by Deborah Kent Stein
From the Editor: Late last fall I received a review copy of a new biography of Laura Bridgman, the deaf-blind woman whose education in the mid-nineteenth century provided hope and guidance to Helen Keller's parents and teachers. I immediately asked Debbie Stein, First Vice President of the NFB of Illinois, to review the book for the Braille Monitor. She agreed to do so, and a few months later the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness asked her to review that book and another on the same subject that had also just been published. Debbie asked if we would be willing to reprint the JVIB review rather than having her write a second review of only the one book. Since the readership of the two publications is substantially different, we were happy to do so and therefore reprint with permission the review, which appeared in the July, 2001, issue of JVIB. Here it is:
The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Gridley Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl by Elisabeth Gitter, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 329 pages.
The Education of Laura Bridgman, by Ernest Freeberg. Harvard University Press, 264 pages.
Coincidences abound in history. Tinkerers on distant continents simultaneously invent the same amazing gadget; within weeks of one another scientists in far-flung laboratories discover the same natural principle. A comparable phenomenon occurs from time to time in the literary world. The year 2000, for instance, saw the publication of three novels based on the life of painter Jan Vermeer. Now, in 2001, comes yet another startling synchronicity--a pair of biographies of the wonder-child of the 1840's, Laura Bridgman.
Until the appearance of these two fascinating and quite different accounts, most people knew Laura Bridgman (if they recognized her name at all) only as a footnote in the well-known story of Helen Keller. Keller was not the first deaf-blind student successfully educated at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. Laura Bridgman, her once-famous predecessor, arrived at the school fifty years before Keller, in 1837. Like Keller, Bridgman was seven years old when she began her education, and like Keller, she lost her sight and hearing due to an illness when she was two. Both children were postlingually deaf, having acquired the basics of language before their hearing loss occurred. Both were exceptionally bright, curious, and eager to learn.
Yet despite their striking similarities, Bridgman and Keller were very different people. Elisabeth Gitter in The Imprisoned Guest and Ernest Freeberg in The Education of Laura Bridgman make it clear that Laura Bridgman was not merely a less illustrious version of Keller but a remarkable woman in her own right. Though she spent most of her life at Perkins, her influence reached around the world.
A professor of Victorian literature, Elisabeth Gitter first learned about Bridgman from Charles Dickens, who devoted a chapter to her in his travelogue, American Notes. Intrigued, Gitter wondered if Perkins might still have records documenting Bridgman's life. "To my astonishment," she writes in her preface to The Imprisoned Guest, "I found the buried story of Laura's life fully documented in bundles and boxes of uncatalogued, unpublished manuscripts that have been stored, along with her teachers' journals and [Dr. Samuel Gridley] Howe's voluminous correspondence, in the Perkins basement." This wealth of records, including a trove of Bridgman's own correspondence to family and friends "penciled in Laura's distinctive square lettering," comprises the rich source material for both of the new biographies. Nevertheless, the books are surprisingly different and arrive at different interpretations of Laura Bridgman's life.
Like all of us Laura Bridgman was the product of her particular time and place. Both Gitter and Freeberg provide detailed background information about the intellectual and spiritual climate that helped to shape her history. In 1829, when Bridgman was born on a New Hampshire farm, the nation was young and optimistic. In New England leaders in the Unitarian Church had broken away from the time-worn Calvinistic view of human nature and begun to argue for the essential goodness of humankind. Zealous reformers believed that all human beings, including those with disabilities, were capable of learning and of contributing to society.
An outgrowth of these religious and philosophical ideas, the Perkins Institution was chartered in the year of Bridgman's birth. The trustees placed the school under the direction of Dr. Samuel Howe, a flamboyant figure known as a passionate champion of the underdog. Early in the 1820's Howe helped the Greeks fight for independence from Turkey; more than thirty years later he aided the abolitionist John Brown in his famous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. During the 1830's and 1840's Howe channeled his impressive energies into the education of blind people. His early writings foreshadow the work of Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and other twentieth-century leaders in the movement for blind civil rights. Howe contended that, given education and opportunity, blind people could become productive and independent. Each blind student should be taught according to his abilities. According to Freeberg, Howe claimed that "While the cost of education for the blind was greater, ... his students were simply laying claim to a democratic birthright, a social obligation more fundamental than any financial consideration."
Howe saw blind people in New England as oppressed by poverty, ignorance, and the prejudice of the sighted. Their emancipation provided him with the sort of challenge he adored. To change the public's image of blindness--and to solicit donations for Perkins--Howe opened the school to the public once a week and had his pupils perform plays, recite poetry, and work mathematical problems. He went on tour with some of his more talented students, putting them through their paces at public exhibitions. Laura Bridgman, a child who was profoundly deaf as well as totally blind, presented Howe with a spectacular opportunity to demonstrate the capacities of disabled children, as well as his achievements as an educator, to an admiring world.
