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Story of My Life, by Helen Keller
winter of 1892 was darkened by the one cloud in my childhood's bright sky.
Joy deserted my heart, and for a long, long time I lived in doubt, anxiety
and fear. Books lost their charm for me, and even now the thought of those
dreadful days chills my heart. A little story called "The Frost
King," which I wrote and sent to Mr. Anagnos, of the Perkins
Institution for the Blind, was at the root of the trouble. In order to
make the matter clear, I must set forth the facts connected with this
episode, which justice to my teacher and to myself compels me to relate.
wrote the story when I was at home, the autumn after I had learned to
speak. We had stayed up at Fern Quarry later than usual. While we were
there, Miss Sullivan had described to me the beauties of the late foliage,
and it seems that her descriptions revived the memory of a story, which
must have been read to me, and which I must have unconsciously retained. I
thought then that I was "making up a story," as children say,
and I eagerly sat down to write it before the ideas should slip from me.
My thoughts flowed easily; I felt a sense of joy in the composition. Words
and images came tripping to my finger ends, and as I thought out sentence
after sentence, I wrote them on my braille slate. Now, if words and images
come to me without effort, it is a pretty sure sign that they are not the
offspring of my own mind, but stray waifs that I regretfully dismiss. At
that time I eagerly absorbed everything I read without a thought of
authorship, and even now I cannot be quite sure of the boundary line
between my ideas and those I find in books. I suppose that is because so
many of my impressions come to me through the medium of others' eyes and
the story was finished, I read it to my teacher, and I recall now vividly
the pleasure I felt in the more beautiful passages, and my annoyance at
being interrupted to have the pronunciation of a word corrected. At dinner
it was read to the assembled family, who were surprised that I could write
so well. Some one asked me if I had read it in a book.
question surprised me very much; for I had not the faintest recollection
of having had it read to me. I spoke up and said, "Oh, no, it is my
story, and I have written it for Mr. Anagnos."
I copied the story and sent it to him for his birthday. It was suggested
that I should change the title from "Autumn Leaves" to "The
Frost King," which I did. I carried the little story to the
post-office myself, feeling as if I were walking on air. I little dreamed
how cruelly I should pay for that birthday gift.
Anagnos was delighted with "The Frost King," and published it in
one of the Perkins Institution reports. This was the pinnacle of my
happiness, from which I was in a little while dashed to earth. I had been in
Boston only a short time when it was discovered that a story similar to
"The Frost King," called "The Frost Fairies" by Miss
Margaret T. Canby, had appeared before I was born in a book called
"Birdie and His Friends." The two stories were so much alike in
thought and language that it was evident Miss Canby's story had been read to
me, and that mine was--a plagiarism. It was difficult to make me understand
this; but when I did understand I was astonished and grieved. No child ever
drank deeper of the cup of bitterness than I did. I had disgraced myself; I
had brought suspicion upon those I loved best. And yet how could it possibly
have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about
the frost that I had read before I wrote "The Frost King"; but I
could remember nothing, except the common reference to Jack Frost, and a
poem for children, "The Freaks of the Frost," and I knew I had not
used that in my composition.
first Mr. Anagnos, though deeply troubled, seemed to believe me. He was
unusually tender and kind to me, and for a brief space the shadow lifted. To
please him I tried not to be unhappy, and to make myself as pretty as
possible for the celebration of Washington's birthday, which took place very
soon after I received the sad news.
was to be Ceres in a kind of masque given by the blind girls. How well I
remember the graceful draperies that enfolded me, the bright autumn leaves
that wreathed my head, and the fruit and grain at my feet and in my hands,
and beneath all the piety of the masque the oppressive sense of coming ill
that made my heart heavy.
night before the celebration, one of the teachers of the Institution had
asked me a question connected with "The Frost King," and I was
telling her that Miss Sullivan had talked to me about Jack Frost and his
wonderful works. Something I said made her think she detected in my words a
confession that I did remember Miss Canby's story of "The Frost
Fairies," and she laid her conclusions before Mr. Anagnos, although I
had told her most emphatically that she was mistaken.
