Jan/Feb 2017 Nonfiction

My Helen Keller

by Jane Van Slembrouck

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

Some girls go through a princess phase as they peer into the rolling fog of adolescent femininity. I went through a Helen Keller phase. Helen's transformation from wild child to celebrity icon struck me as the perfect dramatic plot line. In the evangelical community of my upbringing, having an exciting salvation story made you stand out as worthy of attention, and Helen had what seemed to me the ultimate personal testimony. She not only overcame the isolation of being deafblind by learning to sign, read, and write—she also left behind her wild, disobedient ways to become a docile girl, then young woman. This crucial feminine narrative was so familiar that I could feel it rattling in my bones; in my world, it was inseparable from Christian redemption.

Helen's story of learning to use language seemed to imbue my ordinary, able-bodied life with higher meaning. Washing my hands at the bathroom sink, I'd recall the scene in the film adaptation of The Miracle Worker when Helen (ably played by Patty Duke) has her epiphany at the water pump. She is seven years old, around the age I was when I first saw The Miracle Worker. For weeks Anne Sullivan, her teacher, has been trying to help Helen understand that things have names. She grasps the general concept, but she keeps confusing nouns and verbs; she thinks that w-a-t-e-r and c-u-p mean "to drink." But then, with an exhilarating rush, she understands. The shape being signed insistently into her wet palm means just one thing: water. Remembering that moment gave me a vicarious thrill. What if in the act of washing my own hands before dinner, I too might awaken to some new knowledge? Helen's story implied that there is a veil between this life and another—one where being good, wise, and beautiful are actually possible.

The enlightened Helen delighted me, but I also loved the old Helen, the original Helen, the feral, volatile pre-Sullivan outsider of The Miracle Worker. That Helen was impatient and fearless: craving satisfaction, she used urgent signs of her own devising to demand cake and milk. Inspired by this unrepentant Helen, I once dashed around the dinner table, swiping food off my sisters' plates. I briefly considered smashing Millie, my favorite porcelain doll, the way Helen had smashed her own doll, a gift from Sullivan. I didn't know what the smashing of Keller's doll meant, except that it suggested a raw anger and need that I instinctively recognized. Now its symbolism is much clearer: smashing her doll was Helen's resistance to being an obedient plaything. It was a premonition of the shattering of her own life and the birth of another unrecognizable one. It also suggests something more universal—something I must have instinctively known: all girls are broken in some way before leaving childhood behind.


The Miracle Worker was my first point of contact with Keller, but she was also in the ether in the late 1980s. Remarkably, I don't think I ever read Keller's own famous autobiography, The Story of My Life (1902), when I was a child. Every classroom and library I entered was populated with badly illustrated, hagiographic biographies, and I took to these retellings avidly—until they started to sour for me. The Helen they described was so towering that I felt overshadowed by contrast. Her life had a single, gleaming purpose—to inspire others, while my own life seemed small, diffuse, and trivial. Other people must have been weary of Helen's perfection too. One day a middle school classmate, hardly able to control his laughter, croaked out, "How did Helen Keller's parents punish her? They put Saran Wrap on the toilet." I laughed heartily. I had to admit it was a good one.

Then for decades I more or less forgot about Helen. She was a figure of childhood, sweet but mildly embarrassing, a memory destined to be boxed up like my porcelain dolls. She didn't enter my life again until I was in graduate school. I was writing a thesis about representations of disability in late nineteenth-century U.S. literature and culture. Keller's name kept popping up in my reading, so I did some digging. I came across the term "supercrip" in my research. It's a word used in the disability studies world for people with remarkable physical differences who have defied the limitations of their bodies to accomplish astonishing feats. The supercrip offers a comforting model of disability for non-disabled observers, assuring them achievement is an individual project—one disconnected from concerns about rights or access. And it's a damaging ideal for people with disabilities because it sets the bar absurdly high and makes an "exceptional normalcy" the standard default for a successful life. Of course the supercrip paradigm comes up in discussions of Keller. In a fictional letter addressed to her, critic Georgina Kleege has this to say to the woman who is arguably responsible for shaping modern attitudes about disability: "You with your cheerfulness, your stiff upper lip, your valiant smile in the face of adversity. Those who came after you feel a moral imperative to fight back the tears, to minimize the trouble, to avoid asking for help."

This is a significant charge and one that intrigued me, but I wondered if it was a full enough picture of Keller. The reading I was doing was leading me to suspect that the Helen Keller media machine, alive and well in her lifetime and chugging along decades after her death, was at least as much responsible for this image of valiant good cheer as anything Keller herself had to say.

