Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/May 1903/Helen Keller: A Psychological Autobiography

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HELEN KELLER: A PSYCHOLOGICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY.[1]
By Professor JOSEPH JASTROW,

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN.

THE interest in the story of Helen Keller is many sided. To the public at large the personal interest naturally dominates; for the story of the development, in spite of seemingly impassable curtailments of experience, of a bright child into an intellectual young woman forms an intensely interesting and deeply human document. As an experiment in education the account is most valuable; at one point it reinforces principles already advocated upon other varieties of evidence; at another it opposes a narrow overvaluation of method or theory; at many others it illuminates the profound significance of the essentials, and throws into relief the secondary values of the ways and means of a real education. For the psychologist the narrative is no less important. It contributes notably to the interpretation of the role of sensation in the building up of intellectual acquisitions; it furnishes pertinent illustrations of the delicate interlacing of the strands of experience—throughout conditioned by natural endowment—in the composite pattern of the mental texture.

Born June 27, 1880, at Tuscumbia, Alabama, of good ancestry, the child was deprived by a serious illness that befell her at the age of eighteen months, of both sight and hearing. Taste and smell remained normal, and her physical health continued to be excellent. At the time of her illness, the child had already spoken a few words, one of which—'wah-wah' for 'water'—may have been retained through the illness and the sightless and silent years that followed. Miss Keller believes that something remains to her of the glimpses of the world during her first months of life. 'If we have once seen,' she cites, 'the day is ours, and what the day has shown.' One must not underestimate the value of such continuity of experience as is possible even at so tender an age; yet it may be said that practically her mental life began anew amid her altered and restricted environment.

The five years before the 'light of the world' was brought to her are suggestive of the spontaneous ingenuity of the child under such unusual conditions. Signs were developed by mutual suggestion between her and her family. "A shake of the head meant 'No' and a nod, 'Yes,' a pull meant 'Come' and a push, 'Go.' Was it bread that I wanted? Then I would imitate the acts of cutting the slices and buttering them. If I wanted my mother to make ice-cream for dinner I made the sign for working the freezer and shivered, indicating cold." "I understood a good deal of what was going on about me. At five I learned to fold and put away the clean clothes when they were brought in from the laundry, and I distinguished my own from the rest. I knew by the way my mother and aunt dressed when they were going out, and I invariably begged to go with them." She played with the children about her and thus records how she did it. "I could not tell Martha Washington when I wanted to go egg-hunting, but I would double my hands and put them on the ground, which meant something round in the grass, and Martha always understood. When we were fortunate enough to find a nest I never allowed her to carry the eggs home, making her understand by emphatic signs that she might fall and break them." Writing at the age of ten, she says: "When I was a very little child I used to sit on my mother's lap all the time, because I was very timid, and did not like to be left by myself. And I would keep my little hand on her face all the while, because it amused me to feel her face and lips move when she talked with people. I did not know then what she was doing, for I was quite ignorant of all things. Then when I was older I learned to play with my nurse and the little negro children, and I noticed that they kept moving their lips, just like my mother, so I moved mine too." Here is another recollection of her childish play: "My aunt made me a big doll out of towels. It was the most comical, shapeless thing, this improvised doll, with no nose, mouth, ears or eyes—nothing that even the imagination of a child could convert into a face. Curiously enough, the absence of eyes struck me more than all the other defects put together. I pointed this out to everybody with provoking persistency, but no one seemed equal to the task of providing the doll with eyes. A bright idea, however, shot into my mind, and the problem was solved. . . . I found my aunt's cape which was trimmed with large beads. I pulled two beads off and indicated to her that I wanted her to sew them on my doll. She raised my hand to her eyes in a questioning way, and I nodded energetically." Obviously the little girl's mind was developing, though doubtless with far greater slowness and difficulty than would have been the case under more normal circumstances. Her moral training under the natural indulgence to one so afflicted suffered; and fits of passion and a lawless disregard of social amenities were a frequent occurrence.

