At the age of 2, Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses to illness. Several years later, she was taken to the Perkins Institute in Boston where, under the tutelage and guidance of Samuel Ridley Howe she not only learned how to communicate, but became one of the 19th century’s most notable women. Yet few people know about her today. Kimberly Elkins’ stunning debut, What Is Visible, promises to change all that.
Laura Bridgman was once a celebrity but now few people know about her. How did you find out about her and what made you want to tell her story?
I first read about Laura in a review of her two biographies in the New Yorker in 2001. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of her, and both the story of her life and the accompanying photograph of her—delicate and emaciated, but sitting ramrod straight with her head held high as she read from an enormous, raised-letter book—touched me in a more profound way than I’d ever felt about another person. As someone who has struggled on and off with debilitating depression—now off for several years, knock wood—my whole being resonated with the depth of her isolation and helplessness even as she tried valiantly to connect with others. That night, I stayed up until dawn writing the story which eventually begot the novel, and which was published shortly thereafter in The Atlantic. But I wanted to know more, to put together the pieces of the puzzle to explain why she’d been virtually erased from history.
Laura Bridgman reading, circa 1888
What kind of research did you do?
I spent two years immersing myself in the letters, journals and historical press coverage of Laura and my three other narrators: Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the founder of Perkins; Julia Ward Howe, his famous wife, a poet, abolitionist and suffragist; and Sarah Wight, Laura’s last beloved teacher. Besides the archives at Perkins School for the Blind, I was fortunate to get fellowships at the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, the Massachusetts and Maine Historical Societies and the American Antiquarian Society, the last of which was most useful in simply acclimating myself to the 19th-century sensibility. I learned quickly that it was better to read from the period than about the period.
"[W]hen Dr. Howe abruptly ended her education, she was learning French and Latin. Imagine how far she would’ve come if she’d continued to be taught!"
What did you learn about Bridgman that surprised you the most?
Laura never ceased to be surprising! One thing that particularly amazed me was that when Dr. Howe abruptly ended her education, she was learning French and Latin. Imagine how far she would’ve come if she’d continued to be taught! On the negative side, I was kind of floored that Laura was violent toward her teachers and other students up through her late teens, slapping and pinching them, pulling their hair. And she even once bit the famous Senator Charles Sumner, who was probably her least favorite person in the world, due to his roughness with her and his intensely close relationship with her mentor, Dr. Howe.
The title is an interesting one given that Laura lacks the sense of sight. Where you wondering what is visible to her or about her? Or both?
The line most literally refers to the narrative itself: at the end of “telling” her story to the young Helen Keller—a literary device, obviously—Laura says that she will not be able to read what she has written, and prays that “what is invisible to man may be visible to God.” The idea of what is visible, or on the surface, versus what is invisible, or below the surface, and what it means to be wholly visible to others—emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually—never ceases to fascinate. To me, the phrase is all-encompassing, not just about Laura’s handicap, but about the ways in which we all perceive and misperceive the world, what we witness of all the vagaries of human existence, and even the idea of God, who is always described as all-seeing.
"The idea of what is visible, or on the surface, versus what is invisible, or below the surface, and what it means to be wholly visible to others—emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually—never ceases to fascinate."
Laura’s is not the only point-of-view in the novel. Samuel Gridley Howe, his wife Julia Ward Howe, and Laura’s teacher each tell a part of the story. Why did you want to include their narratives?
Well, originally, I didn’t. I wanted the novel to be a tour de force of only Laura’s voice, excited as I was by the challenge of writing a character who can express herself to the reader through only one sense. But as I wrote, I realized that this would make the book too hermetic, too claustrophobic, for both me and for the reader. Then I planned on writing the book as a triptych of three very different 19th-century women—Laura, Julia and Sarah—coming together to provide a nuanced portrait of what it meant to be a woman in society at that time. But then I realized it was more important to give Laura the most possible context—how did those closest to her see her? And Dr. Howe definitely wanted to be heard, opinionated fellow that he was! It became clear that it was just as important to be able to view Laura from the outside as from the inside to provide a full picture. And the more I researched the lives of the others, the more I became enthralled with their individual narratives, and with finding a way to weave them all tightly together, while still keeping Laura at the center of the book.
