This is the story of Laura Bridgman, born December 21, 1829, died May 24, 1889, from a Streptococcal infection. She had only one sense that she could use and that was touch. This disastrous loss of her senses was brought about by a bout of Scarlet Fever when she was just two years old. Up until that time, she was a happy, normal child with all her faculties. Without sight, hearing, speech, smell or taste, she was virtually imprisoned in her own body and completely dependent on others for her care and well-being.
The book takes up Laura’s life when she is the tender age of seven. In 1936, Dr. Samuel Howe takes her to his Perkins School for the Blind where she remained, except for brief visits home, for the rest of her life. The tale tracks her experiences, covering the history of the times through the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the women’s suffrage movement. Although many of the characters are real, her Irish lover, Kate, was not. I am not quite sure why the author chose to make her a lesbian when there is no proof of that fact, and to my mind, it is more likely that she was only able to get affection from the girls around her because she rarely came into contact with members of the opposite sex, so what other choice would she have had. Since touch was her only sense, anyone who would have gratified her would have sufficed, I believe. In reality, it is not known if she ever had any kind of intimate relationship with anyone.
Laura believed she was like a daughter to Dr. Howe and she grew overly attached to him. He was involved with, and controlled every aspect of her life. He was a Phrenologist who was invested in the belief that the bumps on the head could indicate the character of a person. He made many important decisions based on the condition and shape of a person’s head, including Laura’s and his wife, Julia’s. He was also a Unitarian and believed that if he curtailed Laura’s interest in G-d until he deemed fit, she would come by it naturally.
She flourished intellectually, but emotionally she remained a bit undeveloped. He did not school her in subjects that would enable her to survive in the outside world as Helen Keller was eventually able to do, with her companion Anne Sullivan, always by her side. When he married Julia Ward, Laura become somewhat of a stepchild to him. She was no longer allowed to interact with him in the same way and was no longer allowed to live in the house with the family. If the book is accurate on this point, she was too much for Julia to deal with, and he acquiesced to her wishes.
Although Julia had promised to give up her writing when she married, she eventually resumed and became a well known poet who wrote the lyrics for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. She was also a suffragette fighting for women’s rights. This did not please Dr. Howe. He believed a woman’s place was in the home, and furthermore, he did not care for it when others became more well-known than he was, for he wanted the limelight for himself. He probably kept Laura on a tight leash for that very same reason, although he hauled her out like a curiosity to entertain those interested in his school. It was, however, due to him that she became very famous in her own right for her remarkable achievements. She was the first deaf and blind girl to be educated. For that accomplishment, she owes Dr. Howe a debt of gratitude as do many others who attended his school and who still attend its classes today. He was the father of the education of these challenged children. A blind Laura Doll was created in her image and honor. She was famous and the toy was, as well.
Laura Bridgman was not known to me before I read this book, although she was quite famous in her time. She was extremely intelligent but was kept in the shadows by Dr. Howe so that he could control her life. He did not believe in over stimulating her in any way, even when it came to her food, eliminating spices and sugar. Early in her school experience, along with her teacher, she had a companion, Sara White, with whom she was very close. Because she was not allowed a constant companion as she grew older, she was not able to do as much as the famed Helen Keller, of whom most of us have heard. Laura was overprotected when it came to the social world and her knowledge of what existed outside her community was limited. She traveled little and learned little of the workings of the world.
I did learn a lot about her from the book, but I also learned a lot that wasn’t about her, that was made up out of whole cloth. Laura was presented as a difficult, stubborn, young woman, overly attached to a difficult, opinionated Dr. Howe, who could be a rigid and challenging man. He treated women as property and believed women should obey their husbands. He was sometimes unkind to his wife and often cold to Laura. I wondered if this man, who did so much for these disabled children at his school, could have been quite as cold and often as cruel, as he was depicted by the author.
The world viewed people like Laura as developmentally arrested and enfeebled, yet she was neither, although there were times her moods were dark and she was despondent because of loneliness and rejection. She was a bright young woman who wanted the same things out of life as those with normal sight, hearing and speech. I think I would have liked the book better if it was shorter but stuck more to the facts rather than the fiction. However, the prose was a pleasure to read.