Writing this autobiography at the age of 21, Helen begins by acknowledging her hesitation with doing so, concerned that she has forgotten much of the poignancy of certain moments in her childhood, and afraid that her experiences in the present would distort her memories of the past. She informs readers that she will recount only the episodes of her childhood that are quite clear and strong in her memory.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in a small town called Tuscumbia, Alabama. She lived on the Keller homestead, specifically in a tiny cottage built on the property at the very beginning of her life. She remembers the plants, vines, and flowers that surrounded her very clearly, and their smell remained with her even after she lost her hearing and sight. She lived only a little more than a year of life before the illness came that made her blind and deaf, and it was so terrible that the doctors believed she would die. She was stricken so young the she does not remember the world before it went dark, but she thinks fondly of the way her teacher came to bring her world back to life again.
In the immediate aftermath of her illness, Helen communicated with crude signs and body language. Sometimes it made young Helen angry that she could not understand anyone, and she had fits of temper. Her two closest companions during this time were Martha Washington, the young black child of the Kellers' cook, and Belle, their dog. Martha could understand Helen's signs, and they had fun together cooking and baking in the kitchen and playing in the yard.
The family moved to a larger house when Helen was five; she takes a moment to remark on her father's devotion to his family and his work editing a newspaper. He was a great storyteller, and after Helen learned language he would spell stories into her hand. The day she found out he had died of acute illness, in the summer of 1896, was her first great sorrow. She does not speak as much about her mother, who she says is "so near to [her] that it almost seems indelicate to speak of her" (pg. 9). She reveals that for a long time she regarded her little sister Mildred as an intruder on her mother's love, and was particularly angry when she found her baby sister sleeping in her favorite doll, Nancy's, cradle. Eventually the two sisters grew to be companions, though Mildred could never understand Helen's finger language.
As Helen grew older, so did her frustration with not being able to properly express herself. She would have many terrible fits of anger that deeply troubled her parents. When she was six, her parents took her to an occultist, Dr. Chisolm, in Baltimore to see if he could help her eyes, but it was in vain. Instead, the doctor advised that they find Helen a teacher because she could be educated; he suggested they consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell in Washington for recommendations. Finally, after writing to Dr. Anagnos at the Perkins Institution in Boston, they receive confirmation that a teacher for Helen had been found.
Helen remembers the day that her teacher Anne Sullivan arrived as the most important day in her life. She views her life in two parts: the first part is before Miss Sullivan arrived and the second is all the time after. She came on March 3, 1997, just before Helen turned seven. Miss Sullivan began her lessons by giving Helen a doll and spelling the word d-o-l-l into her hand with her fingers. She began learning to spell these words herself through imitation, though it took a few weeks for her to understand that everything has a name, and that she was spelling them. This happened when Miss Sullivan took her outside and let her feel water coming out of the well spout, and then spelled w-a-t-e-r into her hand. This is when Helen first understood that the thing she was feeling was called "water," and, as she says, the mystery of language was revealed to her. After this, she learned the names for many things very quickly.
That summer, Miss Sullivan often taught Helen by taking her outside into nature to learn the names for the things around her. Helen loved this, though at one point she had an experience that taught her that nature can be unkind. She climbed a tree with her teacher's assistance, and Miss Sullivan went to go fetch their lunch from the house so they could eat up there. While Miss Sullivan was gone, though, a storm began; Helen, alone, had to cling to the tree in the fierce wind and wait for her teacher to come rescue her. After this, it was a long time before she climbed a tree again, but eventually the alluring smell of blossoms on the mimosa tree next to her house helped her overcome this fear, and she climbed high in it all on her own. This tree became a favorite spot of hers from then on.
As Helen learned new words, she asked more and more questions, since she now had the vocabulary to formulate them. She recounts when Miss Sullivan tried to teach her what "love" meant. Helen kept asking questions, looking for Miss Sullivan to explain love in concrete ways, and was frustrated when her teacher could not show her exactly what it meant. Eventually, Miss Sullivan was able to explain that you cannot see or hear love, but that you can feel the sweetness it pours into everything.
