What Is Visible

A Novel


By Kimberly Elkins

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A vividly original literary novel based on the astounding true-life story of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person who learned language and blazed a trail for Helen Keller.

At age two, Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses to scarlet fever. At age seven, she was taken to Perkins Institute in Boston to determine if a child so terribly afflicted could be taught. At age twelve, Charles Dickens declared her his prime interest for visiting America. And by age twenty, she was considered the nineteenth century's second most famous woman, having mastered language and charmed the world with her brilliance. Not since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has a book proven so profoundly moving in illuminating the challenges of living in a completely unique inner world.

With Laura—by turns mischievous, temperamental, and witty—as the book's primary narrator, the fascinating kaleidoscope of characters includes the founder of Perkins Institute, Samuel Gridley Howe, with whom she was in love; his wife, the glamorous Julia Ward Howe, a renowned writer, abolitionist, and suffragist; Laura's beloved teacher, who married a missionary and died insane from syphilis; an Irish orphan with whom Laura had a tumultuous affair; Annie Sullivan; and even the young Helen Keller.

Deeply enthralling and rich with lyricism, What is Visible chronicles the breathtaking experiment that Laura Bridgman embodied and its links to the great social, philosophical, theological, and educational changes rocking Victorian America. Given Laura's worldwide fame in the nineteenth century, it is astonishing that she has been virtually erased from history. What is Visible will set the record straight.



First off, a bottomless thank-you to Gail Hochman, my superhuman agent, a demi-goddess in my book; and to Deb Futter, my editor and an absolute dream sent from heaven. You two have provided such wonderful, heartfelt, and goshdarn smart guidance and support and hand-holding all the way through. And how lucky to have been blessed with the assistance of the brilliant Brian McLendon, associate publisher at Grand Central Publishing and Twelve; Twelve’s publicity manager genius Paul Samuelson; and Libby Burton, Tony Forde, Carolyn Kurek, Kathleen Scheiner, and the rest of the amazing crew at Grand Central/Twelve. I am so happy to be one of the Twelve! A shout-out also to Jody Klein at Brandt & Hochman.

My mentors Bob Shacochis, Robert Olen Butler, and Ha Jin gave me the courage, the skills, and the wherewithal to write this book. I am also grateful to have studied with several other great teachers: Janet Burroway, Leslie Epstein, Mark Winegardner, Hilma Wolitzer, Jill McCorkle, Jennifer Belle, and Natalie Sandler.

My generous and needle-sharp first readers who helped me far more than they’ll ever know: Rita Mae Reese, Kristin Ginger, J. Kevin Shushtari, Joe Connelly, and most of all my parents, Paul and Linda Elkins, who critiqued the work with amazing compassion, intelligence, and insight.

Much gratitude to all those who have encouraged and supported my dreams, early and late: my family, Toni, PJ, and nieces Bailey, Sophie, and Paola Elkins; Manny Azenberg, for nurturing me as a young playwright, and Harvey Weinstein, who employed me long ago as his assistant, for both proving that business can still be art; C. Michael Curtis, for publishing the story that begot the novel; dear friends Steve Bibko, Dawn Cardinale, Peter Cecere, Suzy Chamandy, Ben Coates, Cliff Cole, Natalie Danford, Danny DePamphilis, Jeffrey Dersh, Gene DeSimone, Caimeen Garrett, Jeff Girion, Mark L. Gottlieb, Marni Halasa, Andrew Hollweck, Joan Ingber, Angel Khoury, Cindy King, Katherine Klotsas, Amir Korangy, David Krancher, Lys Lanctot, David Levinson,Tom Livesey, Melinda Marble, Michelle Mintzer, Randy Noojin, Noah Pivnick, Alden Richards, Page Richards, Mike Robinson, Jenny Schlossberg, Julie Shushtari, Judith Simonian, Monica Stordeur, Hal Stucker, Rebecca Webber, James Varner, and Tim Young; all my students, grad and undergrad, who teach me wonders; and Annie Ide, without whom this book would never have been possible.