It was through Charles Dickens's account of Laura Bridgman, publishcd in his 'American Notes,' that Mrs. Keller became acquainted with the possibilities of education for one in Helen's position; and on March 3, 1887, Miss Sullivan came to Tuscumbia from the Perkins Institution in Boston—where Laura Bridgman lived—to take charge of Helen Keller. The first approaches to a mutual understanding between pupil and teacher were naturally dependent upon the utilization of the primitive sign language to which we all resort, with a success proportionate to our ingenuity, when thrown among those whose language we do not understand. Of this meeting Miss Sullivan wrote at the time: "She felt my face and dress and my bag, which she took out of my hand and tried to open. It did not open easily, and she felt carefully to see if there was a key-hole. Finding that there was, she turned to me, making the sign of turning a key and pointing to the bag." Later they went upstairs together and there, says Miss Sullivan: "I opened the bag, and she went through it eagerly, probably to find something to eat. Friends had probably brought her candy in their bags, and she expected to find some in mine. I made her understand by pointing to a trunk in the hall and to myself and nodding my head that I had a trunk, and then made the sign which she had used for eating and nodded again. She understood in a flash and ran downstairs to tell her mother by means of emphatic signs that there was some candy in the trunk for her." Miss Sullivan records a further instance of the child's spontaneous signs. "She had signs for small and large long before I came to her. If she wanted a small object and was given a large one she would shake her head and take up a tiny bit of the skin of one hand between the thumb and finger of the other. If she wanted to indicate something large, she spread the fingers of both hands as wide as she could, and brought them together, as if to clasp a big ball."

These instances are suggestive of the considerable range of perceptions and activities that even a deaf-blind child can acquire without the use of words. The concentration point of Miss Sullivan's efforts was the revelation to the 'infant' mind of the existence and the potency of a word. The humble instruments thereof were a doll and a piece of cake. The doll was given to the child and the deaf-mute signs for 'd-o-l-l' made by Miss Sullivan in the child's hand.

"She looked puzzled and felt my hand, and I repeated the letters. She imitated them very well and pointed to the doll. Then I took the doll from her, meaning to give it back to her when she had made the letters; but she thought I meant to take it from her, and in an instant she was in a temper and tried to seize the doll. I shook my head and tried to form the letters with her fingers; but she got more and more angry. . . . I let her go but refused to give up the doll. I went downstairs and got some cake (she is very fond of sweets). I showed Helen the cake and spelled 'c-a-k-e' in her hand, holding the cake toward her. Of course she wanted it and tried to take it; but I spelled the word again and patted her hand. She made the letters rapidly, and I gave her the cake." Meaningless as this finger-play must have been to the seven-year-old child, it was hardly more so than

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Miss Helen Keller (1893).

other of the arbitrary relations between causes and effects that a child readily accepts as part of the logic of reality. But the magic touch that was to supply 'the light that failed' was not far off. The really serious obstacle was the difficulty of sustaining human relations with this willful bit of humanity, and of enforcing discipline. After a few trying struggles, victory rested with the teacher; and the taught, once initiated into the charm of the new occupation, was fascinated thereby. After about a fortnight of this constant forming of letters in the child's hand and pointing to objects thus designated—such as 'mug,' 'milk,' 'father,' 'mother,' 'walk,' 'sit,' 'water'—the notion that objects were designated by the signs was grasped; and a ceaseless quest for names of all the things with which she was familiar was begun. Miss Sullivan thus describes the moment of inspiration. "We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth filling the mug, I spelled 'w-a-t-e-r' in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled 'water' several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name, and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning around, she asked for my name. I spelled 'teacher.' . . . All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary."

An illustrative instance of these early lessons in which moral teachings and material rewards are mingled with letters and simple occupations is the following: Helen had been rebellious in regard to the use of her napkin. Miss Sullivan arranged the table fittings but omitted the cake which was the reward for spelling a word correctly. "She noticed this at once and made the sign for it. I showed her the napkin and pinned it round her neck, then tore it off and threw it on the floor and shook my head. [This had been Helen's behavior.] I repeated this performance several times. I think she understood perfectly well; for she slapped her hand two or three times and shook her head. We began the lesson as usual. I gave her an object, and she spelled the name. (She knows twelve now). After spelling half the word she stopped suddenly, as if a thought had flashed into her mind, and felt for the napkin. She pinned it round her neck and made the sign for cake (it didn't occur to spell the word, you see)." With this as the 'premier pas qui coûte,' the further progress, though at first slow, was direct and cumulative. On March 31 Helen knew eighteen nouns and three verbs; the next day she added eight more. On May 22 her vocabulary was estimated at three hundred words; on June 19 at 400 words; at the end of August at 625 words; at the close of her first year of instruction at 900 words. 'Open' and 'shut' were learned by the manipulation of a door; as early as June 12, while holding some worsted for her teacher, she spelled to herself repeatedly 'wind fast, wind slow'; 'in' and 'on' were illustrated by putting Helen in the wardrobe, or the doll on the table. Confusions occurred; 'mug' and 'milk' were associated in a common action, and only gradually was each given its own name. Sentences followed naturally and quickly. Then she was introduced to raised letters and learned the mystery of reading. Later the art of Cadmus was presented, and within less than four months from her first word-lesson she wrote a letter of thirty words, recording childishly but clearly a few simple facts.

