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Laura Bridgeman, A Pioneer 50 Years Before Helen Keller


When the novel, "What Is Visible" opens, one of the most famous people in the world is about to meet a little girl who's supposed to be like her - another freak in bloom, is how Laura Bridgman puts it. The little girl is Helen Keller. Laura Bridgman was 50 years older and heralded around the world for learning language after losing four of her five senses as a child to scarlet fever.

She was taken to the Perkins Institute in Boston where she learned to communicate by touch - showed the world that people who could not see, hear, see, taste or smell, still had a place in the world - things to say and lives to live.

Kimberly Elkins has written a novel that gives a new voice to Laura Bridgman and insights into the people who surrounded her, including Annie Sullivan and social activists and reformers, Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe. She joins us from WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

KIMBERLY ELKINS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So how do you write from the perspective of someone who seems so profoundly locked inside?

ELKINS: When I first read about Laura Bridgman in The New Yorker, a review of a biography of her, there was a picture of Laura sitting ramrod straight, quite emaciated since she had anorexia since she couldn't taste or smell, with the ribbon tied across her eyes. Something about that picture resonated with me more profoundly than any other person I'd ever seen. I also identified with her sense of profound separateness, because I'm someone, who myself, has suffered from debilitating depression for much of my life.

SIMON: Well, let's get inside of Laura Bridgman's head and heart, if we could for a section. Very early in the book, in which Bridgman means young Helen Keller.

ELKINS: (reading) OK, I tried to walk away from her toward the window, but she grabs at my skirt. Please talk to me, she writes, please. My presumptive heir is begging in my palm. And so I ask Helen my favorite question - if you could have one sense back, which would it be? Her fingers go round and round in circles and I can feel the girl actually thinking in my palm. Which do you pick, she asks?

SIMON: Boy, readers, I'm certain, will ask themselves that question too.

ELKINS: Yes, I think so.

SIMON: I mean, the Perkins Institute where she - I guess we can - should I used the term of art - remanded - sounds like quite a place for the time. But by today's standards, it's a pretty brutal life, wasn't it?

ELKINS: No, she was treated very well. She was treated as a celebrity. She was definitely put forward as a poster child, whether she wanted to be or not, at a unique time in American history when people were first becoming interested with celebrities and curiosities - the same time that P.T. Barnum arose.

SIMON: Yeah, so she felt a bit like a circus act sometimes.

ELKINS: She was very much aware that she was is in effect a sort of socio-scientific experiment, constantly being documented, overseen, tested, manipulated, made to perform.

SIMON: I mean, it's exciting to read of some of her learning the world, but there - I'm thinking of this heartbreaking section where her teacher, Sarah White, tells her that she has to sleep alone because that's what young women have to do. And she asks Sarah White, stay alone always? And then you remember, her aloneness - much more profound than that of most people.

ELKINS: Right, the average person wakes in the darkness and can turn on the light. And her darkness was perpetual.

SIMON: Did you spend time with people who were deprived of one or more of their senses to try and appreciate their view of the world?

ELKINS: No, I didn't. It was a tricky decision. I used to be a playwright, and I had written a screenplay about Tourette's syndrome. I interviewed, probably 30 people with Tourette's syndrome, and the screenplay wasn't good. And I didn't know why until years later, I met the author, Jonathan Lethem, the writer most famously of "Motherless Brooklyn," which is about a detective with Tourette's syndrome. And I asked him if he had done research at the Bayside Tourette Syndrome Association where I had, and he said, of course not. Because I knew if I really got to know real people, then I would not be able to develop the character. And so this time, as hard as it was, I heeded that advice and I think it paid off.

SIMON: I'm impressed by the fact that you put religion in the novel, because Laura's life raises a - I don't mind referring to it as a religious question. You wonder, does God love her less for saddling her with these affections or more for giving her such stunning powers?

ELKINS: She has a very complicated relationship with God. He's her only companion. You know, really, when it comes down to it, who else does she really have to talk to? Also, religion played such a major role in people's lives then. And the fact that she rejected the Unitarianism of Doctor Howe and most of the New England elite who had supported her was really the turning point in her fall from grace.

SIMON: It's good that she's been rediscovered now with your novel.

ELKINS: It is.

SIMON: Kimberly Elkins, her new novel, "What Is Visible." Thanks so much for being with us.

ELKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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