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For Her Own Good
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Nonfiction; Biographies; Books-titles -- -Multiple review
Author: Reviewed by Deborah Tannen
Date: Jun 24, 2001
Start Page: T.09
Section: BOOK WORLD

[Elisabeth Gitter] effectively exposes the contradiction inherent in this method as enforced by [Laura Bridgman]'s teachers. In hopes of instilling a sense of self-control, they demanded absolute obedience. No glimmer of autonomy or expression of will was tolerated. One such scene is described in the daily journal kept by Sarah Wight, Laura's last and most beloved teacher. Laura liked to keep her handkerchief in her lap, but Wight wanted her to keep it inside her desk. On one occasion, when Laura politely declined to hide her handkerchief, Wight refused to continue her lesson until Laura complied. Laura did as she was told -- but slammed the desk lid. Wight then demanded she repeat the process properly. The child, now crying, said she would take the handkerchief out, but to wipe her eyes. So Wight held her arms to prevent her drying her eyes. In the end, Laura was forced to spend two days in solitary confinement until her remorse seemed sufficiently sincere. (She came to her teacher in abject misery and begged forgiveness.)

By any standards, Gitter shows, [Samuel Gridley Howe]'s attempt to teach Laura Bridgman was a stunning success. The drama of her breakthrough into language is as momentous and moving as the more familiar accounts of [Helen Keller]'s. But Howe considered his experiment a failure because Laura did not spontaneously blossom into a liberal Christian of his own stripe. Disappointed, he blamed everyone else: orthodox interlopers who clandestinely told her of religious doctrine; the hard-working and dedicated young women who rarely left Laura's side while Howe spent most of his time away from [Perkins]; and Laura herself. Ignoring his own spectacular proof that a blind-deaf person was not an imbecile but a full human being, he decided that "When Laura lost her eyes and ears, she also lost any hope of developing a fully balanced, harmonious character." Rather than rethinking the methods he had used to isolate and browbeat the child, he attributed what he saw as her failings to her parents' temperaments and small brains.

Gitter provides nuanced portraits of Laura Bridgman and Samuel Howe, and the relationship between them as well as between Laura and the teachers who did the actual work of teaching and rearing her. [Ernest Freeberg] focuses (as the title of his book indicates) on the way that Bridgman was educated. Freeberg provides little of the human drama behind this process but supplies a much more detailed discussion of Howe's teaching methods and the intellectual feud for which he used Laura. In this context, he encapsulates the cruel irony of the experiment to which Laura was sacrificed: The last scientist to examine Laura Bridgman was a psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, who administered a battery of psychological tests. Hall, Freeberg notes, was more interested in Bridgman's sense of balance than in her sense of right and wrong. By the end of the century, the burning religious controversies that had motivated Howe's program for Laura Bridgman's education seemed "dated and somewhat quaint."

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