And the machine had plenty to fuel it. After Laura Bridgman, Helen Keller was only the second deafblind person in the United States to be successfully educated. Bridgman, 51 years her senior, had been a global celebrity in her own right, but Keller was more curious, beautiful, and charismatic; she also had the advantage of a brilliant teacher. Keller had another major advantage—timing. Born in 1880, she came of age in a new era of mass media, photography, and the moving picture. Her image and story circulated globally. Newspapers made outlandish claims about her, including that she could detect color with her fingertips and read and sign in multiple languages. A 1910 headline in the newspaper The Day Book captures the tone of the coverage: "Helen Keller, blind, sees great light that will purify the world."

But what about Keller herself? What did she have to say about all this? As early as age nineteen, when she wrote The Story of My Life, Keller clearly grasped the allegorical power of her story. Describing her life after Sullivan's arrival, she writes, "I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, 'Knowledge is love and light and vision.'" Story is an exciting read, full of elegant prose, but passages like that feel too much like church. Keller's theological references are no accident. Deaf and blind education in the nineteenth century had evangelical protestant roots. As historian R.A.R. Edwards shows, the education of those with sensory disabilities was considered a form of ministry, akin to the missionary work of saving "heathens." No wonder that as a kid I picked up on this theological strain in her story.

As an adult doing scholarship, I knew that disability is not a spiritual problem so much as a social construction—a problem of social inequality, more so than a problem of minds and bodies. It seemed to me that the language of spiritual conversion that had so attracted me as a child makes deafblindness seem like an individual crisis to be addressed rather than a chance to expand and diversify social institutions.

I had been hoping to find some of this social constructionist perspective in Story—an admission that the challenges of disability aren't hers alone to solve. But in her first book she seems mainly intent on showing the normal world just how diligently she worked to be part of it. The Keller I found in Story was released from spiritual bondage and began her fast ascent—learning braille, perfecting lip-reading, developing speech, and attending college.

And there's certainly evidence to be had for the idea that Keller affirmed the able-bodied status quo rather than challenge it with the complicating fact of difference. She was a leading advocate for the education of the blind and deaf, but her record for deaf advocacy is tarnished by her support for oral education, an approach that advocates teaching deaf students to speak and read lips, and eschews the use of sign languages. It's a perspective that was popular in her day but that deliberately undermines deaf identity and community.

And on days when I was inclined to view Keller as an upwardly-mobile assimilationist, I could easily find supporting evidence. Her photographs alone tell this story. If you type "Helen Keller" into a Google image search, you'll be hard pressed to find a picture in which she is not smiling. Again and again, there is Keller typing at her typewriter, posing with famous friends, or smiling beatifically while caressing a sculpture. Biographer Dorothy Herrmann notes that of the thousands of photographs of Keller in library archives, only one shows its subject looking anything less than happy. I mulled over that outlier image. It shows a worried-looking, middle-aged Keller sitting in the back seat of a car with her companion Polly Thomson. Scrawled on the back of the photo in an unknown hand are the words, "Too tense. Just throw it away." That command captivated me. Who wrote it? And how did the photograph manage to survive? Was it just an accident or an act of defiance? The image and its mysterious caption implied a human Keller, someone capable of being impatient and angry. Mostly they made me wonder what else had been successfully redacted to preserve the Helen Keller persona.

Well, as it turned out, her eyes. Yes, her actual eyes. In early portraits, Keller usually appears in profile to conceal her left eye, which was disfigured by the illness that blinded her as a baby. As an adult, she underwent secret surgery to have her own eyes replaced with blue glass orbs. Those false eyes astonished me. They reveal much about the self-abnegating nature of Keller's celebrity—the pressure to neutralize difference with a simulacrum of sight. The inspirational Helen Keller existed not for herself but for others, and for their comfort she modified her appearance in a way that was surely painful.

The more I was finding out about Keller, the more uncertain I was how to feel about her. I had just learned about her false eyes when I came across a slim volume written by a contemporary, the actress Georgette Leblanc. In The Girl Who Found the Blue Bird (1914), Leblanc describes her impressions of the famous 33-year-old. Having spent a short visit in her company, Leblanc walked away awestruck, but her awe tips into a kind of revulsion as she reflects on Keller's inability to hone her self-image visually. Feminine self-knowledge, the actress felt, entails constantly monitoring one's own impact on others. These others constitute a collective mirror, validating a woman at every turn of her life. Keller had a naivety about her because "the mirror has not instructed her." In the absence of all this visual confirmation, what is there? A kind of void, thought Leblanc.