For the two years of research necessary for the novel, I am indebted to the New England Research Consortium for providing me with fellowships to the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Maine Historical Society; to Perkins School for the Blind, guided by expert research librarian Jan Seymour-Ford; the American Antiquarian Society, with special thanks to Joanne Chaison, Jim Moran, Jackie Penny, and Elizabeth Pope; the St. Botolph Society; and Marcia Trimble, for generous fellowships to pay for both my MFA at Boston University and a research trip to Italy.

To the terrific folks at the Kerouac Project, Blue Mountain Center, the Albee Foundation, and the Millay Colony who gave me time and space to write; and the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Wesleyan Writers Conference, where I was honored to be a Fellow.

To the books that inspired me in writing mine: Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief; Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; and Valerie Martin’s Property.

And to those of you who continue to inspire me daily, though you are gone from this place: my grandparents Lawton and Altona Walters and Clinton and Zelma Elkins; dear ones, Dawn Couch, Brook Thaler, Casey Nye, Clarence Pope III, Ann Gregory, and Chris Stewart. I miss you so.

Author’s Note

The hand spelling used by Laura Bridgman was the manual alphabet, which augments current American Sign Language when spelling individual letters of a word as opposed to making signs that represent entire words. In the case of the deaf-blind, the letters and signs are performed directly into the hand. She spelled the letters into the palms of her teachers, friends, and others who had learned ASL to communicate with her, and they spelled into her hand the same way. This form of communication is now practiced as Tactile American Sign Language. In the case of those who didn’t know ASL, a friend or member of the Perkins Institution staff acted as translator between them and Laura. She wrote on what was then known as a grooved French board to help align her block letters, and read from special raised-letter books printed by Perkins. Braille was not used at Perkins at that time, though it was used in Europe.


Laura, 1888

How little they trot me out for show these days, and yet here I am this frigid morning, brought down from my room to meet a child, and me not out of my sickbed two weeks. They’re actually calling her “the second Laura Bridgman.” The second, and I’m still here! What am I supposed to do, bow down to her? Set her on my knee? I didn’t like children even when I was one, and now I think them worse than dogs. I’ve shriveled and so they’ve searched for another freak in bloom to exhibit and experiment on. It’s taken Perkins decades to find one pretty enough, quick enough. Well, pretty is really the important thing, or at least not too strange or looking like what she is. Not looking like what I am.

“Just talk to her,” Annie Sullivan writes upon my hand. “You have so much in common.” Like two in the throes of the plague might share tips and grievances? Yes, little Miss Keller and I will rattle on about our lives in our respective cells, and since I can’t taste or smell either—she’s got that on me—she can tell me how the succor of roast mutton and strawberries and the odor of feces and chrysanthemums have opened enormous windows of happiness and universal feeling that I will never enjoy.

She curtsies, I feel the whoosh of her skirts as she goes down, and then she is on me, too excited for them to hold her back, if they are even trying. Her hair is heartbreakingly soft—I had forgotten this about children, this wonder—and her face round and warm as a meat pie against my leg, clutching at my dress, reaching for my hands. Too much! I raise both arms into the air. Annie always had bad manners, so this assault is no surprise. In the years she shared my cottage here, she acted the queen since she had partial sight, but really she was dirty Irish straight from the almshouse. After everything, though, I do miss Annie greatly, and she’s done better than all right, it seems, as the teacher of this one. I taught Annie the manual alphabet, the finger spelling tapped out into the hand that is the only way to communicate with me and with Helen. Will she give me that credit, I wonder. And though Dr. Howe, Perkins’ director, disavowed Braille, Annie says she is trying it with her charge.

The girl steps hard on my foot, right on the big toe that is bent with the rheumatism. “Get her off!” I rap into Annie’s hand, and Helen is pulled back. We all breathe for a moment, and Annie takes the chance at last to greet me properly.

“Dear Laura,” she writes, “you look well.” Proof of her half-blindness right there!

“God tells me you are splendid also.” She is no fan of religion, Miss Sullivan; that will get her goat. “Congratulations on your work with this―”

And then the little hand taps again at mine, insistent as a summer fly. “Thank you for doll. I love very much.”

