The Book That Made Me a Reader and a Writer
Bonnie Nadzam on a Biography of Helen Keller
Maybe it’s instructive that I more or less recall the book but not the exact title or author of the book. It was a YA biography of Helen Keller, given to me in second grade by Sister Therese at what was then called St. Ann’s School, in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve looked online but don’t recognize any of the versions I see there. I probably have it in a box somewhere.
I do recall that Helen’s mother slowly—and then all at once—realized her daughter was both deaf and blind after an illness. I remember details of the little girl’s terrified rage. I remember feeling very fragile, very nervous about fate and disease, and stunned that such terrible things could happen in the world. But it wasn’t this new awareness of suffering that most changed me. It was a series of scenes between Helen Keller and her famous teacher, Anne (Annie) Sullivan.
Annie had brought her student a doll as an introductory gift, and spelled the word “d-o-l-l” into Helen’s hand by tracing the letters into the girl’s palm. It took about a month of this before Helen finally understood what her teacher was doing: spelling out a word on her hand. It took so long because Helen Keller, deaf and blind child that she was, didn’t know there was such a thing as words. That for each object, each sensation—for nearly everything in the world—there was a symbol that could be drawn on her palm. Helen finally had a breakthrough with the word “w-a-t-e-r” and Annie running the child’s hand beneath a stream of it. Helen then dragged her teacher all over the yard asking for “the words” of each object to be drawn into her palm (how beautiful, no?).
I’m sure I could not have articulated this at the time (and struggle to articulate it well even now), but I thought it was so weird that Helen would learn to take the feeling of letters traced on her skin for the actual word that represented “water,” for example, instead of the picture of the words, which I read with my eyes instead of sensing on my skin—whereupon I somehow, suddenly realized that the letters I saw when I ran my own hand beneath the faucet were not the water anymore than the feeling of the letters would be the water.
One of my earliest memories is of experiencing the ocean for the first time. I was two going on three, I’m told, and terrified. But my dad starting singing me the alphabet, and I started singing along, and before I knew it I was up on his shoulders and he was chest deep in the waves. Even then, that young, the alphabet was part of me. I barely knew the world or my own self without the filter of the alphabet. So what really shook me up about Helen Keller’s story was this: before she had the shapes of these letters—these words—attached to the phenomena of the world, what did she think the world was? She could not see or hear, but she could feel the water without thinking of the word, or feeling the word, “w-a-t-e-r.” The word was not the first thing for her. The thing was the first thing! What did that feel like? I wanted to know. I wanted the words out of the way.
I shared a bedroom with my sisters and the windows faced the front of Westminster Road. There was a tree across the street in the front yard of the corner house, a duplex where “two men who loved each other” lived together. And after reading Helen Keller’s biography, I would stare and stare and stare at the tree until its familiar shape became strange—until I forgot what I thought I knew it was. Then for split seconds at a time I would no longer see a tree, but this crazy looking shape shooting up out of the ground with symmetrical little green filaments dancing all over the top of it. And then how strange and unfamiliar the whole world became! How beautiful and mysterious.
Bonnie Nadzam has published fiction and essays in many journals and magazines, including Granta, Harper’s Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Iowa Review, Epoch, The Kenyon Review, and many others. Her first novel, Lamb, was the recipient of the Center for Fiction’s first novel award in 2011 and was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It has been translated into several languages and made into a film that was released in 2016. She is also co-author with Dale Jamieson of Love in the Anthropocene (OR Books, 2015). Published in July 2016, Lions is her third novel. Find her on Twitter: @bonnienadzam