Marie Heurtin – the French Helen Keller

by Alyssa Weeks | November 14, 2017

My favorite person in deaf history is Marie Heurtin. You might know her as the French Hellen Keller but to many she is not known at all. Her story was one of trials and tribulation. Marie was a deaf-blind girl who had absolutely no manners and behaved like an animal. She would kick, bite, hit, and howl. Her father wanted the best for her, but only the asylum would take her. Out of desperation he took her to the institution of Larnay, where the Daughters of Wisdom looked after deaf children and taught them. At first, they refused to accept her, but then they changed their mind. Sister Marguerite was the one to take charge of her education. When she met Marie, her hair was in dreadlocks, her face and body were filthy, and she only had a simple covering and no shoes. She was so wild that when Sister Marguerite went to pick her up her father had to tie them together to keep her from running away. She was 14 before she went to the institution. Her favorite sense was taste. She had a major appetite, and if she was hungry she would bang a plate and spoon together until someone got her food. Once, she remembered a neighbor who gave her some jam, and she got a piece of bread, found her way to the neighbors house, sat outside their house and howled until the came out. Once they came out, she showed them a piece of plain bread.

Once they got to the institute, things did not get any better. She had no table manners and would thrash around when being taught table manners. Even after four months, there was no progress, and she even began to decline. After her many months there, she finally learned table manners and allowed Sister Marguerite to wash her, clothe her, and do her hair. Marie had a favorite item, a pocket knife, that she brought from home. She would keep it on her at all times, and it would soothe her. After eight months of living there, she finally learned the word knife, a word they had been working on since she got there.

After that, Marie’s soul thirsted for this new found language that had sprung the prison bars that had laid hold on her life. After one year at the institute, she had flourished and now knew how to communicate. Sister Marguerite worked with her for 10 years, and in that time she taught her sign language, brail, and she even learned dominoes, which became a favorite. Anne – Marie Poyet came to the institution in 1907. She was also deaf – blind, and Marie welcomed her and took care of her. When Marie was 25, Sister Marguerite died in 1910. Marie was very sad but kept learning. Also in 1910, just after Sister Marguerite passed, Marie welcomed her little sister Marthe into the institution. Marthe was deaf – blind as well.

At age 36, Marie died of pulmonary congestion. Marie paved the way for many deaf – blind girls after her, which made a big difference in their lives. Her story is truly inspiring. They have made a movie about her called “Marie’s Story.” I love her story because she, even when everything was going against her, still rose to the top.

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