The notion that Keller was somehow stunted because she couldn't gauge her worth visually is foolish. It puts too high a premium on sight and fails to notice the ways that Keller did "look back" through her awareness of audience as she undertook personal writing, social critiques, and a lifetime of advocacy work. As biographer Kim Nielsen and others show, the Helen Keller who learned to recognize w-a-t-e-r grew up to be a suffragist, a pacifist, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a vocal socialist. She wrote twelve books in total, including memoirs, poetry, and the essay collection Out of the Dark (1913), which spells out her socialist convictions and argues for the educational advancement of people with sensory disabilities. In her long and varied life—one that took her around the world and put her before myriad audiences—Keller would advocate for women, children, workers, and others. And when her ideas about rights and equality made her supporters uncomfortable, she kept on going. Next to all that, being able to see one's reflection in others' eyes starts to seem downright trivial.

What's more, it's condescending to think that Keller wasn't acutely aware of her status as public spectacle. In her 1929 memoir Midstream, she writes:

Oh, the weariness of sitting hours upon hours in the same attitude as I have to do sometimes, not daring to look around or move an arm lest I be stared at or my uncertain movements misconstrued! I cannot see people staring at me; but I am always accompanied by persons who can see, and it is embarrassing to them. I am told that in the Orient people avert their eyes when a blind man passes, and the Arabs cover their eyes with their hands when they enter his dwelling. I wish this sensibility were more prevalent here. (244)

Tellingly, she is concerned first with not embarrassing her friends, but she also dearly wishes for privacy from the world's voyeuristic interest. If occasionally people would just stop looking at her, that would be nice. Even vague cultural practices that spring from stigmatization sound like respite.

But, as I found out, there was more at stake for Keller in behaving well than not damaging her image. As late as the first decades of the twentieth century, many people still doubted the mental and moral capacities of those with sensory disabilities. To counteract these assumptions, teachers of deaf and blind students trained their pupils to behave as "normally" as possible. Samuel Gridley Howe, teacher to Laura Bridgman, wrote that schools should instruct their pupils not to make vocalizations or swing their limbs to distract themselves from boredom. Maybe it was the pressure to counter the assumption that deafblindness made her less virtuous or intelligent that led Keller to smile so much. Georgina Kleege, the twenty-first century critic who railed against Keller's optimism, finally ponders the same thing in her letter to Keller: "Did you keep that smile glued to your lips because you knew it was the only thing that stood between you and the institution, the asylum, and the freak show?"

This sounds like hyperbole, but it's actually a legitimate question. Keller was never far from the freak show stage. Between 1920 and 1924, in response to financial hardship, Keller and Sullivan accepted a long-standing offer to perform in vaudeville. I was a little shocked when I learned about Keller's vaudeville chapter, but I probably shouldn't have been. Showing herself in public was far and away her most lucrative skill, and on the vaudeville stage—unlike the lecture circuit where she also appeared—her story could be distilled to a quick and easy 20 minutes of performing. Sullivan would recount the story of Keller's education and Keller would give a short uplifting speech. Music played and the two sometimes took questions from the audience, which Sullivan relayed to Keller through manual sign. As critic Susan Crutchfield notes, Keller's routine had the right combination of features for vaudeville: difference plus extraordinary talent. But Crutchfield goes further and locates the performance within the freak show tradition. For all its classiness, the show mainly existed to give "normal" onlookers a chance to witness an exceptional person perform feats that seemed remarkable only because they defied expectation.

Despite its problematic function, Keller seems to have enjoyed her time in vaudeville. Writing in Midstream, she reflects, "At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same 'bill' with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots, but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me" (210). I'm struck by her appreciation for the "warm tide." There's something attractive and democratic in that sentiment, but that's not all. Keller seems to want to dignify vaudeville as a genre, to elevate it from its lowbrow reputation. Then again maybe she just wanted to distance herself from its most unsavory features, as suggested by that possibly defensive "our little act was dignified." Whatever the case, it's clear to me that Keller was no snob. Vaudeville let her reach audiences who wouldn't have attended her lectures or read her works: working class people and immigrants, including those who couldn't speak or understand English. I was starting to appreciate another Keller, someone simultaneously drawn into the public sphere and someone drawing the public toward her.