Anagnos, who loved me tenderly, thinking that he had been deceived, turned a
deaf ear to the pleadings of love and innocence. He believed, or at least
suspected, that Miss Sullivan and I had deliberately stolen the bright
thoughts of another and imposed them on him to win his admiration. I was
brought before a court of investigation composed of the teachers and
officers of the Institution, and Miss Sullivan was asked to leave me. Then I
was questioned and cross-questioned with what seemed to me a determination
on the part of my judges to force me to acknowledge that I remembered having
had "The Frost Fairies" read to me. I felt in every question the
doubt and suspicion that was in their minds, and I felt, too, that a loved
friend was looking at me reproachfully, although I could not have put all
this into words. The blood pressed about my thumping heart, and I could
scarcely speak, except in monosyllables. Even the consciousness that it was
only a dreadful mistake did not lessen my suffering, and when at last I was
allowed to leave the room, I was dazed and did not notice my teacher's
caresses, or the tender words of my friends, who said I was a brave little
girl and they were proud of me.
I lay in my bed that night, I wept as I hope few children have wept. I felt
so cold, I imagined I should die before morning, and the thought comforted
me. I think if this sorrow had come to me when I was older, it would have
broken my spirit beyond repairing. But the angel of forgetfulness has
gathered up and carried away much of the misery and all the bitterness of
those sad days.
Sullivan had never heard of "The Frost Fairies" or of the book in
which it was published. With the assistance of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell,
she investigated the matter carefully, and at last it came out that Mrs.
Sophia C. Hopkins had a copy of Miss Canby's "Birdie and His
Friends" in 1888, the year that we spent the summer with her at
Brewster. Mrs. Hopkins was unable to find her copy; but she has told me that
at that time, while Miss Sullivan was away on a vacation, she tried to amuse
me by reading from various books, and although she could not remember
reading "The Frost Fairies" any more than I, yet she felt sure
that "Birdie and His Friends" was one of them. She explained the
disappearance of the book by the fact that she had a short time before sold
her house and disposed of many juvenile books, such as old schoolbooks and
fairy tales, and that "Birdie and His Friends" was probably among
stories had little or no meaning for me then; but the mere spelling of the
strange words was sufficient to amuse a little child who could do almost
nothing to amuse herself; and although I do not recall a single circumstance
connected with the reading of the stories, yet I cannot help thinking that I
made a great effort to remember the words, with the intention of having my
teacher explain them when she returned. One thing is certain, the language
was ineffaceably stamped upon my brain, though for a long time no one knew
it, least of all myself.
Miss Sullivan came back, I did not speak to her about "The Frost
Fairies," probably because she began at once to read "Little Lord
Fauntleroy," which filled my mind to the exclusion of everything else.
But the fact remains that Miss Canby's story was read to me once, and that
long after I had forgotten it, it came back to me so naturally that I never
suspected that it was the child of another mind.
my trouble I received many messages of love and sympathy. All the friends I
loved best, except one, have remained my own to the present time.
Canby herself wrote kindly, "Some day you will write a great story out
of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many." But this
kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again
for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured
by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a
letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling of terror, and
I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read
them in a book. Had it not been for the persistent encouragement of Miss
Sullivan, I think I should have given up trying to write altogether.
have read "The Frost Fairies" since, also the letters I wrote in
which I used other ideas of Miss Canby's. I find in one of them, a letter to
Mr. Anagnos, dated September 29, 1891, words and sentiments exactly like
those of the book. At the time I was writing "The Frost King," and
this letter, like many others, contains phrases which show that my mind was
saturated with the story. I represent my teacher as saying to me of the
golden autumn leaves, "Yes, they are beautiful enough to comfort us for
the flight of summer"--an idea direct from Miss Canby's story.
habit of assimilating what pleased me and giving it out again as my own
appears in much of my early correspondence and my first attempts at writing.
