putting her hands on the throats of speaking people and feeling the location of their tongues and the vibrations. During her adulthood, Sullivan persisted in correcting Keller's pronunciation of words. Keller went to historic battlefields and museums to learn about culture and the world.
An excerpt from Teacher, which was written by Keller in 1955 as a 75-year-old woman depicts a lost soul angry at the world. From 19 months until the age of seven, Keller referred to herself as "no-person" and phantom. Keller was dissociated from the person that she was and did not feel as if she existed or that she was a real person after she was plunged into darkness and silence. "A sorrier situation never confronted a young woman on fire with a noble purpose." Phantom's parents interfered with any discipline that Sullivan tried to give her, so Sullivan took Keller to a cottage house near Ivy Green. They rearranged furniture so that Keller would not recognize it. Keller recalls that it even smelled different than the cottage house that she remembered.
Keller marveled in this account that Sullivan was willing to risk her personal safety by being alone with her. (Keller knocked out at least one of Sullivan's teeth in a struggle.) Keller often got hurt from trying to escape restraining arms. At the time, she was not aware of how much time and effort Sullivan put into bringing her under control without breaking her spirit. Keller had many power struggles with Sullivan, which were completely omitted from The Story of My Life. At the time of its publication, she was a happy 23-year-old woman who sugar-glazed the past.
When the pair returned to Ivy Green, Keller still struggled with her anger. The phantom became angry at Sullivan because she could not understand the distinction between the water and the mug. However, on April 5, 1887, Annie was able to explain the well water to Keller, who then begged her teacher for the words to everything that she could think of. Keller was ecstatic that someone could lead her into a deeper understanding of the world that her intellect craved.
Anne Sullivan's Account: How to Tame This Wild Child
Sullivan (1866-1936) became half-blind at five years of age, due to trachoma, and her sight was partially restored later in her lifetime. Her predecessor, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe taught a blind, deaf girl, Laura Bridgman, who also lacked a sense of smell, and paved the way for Sullivan and others like her. Due to Sullivan's poor sight, there is little documentation by her of her teaching methods with Keller, other than letters written from 1887-1994. The letters that we do have from Sullivan are invaluable since they give us insight into her perspective of Keller's psychology and education, and they reveal just how remarkable Sullivan was. The newspaper accounts of her work with Keller at the time were sensationalized.
Sullivan strived to improve Keller's manners. When her teacher would not let her put her hand into her plate, Sullivan ate her breakfast for 30 minutes while Keller kicked and screamed on the floor. Every time Keller pinched Sullivan, she slapped her. Sullivan requested that Keller use her spoon, then that she fold her napkin. That developed into another one hour-long struggle. Sullivan had to have the family leave the dining room and lock the door to prevent Keller from leaving. Keller repeatedly threw her napkin on the floor. Finally, when Keller acquiesced, her teacher let her out into the sunshine while she went upstairs, threw herself onto her bed exhausted, and cried. She anticipated many battles before she was able to teach Keller obedience and love. Later, for a little belated discipline, Sullivan threw Keller's napkin onto the floor, then would not give her cake. When Keller agreed to have the napkin on her, her teacher gave her a larger slice of cake than usual.
Sullivan found that Keller's family allowed her to do exactly as she wanted to, with the occasional exception of her brother James. Unfortunately, Helen became stronger and more violent as she got older. Sullivan took her to the cottage house to teach her obedience so that she could learn; she also wanted to girl to feel dependent on her. At first, Keller would not let her teacher kiss or touch her. The first night was a two-hour struggle to get Keller to bed. After nine days together, Keller learned obedience and allowed her teacher to kiss her. Now, it seemed as though a shake or nod of the teacher's head (to signify "no" and "yes") were facts of life to Keller like the difference between hot and cold or pain and pleasure. Sullivan found Keller so bright and delightful. She declined the family's offer of a nurse for Keller since her teacher found it easier to live with her in the same room and teach her at odd moments. Sullivan used no particular theory or system to teach Keller.
John Macy's Account: Living with Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller
Macy was married to Sullivan for a time until they divorced because of his drinking. Keller's personality was whimsical and adventuresome. There is an illustration of Keller's teacher reading to her in this section of the book. Sullivan holds the book with one hand and finger spells into Keller's hand with the other. Keller endured much pain when she went up against Sullivan's strong will, but Sullivan would not sacrifice any of the progress that had been made. Keller became more loving following disciplinary episodes with her teacher.
I finally did it! I was able to blog about a nonfiction work. I have been blogging about fiction books for over a year now, and I have often wanted to blog about the less-talked about wonderful nonfiction books that are out there, but until now have not been inspired to do it! Helen Keller is an amazing woman. In terms of the time frame of her life, I was interested to realize that she actually died while my parents were alive. Keller is such an altruistic figure, so positive in her perspective and in love with life and with people that it is impossible not to be charmed by her. Her inquisitive nature, intellectual life, love of learning and the things that she was able to accomplish despite her particular challenges also surprise me. Keller's psychology and her theories of human cognition, learning and memory are fascinating to me.
I was sufficiently interested in this book to write about it so that others could become more aware of the content of this brilliantly edited volume. Perhaps some will be inclined to read it, but if not, at least they can learn more facts about Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and John Macy that have not been reported many times by the media.