Her desire for expression was marked from the outset. "I used to make noises," she recalls, "keeping one hand on my throat while the other felt the movements of my lips. I was pleased with anything that made a noise and liked to feel the cat purr and the dog bark. I also liked to keep my hand on a singer's throat, or on a piano when it was being played." In 1890 the girl of ten years, though conversing fluently by the manual alphabet with those who could read these flying symbols of speech, felt that she was cut off from direct intercourse with her fellow creatures. 'How do blind girls know what to say with their mouths?' she asked her teacher. By allowing Helen to place her hands upon the throat and lips of the speaker and then inducing her to place her own vocal organs as nearly as possible in the same position she learned to make the sounds. These, with infinite patience and years of close training, were made to be readily intelligible, though naturally far from the perfect articulation that the ear produces. Deaf children are constantly taught to speak in this way; the added difficulty in this case is that the eyes can not read the lips and visually imitate the positions in articulation. For the deaf-blind this task must be delegated to the less ready guidance of the tactile sensibilities. Such an individual learns to speak orally as do the deaf, to read by touch as do the blind. The permanent peculiarity of the double deprivation is for Helen Keller her best and normal mode of receiving words—by interpreting the finger-letters of the deaf as they are made in the palm of her hand. In this way she 'listens with her hands.'

The details of her education are now rendered accessible to all. The several stages from kindergarten occupations and spelling-games to courses in philosophy at Radcliffe College are graphically set forth. The range of her present capabilities is indeed remarkable; and the writing of the autobiography not the least of them. For the slow process of writing with a pencil—which is reduced to tactual guidance by writing on paper placed against a grooved cardboard back—she has substituted the typewriter, the space relations of the keys being as accurately fixed in her motor memory as they arc in the visual memories of those that see. Neither of these forms of record can the blind themselves read. For their own use a system of pricked points—simple combinations of which form the letters—is adopted; such 'Braille' writing is done on a simple machine operated by a key-board. It is in this form that Miss Keller read and revised the chapters of her autobiography. When a stranger meets Miss Keller and wishes to communicate directly with her, she places her fingers against his lips

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Miss Helen Keller and Miss Sullivan (1898).

and throat, and thus reads the sounds as they emerge. This requires slow and distinct articulation on the part of the speaker, and considerable filling in by guess-work on Miss Keller's part. The letters formed in her hand is distinctly the superior method; yet pronunciation can be taught by the lip-reading method only. In this way she has learned to speak French, German, Italian, to say nothing of her school experience of Latin and Greek. Her range of language, expression and comprehension is thus no mean one, confined though it be to the avenues of touch and motion.

It is interesting to trace the evidence of this 'touch-mindedness' in the imagery of her well-formed and expressive style. Her recollections of the days of her childhood, as well as her more mature experiences contain many of them. In reading them it should be recalled that they include sensations of temperature and—very important to the deaf—the impressions of jar or vibration, which present a rich variety of distinctive qualities.