As I researched her popular reception, it became clear that in-person performance of any kind tended to be a fairly friendly outlet for Keller. Audiences adored seeing her in person. Writing, on the other hand, had the potential to spark controversy. With her interesting body absent, her ideas could be scrutinized and critiqued.

Keller was on the receiving end of far more skepticism than I previously imagined. A corresponding vein runs through her writing: an ongoing engagement with critics that amounts to a struggle for intellectual legitimacy as a writer and thinker. This soon became the focus of my research, and I eagerly tracked instances in which Keller is doing the challenging and often frustrating work of defending not only her ideas but her very right to communicate them. Unsurprisingly, her politics—especially her socialist writings—generated the most controversy. Critics insisted that her perspectives on labor, economic inequality, war, and other topics were tiresome or disappointing. Worse, they had to be cribbed from those in her inner circle.

According to some outspoken commentators, Keller's very use of language was suspect. When Story appeared in 1903, the psychologist Thomas Cutsforth denounced her use of visual and auditory metaphors as evidence of "loose thinking" and "verbal unreality." Keller's writing should exclude any reference to indirect experience, Cutsforth claimed. There should be no mention of the sky, say, and even idiomatic uses of the verb "to see" (e.g. "going to see a friend") revealed a presumptuousness. The real crime, of course, wasn't verbal imprecision but that writing gave Keller an authority that transcended her body and rendered impairment moot. For some readers, at least, this was unacceptable.

Perhaps the earliest plot point in the story of Keller's difficulties as a writer happened when she was just a child. At age eleven, she wrote a short story for a friend, Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Anagnos rushed to publish the story, "The Frost King," in the school newsletter, accompanied by his own gushing preface. Then someone noticed that Helen's story heavily resembled—word for word in spots—a story already in print. At first at a loss for what she had done wrong, Keller eventually acknowledged that someone must have read her the story and portions must have lodged in her memory. Though she maintained that the plagiarism was accidental, she was called before an investigative court of teachers and administrators at Perkins, without Sullivan allowed to be present, and interrogated about the incident. Soon after, Anagnos turned his back on Keller, publicly declaring her a fraud.

More than the transformative moment at the water pump, this episode reveals what it must have been like to be thrown into language. You cast about, drunk with hope and potential, but make terrible missteps. Forever after "The Frost King" episode, Keller worried about her ability to distinguish her own thoughts from those of others. But she also refused to scrape and cower, or be marginalized as a freak, either for her youthful successes or for her failings. Those early mistakes, she writes in Story, "were mental gymnastics. I was learning, as all young and inexperienced persons learn, by assimilation and imitation, to put ideas into words." Writing is hard, whoever you are, she maintained. All of us struggle to "express our confused ideas, half feelings half thoughts, when we are little more than bundles of instinctive tendencies."

So even in the gentle, upward mobility tale that is Story, Keller assumes her readers need to be educated, not only about her differences but about the "normal" person's potential for ignorance, cruelty, and vanity. In what was proving to be my favorite of her works, The World I Live In (1908), she continues the work of educating. A set of essays that ask us to reconsider the nature of sensory perception, World is an exploratory work of phenomenology. Keller draws on her authority as a deafblind thinker to question sight's dominance among the senses. Sight is a cerebral sense, she explains; it lets us stand at a remove and imagine we are mere observers. Even the physical mechanism of seeing involves mediation and disruption: visual information reaches the retina upside down, and the brain must then invert this data to create the right-side-up world we know and expect. Touch, though, involves no such distance. "A tangible object passes complete into my brain with the warmth of life upon it and occupies the same place that it does in space" (10).

The sensing subject welcomes touch sense and relishes embodied existence. "My whole body is a vibroscope," Keller writes. But contrary to critics like Cutsforth who insist on a rigid empiricism, Keller says her understanding isn't limited to what she directly senses. True knowledge comes from what she calls "consonance," a synthesis of direct perception, second hand experience, memory, and imagination. Where direct experience lacks, Keller uses inference and association to fill in the gaps. In response to the claim that she can't possibly grasp the vastness of an open ocean, she writes, "move me along constantly over water, water, nothing but water, and you give me the solitude, the vastness of ocean which fills the eye." Reading this, it occurs to me that even being sighted doesn't ensure that I can easily grasp concepts like "vastness." The notion of an "open ocean" is at least as much the stuff of story, myth, and poetry as it is direct experience.