An important feature of Helen's education was that Miss Sullivan made an effort to speak to her as she would to any hearing child, only spelling these full sentences into her hand. In this way, Helen slowly came to learn the idioms and idiosyncrasies of everyday speech, though it took her far longer than it takes a hearing person to acquire full conversational abilities. She acknowledges the unique challenges someone who is both deaf and blind has when taking part in conversations; they can neither distinguish the tones of voice that give significance to certain words, nor watch the facial expressions of the speaking person for clues.
When reading an autobiography, it is important to remember that the author is recounting the events of her life long after having gone through them, from the standpoint of an aged, educated person. This means that time and experience can distort the memories some, so it is unlikely that readers are getting the events exactly as they happened, nor that every important detail will be included. Helen Keller recognizes this when she sits down to write her memoir, and works to counter these difficulties as much as she can, relaying only the instances of her childhood that are strongest in her memory. In this way, readers can learn much from what she does remember, and from the things she chooses to include in her life story.
Though Helen's early years are tinged with the happiness and energy of any child, they are also full of frustration and anger. To understand why, readers must try to put themselves in her shoes and imagine a world that is entirely dark, devoid of both the sounds and the images with which they are so familiar. As a young child, Helen gets angry so easily because she has been deprived of humankind's most basic needs: the desire to be understood. In the early years following her illness, she had trouble finding a way to express herself to those around her. Predictably, her closest companions then were the few people who could understand her, with or without words: namely, her mother, her friend Martha, and her dog, Bella. Beyond them, many relationships were closed off to Helen because she could not be understood—that is, until her teacher came to her at last.
Helen separates her life into two distinct parts: the time before her teacher arrived, and the time after. The entirety of the time before her teacher's arrival is contained within these first chapters. Helen does not spend much time dwelling on this first part of her life, both because it was so long ago, and because it was often mulled by frustration and silence. She prefers, instead, to remember the time following Anne Sullivan's arrival, which was made bright with the knowledge and understanding she did not have before. This autobiography is Helen's chance to remember the important pivot points that shaped her life, sending it in different directions. So far, Chapters 1 through 6 have provided two such points: the first was the onset of Helen's illness, and the second is the arrival of her teacher. The latter, as Helen acknowledges, is the most important, placing her on a path to enlightenment that she would pursue well into the future.
Helen is this memoir's protagonist, but Anne Sullivan is an equally important character. Readers learn about her through Helen's eyes, and it is clear right from the start how much Miss Sullivan meant to her. Helen paints her as a true heroine, with an air of brightness and love surrounding her from the moment she shows up on Helen's porch. She clearly has great patience, carefully working to teach Helen the names for things in the world around her, and understanding Helen's frustration when, at first, something does not click. But Miss Sullivan and Helen's relationship stretches far beyond that of just a teacher and student: Anne is Helen's closest friend. She truly loves and cares for her, almost like a mother figure, and she has given Helen the vital gifts of knowledge and understanding.
The moments Helen chooses to include in this memoir from the time her teacher arrives and onward are the moments she learned significant things. We see the first word she learned, "doll"; the first word she was truly able to understand, "water"; and the first time she learned that nature is not always kind. This choice to include these kinds of moments shows that Helen values her education above all other things in her life. Her story is colored by moments of learning and enlightenment, and these are what stand out the most in her memory.
But despite these moments of clarity and progress, there are still numerous challenges Helen had to overcome to reach the point where she was writing this memoir. What would take a hearing child just a few weeks to learn took Helen years, as she struggled to express herself without the conveniences of visual and auditory cues. With a life condensed between the pages of a relatively short book, it is easy to forget that Helen's success was a result of years and years of struggle and challenges; there was so much more to her life than what is here in these pages to read. When reading this memoir, it is important to remember that Helen's journey was a long road, and that these difficulties shaped her as much as her triumphs did.