In a composition which I wrote about the old cities of Greece and Italy, I
borrowed my glowing descriptions, with variations, from sources I have
forgotten. I knew Mr. Anagnos's great love of antiquity and his enthusiastic
appreciation of all beautiful sentiments about Italy and Greece. I therefore
gathered from all the books I read every bit of poetry or of history that I
thought would give him pleasure. Mr. Anagnos, in speaking of my composition
on the cities, has said, "These ideas are poetic in their
essence." But I do not understand how he ever thought a blind and deaf
child of eleven could have invented them. Yet I cannot think that because I
did not originate the ideas, my little composition is therefore quite devoid
of interest. It shows me that I could express my appreciation of beautiful
and poetic ideas in clear and animated language.
early compositions were mental gymnastics. I was learning, as all young and
inexperienced persons learn, by assimilation and imitation, to put ideas
into words. Everything I found in books that pleased me I retained in my
memory, consciously or unconsciously, and adapted it. The young writer, as
Stevenson has said, instinctively tries to copy whatever seems most
admirable, and he shifts his admiration with astonishing versatility. It is
only after years of this sort of practice that even great men have learned
to marshal the legion of words which come thronging through every byway of
am afraid I have not yet completed this process. It is certain that I cannot
always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read
becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. Consequently, in nearly
all that I write, I produce something which very much resembles the crazy
patchwork I used to make when I first learned to sew. This patchwork was
made of all sorts of odds and ends--pretty bits of silk and velvet; but the
coarse pieces that were not pleasant to touch always predominated. Likewise
my compositions are made up of crude notions of my own, inlaid with the
brighter thoughts and riper opinions of the authors I have read. It seems to
me that the great difficulty of writing is to make the language of the
educated mind express our confused ideas, half feelings, half thoughts, when
we are little more than bundles of instinctive tendencies. Trying to write
is very much like trying to put a Chinese puzzle together. We have a pattern
in mind which we wish to work out in words; but the words will not fit the
spaces, or, if they do, they will not match the design. But we keep on
trying because we know that others have succeeded, and we are not willing to
is no way to become original, except to be born so," says Stevenson,
and although I may not be original, I hope sometime to outgrow my
artificial, periwigged compositions. Then, perhaps, my own thoughts and
experiences will come to the surface. Meanwhile I trust and hope and
persevere, and try not to let the bitter memory of "The Frost
King" trammel my efforts.
this sad experience may have done me good and set me thinking on some of the
problems of composition. My only regret is that it resulted in the loss of
one of my dearest friends, Mr. Anagnos.
the publication of "The Story of My Life" in the Ladies' Home
Journal, Mr. Anagnos has made a statement, in a letter to Mr. Macy, that at
the time of the "Frost King" matter, he believed I was innocent.
He says, the court of investigation before which I was brought consisted of
eight people: four blind, four seeing persons. Four of them, he says,
thought I knew that Miss Canby's story had been read to me, and the others
did not hold this view. Mr. Anagnos states that he cast his vote with those
who were favourable to me.
however the case may have been, with whichever side he may have cast his
vote, when I went into the room where Mr. Anagnos had so often held me on
his knee and, forgetting his many cares, had shared in my frolics, and found
there persons who seemed to doubt me, I felt that there was something
hostile and menacing in the very atmosphere, and subsequent events have
borne out this impression. For two years he seems to have held the belief
that Miss Sullivan and I were innocent. Then he evidently retracted his
favourable judgment, why I do not know. Nor did I know the details of the
investigation. I never knew even the names of the members of the
"court" who did not speak to me. I was too excited to notice
anything, too frightened to ask questions. Indeed, I could scarcely think
what I was saying, or what was being said to me.
have given this account of the "Frost King" affair because it was
important in my life and education; and, in order that there might be no
misunderstanding, I have set forth all the facts as they appear to me,
without a thought of defending myself or of laying blame on any one.
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