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May 2002
Future CUNY Facility on Governors Island Announced by Governor and Mayor.
Student Media Conference Addresses "Attack Mentality" after 9/11
Baruch Orients City Council Freshmen
Turning "D"s into Degrees: A CUNY Student Tells How
Life Resumes 500 Feet from Ground Zero
A Diaspora of CUNY Students into Halls of Power
A View to a Krill: Antarctic Expedition by College of Staten Island Scientists
The City University Attracts Talent from Near and Far
CUNY, PSC Announce Agreement on a New Contract
Chancellor Goldstein Initiates New Efficiencies, Greater Student Access to Learning Technology
Pulitzer Prize to Louis Menand
Executive Leadership Program Inaugurated
First Betty Shabazz Chair Appointed at Medgar Evers College
City University Retains New Fundraising Consultant
Former Congressman Dellums to Speak on AIDS at CCNY
City Tech Scholarship For All Four Seasons
Major CCNY Grant for Remote Sensing

Student Development, Enrollment Conference by Mayor

ReBuilding New York

New City College Biomedical Engineering Department

"Trailer Heroes" of BMCC Build at CCNY

A Life of Laura Bridgman—Disabled Pioneer in Education

Exotic Bird Alights at The Graduate Center

 
 

19th CENTURY'S SECOND MOST FAMOUS WOMAN
A Life of Laura Bridgman—Disabled Pioneer in Education

In 1837, the founder of the first American school for the blind, Samuel Howe, heard of a young deaf and blind girl in a New England farming family named Laura Bridgman. He resolved, in the tradition of Bernard Shaw's Professor Henry Higgins, to rescue her from her life of deprivation, and in the process not only commenced the field of education for the multiply disabled but also created a media sensation.

In her recent book The Imprisoned Guest (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), John Jay College professor of English Elisabeth Gitter records the life of Bridgman (1829-1889) and "her troubling, tumultuous relationship with Howe, who rode Laura's achievements to his own fame." Gitter, who has taught at John Jay since 1972 and is the current chair of the CUNY-BA Committee, was initially inspired to learn more about Bridgman from the moving essay Charles Dickens wrote after meeting her on a trip to the U.S. in 1842 (it is in his American Notes). A stop, on impulse, at Howe's school in Boston led to her discovery of a trove of hitherto unexplored documents in its basement illuminating Bridgman's life, including her letters and journals. Following here is an excerpt from Gitter's prologue and another comparing Bridgman with Helen Keller, whose fame eventually eclipsed that of her pioneering predecessor.


Imagine Laura Bridgman, deaf, dumb, and blind. Picture her in 1837, just before Samuel Gidley Howe, the director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, found her in a New Hampshire farmhouse and brought her to Boston to be educated. She is seven years old, a pretty, delicate, sprightly child, appealing in looks and manner. Five years have passed since scarlet fever raged through her family, killing her two older sisters and leaving her without sight, hearing, or speech, and with only a faint sense of smell or taste. Only touch remains to her now.

At seven, Laura can no longer recall her mother's face or voice, and if she ever saw the image of herself in a mirror, she has forgotten it. Deprived of stimulating sights, sounds, and odors, she inhabits a world of deadening monotony. All conscious memory of verbal language is gone. She lives in exile not only from sounds and words, but from the human community of exchanged smiles and glances, the mirroring of face-to-face communion. Her parents pat her head to show approval and tap her back to reprimand her, but there is no other way to let her know that she is a being—a person—to whom others respond.

Because she had two developmentally normal years before her devastating illness, Laura has perhaps maintained an awareness of a core self that silently experiences and records the muffled impact of external events. No doubt she experiences her own body as something that feels pain, hunger, thirst, or satisfaction and that moves at her bidding.

She can make a few rudimentary signs to communicate her needs. But cut off from the sights and sounds of the outside world, deficient in language, and lacking an image of her own face, she can have little sense of an active, conscious self, a self that can share in the world of other people, a self that can tell its own tale. She does not know her name.

Five years later, this pitiful little girl had become the most celebrated child in America. Although today she is virtually unknown, the Boston Evening Transcript of June 14, 1851, ventured that, with the exception only of Queen Victoria, Laura Bridgman was the most famous female in the entire world. The first deaf-blind person ever to be educated, she became not only the subject of scientific and pedagogical research, but a universal darling.

Before Laura Bridgman proved otherwise, deaf-blind people had been classified with idiots; according to the influential British jurist William Blackstone, they were "incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas." By learning to read raised print, to write intelligibly, and to "talk" using the finger alphabet, Laura established that even the most sensorially deprived person could gain access to language and, through language, to the world of human culture.

To Laura Bridgman

Be thine the task, O! Generous Howe, to guide The imprisoned guest, through Nature's ample fields To draw the curtain of her wealth aside, And show the pleasure that true science yields; To tread the path by learning seldom trod, That leads "from nature up to nature's God."

—W. Holmes, circa 1850

Because she had been almost completely isolated from sense data, Laura was the ideal subject for investigation of the nature and origin of language and ideas. Scientists of the period imagined her as a living laboratory for experiments into the nature of the human mind, a psychological blank slate, John Locke's tabula rasa come to life.

But Laura was more than an ideal subject for research and investigation; she was also the perfect Victorian victim- heroine: small, pleasing to look at, innocent, and frail, a paragon of cheerful suffering. Scores of articles and poems in religious tracts and women's magazines glorified her as a redemptive angel whose plight would touch the most hardened hearts, whose instinctive innocence and purity were exemplary, and whose rescue from spiritual imprisonment movingly reenacted the Christian drama. Born and educated 50 years before Helen Keller, Laura was the valiant little victim of her own day. And, like Keller, she was an intellectual phenomenon, a kind of genius.

From the beginning, the world judged Bridgman and Keller as if they were contestants in a deaf-blind Miss America pageant. Laura was the out-dated prototype, inferior in beauty and accomplishments and deficient in congeniality; Keller was the almost normal winner, talented, charming, altruistic, good-looking, even sexy. Laura was quaint and old-fashioned, a relic of the 19th century; Keller was the latest improvement, a talking, sociable, active disabled celebrity.

Such comparisons do justice to neither woman. Keller became the success she was because at her side she had Anne Sullivan, the selfless, smart, loving teacher- companion that Laura always thought she wanted. Her teacher's devotion made Keller's life as a beloved public figure possible, but also exacted a price. Even if she rebelled inwardly at Sullivan's "merciless" expectation, Keller had to appear to embrace them. Except in her angry dreams, she suppressed the pain and rage she must at times have felt. "I demand that the world be good,"she wrote, "and lo, it obeys. I proclaim the world good, and facts range themselves to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true."

Compared to Keller, Laura led a dull, dependent existence. She was born too soon to benefit from Braille. Her sharp, inquisitive mind probably did not develop to its full potential. Although she longed for intimacy, she never again found it after her early teacher-companion Sarah Wight left the Perkins Institute in 1850, when Laura was 21.

Yet Laura achieved a kind of freedom. Because she felt no compulsion to please, she could choose her own friends and make demands upon them. Malleable only up to a point, she stubbornly asserted her right to make her disconcerting "deaf" noises. She was no more generous, noble, or altruistic than the rest of us, and she never pretended to suffer fools gladly. Defying Howe, she converted to the religion that suited her. And through all her sorrows and disappointments, Laura managed to remain her unalterable self: witty, irritable, curious, demanding, and, in her way, brilliant.