- Crossing the Divide:Helen Keller and Yvonne Pitrois Dialogue on Diversity
How do those who are living with a difference most effectively cross the cultural divide and explain themselves to mainstream society? This is a central question raised by Yvonne Pitrois in her biography of Helen Keller, titled Une nuit rayonnante: Helen Keller [A Shining Night: Helen Keller]. Helen Keller responded to Pitrois' book in a fascinating letter that I discovered at the library of the American Foundation for the Blind. Although I focus primarily on these two texts, my article goes beyond these initial works and the conflict they reveal to indicate, albeit somewhat briefly, Keller's and Pitrois' respective views on living with disability and the personality and cultural differences that influenced their divergent opinions.
At the time that Pitrois' biography of Keller was published (1922), Helen Keller (1880–1968) was known worldwide as an extraordinary deaf-blind American writer, activist, and socialist. She had already written and published The Story of My Life (1902–1903), an autobiographical portrait of her early years; The World I Live In (1908), a world she described as shaped by sensations of touch; and Out of the Dark (1913), a book of socialist writings.
Yvonne Pitrois (1880–1937), although relatively unknown today, was almost equally renowned in her country, France, and, in fact, throughout Europe during her lifetime for her social service and her [End Page 177] biographical studies. By 1912 Pitrois had already launched her bimonthly magazine, La Petite Silencieuse [The Little Deaf Girl], which provided articles and counseling for deaf women and short biographical sketches of unknown deaf heroes of her age. She had already written numerous longer biographical studies, including Nobles Vies. Abraham Lincoln, le libérateur des esclaves [Noble Lives. Abraham Lincoln, Liberator of the Slaves] (1911), and her most famous work, her life of the first committed educator of deaf people in France, La vie de l'Abbé de l'Epée [The Life of the Abbé de l'Épée] (1912).
The two authors had become acquainted through the Cosmopolitan Correspondence Club, established in 1912 by Mrs. James Muir, a deaf woman from Australia. Muir's goal was to encourage deaf citizens worldwide, particularly artists and men and women of letters, to communicate with one another, form friendships, and support one another in their creative endeavors.
Pitrois was uniquely qualified to chronicle Helen Keller's life. As a fellow literary artist, she understood the particular challenges deaf writers faced. In spite of their talents, writers are often burdened by the need to create in isolation. They may also feel a responsibility to serve as role models for and to sustain in other ways those who share the same difference. They may feel a particular charge to create a dignified life worthy of emulation. Pitrois' biography of Keller sets forth the deaf writer's burdens and challenges beautifully.
Pitrois was also a singularly good choice in that she herself became both deaf and blind at the age of seven, probably as the result of sunstroke. She can consequently be considered Keller's French counterpart. Although Pitrois regained her sight, she remained deaf her entire life. She never forgot the years without vision, however, and reflected throughout her career a passionate desire both to chronicle and to serve her deaf and deaf-blind contemporaries. Her biography of Helen Keller, in particular, reflects this empathy for and understanding of the issues that those with disabilities need to address. She focuses chiefly on the tension between self-definition and isolation and the need for the person with a disability to reconnect in an appropriate way with the larger society.
The empathy that comes from a similar experience of disability is reinforced by a similarly positive attitude toward challenge. Certainly Helen Keller's often-stated belief that obstacles exist so that we can [End Page 178] overcome them was shared by Pitrois. Both believed that we define ourselves and connect to others through education, hard work, and willpower. Pitrois knew, however, that these values must be modeled for us by an early teacher. Pitrois' mother, Marguerite Pitrois, an author in her own right and known for her...