She is difficult to follow. “You’re welcome.”

“I’m almost nine. How old?”

What cheek to ask a lady her age, but then again, with my fame, it’s no secret. “Fifty-eight.” I try to walk away from her toward the heat from the window, but she grabs at my skirt.

“Please talk to me,” she writes. “Please.”

My presumptive heir is begging in my palm. And so I ask Helen my favorite question: “If you could have one sense back, which would it be?”

Her fingers go round and round in circles, and I can feel the girl actually thinking in my palm.

“Which do you pick?” she asks.

Though I have been deprived of all senses save touch since the age of two, while she is only deaf and blind, for me the choice is simple. “Sight,” I tell her, all the glorious colors God has painted on lands and faces. Green is the color I remember with the most pleasure: green from the grass outside our house in New Hampshire. Blue still spills from that square of sky visible over the bed where I lay ill for almost a year, and Mama says my eyes were bright blue before they shrunk behind my lids. Red I have a strong and disagreeable sense of, from when they bled me with leeches. And black, black I know the longest and best because it is my constant companion. These are the only colors I can recall or imagine with any clarity.

“Choose.” I tap Helen’s hand.

“Still thinking.”

What a serious one! The firmness of her fingers marks her as quite unlike other children I have known; she seems more like an adult in her faculties.

“Tell me,” she writes. “Tell me about you.”

My story? Everything? Heaven knows there are parts not suitable for a child. But maybe I could try, invoking the voices of others to join in, since much of the last fifty years is still a mystery to me. I fear this is my last season, so I will try. Yes. For Helen.

Chapter 1

Laura, 1842

“It is well for Laura Bridgman that she cannot read all that has been written and printed about her, for if she could, she would be very likely to be vain.”

Youth’s Penny Gazette, September 26, 1849


“There she was, before me; built up, as it were, in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help, that an immortal soul might be awakened. Long before I looked upon her, the help had come.”

—Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842

I count to a thousand, bathing my hands in the bowl of milk I have begged from Cook, turning them over and over, kneading the warmth into each crevice of my palms, soaking my fingertips until they pucker. They must be soft, soft as the unlucky day I was born, to touch the world and be touched by it on this important occasion. I wonder what would happen if my hands blaze so brightly that all of the people who have come to see me are struck blind by their light.

With the fingers of my left hand I skim the raised letters of the page, while those of my right rest in Doctor’s palm, the scratchy wool of his Sunday waistcoat sleeve tickling my bare wrist. Today, I have no questions because it’s all for show, not study; I finished with this primer, The Child’s Fourth Book of Grammar and Spelling, before Christmas. We host hundreds in the public hall for the usual Saturday Exhibition Days here at Perkins, but today we’re in the front parlor, and Miss Swift, my teacher, says there are only about forty very special guests.

Doctor places my finger on a sentence, and I copy it onto the grooved French board: “After the children had exhausted their inquiries and expressions of admiration about the learned dog Apollo, William asked his mother if she thought, at some future time, there would be schools for dogs.” So easy. Doctor holds up the board and the clapping drums through the soles of my shoes. Doctor had asked me if he could read out loud a letter I’m working on to send Mama in Hanover, but I told him no, not to the crowd. So I write a line now for him to read: “Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe rides all over Boston on his big black horse, then comes home to take care of Laura, his little dove.” Doctor takes the page, but I don’t think he reads it because there’s no applause. I perform four arithmetics―one each addition, subtraction, multiplication, division―and on the division, which is quite simple, I pretend to make a mistake and slap my right hand with my left, the way Miss Swift does when I make a real mistake, which used to happen often, but not much now that I’ve been here five years.

