The Story of My Life was written while Helen Keller, then in her early twenties, was a student at Radcliffe College. It is a moving story of the education of a child with the extreme handicap of being deaf and blind. The book begins with a rather vague description of young Helen’s earliest memories, before she became deaf and blind at the age of nineteen months, but most of it narrates her teaching by Anne Sullivan of the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
The Story of My Life is far from the cry for help that it might easily have been. The tone is one of joy. Keller emphasizes her early love of language. She recalls learning to speak before she lost her ability to see or hear and her desperate attempts to reawaken this ability. Throughout the book, there is a strong emphasis on her love of language, especially the written word, which was, after all, one of the few ways she had of relating to the outside world.
The major emphasis of A Story of My Life is on the work of Sullivan, whom Helen always in this book refers to as Teacher. As subsequent writings made clearer, Sullivan’s methods were far from orthodox at the time. She communicated with Helen mostly by use of the manual alphabet, although lip-reading with fingers was also attempted. At the time, oral communication was almost universally stressed among educators of deaf children.
When this book was written, Keller had already published a few articles and was doing well at Radcliffe (she was graduated with honors in 1904). Keller makes it clear that she cannot speak intelligibly, and stresses that she probably never will. In fact, when Keller became a social activist later in life, she made a number of attempts to improve her speech, although her double disability made this difficult. After her graduation, she was regularly accompanied by Sullivan on lecture tours. Sullivan acted as an interpreter as well as an additional speaker on educational methods.
The Story of My Life is a tale of triumph over difficulties that would be insurmountable to most children. Keller went on to become a noted author, speaker, and political activist, advocating human rights for people not only with physical disabilities but also with social problems. Many of her later works were largely autobiographical, but there was always an emphasis on the inherent power of the individual to journey through life with hope. The Story of My Life is the first chapter in such a journey.