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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller

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     That was the child I went there to find, not the “lovely child” of the photographs, the paragon of cheerfulness and industry. In your adult writings when you attempted to recreate your pre-linguistic experiences, you called that child “Phantom.” I wish you’d found a different name. Phantom is too ghostly, too wispy, when my sense of that child is solidly corporeal, a dense tangle of physical needs and desires. And that child had a language of sorts. Before Teacher came, you were able to communicate with gestures and signs, some of them quite elaborate. You had signs for every member of your family, all the servants, and the regular visitors to your home. Your sign for your mother was to pat your cheek. Your sign for your favorite aunt was to tie imaginary bonnet strings under your chin. Your sign for your father was to put on imaginary eyeglasses and read an imaginary newspaper. And you had signs for things as well, typically food, since as for most young children, food loomed large in your concerns. If you wanted bread and butter, you would saw at the air with the edge of your hand then make deft buttering motions with your finger. If you wanted ice cream, you would turn the crank of an imaginary freezer, then hug yourself and shiver. The people around you understood these signs and could generally give you what you wanted. The problem was that your system was not particularly versatile or flexible. In effect, you could say, “I want . . . ,” but could not communicate anything more nuanced. And no one could use your signs to communicate back to you.

     I may be wrong to call this gestural system of yours a language. It is perhaps no more a language than the way pets communicate with their people. For instance, one of my cats is currently sitting on the floor and meowing at me because she wants to be fed. When I don’t respond, she will jump up on my desk and pace back and forth in front of my keyboard until I give in and go into the kitchen to fill her dish. Because I do this, she will repeat these actions anytime she wants to be fed. But this is not really language. I cannot use these same behaviors to communicate anything back to her. And besides, I know you never liked any comparison between your experiences and those of animals. And you were right. Such analogies coincide too neatly with ancient prejudices some seeing-hearing people still hold about us “sense cripples,” as you called people like us. Our reliance on the less elite senses—smell, taste, and touch—seems to drop us a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder.

     But my point is, you understood something about language even before Teacher came. You knew that other people communicated using their mouths. You were in the habit of touching people’s faces to feel their expressions, and you observed how their mouths moved, how their lips puckered and stretched, and how they emitted small puffs of warm breath. You imitated this, walking around the house flapping your jaws at anyone you met, occasionally making noises.

     What happened to that child? I wanted to know. In The Miracle Worker, the story you helped to inscribe on the American collective memory, Teacher came to tame that child and turn her into the “lovely child” with all the ruffles and ringlets. At the pump, she baptized you in the font of knowledge, washing away the sin of ignorance. I recognize that this formula makes for a dramatic scene, and fits already established narrative patterns, but it oversimplifies the facts. Water was not the first word you learned. You picked up on the fingerspelling trick almost from the first day. What happened at the pump was something more subtle. The pump incident served to clarify the confusion you were having about container and contents. You had been confusing mug with milk, and Teacher wanted to show you that a mug could contain other liquids—water (who knows what she would have tried next) coffee, or chicken soup. The pump moment was less a miraculous revelation than a shifting of gears, allowing you to accelerate, but on the same path you’d already been traveling. This fingerspelling was not just a game or a gimmick, you discovered, but a more efficient and flexible system than the one you had previously used.

     In calling yourself Phantom, you distanced yourself from that child and dismissed your system of signs as primitive. In later life, you took a cue from Alexander Graham Bell and criticized the use of sign language by deaf people, advocating that they learn to speak and lipread instead. The manual alphabet you used was a transcription system, not at all the same as a sign language. A lot of people in the Deaf community today (I use the capital D indicating Deafness as a linguistic minority rather than a disability) would take exception. But I assume you’ve received many letters on this subject already.

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