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The Story of My Life

by Helen Keller

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What impression do you form of Helen as she learns to cope with her deafness and blindness? What steps do Helen's parents take to make her life as near to normal as possible?

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The impression that the reader forms of young Helen is that she is a very bright child who is at first trapped by her handicaps, but she bravely overcomes them.

Since she was only a small child when she lost her hearing and eyesight, Helen's recall of her life before her illness is understandably only a series of impressions and small memories in which fact and fantasy are mixed.

A few impressions stand out vividly from the first years of my life; but "the shadows of the prison-house" are on the rest. (Ch.1)

Naturally, young Helen has felt trapped in the dark world into which she is plunged after her illness. However, she does recall the various appearances of objects, the smells, and the sensations that she has experienced before she was sick. Having lost her sight and hearing, Helen has become dependent upon others and is limited in what she can do; nevertheless, there are some small tasks that Helen is able to perform for her mother. Also, she has a playmate in the servant girl Martha Washington.

Because Helen is an intelligent child, she becomes aware that her mother and others move their lips when they wish to communicate. However, she does not understand why no one knows what she wants when she imitates their lip movements. Few comprehend her hand signals, as well. In this state of frustration, Helen often breaks down "in tears and physical exhaustion" (Ch. 3).  Finally, aware of Helen's increasing frustrations, her mother recalls having read of a deaf and blind girl who had been successfully educated.

My mother's only ray of hope came from Dickens's "American Notes." She had read his account of Laura Bridgman, and remembered vaguely that she was deaf and blind, yet had been educated. But she also remembered with a hopeless pang that Dr. Howe, who had discovered the way to teach the deaf and blind, had been dead many years. (Ch. 3)

Later on, Helen's father learns of an eminent oculist in Baltimore who had been successful in restoring sight in some who were considered hopeless cases. So her parents decide to take her to Baltimore. Once there, they consult with Dr. Chisholm; unfortunately, he can do nothing for Helen. Nevertheless, he suggests that they consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, who may be able to refer Helen to schools for the deaf and the blind.

The Kellers confer with Dr. Bell, who suggests that they write to a Mr. Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution in Boston, because he may have a teacher for Helen. In reply, Mr. Anagnos advises the Kellers that he has a teacher for their child. This teacher is the tenacious young Anne Sullivan, who unlocks Helen's mind by teaching her sign language.

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Helen has a lot of frustration at the beginning, since she cannot communicate in great detail with her family or with other people. We read about this time in Chapters 2-4. She acts out and misbehaves a great deal, which she freely admits here. She learns how to turn keys in locks, and she locks people in rooms. She dumps her baby sister out of her doll’s cradle when she realizes she is sleeping in it. Sometimes she breaks out in tears in frustration. Some would consider her to be a very bad girl who always wants to get her own way. But she also plays well with Martha, the cook’s daughter, and with Belle, the dog. She likes to decorate and to get ready for Christmas. Hers is as normal as a country farm life can be, given the circumstances. At the same time, her parents seek out specialists to help Helen learn to communicate. They first go to Baltimore to Dr. Chisholm, and then to Washington DC to meet Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Finally they reach the Perkins Institution in Boston. These are the people who arrange for teacher Anne Sullivan to come to the Keller home in March 1887. She is the one who unlocks the mystery of communication for Helen. Their relationship changes both of their lives forever.

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