Before Hellen Keller There Was Laura Bridgman

What is Visible: A Novel, by Kimberly Elkins (Grand Central Publishing), 320 pages.

Kimberly Elkin’s What Is Visible is one of those wonderful historical novels that recaptures a bit of history that’s been lost to us. The novel focuses on Laura Bridgman, who lost all her senses except touch after a life-threatening fever when she was two years old, who then was educated at the Perkins Institute, learned to communicate by finger spelling and to read and write, becoming an international celebrity who crossed paths with Longfellow and Dickens, among others. Sound familiar?

In our era, we remember Hellen Keller as breaking boundaries for the deaf-mute, but Laura Bridgman came before her—and, in fact, was one of Annie Sullivan’s teachers, preparing Sullivan for her work with Keller.

Elkins has written a historical novel in the best sense—a novel that attempts to recreate the undocumented parts of Bridgman’s life without deviating from the narrative available in the historical record. The novel begins with an author’s note and ends with an afterward, both of which carefully discuss the sources for Elkins’ novel and her reasoning in adding to this narrative. Elkins’ “inventions” are clearly grounded in the story of the historical Bridgman.

The book moves among first-person, third-person and epistolary sections. Most often, events are presented in first-person from Bridgman’s perspective, but other chapters, written in third person, examine the lives of some of those around her: Dr. “Chev” Howe, director of the Perkins Institute; his wife, Julia Ward Howe (yes, that Julia Ward Howe); and Sarah Wight, one of Bridgman’s teachers.

Elkins’ novel captures the uneasy footing of Bridgman’s life. A woman of considerable intelligence and will, she is regarded by those around her with varying degrees of humanity. Some, like Dorothea Dix and Longfellow, treat her as a respected friend. Others view her as childlike or less than competent. And Howe—at least in Elkins’ rendering—views her more as his own creation than as a human being in her own right.

Howe, a Unitarian, intended to raise Bridgman without formal religious instruction in an attempt to prove the Unitarian ideal of “natural” religiosity. In an exchange (invented by Elkins so far as I can tell) between Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and Howe, Mann reminds Howe that “I must be assured that you are safekeeping [Laura as] our living proof that children learn morality and reverence by example and inference, not indoctrination.”  She is, Mann says “our best and brightest philosophical weapon.” However, Howe’s plans were undone by others around Bridgman who felt a moral duty to instruct her in the precepts of their particular Christian denominations. Ultimately, and despite Howe’s objections, Bridgman became a Baptist.

Because it is the one sense remaining to her, touch drives Bridgman’s interactions with the outside world. She is hungry for physical contact and is not necessarily gentle in seeking it. Interestingly, Elkins chooses to depict Bridgman as a lesbian, and a rather sadomasochistic one at that. She explains her depiction of Bridgman’s sexual orientation by citing “Dr. Howe’s edict that Laura not be allowed into the other girls’ beds [as] true and quite telling at a time when adolescents, and even adults, of the same sex routinely slept together.” And as for Bridgman’s sadomasochistic leanings, Elikins notes, “it seemed natural to me that if one has only the sense of touch, the desire would be to push it to its extremes.”

For similar reasons, and based on references in the historical record to Bridgman’s self-inflicted injuries, Elkins depicts her as self-mutilating. In one of the first-person sections, Elkins has Bridgman reflect that:

I have also written many letters that I have never sent, letters that were secret, only for me and for God. Those I wrote in blood, though I was never sure if there was enough blood to write out all the words, so I had to keep making more little cuts with the metal label along my inner arm and thigh. I actually like it because it is the sharpest feeling I know. I push beyond the barriers of myself, and I am bigger for a moment, flowing out into the world. For me, it is not mutilation, but experience [emphasis in the original].

As the quotation above suggests, this is book that rewards careful reading—and rereading. Elkins’ depiction of Bridgman’s wrestling with God, who she’s told is benevolent, but who also has condemned her to her life of limited sensation, and of her search for purpose and meaning offers not just an insight into a historical character, but interesting lenses through which to examine our own experiences.

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