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Most exceptional of all

Laura Bridgman preceded Hellen Keller

April 1st, 2015


Helen Keller came second.

For all her fame, achievements and iconic role modeling, the redoubtable Ms. Keller ascended on the very frail shoulders of her predecessor.

bridgmanYes, she did have a predecessor; in fact, Helen Keller was selected specifically as the “next” deaf/blind/mute poster child when the first one sidelined. Keller took up the mantle and carried it with spectacular virtuosity for eighty years. Yet even Keller and her gifted mentor Anne Sullivan suggested that the girl who “came before” was the truly exceptional one.

Most of us know that Miss Sullivan taught Helen to communicate, but who taught Anne? Laura Bridgman did. Laura Bridgman, who was the first deaf/blind/mute child in the U.S. to learn to communicate, both with finger signing and with writing (quite beautifully and very legibly). Laura Bridgman, who lost four of her senses when she was a toddler, yet went on to study philosophy, history, mathematics, geography, Latin, and religion.

Laura Bridgman, who was blind and deaf, taught communication to Annie Sullivan, who was neither blind nor deaf.

Yes, Helen Keller had three senses; Bridgman had just one.

Bridgman is not an obscure historical figure; she was featured in a New Yorker piece in 2001 and has been honored and celebrated in at least four well-received books (children’s books, biographies, and a “factional” historical novel) and the 1957 film The Key (which was released a year before William Gibson wrote The Miracle Worker). She also inspired André Gide’s La Symphonie pastorale. Her story is a dazzling examination of not just one person’s life but of Victorian times, antebellum Boston, major political turmoil in the United States, dramatic philosophical and religious debates, education reform, moral conflicts, and shifting attitudes about disabilities. Bridgman collided with celebrities before Keller was dining with presidents — she lived with Julia Ward Howe, the poet/activist who “rebranded” lyrics for the abolitionist rallying cry “John Brown’s Body” (most readers will know those lyrics as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”); Bridgman was celebrated by Dorothea Dix as well as by Charles Dickens, who cited her and Niagara Falls as his reasons for wanting to visit the United States. He included her in his travelogue American Notes.

[Side fact: Dickens and Thomas Carlyle were not alone in canonizing mute women as “speechless heroes” — notice, not “heroines.”]

Bridgman’s name might be unfamiliar to you (it was to me until this year), but if you had lived in the U.S. in 1840, you would have heard and seen the name — as well as her image — everywhere. By age twelve, Laura Bridgman was, Dickens felt, the second most famous human female on the planet. She was living then in Massachusetts, but she was celebrated in Europe, in the halls of Congress, in schools and homes and churches and chambers and newspapers. Girls named their dolls for her (even poking the dolls’ eyes out so as to create “Laura dolls”); parents named their daughters for her.

It wasn’t just physicians and philosophers and educators and philanthropists who flocked to ogle her, it was “groupies” and fans eager to watch her read and finger-sign, to touch her, to purchase her handmade autographed doilies, purses, bead baskets and watch chains. She was an inspiring figure, the archetypal “horribly afflicted” superwoman in a time when disabled people lived in prisons or asylums (if they lived at all).

Oh, the other famous female – Queen Victoria.

Bridgman’s story is at its core ineffably sad — the scarlet fever that took her sight, hearing, taste, and smell also killed her two sisters, and she herself was bedridden for a full two years. Even sadder, she had retained a bit of vision — a sliver of penetrating light — in one of her eyes, only to lose it when she stumbled into the needle of her mother’s spinning wheel and punctured her eyeball. (Interestingly, thirty years earlier Louie Braille had lost his sight when he poked his eye with an awl.)

But she was loved and safe, and her mother taught her to sew and knit and clean. Laura had an old boot she carried around and hugged, and she had as devoted companion a mentally impaired farmhand, “Uncle Asa.” Asa used hand signs (most likely Plains Indian Sign Language) and taught them to Laura. They bonded over their oddities and spent most of their time outdoors; strange “Uncle Asa” taught her about rivers and flowers and trees and dirt. To him, she was not compromised in any way.

At seven, Laura was lucky enough to be “adopted” (accepted for tutelage) by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and taken to the Perkins School for the Blind, where he was director. He was an innovative reformer, and he made Laura his project. He wanted to know how the brains of deaf/blind children differed, and how they learned (he was also a big believer in phrenology, but never mind that). Howe’s instincts, and his commitment, were extraordinary. At first, Laura was miserable in her new home, missing Asa, her cat, her boot, and her mother. Howe, acting only on instinct, gave her time to settle in, and he observed her with stunning acuity. The other children at the school were blind, and some were also deaf, but there were none who had lost as much as Laura had.

