Elkins-Kimberly, Fiction, Historical Fiction

#722 What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

What is Visible by Kimberly ElkinsWhat is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

Helen Keller was not the first blind and deaf American woman to be taught to use sign language and converse with other people. The first woman was Laura Bridgman. In addition to being blind and deaf, Laura also lacked the senses of taste and smell. Her only usable sense was touch.

When she was seven years old she went to live in the Perkins Institute under the tutoring of Samuel Gridley Howe, who was a pioneer in education of the blind in America. For a while, Laura lived in Dr. Howe’s house with him. She wore a green cover over her eyes and learned to converse with people by writing in their hands and having her hands written in. Laura is considered a wonder. People from all over come to see her, including Charles Dickens.

When Dr. Howe gets married to Julia Ward, Laura is no longer welcome in Dr. Howe’s home. She must live in the school with the other blind girls. At first, this is a very difficult adjustment. Laura has considered herself Dr. Howe’s daughter up until this point.

Time goes on and Laura continues to age and have friends come into her life and go from it. Laura even finds love for a while, although it’s a kind of love that isn’t accepted. As time goes on, Laura takes on more responsibility around the school. She helps teach some of the blind girls how to make crafts. She also aids in speech practice with some of the younger women, including Annie Sullivan.

Annie Sullivan moves into Laura’s cottage and the two become friends. Annie later goes on to teach the famous Helen Keller. Laura actually gets to meet Helen. The two are far apart in age, but both have had to learn in very much the same manner.

Laura lived on as family and friends passed away, dying quietly, as the predecessor to Helen Keller.

What I liked

I had never heard of Laura Bridgman. She’s a really interesting historical figure. Yes, she was real. So was Dr. Howe. So was his wife. In fact, Dr. Howe’s wife, Julia, wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic and started Mother’s Day. This is all really interesting stuff.

It must have been so incredibly difficult for Laura to learn to converse with other people. The same goes of Helen Keller. I can’t imagine trying to learn all about the outside world without being able to see it or hear it. The fact that both Laura and Helen learned about the world is a testament to human resiliency, but it’s also a testament to those who taught them. New methods of teaching had to be devised for Laura, which paved the way for people like Helen. There have been plenty more people just like Helen over the years, but we’ve gotten a lot better at being able to at least partially restore sight and hearing in many cases.

What I didn’t like

I don’t particularly like Dr. Howe as depicted in the book. He thought his wife’s writing was silly. He didn’t want her making a living doing anything. He wanted her to have one kid after the other. He wanted to treat his wife as property, but that certainly didn’t turn out to be the case because we’re talking about a woman who published lots of writing, wrote the lyrics to a national song, and started Mother’s Day. She also became very instrumental in women’s rights and rights for African-Americans. It seems that Julie did not let Dr. Howe’s thoughts of her keep her down. I don’t know that I would have gotten along with Julia in real life, but she seems to be an admirable character.

The very idea that someone should suggest that all a woman should be doing is staying at home and having babies is an abhorrent thing. There are tons of incredibly smart and talented women who don’t need to simply be at home having babies. If that’s the life they choose, great, but if not, let them be rocket scientists, or whatever they choose to be. It just rubs me the wrong way. Anybody, and I mean anybody, who thinks like that is thinking so backwards.

Perhaps the idea of a husband trying to control his wife irritates me so much because I lived that kind of life to an extent in my former marriage. Maybe, Dr. Howe wasn’t such a bad guy, but if so, explain to me why he didn’t leave his wife a darn cent in his will when he died.

I feel bad for Laura because of her circumstances. I also feel bad for Julia.

I also feel bad for Sarah Wight, who was one of Laura’s teachers and companions for a while. Sarah was real, and so was her husband. Apparently, her husband had gotten himself all syphilis-ed up and probably passed it on to Sarah. Sexually transmitted diseases are one of these things that I have conflicting emotions about. Look, they’re gross. No one wants syphilis, but before modern medicine, there were just all kinds of people running around with syphilis. Even today, one in four people have some type of sexually transmitted disease, at least those are the people who report it or go to the doctor about it. It’s not uncommon. Something like Herpes Simplex 1, or 2, are so darn common we might as well just all share it and get it over with. Even as common as some sexually transmitted diseases are, it still kind of breaks my heart when I hear about someone who was given a sexually transmitted disease by someone else. Part of me wants to suggest that people with these disease remove themselves from the sexual pond, but part of me is being more logical in this whole thing and knows how unfortunate that would be. Maybe someone was raped and got an STD. Maybe their spouse cheated on them and they got an STD. Maybe they’ve even had it since a very young age from non-sexual contact. Is it fair for these people to not have an ordinary life because of a disease? No, it’s not really fair.

Getting back to Sarah–I don’t know, I couldn’t have taken it on. I couldn’t have, willingly, exposed myself to syphilis in order to get married. I also don’t think it was fair of her husband to pass something on that was so dangerous at the time. We have antibiotics for syphilis now, but it wasn’t anywhere nearly as easy to treat back then as it is now. People died from it. It’s a really conflicting situation for me and I just feel bad for everyone involved.


This book makes me glad that I have all of my senses and that I don’t have syphilis.

Weigh In

Which sense could you live without?

Do you think you could still live life if you suddenly became blind and deaf?


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