Booksellers vs. Bestsellers
by Jamie Lutton
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Female movers and shakers get written out of history. Some are forgotten, some overlooked, many turn into clichés. Helen Keller falls into the latter category – someone whom jokes are made about, as she was blind and deaf, but somehow famous.
Keller’s real story is generally forgotten. And, tragically, the miracle wrought by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, has also been lost. What Sullivan accomplished with Keller was once a marvel of the last century.
A few days ago, I was watching the second half of the Oscar-winning black and white film, “The Miracle Worker,” made in 1962. Anne Bancroft, as Sullivan, reprised her role in the Broadway play, and Patty Duke played Helen Keller. The film follows the first few months of Keller and Sullivan’s meeting, and the struggle to teach Keller sign language. Keller had been struck blind and deaf at age 19 months from an infection, perhaps meningitis.
Sullivan, a young, Irish-American teacher raised in a 19th century pesthouse, and half blind herself, had to fight both Keller’s strong resistance and her parents’ spoiling to get through to her. Only when Keller connected the signed letters of “water,” spelled into her hand, with water itself, was there a breakthrough.
“The Miracle Worker” is good to watch before reading Keller’s autobiography, “My Life,” on which the film is based. Keller wrote “My Life” while in college at Radcliffe in her early 20s, with Sullivan at her side to translate the lectures. Keller became the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Another book, “Helen and Teacher,” by Joseph Lash, covers her entire life, and all that she accomplished.
One key aspect of her life is generally overlooked: Keller was an ardent advocate for civil rights for people with disabilities. She worked tirelessly for this cause, lecturing in America and Europe. Keller was a pacifist and a radical socialist, writing for the Industrial Workers of the World, for several years. She was a suffragette, agitating for the right to vote and full civil rights. As well, Keller advocated for the right for women to use birth control. She was then, as now, a controversial subject. She trained herself to speak aloud, and learned how to “hear,” by putting her hands on people’s lips as they spoke – an amazing feat.
Keller did all of this with Sullivan by her side. She was Keller’s interpreter, assistant and best friend till her death in 1936.
But Keller made many lifelong friends, including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell. She also made many enemies because of her political activity. Some were impressed by her many accomplishments, then would denigrate her as an idiot when they found out about her politics. Her rebuttal to one such detractor was devastating:
“At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him… Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! What an ungallant bird it is! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”
Keller lived a very long life, and didn’t stop working until shortly before her death in 1968, at the age of 88. As long as she lived, she was out in the world, refusing to let her disability define her.
When I read “Helen and Teacher” as a teenager, I found her story to be personally inspiring because of Keller’s cool wit, intelligence, and tireless energy. I found her to be like few other women, seeing a world filled with great wrongs and injustice, and leaving it a far better place for not only people with disabilities, but for any person who, knowing her story, went out and overcame great personal obstacles.
I would like to see Hollywood, which is always searching for old movies to rip off and remake, redo “The Miracle Worker.” The black and white version is already worth watching.
The film and play end just when Keller’s life gets interesting, when the light of reason comes on in her mind at age eight. Sullivan should be remembered and honored as one of the greatest teachers of all time. People before her taught blind and deaf students to sign, but only Keller rose up, with her encouragement, to became a world leader for peace, justice and other socialist causes.
It is said that behind every great man is a strong women, be it his mother or wife. At Keller’s side was her teacher. Both women should be remembered.