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How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the Surrounding World
“I was born in the summer of 1914 in the village of Belozerki near Kherson in the Ukraine. My parents were poor peasants. When my father was sent to the front in 1914, mother remained the only bread-winner in a family consisting of my father’s brothers and sisters and my sick grandfather. Mother worked as a day housemaid for a priest. In any weather, in autumn mud and winter frost she got up before dawn and went far away, across the river leaving me in the charge of my ailing grandfather.
“But no matter how hard the early years of my life were, they were still ’a golden childhood’ until the day I became ill. It happened in the summer of 1919 when I was five.
“I still have some memories of my illness. For example, I remember that I had a high fever; I had visions of fires, fiery mad dogs which chased me. I did not see anything, but I thought it was because I was weak and did not want to open my eyes. Mother attended to me all the time (grandfather had died, and the other members of the family went to live on their own so mother and I were left alone). I recognised her touch without opening my eyes. I remember once when I regained consciousness, mother gave me tea with apricot jam. This time I wanted to open my eyes to see where the jam was and what colour it was. I opened my eyes—or so it seemed to me—but I couldn’t see the jam and couldn’t learn what colour it was....
“I was ill for a long time, I remember that well because when I began to recover I noticed that it was cold; and indeed it was already autumn. But I didn’t mind the autumn. The terrible thing was that neither mother nor I had any doubts left that I had gone blind and was almost deaf... The country was in chaos; the Civil War was on, and of course mother was unable to send me for treatment. She did what she could, of course. She took me to doctors in Kherson but the eye and ear specialists only patted my head and sympathetically told my mother not to lose heart.
“In the autumn of 1922 the People’s Education Authority in Kherson sent me to a school for blind children in Odessa where I stayed until 1924. I soon realised that all the pupils at the school were blind. They kept bumping into me, feeling me with their hands and asking me something. I shunned the crowd, cried a lot, and longed lo be with sighted people. The older pupils and the teachers were nice to me—they took me for walks, gave me trinkets, necklaces and ribbons, patted me and tried to teach me things. Nobody had time to instruct me individually, and there was no point in my attending classes because I couldn’t hear the teacher’s explanations. When addressing me, they had to shout loudly into my right ear: my left ear went deaf immediately after my illness.
“A year after I entered the school, my right ear also went deaf. They pitied me but they could not help me. They took me to doctors and treated me; they sent me to a sanatorium for children, but all was in vain. I spent solitary days in my bedroom.
“They didn’t even take me for walks about town any more because, having lost hearing, my sense of balance was impaired and I couldn’t walk by myself.
“A professor in Odessa, learning that there was a deaf, dumb, and blind girl, wrote to Professor Sokolyansky about me for he was then in the process of setting up an institution for deaf, dumb, and blind children. I entered the Kharkov clinic for the deaf, dumb, and blind in 1925.
“My admission to the clinic for the deaf, dumb, and blind marked the beginning of a new and unusual time. There were already five patients at the clinic at the time. We were well cared for, and the place was clean and pleasant, the staff was wonderfully kind to us. And I think it would be true to say that our teachers and Sokolyansky himself loved us as if we were their own children.
“It was not until I had got used to the new situation and settled down to a routine that they began to instruct me. Professor Sokolyansky began to rahabilitate my speech which had been impaired after I went deaf. The Professor’s efforts were successful, and my oral speech was almost completely restored. Of course I couldn’t hear what I said and couldn’t judge how I was talking. But everyone who talked to me corrected me all the time and I was never allowed (and am still not allowed) to strain my voice or talk loudly.”
Olga Skorokhodova, How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the Surrounding World.
“With the onset of blindness and deafness I became haunted by a painful feeling of mistrust of everything around me. It seemed to me that all things living and inanimate were out to deceive me. Therefore I felt that everything around me was full of ’lies and cheating’. I didn’t trust the table, the chairs, the bed, the plates and any other objects.
“When I gingerly approached the corner of the room where the big stove was and where the oven forks and the poker were, they at first appeared to me quite harmless, smooth and long sticks with iron ’tips’ that felt coarse to the touch. Rather timidly, but with interest, I explored the oven forks and the poker with my hands being aware that they were not moving towards me. I had a momentary feeling that the oven forks and the poker had no intention of bashing me: after all they did not move, there was no doubt about it in my mind, because while my hands were touching the handles and the iron parts, the oven forks and the poker were perfectly well-behaved. But as soon as I began running about the room and lost my sense of direction while running (which happened quite often after I went deaf and lost my sense of balance) the oven fork and the poker in the corner of the room would ’get in my way’. They suddenly started behaving quite differently than when I used to creep up to them slowly and touch them lightly with my fingers, feeling that they were immobile and thinking of them as lifeless. Whenever I drifted by chance into the ’ugly corner’ I was invariably stunned by the fact that the oven fork and the poker immediately ’came to life’. That is to say, the poker would hit me hard on the face when I stepped on it and the oven forks also began falling on me when I accidentally touched them.
