In What is Visible, Elkins resurrects the fascinating figure of Laura Bridgman, a renowned 19th-century woman unable to see, hear, smell, or taste.
You say that when you first found out about Laura, in an article about her, you felt as though “on some level, [you] already knew her.” What makes her such a relatable figure for you?
When I saw her picture in the article, even though her eyes were covered with a shade, I could feel her isolation, her pride, her precocity. It was there in the straightness of her spine, the way her hands caressed the raised-letter book, the slightly odd and rigid way she held her head. She was posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for an image she’d never see, and with a face and body she’d never know except through touch. As someone who has suffered from bouts of severe depression all my life, I immediately identified with that sense of profound separateness—that inability to communicate the helplessness and depths of one’s truest emotions to others.
Did you use any techniques to help yourself imagine a consciousness so radically different?
Well, I didn’t pull a Franzen and wear headphones or use soundproofing or blackout shades. Besides my inherent identification with her, the confidence to trust myself in writing Laura without such techniques actually came in part from a conversation I had with the writer Jonathan Lethem some years back, about his novel, Motherless Brooklyn, [whose narrator has] Tourette’s syndrome. I asked Lethem if he’d extensively interviewed those with the disease, and he said he knew better than to delve that intently into the psyches of real people because it would prevent him from making the character truly his own. I heeded that advice, and it seems to have worked out well.
Helen Keller remains a household name—why do you think history has forgotten her predecessor?
Helen Keller set out, in her own words, to become “the best damn poster child the world had ever seen,” while Laura had no desire to mold herself into a perky novelty for the world to cheer on; she was too stubbornly, even mischievously, her own person, becoming increasingly outspoken, especially on matters of religion, contradicting the views of the New England elite who had supported her. Ideas about female beauty and “normality” also figured into Laura’s decline—she became anorexic due to her lack of taste and smell, which made her far less exhibition worthy. As a result, Perkins Institute conducted a decades-long search to find the “second Laura Bridgman,” and Helen Keller was finally chosen from a field of candidates based solely on a photograph. But more than anything, it was the loss of her beloved teacher at age 20 that kept Laura from reaching her full potential and maintaining her celebrity. For most of her life, Helen had Annie Sullivan to interpret the world for her, and she learned to speak, graduated college, and went on to become a vibrant public figure. Helen herself said that if Laura had her own Annie Sullivan, she would have far “outshone” Helen.