For nonfiction week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.
Keller’s story is culturally familiar to us, perhaps from the William Gibson play The Miracle Worker, but I’d never read her own words. She was born in Alabama in 1880; her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. An illness (presumed to be scarlet fever) left her blind and deaf at the age of 19 months, and she describes herself in those early years as mischievous and hot-tempered, always frustrated at her inability to express herself. The arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when Helen was six years old transformed her “silent, aimless, dayless life.”
I was fascinated by the glimpses into child development and education. Especially after she learned Braille, Keller loved books, but she believed she learned just as much from nature: “everything that could hum or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education.” She loved to sit in the family orchard and would hold insects or fossils and track plant and tadpole growth. Her first trip to the ocean (Chapter 10) was a revelation, and rowing and sailing became two of her chief hobbies, along with cycling and going to the theatre and museums.
At age 10 Keller relearned to speak – a more efficient way to communicate than her usual finger-spelling. She spent winters in Boston and eventually attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for starting college at Radcliffe. Her achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that smell and touch – senses we tend to overlook – were her primary ones. While she used a typewriter to produce schoolwork, a teacher spelling into her hand was still her main way to intake knowledge. Specialist textbooks for mathematics and multiple languages were generally not available in Braille. Digesting a lesson and completing homework thus took her much longer than it did her classmates, but still she felt “impelled … to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear.”
It was surprising to find, at the center of the book, a detailed account of a case of unwitting plagiarism (Chapter 14). Eleven-year-old Keller wrote a story called “The Frost King” for a beloved teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. He was so pleased that he printed it in one of their publications, but it soon came to his attention that the plot was very similar to “The Frost Fairies” in Birdie and His Friends by Margaret T. Canby. The tale must have been read to Keller long ago but become so deeply buried in the compost of a mind’s memories that she couldn’t recall its source. Some accused Keller and Sullivan of conspiring, and this mistrust more than the incident itself cast a shadow over her life for years to come. I was impressed by Keller discussing in depth something that it would surely have been more comfortable to bury. (I’ve sometimes had the passing thought that if I wrote a memoir I would structure it around my regrets or most embarrassing moments. Would that be penance or masochism?)
This short memoir was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Keller was only 23 and partway through her college degree at the time of publication. An initial chronological structure later turns more thematic and the topics are perhaps a little scattershot. I would attribute this, at least in part, to the method of composition: it would be difficult to make large-scale edits on a manuscript because everything she typed had to be spelled back to her for approval. Minor line edits would be easy enough, but not big structural changes. (I wonder if it’s similar with work that’s been dictated, like May Sarton’s later journals.)
Keller went on to write 12 more books. It would be interesting to follow up with another one to learn about her travels and philanthropic work. For insight into a different aspect of her life – bearing in mind that it’s fiction – I recommend Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. In a couple of places Keller mentions Laura Bridgman, her less famous predecessor in the deaf–blind community; Kimberly Elkins’ 2014 What Is Visible is a stunning novel about Bridgman.
For such a concise book – running to just 75 pages in my Dover Thrift Editions paperback – this packs in so much. Indeed, I’ve found more to talk about in this review than I might have expected. The elements that most intrigued me were her early learning about abstractions like love and thought, and her enthusiastic rundown of her favorite books: “In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends.”
It’s possible some readers will find her writing style old-fashioned. It would be hard to forget you’re reading a work from nearly 120 years ago, given the sentimentality and religious metaphors. But the book moves briskly between anecdotes, with no filler. I remained absorbed in Keller’s story throughout, and so admired her determination to obtain a quality education. I know we’re not supposed to refer to disabled authors’ work as “inspirational,” so instead I’ll call it both humbling and invigorating – a reminder of my privilege and of the force of the human will. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)
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The Barbellion Prize 2020 will be awarded tomorrow “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” (See also my reviews of Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.)
These two memoirs, though very different outwardly, both draw attention to the practical and emotional challenges of life with disability or a mental illness, and call for compassion from individuals and a commitment to help from governing bodies.
The Fragments of My Father: A memoir of madness, love and being a carer by Sam Mills
One in eight people in the UK cares for an ill or disabled relative. Sam Mills has been a carer for a parent – not once, but twice. The first time was for her mother, who had kidney cancer that spread to her lungs and died one Christmas. A few years later, Mills’s father, Edward, who has paranoid schizophrenia, started having catatonic episodes, as with the incident she opens her memoir on. In 2016, on what would have been her mother’s 70th birthday, Edward locked himself in the toilet of the family home in Surrey. Her brother had to break in with a screwdriver and ambulance staff took him away to a hospital. It wasn’t the first time he’d been institutionalized for a mental health crisis, nor would it be the last. It was always excruciating to decide whether he was better off at home or sectioned on a ward.
Mills darts between past and present as she contrasts her father’s recent condition with earlier points in their family life. She only learned about his diagnosis from her mother when, at age 14, she saw him walk down the stairs naked and then cry when he burned the chips. While schizophrenia can have a genetic element, relatives of a schizophrenic are also more likely to be high achievers. So, although Mills went through a time of suicidal depression as a teenager, meditation got her through and she exhibits more of the positive traits: An author of six books and founder of the small press Dodo Ink, she is creative and driven. Still, being her father’s full-time carer with few breaks often leaves her exhausted and overwhelmed.