Doctor writes “London” into my palm, his thumb and forefinger in the shape of an L, and taps me to get up. Exactly three arm’s lengths down left from my chair I reach the embossed globe just as he sets it spinning, and the wooden continents rise under my fingers. I grab all of Europe, then trace my way to England and stop on its capital, the city of our guest of honor, Mr. Charles Dickens. The floor vibrates with the clapping, and I curtsy, which seems to generate more applause―they didn’t think I could curtsy? I whirl the globe to Africa, fingering the wavy ridges of the Nile, and turn again to the crowd. I’m laughing at my trick because I know we have no visitors from Africa here; the slaves are all down South. No one claps this time; I guess they don’t understand my little joke. Doctor pats my arm and pulls me down beside him at the desk. I’m not supposed to laugh hard, because Doctor says the sound scares people, but sometimes I can’t help it.

There are too many people around me now, the air full of their heat. When there’s a bigger crowd, the teachers push a row of chairs between me and them so they don’t crush me. Miss Swift says I am puny and too thin, but Doctor says I am a little dove, which must mean that I am small in an excellent way, because doves are soft and, I think, very beautiful. Where is Doctor?

I walk the twenty-three lady’s steps to my visitor’s seat in front of the fireplace, and find rough worsted draped over the padded armrest. Tessy and her dirty shawl are in my chair! She is my best friend of all the blind girls, so sometimes I let her sit there to warm herself on very cold days like today, but never when I have visitors. Everybody knows that. I grab for her hand to tell her to get up, but she hides it in her sleeve, so I push her, just a little. I try to hold down the ugly sound I’m not supposed to make, the one I’ve felt from Pozzo, the Institution’s dog, thrumming in the cords of his neck. Miss Swift comes suddenly between us—she’s certainly wide enough to keep two armies apart—and of course, Tessy jumps up for her, but as soon as Swift moves away, Tessy sidles back and writes very hard, “You’re not Jenny Lind, you know,” and skitters away.

I start to go after her—I’m a very fast runner—but that’s not how a civilized young lady of twelve should behave, especially at an afternoon exhibition. The blinds are all jealous because I’m the only one who gets to live in the Director’s apartment with Doctor and his sister, Jeannette, while they sleep in dormitories and have to share everything, even soap. I know I’m not Jenny Lind, but I’m not just some silly blind girl either. I straighten my day dress, the green one Doctor picked to match the shade that covers my eyes, and settle back into the cushions to wait for the people to come to me.

My feet hear Doctor’s boots at last. He is a very quick stepper and not so heavy on the floor as other men, like the one he’s bringing with him. He leans down and writes that he is giving me Mr. Dickens, who I’m told is even more famous than I am. Mr. Dickens sits on the settee and Miss Swift tucks in between us to translate. I feel him pitching forward, too close, as he takes my hand. His knuckles are so hairy I pray he won’t expect me to touch his face. I like to stroke the ladies’ faces, their necks and hair, even the old ladies if their skin isn’t too flappy, but Doctor’s is the only man’s face I touch, unless I’m requested to show my skill at identification. Doctor’s eyelashes are as long as a woman’s, as long as my whole thumbnail, and his sideburns curl around my pinkie. I have eyelashes too, but no one ever sees them because they might be frightened.

“He says you are the second wonder of North America,” Miss Swift writes, and then adds that only the roar of Niagara Falls is more impressive than what I have achieved in silence.

“You write books?” I ask. “Good?” I would like to have the Perkins press raise one for me so I could form my own opinion.

“They sell,” he tells me. “You remind me of girl in my last.”

“Real girl or pretend?”

“Pretend. Little Nell.”

Stupid name. I don’t know if it’s better to be a real girl or a pretend girl; that’s something I’ll need to think about. “Had scarlet fever like me?”

“No, but hard life like you.”

“She can see and hear?” I ask, and as I thought, the answer is yes.

“Taste and smell?”

Yes again.

“Then she is not like me,” I tell him. Everyone thinks Mr. Dickens is very smart, but I’m not so sure.

