Book reviews

A woman of her time--and ours

Review by Sally Rosenthal

Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann. New York: Knopf, 1998. Hardcover, 394 pages, $30 (Amazon.com Price, $21).

(order this book online at end of review)

Helen Keller I know who you are. You read Ragged Edge. You're disabled and hip, a cool crip. You expect your favorite crip magazine to be just as cool. So I know what you're thinking when you see that this issue's review is of a Helen Keller biography. Yet another one. Another able-bodied dissection or sanctification of the ultimate historical icon of feminine disability. Believe me, I know what you're thinking. At best, you want to turn the page; at worst, you're already contacting the subscription department to cancel further delivery. If there's one thing cool crips don't need in the 1990s, you figure, it's another look at Keller's life.

Oh, how wrong you are.

Another look--a radically different look--at arguably the most famous disabled woman of the twentieth century is just what you do need. And you will find it in Helen Keller: A Life, a fresh, riveting interpretation of Keller's life and work by Dorothy Herrmann.

Don't feel bad, though; I almost dismissed Herrmann's book, too, when I heard the promotion of it on my local National Public Radio station. Herrmann was scheduled to be interviewed about the new biography on an upcoming talk show. This particular listener, never a fan of other Keller biographies which seemed to paint her as a saint or hopelessly enmeshed in a symbiotic relationship with her teacher Annie Sullivan Macy, wasn't overly enthusiastic about a new book. Recalling all the childhood "inspirational"i accounts I had read of Keller's life (as well as the occasional adult memoirs), I wrote off Herrmann's new work before the talk show began.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Dorothy Herrmann, a biographer who did not describe herself as disabled (leading me to assume she was nondisabled--and the book information on her gave me no information to the contrary), surprised me with her insightful, new slant on Helen Keller--who emerged from Hermann's interview as more of a mover and shaker than a plaster saint. The woman Herrmann described was a staunch supporter of labor unions, the Soviet revolution and her fellow disabled comrades in arms--certainly not the heroic figure of grade-school library books who "itriumphed"i over her disability. Herrmann, I began to suspect as I listened to the interview, just might be on to something.

What ultimately won me over, however, was the manner in which the author spoke of Helen Keller in connection with other disabled people, disabled women in particular. The Keller she wrote about was a woman with her own deaf-blind reality, a reality Herrmann reported was just as valid as any nondisabled reality. Without denying the very real limitations of Keller's life, Herrmann was able to bring her subject to life as a passionate, vital woman, albeit one whose life might always remain somewhat of an enigma. Herrmann's astute observations and articulation of them changed my mind about her subject. No longer a shadowy disabled saint, Helen Keller became both my foremother and sister.

I picked up Herrmann's book a day later on a visit to my local bookstore. And I was not disappointed. Helen Keller: A Life turned out to be just as fascinating as the radio interview.

As with any biography, the basic historical facts are there: Keller's birth in 1880 in a small Alabama town, her deaf-blindness before the age of two due to a still-debated cause, the arrival of a half-blind, poverty-stricken Annie Sullivan a few years later--and, the rest, as the saying goes, is history. What amazed and intrigued me as a disabled woman, however, were the aspects of Keller's life that had never quite made it into previous accounts.

As Herrmann points out, the Helen Keller with whom most people are familiar is a stereotypical sexless paragon who was able to overcome deaf-blindness and work tirelessly to promote charities and organizations associated with other blind and deaf-blind individuals.

A recent traveling photographic exhibition sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, an organization for which Keller spent much of the latter part of her life working, did nothing to dispel this common public legend (nor does the literature distributed by the AFB and other associations with whom her name and image are closely linked). Missing are the very things that those of us with disabilities would find interesting and empowering, aspects of Keller which would serve to make her a truly real and believable woman.

But Herrmann makes those missing details an important part of her book. Keller, a woman of staunch, radical convictions, supported many causes of her day. A believer in the universality of all people, Keller publicly espoused socialism, communism, radical labor unions and strikes, and spoke out against US entry into World War I. Not content to stop there, Keller managed to draw the conclusion that people of her day with disabilities were also part of the oppressed masses--and as deserving of dignity and liberation as other oppressed groups. Not exactly the stuff of which plaster saints are made--especially one who, in later life, was presented by her close circle of companions (and the organizations who benefited from her endorsement) as a triumphant, cheerful (read: "ialmost normal"i) woman.

Keller, Dorothy Herrmann concludes, might well have been a willing accomplice in the remaking of her image. Dependent both on her companions for all daily care and communication with the outside world and with the organizations for financial support, Keller might have had no other option than to downplay the beliefs that would have made her far more human than an able-bodied public wanted.

Another event in the younger Keller's life might also, Herrmann suspects, have caused her to become more publicly compliant. Although she and a young socialist had fallen in love and applied for a marriage license, her hopes were dashed by a complicated set of circumstances--the family's disapproval, Annie Sullivan's fear of usurpation, and, possibly, the potential groom's second thoughts. The Keller who longed for sexual fulfillment and the married life expected for most women of her time rarely appears in other accounts, making Herrmann's biography the most complete and complex we have.

Complex? Yes. Admittedly, Helen Keller: A Life is a new look at an old subject, but the fact remains that that very subject herself remains complex. Because of her very real severe disability and the historical context in which she found herself, Keller will always, to some extent, remain an enigma. Herrmann's book does much to credit Keller with striving to carve out a personal and public image for herself, no small feat for any woman of her time. The controversies surrounding her relationships with Annie Sullivan Macy, her other companions, her charitable organizations and a public both drawn to and repelled by her remain at the end of Herrmann's book.

Perhaps the task of any first-rate biographer is to ask more questions than to provide concrete conclusions. No life, especially one as singular as Helen Keller's, can be neatly parceled. Thanks to Dorothy Herrmann, however, it has emerged, thirty years after Keller's death, as a life of much more than stereotype and legend.

Sally Rosenthal frequently reviews books related to disability.

Order this book online for $21, 30% off the $30 list price.
Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann

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