The book’s two main points of reference are Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives and had to make difficult choices about their treatment and housing. In a nutshell, Mills concludes that Woolf was a good carer while Fitzgerald was a terrible one. Leonard was excused World War I service due to his nervous exhaustion from being a carer, and he gave up on the idea of children when doctors said that motherhood would be disastrous for Virginia. Virginia herself absolved Leonard in her suicide note, reassuring him that no couple could have been happier and that no one could have looked after her better. Scott, on the other hand, couldn’t cope with Zelda’s unpredictable behaviour – not least because of his own alcoholism – so had her locked up in expensive yet neglectful institutions and censored her work when it came too close to overlapping with his own plots.
The Fragments of My Father brings together a lot of my favourite topics to read about: grief, physical and mental illness, and literary biography. It had already been on my wish list since I first heard about it last year, but I’m glad the Barbellion Prize shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. It helps to have an interest in the Fitzgeralds and Woolfs – though in my case I had read a bit too extensively about them for this strand to feel fully fresh. (I also had a ‘TMI’ response to some revelations about the author’s relationships and sex life.)
Ultimately, I most appreciated the information on being a carer, including the mental burden and the financial and social resources available. (Although there is a government allowance for carers, Mills wasn’t eligible because of her freelance earnings, so she had to apply for Society of Authors grants instead.) With caring so common, especially for women, we need a safety net in place for all whose earnings and relationships will be affected by family duties. I read this with an eye to the future, knowing there’s every possibility that one day I’ll be a carer for a parent(-in-law) or spouse.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
- All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth
“had I ever made a conscious choice? Caring felt like something that was happening to me, as though my father’s illness had been an eruption that had flowed like lava over my life. … I can’t think of any other job where someone defines your role by conferring its title on you, as though they are holding out a mould that you must fill.”
“caring is rarely simple because its nature is not static. It creates routines, crafts the days into set shapes, lulls you into states of false security, and then mutates, slaps you with fresh challenges, leaves you lost just when you feel you have gained wisdom.”
With thanks to Fourth Estate for the free copy for review.
Kika & Me: How one extraordinary guide dog changed my world by Dr Amit Patel with Chris Manby
Dr Patel grew up in Guildford, studied medicine at Cambridge, and specialised in trauma medicine as a junior doctor in London. Diagnosed with keratocornus, which changes the shape of the cornea (it affects 1 in 450), he required first special contact lenses and then a series of cornea transplants. By the time of his eighth transplant, he’d remortgaged his house to pay an American specialist. Meeting and marrying Seema was a time of brightness before, in November 2013, he completely lost his vision within 36 hours. Blindness meant that he could no longer do his job, and constant eye pain and inactivity exacerbated his depression. While white cane and Braille training, plus the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s “Living with Sight Loss” course, started to boost his independence, it was being paired with his guide dog, Kika the Labrador, in 2015 that truly gave Patel his life back.
Trying out guide dogs sounds a little bit like speed dating. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (founded in the UK in 1931) warned that Kika was a “Marmite dog,” moody and likely to push boundaries; there was no guarantee she and Patel would get along. But from the start Kika was just right for him. More than once, what seemed like her pure stubbornness – lying on his feet and refusing to move – kept him from dangerous situations, like getting trapped between a busy road and a building site on an unfamiliar route. After a 10-day core skills training course, during which man and dog stayed at a hotel together, Kika was ready to join them at home. In the days to come, she would learn all Patel’s usual routes around their neighbourhood and into the City – with the help of smears of mackerel pâté.
If you’re like me, you’ll be most curious to learn about the nitty-gritty of life for a visually impaired person. I loved hearing about how Patel practiced his Braille letters with an egg container and ping pong balls. Since he went blind, he and his wife have had two children, and with Kika’s help manoeuvring a baby buggy is no problem. Guide dogs are trained to be predictable, e.g., doing their business in the same spot at the same times so it’s much easier to find and clean up. Some dog training tricks also worked for children, like putting a bell on a Labrador or a toddler to know when they wandered off!
Patel has had some unfortunate experiences since he went blind, particularly on the London Underground: teenagers picking him up and spinning him around on a train platform, busy commuters barging past him and Kika on an escalator, and an impatient woman hitting Kika with her handbag. While Patel doesn’t like being negative on social media, he finds that posting video clips of these incidents raises awareness of the challenges VIPs face. Every time he hits a setback, he uses it as an opportunity. For instance, one Diwali he was excited to visit Neasden Temple, only to be dismayed that they wouldn’t allow Kika inside. Since then, he has worked with temples around the world to improve disability services. He is also involved in London’s “Transport for All” work, and advises companies on access issues.
More so than the rest of the shortlist, Kika & Me is illuminating about daily life with a disability and has a campaigning focus. It’s an easy read, and not just for animal lovers. Judging the book by the cover, I might not have picked it up otherwise, so I’m grateful that the Barbellion put it on my radar. I’m deeply impressed by what Patel has achieved and the positive attitude he maintains. (Kika has her own Twitter account! @Kika_GuideDog)
With thanks to Pan Macmillan for the free copy for review.
Next year the Barbellion Prize hopes to award more money, including to all nominated authors. They are accepting submissions for 2021, and are grateful for any Paypal donations via their website (see the page footer). I’ve donated to the cause. Can you help, too?