“I felt less insulted by the ’quarrelsome’ oven forks and poker when mother was around to intervene, i.e., when she would restore them to their place in the corner. Then she would put something cold to my bruises and bumps. But when mother was away for a whole day, I felt miserable and tried to keep away from the ’dangerous’ corner. And when mother returned home I would lead her up to the poker and the oven forks and gesture to her that they had ’attacked’ me. I found it strange that these long sticks, which were probably taller than my mother, were ’afraid’ of her: they immediately became motionless.
“The conflict temporarily settled, I returned to my thoughts and the results of my ’reflections’ were not always comforting. I did not quite understand my environment, and that made me more distrustful of the objects which I imagined to be either good or bad. Buckets and small tubs could be bad. Buckets were especially ill-behaved when they were full of water. In the spring and summer when it was warm, people would leave buckets, both empty and full, near the house and sometimes in the middle of the yard. I would bump into these buckets and hurt my feet. When the buckets were full of water, they seemed to be harder because they were heavier. I got bruises on my feet and fell into a puddle if I tipped the bucket. No wonder I thought ill of the buckets. No wonder I was afraid of open spaces where so many unpleasant things were in store for me.
“And when the ’angry’ objects inflicted so much grief and physical pain on me during the day, I became very confused; I felt ill because I could not understand the bad behaviour of the objects without outside help. Sometimes I threw some things away or hid them, and when mother looked for them, I gestured to her that this particular object had a way of fighting and scratching and that it should be thrown away.
“Fire was a terrible ’evil spirit’ to me. I probably developed my fear of fire and smoke and the smell of fire because there was a big Russian stove in our house which filled the room with smoke when mother forgot to open the shutter in the stove pipe.
“In the summer, we cooked our food on a clay stove in the courtyard, and the smoke from it filled the yard. I burned my hands when I put firewood into the stove, which had no door. All the people in our village kept such stoves in their courtyards and in the evening, when Ukrainian dumplings were being made, there was smoke all over the place, and to this day it brings back unpleasant memories. Those were some of my early perceptions of the environment. They provided the basis for all my ideas and my understanding of primitive and complex things alike...
“Yet in spite of all sorts of unpleasantness caused to me by the poker, the oven forks, the buckets, the tubs, dogs, pigs, cats, fire, holes in the ground and so on, I could not stay put. I wanted to perceive, know, and imagine things. My hands and my feet (with which I also explored the world when I could walk barefoot) were covered with burns, scratches and bruises. In spite of the pain, I would wade into stinging nettle to find out for myself how much of this ugly thing was around because a single thistle or nettle did not give me any idea of how large these unpleasant plants were. Of course these explorations of area around me did not have a definite or significant goal, but I wanted to know about what was around me if only to imagine the space that was outside my usual range, i.e., which I had not studied by touch, and which was therefore not included in my ’field’ of movement or in my plans for unforeseen future actions.
“You may be surprised to hear about the actions of a deaf, dumb, and blind girl. Indeed what actions could such a child undertake? My behaviour and my acts may have appeared strange to other people but they did not appear so to me. I sometimes did not understand why the poker and the oven forks fought with me or why buckets of water, dogs and pigs kept getting in my way, or why the knife cut not the bread but my finger, or why the water I poured into the cup scalded my fingers if it were hot. Many things were not as I imagined or would have liked them to be. But this did not mean that I always had to be afraid of the treachery of the objects around me in the unknown spaces. And I did not resign myself to either the situation or an immobile existence without a struggle. Mentally normal deaf, dumb, and blind children have never tended to remain in absolute repose if they were able to move, no matter how so slowly and gropingly.
“I studied these unkind and tricky objects and areas so I could imagine them as parts and wholes and control them purposefully (of course, I am using that word in hindsight). I sought to use them in my interest. This ’exploration’ of objects and their interrelationships and connections and the study of the space around me, which I explored step by step, allowed me to teach myself to walk, clumsily of course, and to use some of the objects. I could make my way about the yard, take the footpath to the vegetable garden, cross the nettle to get to the fence and generally occupy myself no matter whether other people thought my goings about useful or practical. What I needed was something to keep me busy, so I did all this for my own sake.”
