What does Helen Keller mean when she writes, "the woman paints the child's experience in her own fantasy"?

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In the opening chapter of her autobiography The Story of My Life, Helen Keller expresses the trepidation with which she entered the enterprise of relating the details of her life to an unknown audience. Keller, born deaf, mute, and blind, was taught to communicate by her famed teacher Anne Sullivan. It was a miraculous accomplishment given the extent of Helen’s disabilities. As remarkable, however, was her decision to review her life up to that point (she was only in her early 20’s when she produced the volume that was published in 1903). Living with no senses of sight or sound, Helen’s world was presumably limited. Sullivan’s determination to teach the young woman to communicate was instrumental in forging the character who would achieve worldwide fame. What makes Keller’s opening passage particularly poignant, therefore, was the fact of her growth as an individual and the commitment to author a memoir.

As is often the case when individuals set about the task of relating their life stories, there is a natural reluctance to expose the sometimes excessively revealing details that would otherwise have remained a mystery to the ages. Also, Keller was sufficiently wise as to the distortions of reality that might creep into the task at hand by virtue of her growth as a human and the tendency to view the past through a distorted lens. This was the point she was making when she wrote, “I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her fantasy.”

Even at the relatively tender age at which Keller produced The Story of My Life, she was cognizant of the importance of forgotten details and buried memories. Similarly, the innocence and naivete of youth provide perceptions of reality often at odds with those perceptions gleaned through the eyes of more mature adults. She knew that the life she related might conceivably have emerged slightly differently than the facts of her childhood.

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Keller makes this statement in the first paragraph of her memoir, as she writes of the difficulties of fashioning an autobiography. What she means by her statement is that it is impossible for the adult woman looking back not to perceive her childhood through an adult lens. What she describes is not the raw, unmediated experience of the child. Instead, it is painted with the softer strokes of adult memory. An individual superimposes his or her adult ideals or fantasy onto the stuff of childhood. One rearranges the facts of childhood to align with adult conceptions. The child and the adult are two different beings, and the adult can overwhelm the child who was.

Because of this, Keller says, she will keep the sketch of her childhood short, hitting the highlights that "seem to me to be the most interesting and important."

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