by Dorothy Herrmann (1998, Knopf)
Like most people, I saw The Miracle Worker but knew little beyond that about the most famous disabled person of the 20th century. When I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an example of a lie by omission was that of Helen Keller, who lived an active life until she was 87, writing and lecturing about her views of a variety of topics but whose adult life most people are totally ignorant of because (in the author’s view) of her radical politics and unpopular views. Ever since then, I’ve been planning to find out more.
I found Herrmann’s biography very interesting, if sometimes too detailed and somewhat repetitive (she incorporates the life stories of practically everyone in the book; for example, does the reader need to know the tragic details of Samuel Clemens’ life in a biography of Helen Keller? pp. 104-106). She devotes many pages to the unique relationship between Helen and Annie Sullivan, her “Teacher”, who both controlled her and was controlled by her. Numerous people have argued over which of these women was the more intelligent. Were Helen’s ideas and literary output truly hers? Or were they Annie Sullivan’s. Sullivan guarded her charge against even family members who sought to come between them. According to Herrmann, Annie Sullivan was the only person Helen ever truly loved. (Nevertheless, once when Sullivan was away recuperating from an illness, Helen fell in love with a young man who wished to elope with her, but their plans were foiled and he was prevented from seeing her again. Was the brevity of this affair such that Helen could not be said to have trule loved Peter Fagan?)
Herrmann devotes many pages to Keller’s relationships with other people in her life. She quotes extensively from her books, poems, and letters. The book features numerous photographs of Keller at different ages and with different people (and dogs–she was a great dog lover). Herrmann decries the tight control under which Helen Keller lived all of her life. Her “handlers” (as we would call them now, including her family) wanted to present her to the world as a pure and innocent being uncorrupted by normal human emotions and desires. As a result, she was never allowed normal friendships or love affairs and learned to always present herself as serene, capable, and accepting of her disabilities. She did not permit herself, or was not permitted, to show anger, to make mistakes (Annie Sullivan used to make her retype everything she wrote until it was perfect) or (God forbid) to have sexual feelings for a man. Part of this was the time in which Helen Keller lived (1880 – 1968), and part of it was everyone’s revulsion of disabled people who actually looked disabled. (Helen Keller and her handlers placed great emphasis on looking and dressing very well; for much of her life Keller was photographed only in profile so that people would not see her left eye, which protruded and looked obviously blind.) All of these things made me feel very sorry for Helen Keller. But she was a pioneer, and disabled people today have benefited from her life and work–especially hearing- and/or sight-impaired people.
Interestingly, according to Herrmann, Keller considered her one true disability to be her voice, which throughout her life was unattractive and difficult to understand, despite her continuous efforts to improve it. Her blindness and deafness were surmountable obstacles in comparison; she did not remember being able to hear or see, but her “tinny, robotic, and grotesque” voice (( p. 180) prevented her from expressing herself.
Reading this biography has inspired me to read some of Keller’s own works, notably The World I Live In (1908), in which she describes what it is like to be deaf and blind, and to visit the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea in the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C, where lie the ashes of Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan Macy, and Polly Thomson, companion to Keller after the death of Mrs. Macy.