Miss Swift lays one of the purses I’ve knitted in my lap, and I present it: “For Mrs. Dickens. Carry her sundries.” Then I lie: “Made it special.” I hope he has a wife. I hope he realizes that people from all over the world come to pay half a dollar for my purses and crocheted napkin holders and handkerchiefs. I’m allowed to keep all my money, and I’m saving up for either a pearl necklace for Mama or a silver pen for Doctor to replace the one he lost last month, dear to him because it was engraved with thanks from the Greek Revolution he fought in before he founded Perkins. And he got Lord Byron’s helmet from Greece too. I’m not sure exactly who that is because Doctor says his poetry is too hard for me, but he must be very important because the helmet is displayed in a glass case in the front parlor. Tessy says that Doctor gets trunks of money from rich folks to pay for our food and our clothes and our teachers. I asked him about that, but he said that little girls should not concern themselves with finances. Miss Swift doesn’t know I didn’t actually make the purse special for Mr. Dickens, but if anybody found out that I lied to the famous author, I would have to sit by myself in the schoolroom until I apologized, which sometimes takes me a whole day and a night. The good thing―probably the only good thing―about writing in someone’s hand instead of speaking is that no one can eavesdrop. I don’t know how regular people manage to have any secrets.

“Scrubbed everything for you,” I tell Mr. Dickens. “Five floors. On my knees.” I had to help; Jeannette is such a terrible housekeeper that I find balls of dust whenever I check the floor in my room. I can’t see the dirt, but if you set me in a spot with a soapy rag and a bucket, I won’t move until you tell me it’s all spanking clean. I think one of the reasons Doctor keeps me in his apartment is because it would be a mess without me, and Doctor hates a mess, even more than Papa did. Miss Swift signs that it’s time for Doctor to give a speech.

And so from Mr. Dickens one last thing: “God bless you.”

“You also,” I write. Then he pats my head, and I try not to flinch, afraid a crinkled hair from his knuckle might slip into my braid like an old spider. I plaited my hair myself in one long braid wound tight in a circle at the back of my head. It’s very neat.

Miss Swift pulls a chair by mine and tells me that her hands are tired already, so she won’t be filling me in on Doctor’s speech, as she usually does. I don’t understand how she can be so tired when we haven’t even done much talking today, and heaven knows she never helps with the cleaning. I don’t really mind, though, because I’ve gotten the Exhibition speech a hundred times: charity; education; how Doctor founded Perkins ten years ago; how Doctor doesn’t like the Braille he saw in France and invented his own Boston type; and then he talks about me. I will sorely miss that part today.

I sit patiently in my chair until I feel the applause and I can tell everyone is rising to their feet, as they often do after Doctor, so I stand too. Then Doctor comes straight to my chair, but it pains me that he brings more guests, two stepping lightly who I know are women, and then one treading more heavily than a bear, Doctor’s closest friend, Charles Sumner. Sumner is too tall; even when he bends down, he’s my whole hand taller than Doctor. I was so scared of Doctor when he first came to see me in Hanover because he was the tallest person I had ever met until then. But I was only seven, so I didn’t know anything.

He introduces me to Misses Louisa and Julia Ward, sisters visiting from New York City, who are staying nearby in Dorchester. The Julia one is standing so close to Doctor that his sleeve grazes me when I reach for her hand.

“Lovely little girl,” Doctor says she called me, and then he is off to play with his other guests, leaving Miss Swift to translate.

The Miss Julia Ward is wearing a bracelet with huge triangles that feel like glass. “Diamonds?” I ask.

“Austrian crystals,” but they are sharper than the crystals in Jeannette’s jewelry. Maybe she is rich, like many people from New York.

I reach up to touch her hair. The women like me to play with their hair. They always invite me. Two long, crisp plumes stand straight on a tiny hat that feels like satin. It’s not a daytime hat; satin is what the ladies wear at night. And it has a jewel as well, a smooth, flat square. Definitely an evening hat. Her hair is pulled to the back much like mine, but I can still feel on the sides how silky it is—silkier than mine, thicker than mine or Swift’s or Jeannette’s or Tessy’s or Mama’s. I wonder if Doctor knows this. His own hair is almost that thick, and he isn’t missing any on the top like some men. There’s nothing more terrible than to explore a forehead only to find it goes on and on, especially if there are any tufted bits left sprouting like grass between stones. I check the front of Julia’s head, because women can sometimes be missing hair too, especially the old ones, but no, Julia has it all. I trail lightly down the curve of her cheek—I want to get to know her face better—but she suddenly leans away from me. Very rude.