The complex relationship between Bridgman and Howe figures prominently in both biographies. Gitter elaborates on Howe's teaching methods and Laura's slow but steady progress toward the acquisition of language. She reveals Laura's lifelong attachment to Howe and her wracking grief when he eventually lost interest in her after his marriage and the births of his own children. Freeberg, on the other hand, emphasizes Howe's intellectual interest in Bridgman and the "spiritual experiment" which motivated much of his work with her. Unlike Gitter, he shows Howe as Laura's devoted friend and benefactor throughout her life.
Overall, Gitter probes more deeply into Laura's personal relationships than does Freeberg. Quotes from letters and journals depict Laura's intimate and sometimes turbulent connections with several of her female teachers. Gitter also devotes extensive space to Laura's relationship with her parents and siblings, especially her beloved sister Mary, who died young, and her brother Addison, whose attention Laura craved and seldom received.
While Freeberg too writes about Laura's interpersonal relationships, his approach is chiefly that of the social historian. He elaborates on Howe's effort to discover "man's true religious faith" by allowing Laura to discover God on her own terms--with a bit of gentle guidance that Howe alone could provide. When Bridgman was "tainted" at thirteen by religious ideas from some of her other teachers, Howe grew incensed and gave up hope that the girl could ever prove his conviction about the true nature of the soul.
In the heady early years of Bridgman's education Howe described her as pure and angelic. Freeberg quotes one of Howe's reports: "The different traits of her character have unfolded themselves successively as pure and spotless as the petals of a rose; and in every action unbiased by extraneous influence, she 'gravitates toward the right' as naturally as a stone falls to the ground." In truth, however, Laura Bridgman was thoroughly human. She was by turns affectionate and empathic, demanding, willful, and even violent. Frustrated by her struggles to communicate, she sometimes kicked, pinched, and slapped her fellow pupils. She hounded her teachers with questions which, though ingenuous, seemed exhaustingly endless. Gitter gathers a host of examples: Why do flies fly with wings instead of walking on the floor? Why don't fish have legs? Does the horse know it is wrong to go slow? Why don't horses and flies go to bed? Why do flies not have names like boys and girls do? Why do cows not draw? Is the worm afraid when the hen eats him? Why do cows have two horns?
Laura also had a streak of mischief, a sense of humor that sparkles in some of her journal entries. After a rat nibbled a loaf of bread in her room, she wrote (as quoted by Freeberg), "I think that the rat ought to be imprisoned. He ought to have a conscience on purpose to reprove himself very much. I must ask W. [her teacher Sarah Wight] to please teach him about doing right & wrong & being honest in the night. He would love her very much for her good influence."
Neither Gitter nor Freeberg has a background in the field of blindness, yet both authors unveil an important era in the history of blind people. These books describe life in the early days at Perkins--the "character-strengthening" regimen of cold baths, stark diet, and physical exercise; the green ribbons with which the students were required to cover their eyes in order to spare visitors from glimpsing any unsightly disfigurement. Both authors note that few of Howe's students succeeded in finding work after completing their education. Freeberg is clear that blind men and women encountered the prejudice of employers and that Howe's emphasis on handicrafts did not prepare his students for work in an increasingly industrial society. Gitter, on the other hand, turns to psychoanalytic theory and suggests that fear and rejection are virtually inevitable: "Looking at the blind--who cannot look back or see themselves seen--is inescapably voyeuristic. And as Freudian theorists have pointed out, voyeurism can awaken unconscious fears that ocular punishment will be exacted, an eye for an eye, for ocular pleasures."
During Laura Bridgman's childhood Howe wrote eloquent reports on her progress which were published in newspapers and magazines across the country. She became a celebrity, like any child star in today's world. Some claimed that she was one of the most famous females on earth, second only to Queen Victoria. People flocked to see her. They pressed around her by the hundreds, bringing gifts, shaking her hand, and collecting her coveted autograph. Her quick intelligence, her eagerness to connect and to learn won hearts and opened minds. Her achievements paved the way for countless blind and deaf-blind students who followed her. As Freeberg concludes: "Their academic accomplishments and their courage in the face of imposing obstacles forced many Americans to rethink their ideas about the very meaning of disability. Chipping away at centuries of accumulated prejudice and misunderstanding, these students and their teachers began to dismantle one of the greatest barriers faced by the blind and the deaf, the deep-rooted misconception that people with sensory handicaps are unreachable and somehow less than fully human."
One book alone about Laura Bridgman might easily have dropped into obscurity. The simultaneous publication of two books about this forgotten figure is arousing unprecedented interest. Perhaps the odd coincidence will benefit Freeberg and Gitter, boosting the sales of both of their books. In any case, together or separately, these biographies are meticulously researched and wonderfully absorbing. Laura Bridgman's story is part of our heritage as blind people and as Americans, and it is time for her story to be told.