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Helen Keller was 19 months old when she contracted an unknown illness and lost her sight and hearing. Soon after, she became mute. The Story of My Life,1 Cardiff Neurology Book Club’s latest read, is her remarkable autobiography and tells a tale of great courage and defiance.
The book charts Keller’s early years from birth until the age of 22, and begins in darkness as a bout of suspected scarlet fever leaves her with ‘acute congestion of the stomach and brain’. As a group of clinicians puzzled by this phenotype selectively destroying optic and cochlear function, our alternatives included the infective—rubella, measles and meningitis (meningococcus and Haemophilus influenzae are previously suggested culprits2)—and the rare, Susac’s syndrome. Whatever the cause, Keller went on to achieve noteworthy academic accomplishments, graduating cum laude in 1904 from Radcliffe College (Harvard’s answer to higher education for women at the turn of the 20th century, and later a fully integrated part of the University3); thus we agreed that her brain itself must have been largely spared. Some even questioned: was this functional?
We learn about her early-life episodes of novel discoveries and experiences, most captivating of all being a trip to the well-house where Keller feels a cool stream running on one hand, while her teacher spells ‘w-a-t-e-r’ in the other. She realises that ‘everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought’.
The episode was felt to describe her development of what Raymond Tallis called the concept of ‘that-ness’, that is, the idea of self versus non-self, or you/me versus that/it. Keller seems to revel in stamping her own agency on her surroundings, and initially does so without fear of consequence. Locking her mother in the pantry paints a colourful picture! However, as she grows more within society, learns to read and speak, and makes friends, so she becomes more empathic.
There are painful moments too, none more poignant than when Keller is accused of plagiarism in writing her first book, The Frost King. In what seems like a case of cryptomnesia, she recounts a story very similar to one penned by another author and told 4 years earlier. The initial aftermath leaves her with a profound lack of self-belief and a reluctance to write again, but fortunately for us a recovery and a renewed resolve followed.
Sceptics among us questioned if this ‘All American’ story could have been exaggerated in parts. How did a girl who could not see or hear keep up with schooling or her college lectures? As Keller herself acknowledges, however, a large contribution perhaps came from having 24-hour access to a speech and language therapist in her wonderful teacher (Miss Sullivan). The writing may also seem old-fashioned to today’s readers and has peculiarities of the day, for instance, having only the male pronoun throughout, even when Keller seems to catalogue her own experiences.
Yet the lasting impression we were left with was how optimistic and devoid of self-pity the writing is. We also felt the book improves as it goes on, with the final chapters being particular favourites for those who made it until the last (75th) page. These describe Keller’s hobbies and friends, who she feels are what turned her ‘limitations into beautiful privileges’ and enabled her to experience the world around her in its fullness. It is a story that sharply brought into perspective our own limited understanding of what living with a disability is like. As Keller, quoting James Russell Lowell near the end, reminds us:
Even as the roots, shut in the darksome earth,
Share in the tree-top’s joyance, and conceive
Of sunshine and wide air and winged things,
By sympathy of nature, so do I
The book is short, comes in an economical paperback version and has obvious appeal to a neuroscience audience in describing an upbringing devoid of two fundamental special senses.
Keller’s story then is enthralling, will leave you in awe of the human spirit and is definitely worth a read.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
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