You make some interesting choices regarding Bridgman’s sexuality. Can you talk about why you decided to explore that and how you came to the conclusions that you did?
With the striking exception of Dr. Howe, with whom she was in love in her own unique way as a mentor and father figure, Laura could not abide most men, a fact which was remarked on by all her teachers and even Howe himself. She greatly enjoyed the company of most women, however, especially touching them, which grew to be such a problem at Perkins that Howe was forced to lay down an edict that Laura never be allowed into the other girls’ beds, at a time when sharing beds with the same sex was considered commonplace. As far as documented history goes, it doesn’t appear that Laura ever really had a romantic relationship—she was so uninformed about that part of life that even as a late teenager she thought she could marry her brother—but as a novelist friend of mine said, “If you’re going to write her whole life, you’ve got to give her something.” And so I gave her Kate, the young but very worldly Irish cook. As for the sadomasochistic overtones of their relationship, that came as a complete surprise to me when I was writing their love scenes, but then it made complete sense: If you have only the sense of touch, you would want to push that one sense as far as it could go.
"If you have only the sense of touch, you would want to push that one sense as far as it could go."
It was Laura Bridgman who taught Annie Sullivan how to finger spell and Sullivan was the well-known teacher of Helen Keller. Why do you think so many people know about Helen Keller and not about Laura Bridgman?
While Helen Keller openly admitted that she set out to be “the best damn poster child the world had ever seen,” Laura never ceased to be her own unique, difficult and very funny person, even at the height of her fame when she was considered the world’s second most famous woman, second only to Queen Victoria. The last straw came when Laura publicly contradicted the Unitarian mores of the New England elite and the Institute, pushing Howe to excoriate her in the press, claiming that he’d suddenly realized his prodigy was “small-brained” and “subject to derangement.”
And though she had been an exhibitable child, Laura’s anorexia due to her lack of taste and smell made her appear even more peculiar. It took Perkins decades to find the “second Laura Bridgman,” and Helen Keller was chosen solely on the basis of a photograph. Helen also got blue glass eyes to make her more presentable, a secret which was kept from the public for her entire life.
But most of all, it was the cruel dismissal of her dear Sarah Wight, Laura’s last teacher, when she was 20, that forever stunted Laura’s potential and celebrity. Without Sarah, there was no one to interpret the world for her. Helen Keller had the precious gift of Annie Sullivan for most of her life, and she continued to blossom under her care and tutelage. And yet it was Sullivan herself who said that she had “always believed Laura Bridgman to be intellectually superior to Helen Keller.”
It’s difficult to read this book and not become acutely aware of one’s sensory abilities! Do you feel like your ideas about sense perceptions changed from writing about Laura Bridgman?
Well, I didn’t do any type of sensory deprivation or anything like that to inhabit her character. I can’t really explain it in any totally rational way, but as soon as I saw her photograph, I knew what it was like to be her. Call it psychic, call it deep emotional resonance, call it artistic arrogance, call it wildly improbable kismet, but it was honestly not difficult for me to imagine being without four of my five senses. I do think I am naturally a more touch-centered person than most, however, and perhaps that made a difference.
You’ve written plays and screenplays, as well as nonfiction articles and essays. Why did you choose a novel for the story of Laura Bridgman? What was different about the experience than other projects?
I knew instantly that I wanted to be inside her head, under her skin, and therefore writing her in the first person wouldn’t have worked for other forms. What made this different from all other projects was my immediate identification with Laura. I’ve always been interested in disability studies; the screenplay I had optioned was about a comedian with Tourettes Syndrome, so this was definitely in my wheelhouse, as they say. I also adapted the original story, “What Is Visible,” as a one-act play, and think that the book would make for a terrifically moving film.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on two major projects: A historical novel about two real-life sisters who were famous mediums as children in 19th-century America and who later became the founders of the wildly popular Spiritualism movement; and a memoir that explodes the difference between what actually happened and what could have happened instead, sandwiching the “truth” between the best- and worst-case scenarios of certain dramatic, and even violent, moments from my life. I think everyone would like the chance to go back and rewrite, revise, take the other road, etc., so I’m letting myself go there, in a variation on the classic memoir. The reader won’t know which story in each instance is the true one. And I continue to work on short fiction.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of What Is Visible.
Author photo by Sarah Shatz.