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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 322-325
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Helen Keller and "The Empire of the Normal"
A Forum on Disability and Self-Representation
It seems impossible to talk about disability memoir in America without mentioning Helen Keller. Certainly her first book, The Story of My Life (1903), is the disability autobiography that leaps most readily to mind. Moreover, most of Keller's writing centered on her own life, and during her long career she attempted every genre of life-writing: linear narratives, personal essays, a treatise on her religious belief, and a published journal recording her daily life during a five-month period. But it is her first book that set the standard; The Story of My Life has the quintessential "triumph over adversity" plot. It chronicles her first twenty-two years, from birth through her first year at Radcliffe College. With the self-effacing modesty characteristic of the genre, Keller is at pains to show that her accomplishments were made possible chiefly through the effort and self-sacrifice of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. She represents Sullivan as her savior who first liberated her from darkness and silence through the gift of language and then championed her cause against individuals and institutions that stood in the way of her educational goals.
Perhaps recognizing that deaf-blindness is a condition few seeing-hearing readers can imagine or identify with, Keller shifts the focus of her autobiography to make Sullivan its protagonist. Combined with the book's upbeat tone and inspirational message, this helped The Story of My Life enjoy almost universal critical acclaim and popular success. One anonymous review in The New York Nation, however, expressed doubts about the book's authenticity: [End Page 322]
All her knowledge is hearsay knowledge, her very sensations are for the most part, vicarious and yet she writes of things beyond her power of perception with the assurance of one who has verified every word. 1
The critic then takes Keller to task for her use of auditory and visual details in her writing, citing numerous examples from the text. The reviewer had a point; Keller's prose is lush with references to light, color and sound. And since Keller is at such pains to express her gratitude and devotion to Anne Sullivan, it is easy to get the impression that she had no true first-hand experience.
In 1908 Keller published The World I Live In, partly as an answer to this sort of criticism. In it she delineates the dilemma of a writer with her particular disability:
The experience of the deaf-blind person, in a world of hearing seeing people, is like that of a sailor on an island where the inhabitants speak a language unknown to him, whose life is unlike that he has lived. He is one, they are many; there is no chance of compromise. He must learn to see with their eyes, to hear with their ears, to think their thoughts, to follow their ideals. 2
Although Keller is making an analogy to cultural assimilation, she is not really claiming to belong to a separate culture, as we would today use the term Deaf Culture to designate users of American Sign Language as a linguistic group. The manual alphabet Keller employed was a form of transcribed English rather than a true sign language. So here she represents herself as belonging to a culture of one. Her point is that in order to belong to seeing-hearing culture--the Empire of the Normal--she has an obligation and a right to use the words and idioms that any speaker of the language uses, even those that assume the speaker or writer can see and hear. At times, Keller's assertions become rather testy. Early on, she footnotes her use of the word "see" in the phrase "I was taken to see a woman":
The excellent proof-reader has put a query to my use of "see." If I had said "visit," he would have asked no question, yet what does "visit" mean but "see" (visitare)? Later I will...