As Laura herself was to say some time later, and for the rest of her life, “There is no one like me.”

Yet Bridgman soared to unimaginable heights. Howe taught her the names of things by putting raised letters on objects and letting her feel the names of things. She proved an astonishingly agile and rabid pupil. She knew that “t-a-b-l-e” spelled that wooden surface with legs, and if Howe switched the letters around, she moved them back to their correct positions. If he put the letters in various parts of the room, she could retrieve “k” and “e” and “y” and put them on the key, in correct sequence. Not only could she read, she could spell. Eventually the letters became signs made with her fingers, and after she learned the manual alphabet, she was forever hand-to-hand with Howe or someone else in the school, “talking” every waking minute (and surely also in her sleep). Her fingers moved so quickly they called her butterfly hands. She had “conversations” with herself, one hand to the other. She even coined words and phrases, crafted expressions, invented characters, demonstrating indisputably that there was no rote learning involved here, but that she understood.
She feverishly taught the other children at the school (whether they were interested or not). She kept a diary (which has survived her), because she was able to copy from memory the letters she had learned. Apart from her intellectual agility, she had unnaturally sensitive fingers — she could detect the color differences among pieces of fabric from the way the dye affected the fibers. By at least one account, she was able to tell, from holding the hand, whether a child was male or female.

And her most commonly transmitted phrase was “Asking, always asking.” Howe eventually passed her on to other teachers, and one of them wrote, “She only troubles me by asking a great many unimportant questions when I am so tired and nervous that it is only by a great effort that I can answer her patiently and pleasantly.”

Laura wanted to know 150% of everything. And it wasn’t only the world around her that intrigued — she was extremely curious, too, about herself. She disagreed that she possessed “only one” of the five senses. She named a sixth, which she called “think,” and she most certainly had mastery of that one.

She wasn’t technically mute; she did make sounds. She had specific bleats for specific people. But her vocalizations, not pleasant to listeners, were mostly unwelcome and discouraged.

Interestingly, both Keller and Bridgman bemoaned not being able to speak (Keller said “It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours. It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally. Longingly I feel how much more good I could have done if I had acquired normal speech.”), and Keller devoted years of dogged effort to developing oral language — you can listen to her online — that was understandable only to her nearest and dearest. Bridgman was always told it could never happen, and no one had the technique or patience to give her a chance. Keller heard of a girl in Europe who had learned, and she used that as her impetus.

When was the last time you felt grateful for your ability to speak? Consider.

Laura lived at the school all her adult life, though she visited her family’s farmhouse every summer. Left there too long, she withered, because her siblings had other interests and her parents weren’t adept with finger signing. She had Uncle Asa, but she neglected eating and dwindled to seventy pounds (poor appetite was a problem for her as long as she lived). At the school she was mostly happy, working not just as a teacher but a maid — she was, perhaps ironically, very good at cleaning.

Bridgman’s was a profoundly dramatic success story, celebrated on an international scale.

So what happened? Why didn’t Bridgman have her own Patty Duke / Anne Bancroft place in our cultural pantheon? Why was she never on a postage stamp (as Keller, Sullivan, and for that matter Julia Howe were)? Why didn’t she get honorary degrees? Why didn’t any president give her a “day” as Jimmy Carter decreed an annual Helen Keller Day? As much as Keller did, Bridgman figures in our national story.

In many ways they bathed in the same Petri dish, these two girls/women. Both had aware parents lucky enough to possess connections to people with resources; both were stricken as toddlers, having been to that point normally developing children (though Laura was sickly); both went to the Perkins School and learned to finger sign; both were engaging, intelligent, curious, animated, and loved (of course, Keller benefited from fifty years’ advances in science and education). It’s often said that Anne Sullivan was the key difference, because her decades of constant devotion to Keller facilitated all of Keller’s accomplishments; even after Sullivan was gone, Keller had Polly Tomson and then Winnie Corbally. Bridgman lived thirty fewer years than did Keller, but when she died she had paved the way for countless disabled children.