"Oh, the delight with which I gathered up the fruit in my pinafore, pressed my face against the smooth cheeks of the apples, still warm from the sun, and skipped back to the house!" Of the Plymouth rock: "I could touch it, and perhaps that made the coming of the Pilgrims and their toil and great deeds seem more real to me. I have often held in my hand a little model of the Plymouth rock which a kind gentleman gave me at Pilgrim Hall, and I have fingered its curves, the split in the center and the embossed figures '1620,' and turned over in my mind all that I knew about the wonderful story of the Pilgrims." "The rumble and roar of the city smite the nerves of my face, and I feel the ceaseless tramp of an unseen multitude, and the dissonant tumult frets my spirit. The grinding of heavy wagons on hard pavements and the monotonous clangour of machinery are all the more torturing to the nerves if one's attention is not diverted by the panorama that is always present in the noisy streets to people who can see." With Mr. Jefferson as he personated for her Bob Acres writing the challenge: "I followed all his movements with my hands, and caught the drollery of his blunders and gestures in a way that would have been impossible had it all been spelled to me. Then they rose to fight the duel, and I followed the swift thrusts and parries of the swords and the waverings of poor Bob as his courage oozed out at his finger ends. Then the great actor gave his coat a hitch and his mouth a twitch, and in an instant I was in the village of Falling Water and felt Schneider's shaggy head against my knee." "The hands of those I meet are dumbly eloquent to me. The touch of some hands is an impertinence. I have met people so empty of joy that when I clasp their frosty finger tips it seemed as if I were shaking hands with a northeast storm. Others there are whose hands have sunbeams in them, so that their grasp warms my heart. . . . A hearty handshake or a friendly letter gives me genuine pleasure." When an organ was played for her: "I stood in the middle of the church, where the vibrations from the great organ were strongest, and I felt the mighty waves of sound beat against me, as the great billows beat against a little ship at sea." Of a test of Helen's hearing when she was eight years old, Miss Sullivan writes: "All present were astonished when she appeared to hear not only a whistle, but also an ordinary tone of voice. She would turn her head, smile and act as though she had heard what was said. I was then standing beside her, holding her hand. Thinking that she was receiving impressions from mo, I put her hands upon the table and withdrew to the opposite side of the room. The aurists then tried their experiments with quite different results. Helen remained motionless through them all, not once showing the least sign that she realized what was going on." "A medallion of Homer hangs on the wall of my study, conveniently low, so that I can easily reach it and touch the beautiful, sad face with loving reverence. How well I know each line in that majestic brow—tracks of life and bitter evidences of struggle and sorrow; those sightless eyes seeking, even in the cold plaster, for the light and the blue skies of his beloved Hellas, but seeking in vain; the beautiful mouth, firm and true and tender. It is the face of a poet and of a man acquainted with sorrow." Her occupation during a lecture at college is thus described: "The lectures are spelled into my hand as rapidly as possible, and much of the individuality of the lecturer is lost to me in the effort to keep in the race. The words rush through my hand like hounds in pursuit of a hare which they often miss. But in this respect, I do not think I am much worse off than the girls who take notes. If the mind is occupied with the mechanical process of hearing and putting words on paper at pell-mell speed, I should not think one could pay much attention to the subject under consideration or the manner in which it is presented. I can not make notes during the lecture because my hands are busy listening."

The position of the sense of smell in the commonwealth of sensation is for Homo sapiens not a very lofty one. Its exercise is limited, and even when efficient, it is tabooed by the dictates of good manners. Yet it combines, even in those with a full quota of senses, with other forms of knowledge-getting, and frequently has a leading associative force. For the deaf-blind any 'window of the soul,' however narrow its aperture, is a welcome source of illumination; and it is easy to discover in the narrative of Helen Keller's experiences, references and allusions that clearly indicate the direct and associative value of olfactory impressions.

"We walked down to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered." "Suddenly a change passed over the tree [in which she was seated]. All the sun's warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odor came up from the earth. I knew it was the odor that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched my heart." "One beautiful spring morning when I was alone in the summer-house, reading, I became aware of a wonderful subtle fragrance in the air. . . . 'What is it?' I asked, and the next minute I recognized the odor of the mimosa blossoms." "We read and studied out of doors, preferring

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Miss Helen Keller and Dr. A. Graham Bell (1902).

the sunlit woods to the house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods—the fine resinous odor of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes." "It was delightful to lose ourselves in green hollows of the tangled wood in the late afternoon, and to smell the cool delicious odors that came up from the earth at the close of day" In a camping party: "At dawn I was awakened by the smell of coffee, the rattling of guns, and the heavy footsteps of the men as they strode about, promising themselves the greatest luck of the season." "The air was balmy with a tang of the sea in it." "I felt the low soughing of the wind through the cornstalks, the silky rustling of the long leaves, and the indignant snort of my pony as we caught him in the pasture and put the bit in his mouth—ah me! how well I remember the spicy, clovery smell of his breath!" In describing her visit to Dr. Holmes, she writes: "There was an odor of print and leather in the room which told me that it was full of books." Miss Sullivan relates that when she took Helen, as a child, to church, she smelled the wine, when the communion service began 'and sniffed so loud that every one in the church could hear.' When rowing on the lake at Wrentham in the summer time, she recognizes the direction in which the nearest shore lies by the odors from the shrubbery on the shore. She may even recognize the part of the lake by the specific recognition of some blossoms that grow at some known spot.

