Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Joint Review: What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

What Is VisibleAs we both acquired this book and had a strong interest in its subject: Laura Bridgman, the first blind and deaf woman in the United States to be educated , we decided to do a joint review. The novel is told in varying POVs, Laura's, Sarah's, Julia's, and also through letters amongst them and the doctor and others.

Tara: First of all, Shomeret, I must say, while I knew in advance from the blurb that it would be alternating POVs, the letters do not work for me. At times they make no sense or I don't much see their purpose, or they bring up issues I couldn't care less about, such as the doctor and Charles Sumner's possible romance. I fail to see what things like "I can't wait to touch your face" between the two of them have to do with the story itself, let alone Laura.

How do you feel about the execution of the alternating POVs?

Shomeret: I feel that the alternating POVs are meant to show us the historical context that Laura was living in. I prefer historical fiction that gives us a larger picture and expands our knowledge of the period as a whole.  We are told that Laura was well known, but without the other perspectives we wouldn't know exactly who was aware of her and what impact they had on her life.  I think that it was the famous people of the era being concerned about Laura's welfare that allowed her to survive as long as she did. Julia, the doctor's wife, was also very famous during the period.  If we only had Laura's viewpoint, we wouldn't know that.  I felt that the doctor treated his wife very similarly to the way he treated Laura and the blind girls in his institution.  This showed me that his patronizing and controlling attitude wasn't just directed at his female patients, but at all women.  I think that his wife, Julia Ward Howe, came to the same conclusion eventually.  I have to say that before I read this book I knew who wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic", but I couldn't have told you the name of her husband.  He's the one who is now almost totally unknown.So for me this book also provides historical context for Julia Ward Howe. I should also note that Charles Sumner was a very important political figure which is why his opinions about Laura and Julia carried more weight and credibility for the doctor.  He thought that only people of power, wealth and influence counted.  Of course, he isn't the only one who ever thought that way.  It's a very common attitude for people to have. This is why more people who read historical fiction want to read about Kings and Queens than people like Laura Bridgman even if they live in democratic countries where people are expected to be treated as equals.  I thought it was interesting that Charles showed himself in letters to be touch oriented like Laura.  Dr. Howe, like many Victorians, must have been very ambivalent about touch.  His relationships exhibited this ambivalence, and I thought they explained why Laura both fascinated and repelled him. I feel that it's rather wonderful that  Elkins  couldn't resist the irony of showing us  prominent abolitionists like Dr. Howe, Julia and Charles who were very concerned about the liberty of African Americans, but had no concern at all for the liberty of the blind and deaf. The doctor wanted to use Laura to promote the abolitionist cause while totally restricting her life.  I appreciated this aspect of the novel because it displays their hypocrisy.

Laura Bridgman, from wiki commons
Tara: Excellent point about Howe patronizing women in general. I have to agree. I'm disappointed that Laura is already hand-writing and quite educated when the book starts. I was hoping to see some of what occurred during her education process. I imagine it was not easy!

Shomeret:  Yes, we see in the accounts that Annie Sullivan wrote about Helen Keller's education that it wasn't easy.  I'm not sure why Elkins didn't start her story earlier.  Maybe she thought she would be duplicating the story of Helen Keller's childhood. 

Tara: True, but Anne Sullivan and Howe probably had varying methods. And Helen Keller was like a rabid animal before Sullivan came on the scene. Laura had the benefit of having once spoken, heard, smelled, seen...so I imagine the training was different too.

I noticed some reviewers had trouble with Laura as a character, namely in the beginning. Strangely enough, I did not see a bratty girl. Rather, I saw a young girl frustrated with living in darkness and silence. She simply wants people to pay attention to her. She can't just say, "Hey, guess what?" She has to get their attention, grab their hands to communicate with them, find them at times. When I think of sitting there waiting for people to notice me and give me their hands in order for me to ask questions or find out what's going on around me, I completely "get" what others may consider brattiness. I also felt she was very lonely, thus the crawling into others' beds at night. And I grew even sadder when others spoke about her as if she wasn't even in the room. I know what that feels like very well. My hairstylist and others just gossip over my head once a month. It's irritating, but at least I know they are chatting. Laura didn't even have that.

And I realize I'm going on and on here, but despite my dislike of this book's execution, I feel a connection with Laura and feel frustration on her behalf. This particular passage really resonated with me:

She'd mostly broken her student of playing with her food by constantly reminding her of her age--seventeen!--but this often led to a discussion of what other girls her age were up to: walking out with a beaux, going to balls in carriages, and Laura usually ended up weeping at the bleakness of her own life. It was on thing to admonish her to act like an adult, and then another to refuse her any adult activities.

That really sums up Laura's situation and life. :(

How did you feel about Laura? About how she was treated? Did anything in particular resonate or touch a chord with you?

Shomeret:  I think that Laura really was pretty self-absorbed for a good part of her life.  On the other hand, if you don't have four of the five senses, it's very hard to perceive other people as real.  You can fall into solipsism very easily.  Solipsism is the belief that only you exist.  Laura only had touch. When touch was forbidden to her as not ladylike she was completely cut off from the world. Yet her universe eventually expanded beyond herself despite the doctor's efforts to isolate her.

Tara: I imagine it would be hard to focus on things/people you can never smell, hear, see... I don't suppose it helps that so many people worshipped her.

I felt like the doctor was attempting to brainwash Laura in regards to religion. He was also a control freak. I can't say I cared for him, not the way he cast her aside for Julia so quickly. Do you feel the doctor was overly familiar with his student, in housing her, holding her, caring for her like a father, in light of the fact he so quickly set her aside and I would think, broke her heart?

