Before Helen Keller, there was another deaf and blind girl superstar: her name was Laura Bridgman. After losing her hearing and sight at a very young age, Laura was discovered by Samuel Howe, the first headmaster of Perkins School for the Blind. In The Imprisoned Guest, Elizabeth Gitter explores Laura’s education under Samuel Howe, as well as the individuals and cultural expectations that shaped her education and the perception of this precocious woman. However, Gitter also spends a lot of time developing a picture of Laura herself.
I was delighted with this book. As a student of history, I thought Gitter did a superb job of setting Laura’s life and situation within the cultural and historical context. The cultural expectations of what a deaf-blind girl was supposed to be, as well as the scientific and philosophical beliefs of the time, greatly shaped the way Samuel Howe taught and perceived his female student. He actually taught Laura as a scientific experiment to prove a point in regards to nature vs. nurture, and later tried to use her as a religious experiment. Gitter also did a great job at developing highly nuanced portraits of both Laura Bridgman and Samuel Howe. Even if you are not a history student, I still recommend this book: Elizabeth Gitter’s style is highly readable and accessible. Think Erik Larson, and you’ll be about on target. Definitely check this book out!