All I can say about this book is Wow! Lyrical, haunting and pulls at every emotional string you have as it runs its course.
What is visible is the story of Laura Bridgman. A woman I had never heard of before reading this book. Laura was the first deaf-blind person to receive a significant education in America. Laura was stricken with scarlet fever when she was two, taking away 4 of her senses, sight, hearing, smell and taste. The only sense she was left with was touch. During her life, she was referred to as the second most important woman in the world. Though she seems to have been lost in history, replaced by her successor, Helen Keller. with scarlet fever when she was two, taking away 4 of her senses, sight, hearing, smell and taste. The only sense she was left with was touch. She wore shades over her eyes and only a couple of people ever saw what was behind those shades. During her life, she was referred to as the second most important woman in the world. Though she seems to have been lost in history, replaced by her successor, Helen Keller.
What Is Visible is told in the form of diary entries from Laura as well as all the people she interacts with the exception of her childhood friend, Tenny. Ms. Elkins does an amazing job of giving a distinct voice to each of the characters in the book and weaving their voices in a way that brings you into the room with them and witness to their thoughts.
I think it would be very easy to find the need to portray someone as disabled as Laura in the light of a saint or martyr. But, Ms. Elkins did not fall prey to this either with Laura nor any of the other characters in the story. And that is what makes this such an incredible book. The characters are very human.
Laura moves between being this intelligent rational observer of her dark world to moments of vanity and arrogance. There are times when she shows petty jealousy, meanness and downright hatefulness. But, in the blink of an eye, you get another insight into her where you want to cry and forgive her any and all cruel thoughts she has.
She speaks of her impressions of the people around her, what she likes and dislikes. Her need to touch, her only sense, often overwhelms the people around her and she is often disciplined for crawling in bed with the other girls and fondling them. Her discipline for misbehaving is having gloves put on her hands for a unique version of time out.
Ms. Elkins creates a love affair for Laura, in the form of a servant named Kate. And she again shone her talent here as she described the intense relationship between the two women which often migrated into the realm of S&M. Her reasoning in the afterward was that she had to imagine that such an area would be explored as far as it could be taken with one whose only sense was that of touch. And also given that it was well documented that Laura did “hurt herself”. And she executes it well, creating an intense and beautifully blossomed relationship between these women.
The other voices in Laura’s life are given equal consideration. From the “doctor” and his wife, the servants, teachers, friends. The triumphs, frustrations, anger and disappointments, not only in Laura, but in every aspect of their lives. It is not just a picture of Laura’s life, but equally a picture of the life of her universe, both when it is alongside her as well as when it has moved on.
I laughed, I cried, my heart sometimes sinking deep with the weight of the words. At times, my breath was taken for a moment at the sheer beauty and wisdom of the words in this book. Through it, I not only got a peek inside what it must be like to live your life in a form of solitude, with only one tiny gateway to the outside world, but what it was like to take the hand of that soul for just a while.
Most of the story is true and based on documented research, according to the author’s afterward. She took some liberties, gave Laura some things she only guessed or hoped she would have experienced. I appreciated the fact that she laid all this out in the afterward. Because, you walk away knowing that almost all of it was real. And you are glad for the elaborations she made, and hope, that maybe even in those, Laura was granted those boons. They just weren’t “known”.