Shomeret:  I consider Dr. Howe an evil man who didn't care about his patients. His only interest in Laura was that she promoted him and his theories.  He cast her aside when she became independent minded and stopped doing what he expected of her.  She was like a carnival "freak" who was no longer favored by management and therefore wasn't receiving top billing.

File:Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.jpg
Julia Ward Howe, Wiki Commons
 Laura's religious evolution was very interesting to me.  She seemed to have Catholic leanings at one point which would have been very shocking to the Protestants who surrounded her.  The Protestant majority tended to be extremely anti-Catholic at the time, and any Catholic tendencies would have been widely condemned.  Regardless of how she defined herself spiritually, I feel that Laura was a mystic.  One of my favorite quotes from this book was Laura's comment "God is a strange and mysterious master, and I am no doubt a strange and mysterious servant."

Tara: Another quibble I have, though minor compared to the ones I mention above: If they are finger-spelling, how do the people around them know what they are saying? Is someone translating? The book doesn't say.

Such as this scene here:

"Dinner," Sarah rapped into Laura's palm and the girl shook her head vehemently. "Doctor wants you to eat," she tried again.

"Doctor eat with me?"

"No, but I will."

Laura smoothed the front of her dress, considering. "Feed me?"

Sarah cast a despairing glance at Jeannette, who laughed. (How did Jeannette know what Laura said? All the stuff in quotation marks is being finger-spelled between Sarah and Laura.) I think, perhaps, also, that quotation marks was the wrong way to go with the finger-spelled parts.

Shomeret:  It's hard to handle dialogue that isn't spoken, but I agree that quotes wasn't a good solution.  This caused Elkins to deceive herself into thinking of Laura as having an oral conversation that could be heard when she actually wasn't.  That's why she made errors like the scene you mention here. Perhaps the finger spelled dialogue should have been italicized. Deaf people, CODA's (Children of Deaf Adults), sign interpreters and other people who deal with deaf communication on a daily basis always think about this type of communication and its implications.  The non-deaf who have no contact with deaf people aren't conscious of  the issues involved.  An author in this category has a special burden of responsibility when they write about the deaf.  They need to do their research and take care to portray their communication realistically.    

Tara: I'm so glad you "get" it. You are right. The hearing world may not be so bothered by that, but I sure am. LOL Speaking of Sarah, while I did not care for the doctor's or Julia's stories, Sarah's took a surprising twist that both appalled and entertained me. Any deep thoughts on her?

Shomeret:  I felt that Sarah inappropriately idolized Laura.  This fed Laura's ego and encouraged her to be inconsiderate.   On the other hand,  she was the only one who respected Laura at all.  Yet there needed to be someone in Laura's life who cared about her, but also had a healthy ego of  her own.  Laura saw Sarah as an extension of herself who existed only to meet her needs. Sarah was unable to show her that she was a separate person because she had boundary problems herself.  Sarah didn't know how to exist on her own.  That's how I interpret what happened to her. 

Tara:  As for Laura's romance, I am wondering why the author felt it necessary to add. Why does nearly every famous woman who existed and never married made into a lesbian? Why cannot a woman's sexuality be left alone?

File:Sarah Wight and Laura Bridgman.jpg
Sarah and Laura, Wiki Commons
Shomeret:  I don't think Laura was being portrayed as a lesbian.  Consider that Laura was essentially imprisoned in an institution for blind girls.   Aside from Dr. Howe and rare visitors, Laura had no contact with men.  She evidently wanted to marry and have children, but she wasn't allowed the opportunity to do so. The other factor that needs to be considered in discussing Laura's sexuality, is that her only sense was touch.  This means that her sense of touch was extremely developed.  The need to touch and be touched is a very important component of sexuality, and Laura's need for touch was exponentially much greater than it would be for people who possess all five senses.  So I don't think that it could be possible that Laura would have been asexual.  I don't think she saw it as being sexual, nor do I think that she really had a sexual preference or a sexual identity.  These concepts weren't available to her.   In the Victorian era, a woman's sex education would usually have been limited to a talk with her mother before she got married.  Since Dr. Howe didn't intend for Laura to get married, he didn't think she needed to know about sex.  A great deal of his control was centered on trying to keep his patients asexual based on the beliefs that Victorians had at the time.  He probably thought that reproduction was the only reason for sex.  He also seemed to think that all his patients were genetically inferior and shouldn't be allowed to reproduce.   Phrenology was one of the means that he used to express these prejudices.  Laura perceived that he interpreted phrenology in a way that confirmed his prejudices.  This means that phrenology was not a science, but a religion which was allied with the ideology of eugenicism that categorized people as having superior genes or inferior ones.  Since he thought Laura was genetically inferior,  he attempted to make Laura into a "female eunuch" to borrow a phrase from Germaine Greer, but was unsuccessful.  It seems to me that portraying Laura as asexual given how touch oriented she was, wouldn't have been believable.

I thought that this novel was a flawed, but interesting attempt to portray someone who only had one sense.  I also felt that this book showed me aspects of 19th century America that I knew, but I hadn't given much thought to them.

Tara: That's true. I'm sure at that point she welcomed sexual touch, regardless of where it came from. She didn't seem to have much sense of what was "acceptable" and what was "not acceptable." She even thought she could marry her brother there for a while. Good point you made. I guess the twist just didn't do much for me or took me too aback.

Tara received this via Goodreads Firstreads. Shomeret acquired it via her library.

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