And this is precisely Keller's point. World doesn't want to exoticize deafblindness; it wants to make readers with five senses stop and consider just how incarnate they are. But in the process, World also speaks for those with sensory disabilities, gathering up their sense of frustration and disenfranchisement:

Critics delight to tell us what we cannot do. They assume that blindness and deafness sever us completely from the things which the seeing and the hearing enjoy...They declare that the very sensations we have from the sense of touch are "vicarious," as though our friends felt the sun for us! They deny a priori what they have not seen and I have felt. Some brave doubters have gone so far even as to deny my existence. In order, therefore, that I may know that I exist, I resort to Descartes's method: "I think, therefore I am." Thus I am metaphysically established, and I throw upon the doubters the burden of proving my non-existence.

Here was the wry, impatient Keller who talked back. I would find this voice again and again interspersed through her later works, like Midstream and Out of the Dark. Better than the doubters, better than the acolytes, Keller proved her own existence—over and over, and in so many different contexts that perhaps it's more accurate to say she proved her existences. Each time I thought I had a handle on her, I'd find something new she'd written or learn something crucial about her—the fact that she'd been a strong supporter of women's access to birth control or that she'd traveled to Hiroshima as the first American Goodwill Ambassador after WWII. I had been struggling to reconcile the many Kellers I had come to know: the cheerful icon, the advocate, the performer, the lively essayist prone to sardonic riffs. They didn't all fit together neatly, but why should they?

Like someone with a crush, I wanted to talk about Keller with anyone who would listen. I put excerpts of Story and The World I Live In on my syllabus for an undergraduate literature seminar on disability and literature. The students in my class had all heard of her, but it was the first time any of them had read her work. The class discussion that day got off to a faltering start. A few students spoke up to say that they thought Keller's accomplishments and attitude were inspiring, but after that the conversation trailed off, as if this was the consensus view and now there was nothing more to say. I felt despondent, but I rallied and suggested that everyone locate an example of inspiring prose to discuss. Sure enough, we landed at the water scene in Story:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word "water," first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!

Someone read it aloud, and we hung out with the passage for a while. A few students noticed the spiritual connotations of a water-as-baptism. I brought up Wordsworth (and Plato before him) to explore Keller's idea that learning is really remembering. Someone offered that this is really a passage about freedom, about how language transports you to a deeper, fuller life by breaking down the boundaries between the self and others. We talked about how w-a-t-e-r becomes water—signifier becomes signified—in the moment of communication at the well. The scene enacts a sort of full-body ecstasy of linguistic communication. And that reminded us of the chapter on touch in World, which includes the line, "in all my experiences and thoughts I am conscious of a hand."

Thankfully, the class discussion didn't stall out at the water pump. Once students felt they had permission to differentiate between Keller the poster child and Keller the thinker, the discussion seemed to crack open.

When class ended, as everyone was leaving, one student stayed behind to talk. Carrie was someone I really liked. She had shared that she is on the autism spectrum, a fact that she said drew her to the class in the first place. Unlike many of her peers, she formed passionate interpretations of our readings and had no trouble expressing them. She'd been understandably steamed, for instance, by what she felt was a condescending portrayal of cognitive disabilities in one of our assigned readings. Quieter than usual during our Keller discussion, Carrie had spent most of the class time deliberately paging through the readings, as if trying to answer an unspoken question. Now she looked at me, her brows furrowed but her eyes playful:

"You like Helen Keller, don't you?"

It wasn't a question so much as an accusation, and her intensity made me grin.

"I thought so!" she exulted, laughing. "I always thought I hated her. But I might like her now."

She quickly held up a finger in warning: "Might."


Works Cited

Crutchfield, Susan. "'Play[ing] her part correctly': Helen Keller as Vaudevillian Freak." Disability Studies Quarterly 25.3 (2005). Web. 12 May 2012.

Cutsforth, Thomas D. The Blind in School and Society: A Psychological Study. New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1933. Print.

"Helen Keller, Blind, Sees Great Life that Will Purify the World." The Day Book. March 18, 1914. Library of Congress: Chronicling America. 5 October 2016. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998. Print.

Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. Print.

Keller, Helen. Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and SocialVision. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1913.

Keller, Helen. The World I Live In. Ed. Roger Shattuck. 1908. Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010. Print.

Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. Ed. Roger Shattuck. 1903. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, June 2004. Print.

Kleege, Georgina. Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Washington, DC: Gallaudet UP, 2006. Print.

Leblanc, Georgette. The Girl Who Found the Bluebird. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914. Print.

Nielsen, Kim. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. New York: New York University Press, 2004.


Previous Piece Next Piece