“Excited for Oliver coming?” she asks.

“Who is Oliver?”

Miss Swift’s hand hesitates. “The one like you.”

She’s talking nonsense. I search the air in front of me for Doctor—where is Doctor? I stand and step on her foot. Sumner tugs at my upper arm, but I elbow him off and run through the room, cracking my knee against the corner of the chaise, grazing shoulders and backs as I circle toward the door, toward the bay window, the fireplace, and back again. Warm liquid spills down the front of my dress—someone’s tea, I suppose—and then I find Doctor’s coattail. He turns and shakes me by the shoulders, just like I’m trying to shake him, and then his hands go down and he writes on my wet palm, “Stop! Calm.” I am behaving like a wild animal, and making the noises of one too, coming deep from my chest. I let them rip.

“Who is Oliver?” I write.

“Hush.” He pats my back and guides me to a chair. “Little boy who is blind and deaf. Wonderful.”

“How old?”


“Can taste and smell?”

“Yes. You’ll help teach.”

I shake my head.

“You’ll love him, Laura, as we love you.” I don’t think he understands me as well as I thought. He tells me that he’s off to town with Sumner and the Miss Wards.

He waits as I press my nails in. Miss Swift never lets them grow as long as I’d like; she cuts them every Monday morning.

“Let go. Now.”

I allow him to pry my hands from his, and he goes. The last of the footsteps thud away, but still I sit, not even in my visitor’s chair, but in a low, hard one by the bay window, letting the draft creep across my feet. I keep my hands shut, like a book with flat print that I’ll never be able to read, maybe one of Mr. Dickens’s, its pages filled with the joys and sorrows—no, the adventures—of someone like me. Oliver will come smelling flowers, sniffing Doctor’s coat, tasting peaches and custards and boiled sugar syrup and sausages and turtle soup. He won’t be like me. No one is like me. It’s really true, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Chapter 2

Laura, 1843

“The two [Oliver and Laura] presented a singular sight; her face was flushed and anxious and her fingers twined in among ours so closely as to follow every motion…while Oliver stood attentive…then a smile came stealing out…and spread into a joyous laugh the moment he succeeded, and felt me pat his head, and Laura clap him heartily upon the back, and jump up and down in her joy.”

—Samuel Gridley Howe, “Tenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution,” 1843



  • "WHAT IS VISIBLE is remarkable at many levels. It is written in an intelligent, intricate style, populated with many true historical figures, and teeming with convincing period details. Above all, the novel has a unique narrative structure, which illustrates the art of fiction at its best in presenting the interior. A splendid debut indeed."—Ha Jin, National Book Award Winner for Waiting
  • "I know firsthand how brutally difficult it is to write a creatively rich, humanly revealing novel based on real people in a distant time. Kimberly Elkins does this brilliantly. WHAT IS VISIBLE is not only a compelling, deeply moving novel, it is a fully realized work of art. This is an auspicious debut of an important new writer."—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
  • "An astonishing debut that vividly brings to life a forgotten chapter of American history. You'll recognize many of the characters in WHAT IS VISIBLE, but its heroine, Laura Bridgman, is likely someone you've never heard of. After you read it, you'll never forget her. Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and at times quite funny, this book is a marvel."—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine and The Engagements
  • "I found myself slowly mesmerized by WHAT IS VISIBLE, and then increasingly haunted and bound to the story of Laura Bridgman, the second, deeper, darker invisibility of her life so permanently excavated and restored to memory by the talented hand of Kimberly Elkins and her extraordinary powers of imagination. To say that I was profoundly moved by this novel would be an understatement."—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
  • "A wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel... [The protagonist] comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel, showing 'how little one can posses of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.'"—Publishers Weekly (STARRED)

On Sale
Jun 3, 2014
Page Count
320 pages

Kimberly Elkins

About the Author

Kimberly Elkins was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and has published fiction and nonfiction in the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, Iowa Review, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Village Voice, among others. What Is Visible is her first novel.

Learn more about this author