Olga Skorokhodova, Aspects of the Formation of Concepts in the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind (unpublished)
In 1943 the Soviet troops approaching Kharkov were shelling the city. Once during an air-raid or artillery attack, I was hiding in the corridor of our school and from the rocking of the ground, I realised that shells were exploding nearby. I was frightened and ran up the steps into the house. The porch held a surprise for me—for some reason it was all smashed. I stopped in front of the door—for some reason I was afraid to go further. Then a woman ran up to me and said that a mine had landed in our courtyard precisely at the moment when I stopped...
An even more frightening thing happened when I was walking in the city with a friend and the Germans arrested her and took her away and I was left alone. I had a stick which I used to guide me along the pavement, but I wouldn’t dare cross the street because I knew from the smell and vibration of the ground that German motor vehicles were passing along the street. And I could also tell from the smells that German soldiers were walking past me. To make things worse, the sun was setting—I could feel that because it was getting cooler—and the Germans had imposed a curfew in Kharkov. To this day I shudder at the memory of how I entered a house and stumbled over a corpse. Then I nearly fell into the basement. A kind woman gave me shelter for the night and in the morning took me back to the school for the blind.
Life at school was not easy either. The Germans had appointed a former White Guard officer principal; I will remember his name all my life — Utkin. He threatened me many times that he would give me away to the Germans as a YCL member, and if he didn’t do it, it was only because the teachers who had stayed on at the school, prevented him from doing so by threatening to leave so he would then have to answer to the Germans for the mess he had made of the school. Utkin took away my Braille typewriter and my paper, deprived me of any chance to communicate with people, and destroyed all my notes.
In 1943, the long-awaited Soviet troops came and Utkin was arrested the next day.
The following year I was already in Moscow where I met my teacher Ivan Sokolyansky with whom I never parted until his death.
“There was only one person who invariably understood me correctly and explained whatever happened to confuse or worry or baffle me. That man was Sokolyansky. When I learnt to write, I took to putting down the questions that interested me and giving the notes to him. So I developed a habit of recording my impressions about the environment. Sokolyansky took my notes very seriously, read them attentively, preserved them and did everything to encourage my curiosity. You mustn’t think my notes were just like you can see them in my published works. Not by a long shot! At first these notes made sense only to those who instructed me. But as my colloquial speech improved, my notes became more coherent.
“When enough of these notes had been accumulated to form a large file, there was a suggestion that they should be edited and then published in book form. Of course, I redrafted my descriptions of some phenomena dozens of times. You see, it is one thing to touch, to perceive, to ‘look at’ an object with your hands. That is not too difficult. It is far more difficult to describe the object in words exactly as I perceive it, i.e., to give a complete image of the object. When the deaf, dumb, and blind describe sensations, perceptions and concepts in the language of sighted people, one should always bear in mind that their perceptions are received through different sense organs although they are described in the words of people who see and hear. When a sighted person sees a cow from a distance he says: ’I am looking at the cow, it is piebald, and it has large beautiful eyes.’ A blind person’s description of that cow would be couched in the same words as those used by sighted people, but if he were to describe his immediate sensations and perceptions, he would say the following: ’I have looked at the cow with my hands. It has a smooth, soft coat, I felt its legs and head and found the horns. They felt very hard to the touch.’
“And what can a deaf person say about piano playing? Only one thing: I held my hands on the piano. top and sensed the vibrations from what normal people call sounds...
“I perceived many phenomena. And the more I communicated with people, the more I knew about life and nature by going to places of interest, the richer and more complex became my sensations and perceptions of the external world. And I had that much more difficulty finding the necessary words to describe every individual event. I have no doubt that many of the descriptions in my book will be found wanting in ’artistic terms’ by some people.
“My knowledge grew year by year and my literary style improved. The reader may or may not believe it, but I must say that I owe all my knowledge and literary speech to reading, above all, to the reading of fiction. Reading is the salvation for blind people or deaf mutes, and especially for the latter. My teachers will tell you how to teach a deaf, dumb, and blind person to read and write. I want only to tell you that I think about reading as the only means of salvation for a multiply handicapped person such as myself. When those who are in charge of the instruction and education of the blind, the deaf, or the deaf, dumb, and blind come to understand this, their teaching will progress much faster than it does today.
“...During our visits to museums, I could not carry my Braille typewriter about with me in order to make note of what attracted my attention. For that purpose, my sighted guide carried ordinary notebooks. I told him what to put down and later translated it all with the Braille typewriter at home. It was enough for me to remember one characteristic feature of a statue I had surveyed to restore the whole image of it in my memory.
“I resorted to such brief notes all the time I was working on my book. With such ’memoranda’, I could spend whole nights describing various facts and phenomena.
