In the winter of 1892, the “bright sky” of Helen’s childhood was darkened by a single cloud. Helen found herself living in doubt, anxiety, and fear, no longer able to enjoy one of her favorite things in the world—books. Even now, she writes, the thought of the “dreadful days” of that winter chills her heart. Helen had written a story called “The Frost King,” and sent it to Mr. Anagnos at the Perkins Institution, and this little story was the root of all her troubles. In this chapter Helen endeavors to “set forth the facts” about what happened.
Helen had been having a delightful time learning all about the world, herself, and new avenues of communication and language. As Helen embarked on yet another endeavor to attempt to connect and communicate, she found herself, at last, coming up against a wall, and experiencing a dark and painful moment in her growth and education.
Helen wrote “The Frost King” at Fern Quarry, the autumn after she had learned how to speak. While up at the country house, Miss Sullivan had described to Helen the beauty of the autumn foliage, and Helen, reflecting upon this time, notes that Miss Sullivan’s descriptions must have stirred up subconscious memories of a story which had been read to Helen in her youth. As Helen, inspired by the descriptions of the foliage, sat down to write, she thought that she was making up a story. The writing came flowing out of her, and though Helen now knows that if words and images come to her too easily it probably means that they are not “the offspring of [her] own mind,” at the time she thought that the story was entirely of her own invention.
Helen reflects on how, moved as she was by Miss Sullivan’s characteristically gorgeous and graceful descriptions of nature, she sat down to write, but unintentionally began reproducing a story which had been told to her in her youth. Though Helen did not know it at the time, her unique sense of language and how it relates to memory was creating a disconnect and impacting her communication.
When the story was finished, Helen read it aloud to Miss Sullivan, who corrected her pronunciation and praised her for her hard work. That night at dinner, Helen read the story aloud to her family, and they were so impressed that someone even asked her if she had read the story in a book. Helen, however, insisted that it was her own idea, and that she had composed it for Mr. Anagnos. Helen then copied the story and sent it to Mr. Anagnos, feeling as if she was “walking on air” as she took it to the post office. Mr. Anagnos received the story and was delighted by it, and even published it in one of the Perkins Institution reports. Helen felt that she was at the “pinnacle” of happiness, and did not know that she would soon be dashed back to earth.
Helen was so pleased with and proud of herself for having finally written a short story that she shared it with everyone she could. Her parents found the story remarkable, but didn’t really doubt that it was Helen’s own invention once she assured them that it had come from her own head. Their initial disbelief actually increased Helen’s sense of pride, and she was overjoyed, given her love of books and literature, to finally have contributed something impressive of her own to the world of stories and books.
Once Helen was back in Boston for school, it came to light that a story very similar to Helen’s, called “The Frost Fairies,” had been published in a book before Helen was born. Helen realized that the story must have been read to her at some point in her childhood—meaning her own story was plagiarism. Helen was ashamed and embarrassed, but luckily Mr. Anagnos believed Helen’s innocence in the matter, and showed her tenderness and kindness. The night before a school celebration, however, one of Helen’s teachers asked her about the story, and when Helen answered that Miss Sullivan had told her about Jack Frost and the turning of the autumn leaves up at Fern Quarry, the teacher believed that Helen had willfully copied the story. She told this to Mr. Anagnos, who also began to believe that Helen had lied.
Helen’s grief at realizing that she had unwittingly plagiarized a childhood story was immense. For a while she was bolstered by the support, goodwill, and good faith of her teachers and her beloved Mr. Anagnos, but eventually a series of miscommunications and sneaking suspicions led to Helen being placed on trial as though she were a criminal. Though Mr. Anagnos had initially believed Helen, misinformation from one of Helen’s teachers turned him against his young pupil, and he believed that she had deceived him and all her teachers purposefully.
Helen was brought before a “court” composed of teachers and officers of the Perkins Institution, and forced to answer their questions without Miss Sullivan present. Helen was so upset and so nervous that she could hardly speak, but tried her best to communicate that she had not intentionally copied “The Frost Fairies.”
The Perkins Institution took Helen’s “plagiarism” very seriously, and spooked her gravely by forcing her to appear on her own in an unfamiliar setting to prove her own innocence in the matter despite the director’s belief that she was lying.
Miss Sullivan tracked a copy of the original “Frost Fairies” stories to the summer home of a friend the two of them had stayed with many years ago, and their hostess did recall Miss Sullivan having read Helen many books aloud that summer. Helen posits that because she was so young that summer, and so new to language, she must have put in a great effort to understand and remember the words being spelled out to her—she believes that the language of the story became “stamped” on her brain, though she did not realize it or remember from whence it came.
As more and more of the truth of the matter came to light, Helen realized that the peculiar way in which she learned and retained information had contributed to her detailed but unconscious memory of the story and the ease with which she recalled it, causing her to believe that it had sprung from her own mind.
During the ordeal, Helen received many messages of support and sympathy, and even got a letter from the author of “The Frost Fairies” herself. The letter assured Helen that someday she would write a wonderful story of her very own, but Helen writes now that this is not true—she has rarely played with words for pleasure since the incident, and even now when she writes simple letters to friends and family she is seized by the fear that the words she is writing are not her own.
Helen notes that she had, in much of her early writing, a habit of assimilating things that struck or pleased her and reprinting them as her own unknowingly. She was learning, she says—as all young people learn—through imitation. She fears she still has not completed the process of coming into her own as a writer and a thinker, as she still cannot always distinguish her own thoughts from concepts she has read about. Though she still struggles to write thoughtfully and originally, she keeps on trying because she is “not willing to acknowledge defeat.” She hopes that one day she will yet find her true, original voice.
Helen notes that many young writers learn to express themselves just the way that she did; she did nothing wrong, but fell prey to the process by which young minds develop their own senses of the world and their own ways of describing it, expressing themselves, and communicating with others. Helen’s renewed determination came, perhaps, from realizing that she made a mistake that anyone could have made, and knowing that the only way to avoid repeating it was to soldier on and strengthen her skills.
Helen writes that this “sad experience” has actually done more good than harm in the long run—it has caused her to think deeply about the problems of composition. She regrets that she lost a friend in Mr. Anagnos, but ends the chapter by stating that since portions of her memoir have been published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, Mr. Anagnos has made a public statement announcing that he always believed Helen was innocent. Despite this, however, Helen cannot shake the memory of walking into the “courtroom” and feeling only hostility, suspicion, and menace in the air. Helen writes that she has given this account in her memoir because the incident was important to her life and to her education, and she does not want for there to be any misunderstandings about the hard facts.
In a pattern which will become repetitious throughout the text, a painful lesson or an unhappy realization actually leads to a breakthrough, or a change, or a new way of looking at things for Helen. Though this incident seriously impacted her life and transformed a very important friendship, Helen emerged from it stronger, and with a renewed desire to dedicate herself to the written word.