We assume that thousands of other deaf/blind children did not become “Helen Kellers” because they simply were not as gifted and determined as Keller was. With Sullivan as partner, Keller attended not just Perkins Institute but New York’s Wright-Humanson School for the Deaf (Bridgman certainly never went to New York), and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, eventually becoming the first deaf/blind person to get a bachelor’s degree (from Radcliffe). And she didn’t stop. She rode horses, she learned Greek, she danced (poor prim Laura would not have been permitted to dance), she wrote twenty books and met twelve presidents and campaigned indefatigably for the rights of women, the disabled, the disenfranchised. She made countless appearances. Beyond being an inspiration and an idol, she qualified, indisputably, as a genius.

So most have said that had Laura been born fifty years later, and had her own Annie Sullivan, she would have matched Keller’s accomplishments.

I don’t buy it.

I think Laura would have been held back by two things.

Anosmia (inability to smell) deprives a person of an array of stimuli. Smell memory is among the most powerful kinds, and we know Laura was able to smell until nearly her third birthday, after which time that input was gone. She couldn’t smell pleasant things, or bad (dangerous things); she couldn’t smell even herself. A person who can’t see, hear, or smell is completely unprotected. All animals smell very productively; the sense is powerfully engaged for detecting enemies, anticipating risk, determining toxicity of food sources, assessing surroundings, identifying objects. Anosmia leads to depression, absence of libido, and loss of appetite. Laura’s anosmia was likely due to destruction of a temporal lobe, and it was permanent and damning.

I don’t think those who studied her, and loved her, considered how significant this loss was, so focused were they on “she can’t hear, she can’t see.” Helen Keller, despite her disability, knew if something was burning nearby, knew if a remembered person approached, knew if milk had gone sour, knew if her own socks had gone too long without a laundering. Standing alone in a field, without the use of finger signing, or a companion, Helen was still connected to the silent world around her. She could enjoy cologne and roses and puppy breath and the fragrance of a rainstorm or baking bread. She had the rapture of recognizing the aromas of familiar places, familiar things, familiar people. She was bombarded by smells of detergent, talcum powder, lavender, shoe leather, automobile emissions, cut grass, wood fires, ink, chemicals, fish. She could sniff her own fingers and transmit remnants of things she had touched.

Laura knew no scents at all.

And taste? Laura’s tongue moved, and her lips moved, but she couldn’t tell pure sweet honey from honey dosed with pepper, anise, or lye. Garlic, to her, was the same as cinnamon or ground mustard: texture only, no taste or smell. Without help, she couldn’t know what to eat and not eat. No sense of taste (ageusia) carries the same risks as having no ability to smell: depression, poor diet, wasting, poisoning, and physical peril. Our bodies have various warning systems, and all five senses play roles. Taste triggers saliva production, which helps with digestion. Without that trigger, the stomach isn’t ready and nutrients aren’t absorbed. And without taste, which is a survival mechanism, the desire to eat is significantly compromised — a growling stomach in and of itself isn’t sufficient inducement.
No wonder she didn’t eat. Eating was a chore with no reward.

Taste and smell are linked, of course, but even if Laura had lacked only a sense of taste — think for one moment about everything you taste in a given week or month, and imagine a complete absence of that. Nothing sweet, nothing salty; nothing bitter, nothing spicy; nothing glorious, nothing repugnant. Nothing. And no smell? No fragrant hair, no pine forest, no peppermint, no vanilla. We need stimuli. We depend on them. Laura had no stimuli other than things she could feel with her skin. She had nothing — nothing — else. Just her mind.

Compared to Laura, Helen Keller possessed superpowers. Helen was bequeathed beyond measure. Because remaining senses compensate for those lost, Helen’s sense of taste and smell would have sharpened year by year, allowing her to “see” and “hear” with her tongue and nose in ways that were unimaginable to Laura (or to people with five senses). And in all the reading I did about Miss Bridgman, no one seems to have factored in the severe trauma of those other two deficits. To my mind, Laura was working extremely hard minute to minute, navigating in something far worse than darkness and silence. Teachers could give her an alternate way to hear, an alternate way to see; but there was no substitute for taste and smell.

So Helen ended up at the White House, and Laura ended up dead before sixty. Not unaccomplished, not uncelebrated, but superseded by, yes, an utterly extraordinary woman who followed briefly in Laura’s soundless footsteps (they met but once, briefly, and it didn’t go well; Laura died two years after Helen came to the Perkins School), and almost immediately soared away, because, at least in part, of those invisible but incalculably precious attributes Laura could never regain. Not with nine decades of life, not with the best and most loving teachers could Bridgman have become Keller, and in fact, Keller’s suggestion that Laura was the more amazing seems to me profoundly accurate. •

Posted by: The Editors
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