The Story of My Life is an account of the early years of a woman who overcame incredible problems to become an accomplished, literate adult. The book does not give a complete account of the author’s life, as it was written when she was still a college student. It is, however, a unique account of one young woman’s passage from almost total despair to success in a world mostly populated by hearing and seeing people. This book is relatively short, but the modern editions also include letters written by and to Helen Keller and an analysis of her education from a later standpoint.
The Story of My Life begins with Keller’s vague memories of early childhood. She was born in 1880 in Alabama, an apparently normal child. According to her recollections, she began to speak before she was a year old. The early chapters recount the little girl’s love of the natural world, a theme that is repeated many times throughout the work, and her generally happy home life, with loving and nurturing parents.
At the age of nineteen months, however, Keller was stricken with an unexplained disease—certainly unexplained in the nineteenth century, with no suggestion in the book of any later diagnosis—which left her both blind and deaf. She became a domineering child, with behavior that was totally unacceptable. Keller mainly lays the blame for this behavior upon her frustration at the futility of trying to communicate her thoughts and feelings without any ability to speak, read, or write.
The breakthrough came when the Kellers visited noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C., who referred them to the Perkins Institution, a school for blind children in Boston. The school sent a woman named Anne Sullivan to teach young Helen to behave properly and, if possible, to teach her to be a “normal” child. Most of the book deals with Sullivan’s training of Keller, showing her how to behave decently, to use the manual alphabet to communicate her thoughts, and to read books in raised letters and later in braille. In the last chapters, there is much emphasis on Keller’s higher education.
According to her own recollections, young Helen Keller’s greatest love, apart from the natural world, was language. She learned to read not only English but also French, German, Latin, and Greek. She began writing in her early teens. There is also considerable discussion of her examinations and preparation for admission into Radcliffe College, the sister college to Harvard, and her eventual acceptance.
Keller writes about her attempts to use speech as a means of communication, but she largely considers these attempts to be failures: She never really learned to speak well. Keller demonstrates that the process of learning to speak is difficult for any person who is either blind or deaf and virtually impossible for someone who lacks both senses. Instead, Keller became a great lover of books, which became her only real way of relating to the world outside. The book ends on this note, with a list of favorite authors and a wish to be counted among them.