Friday, June 2, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Four (The Span of Everything)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
If you've looked at this list and been curious about why a biography of Helen Keller inspired me so, today's post is for you. This book doesn't really go with any of the others. I mean, of course it does, because a life lived in books is a tapestry wherein every last thread depends on all the others. But this book is a straight biography, carefully researched in fact and detail, which puts it alone on the list; the language of it had nothing to do with what it meant to me; and its inspiration and influence weren't about a young, developing mind (#s 1-5) or an early, developing writer (#s 7-9).

Everybody learns about Helen Keller at some point before high school, I think. She's a part of American mythology: a girl who was born with every reason to feel sorry for herself, but who persevered beyond the pale in order to connect with other people. I don't remember why I chose to read a full-length biography of her, because I never had any significant interest in her aside from the natural awe and curiosity anyone might feel when they first learn of her existence. But for whatever reason, I picked up Herrmann's book at the Bowie Public Library at some point in my mid-20s, and won from it a new perspective.

I've been trying to talk and write about this for a number of years. I drafted this post for weeks. I'm not sure I've got it down satisfactorily, but this represents my best effort.

Keller's story is most often that of a child, or a young woman. Her narrative involves spending seven years without the ability to communicate with the world, and then learning ravenously, reaching out to everyone possible, gaining fame and friends, triumphing at Radcliffe. But that's all I ever knew about her. I didn't know if she ever married or had children, how long she lived, what she did for money after she grew up. Do you know these things? Because I feel like this is the common pattern of learning about Keller: you get the usual inspiring story about her in grammar school, and then you forget about her and, once you reach your own adulthood, you think of her as oh yeah, that girl who was deaf and blind and showed the perseverance of the human spirit or whatever.

To the best of my memory, the biography wasn't even half over by the time Keller finished at Radcliffe. I looked at all the pages ahead and thought, oh, her life went on after the whole triumph-of-the-human-spirit episode. On and on and on. This may seem like a dumb, obvious realization, but the essence of it is the dawning idea that people are not the thing they're famous for. Not at all. Keller's identity may publicly be the one in The Miracle Worker, but her experience on the inside of that identity may bear only a passing resemblance to the public one.

The phrase that came up in my mind when I considered the years between her college graduation in 1904 and her death in 1968 (ponder that, nineteen sixty-eight) is "her life spun out before her." Continued to spin out, in long, lazy circular shapes, drawn in three-dimensional space, months into years, friends and loved ones, lectures and books, on and on and on as she aged into one decade after another. She died after Kennedy was killed, after Bonnie and Clyde came out.

Life is long. Much longer than I'd really considered. The book gave me, for the first time, a genuine sense of that length, of the many phases and people and places and moods and accomplishments and disasters that can fill a span of 80 years. It feels short when you're young and short when you're old - "how will I ever finish everything I want to start?" - but somewhere in the middle, I think, if you're lucky, you gain a sense of how wide it can be, how many different selves can fill the time.

Attached to this lesson is another: youth is not the biggest part of life. It's the part Keller was most famous for, but it's literally a fourth of the life she lived. She wrote and spoke and traveled and lived for 60+ years after she finished college. Why do we only know her as the girl?

Part of the reason is probably that youth was the time of her greatest perseverance, and therefore inspiration. But I think it's also because youth is valued more than age in American culture. That's an ugly truth, but it's truth. And - even more unpleasant to face - once she had finished college, she was old news. For someone like Keller, every day is a struggle to live in a world that is built for people who have senses you do not, so I doubt that her perseverance was any more meaningful at age 85 than it was at age 25. But the world already knew about her, and had for decades.

What do you make of your life when you are world-famous, and the reason for your fame is a struggle that's publicly behind you, even as it continues to lie ahead of you?

I must pause here to note that all these lessons, these big and interesting lessons, came out of this single book, and that they definitively altered the way I look at life. They helped me calm down about where I stood and where I was headed, and they helped me consider what else I might not know. They engendered questions that I continue to ask myself a decade later, and that ever lead to more questions, more philosophy, more compassion and perspective. All this from a biography of a personality I had no reason to be interested in.

The last lesson was more specific to Keller rather than human life on the whole. And here is where I clothe myself in shame for a moment. When I started the book, I thought of Keller as having lived a limited life. That is, she did not get to experience the world in the same way people with hearing and vision get to, which means that she had a lesser life than someone with those senses did. Toward the end of the book, after I'd spent a few hundred pages with Keller, someone who had met her for the first time and traveled with her wrote in a letter something to the effect of "but we must never forget that she lives all her life in a dark, silent hole."

I was horrified. What a nasty thing to say. And untrue! Just because she couldn't see or hear Venice doesn't mean that she experienced Venice from a dark, silent hole.

I compared this reaction to what I would have said about Keller's experience of life when starting the book and realized I had learned something important. Disability is badly named (even if "differently abled" is sort of a stupid phrase, in my opinion). The modern world may be built for people with five working senses, but that doesn't mean that people with four or three or two working senses are experiencing the world in a lesser way. It means they struggle against the constructed world. That's kind of all there is to it. I was right that Keller lived a different life than people with sight and hearing did, but 100% wrong that she lived a lesser life. Greater or lesser doesn't enter into it.

So, I returned Herrmann's book to the library a wiser and more thoughtful person. And at last I was ready to think about the world outside of my own perspective, which meant I was ready to be a writer.

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