“I preferred to work at night because nobody disturbed me then; my thoughts throbbed freely and begged to be committed to paper.”
Olga Skorokhodova, How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the Surrounding World
“When I appear before various audiences, I am often asked the questions: How do you perceive music? Who are your favourite composers? Do you still write poetry? How do you perceive sculpture? Do you like nature?
“I thought it would be best to answer these questions in some detail in a magazine article. The article deals with the perception and concepts of the multiply handicapped, i.e., people who are simultaneously deprived of such important means of analysis in the cognition of the external world as sight and hearing.
“In my youth, I read many books about Russian and foreign classical composers. Reading about Glinka’s life, I was struck by the words he uttered at the age of eleven or twelve: ’Music is my soul.’
“After reading these words I thought: ’Music is out of my range, so let poetry be my soul.’
“I became so fond of poetry that in my youth I could not live a single day without it. I read many books of verse Russian, Ukrainian, and the works of the world’s greatest poets. I read it myself in Braille and I had printed books read to me by anyone who was able to communicate with me (either by finger alphabet or by drawing flat letters on my palm).
“While I was sometimes at a loss for words to express my poetic aspirations, I realised that my serious interest in poetry would not be a waste of time, that sooner or later I would want to write myself. Of course being inexperienced and unversed in poetry, I thought that it was easy to write poetry—all you had to do was rhyme the words.
“I tried to write verse unaware that I was imitating Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok or even anonymous authors of various songs. I can’t remember the first verses I wrote. Perhaps some of them are still in my archives, but they are so poor and inconsequential that it’s not worth the effort trying to find them.
“I am sometimes asked how I learned to write poetry.
“Nobody taught me to write verse, and nobody instructed me in versification. I began writing poetry because I liked the rhythm of words and the harmony of rhymes. It happened before I began to use manuals of Russian language and literature. Poetry truly became my ’verbal music’; I read it often and in large quantities, and the very fact that I could feel and understand it in my own way was a source of pleasure to me.
“My relatives told me that when I was a toddler, I liked to listen to people singing songs or playing the balalaika or the accordion. After I went deaf, I became fond of poetry which was most accessible to me in terms of rhythms, harmony, vivid portrayal of human nature, emotions, man’s aspirations and struggles. We blind and deaf people find not only colourful and imaginative descriptions of nature in poetry but its rhythmic image, as it were. People who are not deaf can find all this in music, but we find it in fiction and especially in poetry.
“...When I was living through a difficult period of doubts and reappraisal of the surrounding world I was given Ragozina’s book, The History of One Soul. From that book I learnt that as a girl, Helen Keller behaved rather like I did. She touched everything with her hands, was attentive to different smells, and actively sought to perceive, imagine and understand the environment... And so I came to believe that I was surrounded by material reality and that I was perceiving it adequately. That discovery was crucial for me. It flung open the doors and windows of my imaginary ‘dark cell’ letting in smells, warm waves of light, vibrant sounds, and even nebulous perceptions of the visual and audible world. Reading about the life of Helen Keller and the unique experiment of her education gave me strength and confidence that I too could find a place in life.
“In her reminiscences about her childhood, Helen Keller writes that she liked to perceive the sound of the surf. She also liked to ’listen’ to the cat purring with her hand, to ’hear’ barking of dogs, the naying of her pony, the crowing of the rooster, and even the songs sung by her mother and nurse. Imitating them, Helen herself tried to ’pur’ and lull her dolls to sleep. The pupils at the school for the deaf, dumb, and blind in Zagorsk also like to ’listen’ to different sounds and knocks with their hands. They themselves produce lingering sounds, which gives them pleasure because they imagine that they are singing just like normal people. That is an interesting psychological trait of the deaf, dumb, and blind.
“...Sergei Sirotkin, Yulia Vinogradova, Yuri Lerner, and Natasha Korneyeva—the senior pupils at the Zagorsk school, also want to ’listen’ to music. Natasha has found a vehicle for expressing her feelings and images: she writes poetry in which she tells of the things that she can perceive and understand. She writes about nature, the flowers, the cool of the evening, the sun rising over the river or the sea. Natasha is a serious and thoughtful girl, who makes for good company; she is fond of literature and takes an interest in philosophy.
“...Yuri Lerner also tried writing poetry, but his particular gift is different. He was interested in sculpture, and with the help of his relatives and teachers he developed that interest to such an extent that he managed to enter the Krupskaya People’s University as a correspondence student of fine arts.”
Olga Skorokhodova, “On Aesthetic Perceptions of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind" (unpublished)