When most people think of Helen Keller, they usually conjure up the movie The Miracle Worker, starring Patty Duke as a young Helen and Anne Bancroft as Teacher (Annie Sullivan). takes readers beyond the iconic water pump scene from the movie, in which young Helen realizes that there’s a word for everything (in this case, “W-A-T-E-R”); a whole new world of communication opens up for her in an instant. The end.
But as Dorothy Herrmann shows in her utterly fascinating biography, Helen Keller: A Life, Keller’s life was much more complex than the movie made it out to be. Going deaf and blind at nineteen months old following an unknown illness (it is suspected she had either scarlet fever or meningitis), Keller would go on to live to the age of 87. Following her communication breakthrough, she would go on to Radcliffe and become the first deaf and blind person to earn a BA. She would become friends with people like Alexander Graham Bell (who saw himself an advocate of the deaf throughout his life, though he’s now vilified by many in the deaf community) and Mark Twain. She would also become a suffragette and passionate activist on behalf of people with disabilities, and — to the horror of many, including her family — become a radical socialist.
However, unlike many people with similar disabilities living today, Keller would never have the normal life she longed for. Since she depended on someone at all times, especially when communicating, her opportunities were limited even more than those of other women of her era. Her parents loved her, but they worried about what would become of her — at one point, her father wanted to send her off to the circus (her mother adamantly refused). Keller became famous because of her disabilities, though, so there were always donors and offers to have her make appearances. She wrote many books, and would have to work for the rest of her life doing speaking engagements, traveling even in poor health, to ensure that she would have financial security. And, most importantly, she would spend the bulk of her life living with Teacher, whom she stayed with even after Sullivan got married.
The most interesting aspect of the book was how it examined Keller’s and Sullivan’s lifelong codependent — and not altogether healthy — relationship. Keller’s parents recognized it early on and wanted to get rid of Sullivan, but feared that Keller wouldn’t be able to survive without her. Sullivan ended up giving her life to Keller, but she was a moody and controlling woman, and their relationship was difficult. Sullivan, too, had limited eyesight, and often strained her eyes at the risk of losing her remaining eyesight in order to help Keller with her work. Many believed that it was Sullivan, not Keller, who wrote all of Keller’s books and did all of Keller’s schoolwork. At Radcliffe, the women were treated with suspicion, and both were kept under close watch to ensure that it was Keller doing all the work. Sullivan can be credited creating and cementing Keller’s legacy, but there would always be naysayers who claimed that Keller was Sullivan’s puppet. For her part, Sullivan would at times complain bitterly about her lot in life, only to turn around and selflessly say that she would do anything for Keller.
I listened to Helen Keller: A Life on audiobook, and I think the narrator, Mary Peiffer, did it great justice. I was constantly amazed by how much I didn’t know about Keller’s — and, by extension, Sullivan’s — life. The biography is excellent, and it’s one I wouldn’t mind buying to add to my shelves.
Helen Keller: A Life was released on paperback by University of Chicago Press on December 15, 1999.