While it thus becomes sufficiently evident that the deprivation of the two most intellectual of the senses leaves an indelible impress upon the habits and manners of the mind, yet the community of the mental economy as well as of the materials which it employs and of the language in which it finds expression, is by far the more notable factor in the comparison. Whether we travel by train or by diligence or on foot, the destination is the same when reached. The one mode of conveyance is swift, the other cumbersome, and the third arduous; each requires an equipment with which the others may dispense. For all the view from the mountain top is much the same, however wearisome the climb. What Miss Keller records of her resolution to go to college is true in large measure of her whole career. "I knew that there were obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them. I had taken to heart the words of the wise Roman who said, 'To be banished from Rome is but to live outside of Rome.' Debarred from the great highways of knowledge, I was compelled to make the journey across country by unfrequented roads—that was all; and I knew that in college there were many bypaths where I could touch hands with girls who were thinking, loving and struggling like me."

And yet the 'journey across country by unfrequented roads' is not quite the same as the bustling traffic along the highway. It is because of this difference that we admire the perseverance and testify to the inherent endowment of one who has reached the goal in spite of disabilities profound. It is difficult, in limited compass, to set forth the dominant traits of Miss Keller's personality; it is the less necessary as the reading of the autobiography will convey a far more convincing realization of what she is and thinks and does than any sketch could suggest. During the first three years of her instruction she more than made up for the deficiencies to which her deprivations had sentenced her; and one can not but be impressed, upon reading the letters written before her tenth year, with the linguistic facility and the breadth of imagination of the child. Then, under more systematic guidance, she learned to speak and laid the elementary foundation for the arts and crafts of life. The desire to prepare for college was one of her early ambitions and became formulated into a definite plan of campaign at about her sixteenth year. The range of studies required for entrance she duly mastered, showing very unequal gifts for the various branches, and especial strength in her knowledge of languages, literature and history. It is no small tribute to her talents that in spite of no natural bent for mathematics and with the special difficulty that geometrical relations must present to a 'tactual' mind, she acquitted herself creditably in this study. At the moment of the publication of her book she is closing her junior year at Radcliffe College. She has evidently gained much from her academic associations; and not the least of the confidence that her friends express in her future is based upon the mental growth that has been characteristic of these collegiate days. A reading of the selections from her themes in the course in English and from her more recent letters, indicate a certainty of touch in the handling of language as well as a noteworthy power to sustain an argument, that certainly meets the customary standard that one would be willing to apply to student writings. Such unusual achievements would have been impossible without an unusual endowment; alertness and vigor of mind, a remarkable memory, a keen observation and fertility of imagination, a pronounced taste for the literary side of life, good spirits and a ready sense of humor, comprehensiveness and saneness of interests, a sympathetic and enthusiastic temperament, a love of nature as well as of books—these are the traits that impress one as most potent in shaping her life and her aspirations.

It is quite true that the same could be said for many another individual whose biography remains unwritten, and whose achievements are not entered upon the tablets of a hall of fame. The absurd exaggerations and distorted accounts of Miss Keller's career, that have gained currency, are much to be deplored. We feel so overwhelmingly our own dependence upon what we see and upon what we hear, that we naturally drop into hyperbole and exhaust our adjectives in expressing our appreciation of one who has done so much without these invaluable handmaids of the mind. Yet the truer interest lies in the training that has been imparted to the normally less skilful servants, and in the mastery that has thus been gained. It is this aspect of Helen Keller's story that gives it the significance of a psychological biography.[2]

  1. 'The story of My Life,' by Helen Keller with her letters (1887-1901), and letters of her teacher Anne Mansfield Sullivan, supplemented by John Albert Macy. New York, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903, pp. 441, 8vo. The illustrations we owe to the courtesy of the Volta Bureau, Washington, D. C, and of Messrs. Doubleday Page & Co.
  2. The presentation of Miss Keller's story as a biography has left no place for the tribute that every account thereof should pay, and pay liberally, to the skill and devotion of Miss Sullivan. It is difficult to say what would have become of Helen Keller under less wise and less able guidance. The deep appreciation of the problem to which she has devoted her life is shown in Miss Sullivan 's contemporaneous letters. These letters form a most valuable portion of the volume. Free from theory or narrow devotion to any system. Miss Sullivan 's pedagogic tact detected the essence of the situation, and her insight quickly discovered the ways and means for further progress. The educational success, as well as our knowledge of how it was obtained, is immeasurably indebted to the discerning insight of Miss Sullivan.