It’s strange to say that I’m disappointed in a auto/biography, but here we are, and to be fair, this is a failure of expectations more than a failure of the book itself, because it was published in 1903, and what I was curious about didn’t happen until well after.
Plot: The Story of My Life follows the famous Helen Keller from her birth to just before she became the first deafblind person to graduate from college. The first third was written by her with the remaining chapters involving letters that further flesh out who she was and some properly biographical stuff to finish.
It often feels like a sort of magic to read the words of a person not only long gone, but a person whose life is so famous that it stops feeling real. This book really grounds you in Keller’s mind as she lost her sight and hearing, her day to day life as she struggled being a precocious child with no outlet for her curiosity and intelligence, and how she flourished when given the opportunity to learn how to connect to a world that had pretty much written her off. She lingers both on her struggles and her successes, and writes eloquently about the beauty she has found in a world that is both dark and silent. Really, Keller has an amazing way with words, for any author, let alone one that has had to overcome as many obstacles as she had to develop a vocabulary and understanding of grammar. Maybe because she relied so heavily on the world being described to her through words, she had an incredible talent for choosing precisely the right word every time.
I only wish they updated this thing to reflect the rest of her equally noteworthy life. I came to this book to learn more about the woman who co-founded the ACLU. One of the NAACP’s earliest supporters. A self described “militant suffragette”. An early supporter of birth control. A unionist. An anti-war, anti-colonialism agitator. A socialist. All in addition to her tireless advocacy for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. This is a woman who, 100 years ago, wrote so beautifully of equality that it would be dismissed as woke trash by the alt-right even today. Indeed, she had all kinds of controversial views (the birth control stuff comes pretty close to eugenics).
But if you’re looking for that woman, she’s not in these pages. Not yet. This is the exceptionally well written journal of a sheltered, privileged white girl in her second year of university. Surprisingly so, given the difficulties she experienced. She writes with no awareness of her family’s history in the confederate army. She doesn’t understand why poor people would choose to live in awful conditions in city slums instead of moving out to the country. She is grateful for being allowed into college, even if the school made no effort to actually support her learning.
This is very much a story in progress despite it being used to describe her as a whole. It’s a shame, because it seems like in penning this book, she inadvertently gave people permission to celebrate her ability to learn to communicate while ignoring the lifetime she spent using that voice to fight for peace and equality. It gives us a hero in her teacher Miss Sullivan, but doesn’t show the strength Keller had in being the sole breadwinner for the both of them as Miss Sullivan aged. But if nothing else, it is a story of overcoming almost insurmountable odds, and a reminder that just because we see the world one way today doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of evolving.
I have however, thanks to this book, discovered that she wrote a much less publicized second chapter of sorts, called Midstream: My Later Life, which she wrote in 1929 and from my brief search of it includes a description of Teddy Roosevelt as such: “It was the speed at which he moved that gave us the impression that he was accomplishing mighty things.” Woof. There’s the Helen Keller I’m looking for. I don’t know about your library, but mine doesn’t carry it (despite three copies and an audiobook of the first one). Fortunately, it is available online: https://archive.org/details/midstreammylater017614mbp/page/n8/mode/1up?view=theater