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Helen Keller: Selected Writings. Edited by Kim E. Nielsen. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Hardcover, 315 pages. $35.

Read our review of Nielsen's The Radical Lives of Helen Keller.

Read Fred Pelka's Helen Keller & the FBI from the Sept. 2001 Ragged Edge.


The Personal Helen Keller, Returned to Us

A review by Susan LoTempio

In so many ways, Helen Keller's story is our story. Despite her brilliance, her determination and her courage, she has been reduced to this stereotype: Feisty child with a dual disability who is "saved" by her teacher.

When Keller died in 1968, how sad that the impact of her life and her accomplishments still hadn't resonated with a new generation of women with disabilities.

In Keller's case, the "savior" was Anne Sullivan. The rest of us can plug in whichever person claims to have "saved" us: parent, doctor, rehab therapist, teacher, spouse, cleric.

Unfortunately, the salvation stereotype was ground deeply into the culture when the entertainment industry became enamored with "The Miracle Worker," which makes Sullivan the heroine of the story, not Keller. Although Sullivan had her own visual disability, that's not the image that sticks with most viewers. Forevermore, the message that people with disabilities must be "saved" by others has haunted us, and created monsters like Jerry Lewis.

The irony that so many people miss is that even though Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller to communicate and how to navigate the world, she could not save her.

In truth, Sullivan did what all good teachers do -- give their students the tools they need to thrive, a point that's been overshadowed by the folklore that insists Sullivan was the redeemer.

I certainly don't believe that anymore, and neither will you if you take the time to sample this wonderful new book of Keller's writings edited by Kim. E. Nielsen.

It's tragedy -- albeit not a surprising one -- that the legend obscures the real story of Helen Keller' life. Though she wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life, in 1903 at the age of 23, it's doubtful that many in subsequent generations have read it. More recent books have focused on her political writings and religious views, but the deeply personal side of this woman who was born 125 years ago seems to have been lost to many of us.

Thanks to Nielsen, working with the American Foundation for the Blind, the personal Helen Keller has been returned to us through her letters to family and friends (many not published before), excerpts from her original autobiography, journal entries and the texts of her speeches.

Nielsen is an associate professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. This book is yet another offering in the History of Disability Series edited by Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky, a companion volume to her The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, published by NYU Press last year.

Growing up in the late 1950s and '60s, I yearned to know about other women with disabilities. Who were they and where were they? How did they manage in such an unkind world? Were they going to college? Were they thinking about careers? But back then, Helen Keller wasn't a real person; she was Patty Duke playing the role of a lifetime.

When Keller died in 1968, at the age of 88, the impact of her life and her accomplishments still hadn't resonated with a new generation of women with disabilities.

How sad that we didn't know then that she was paving the way for us.

She was talking to presidents and first ladies about civil rights issues. She was giving speeches and publishing her writings. She was standing up for the rights of people with visual impairments, and therefore, all people with disabilities. She was brave and passionate. She was articulate and outspoken. She was a feminist.

But we knew none of that. We only heard about that poor girl, trapped in a world of blindness and deafness. Taught to finger spell and read Braille. The object of crude jokes, and an "inspirational" stage play and movie.

Thankfully, this book discards all those stereotype and introduces Keller as the role model we've yearned for.

Helping the reader navigate this extensive collection of Keller's writings are the insightful introductions Nielsen offers at the top of the sections, which give the us context necessary to understand Keller's references to the people in her life, her worries and frustrations, her extensive travels, and her social views.

They also offer context for her sometimes prickly comments, her patient acceptance of her limitations, and her often naïve reaction to world events.

There's no better way to appreciate the accomplishments of this fine woman than to allow her tell her own story. Here, then, is a glimpse into the complex life of Helen Keller:

  • In her 20s, Keller became increasingly interested in social, political and theological issues, which she wanted to write about. Her editors, however, only wanted to publish her writings about herself. "While other self-recording creatures are permitted at least to seem to change the subject, apparently nobody cares what I think of the tariff, the conservation of our natural resources, or the conflicts which revolve about the name of Dreyfus," she wrote.
  • Her desire to go to Radcliff was complicated by other's opinions that a college education would be worthless for her.
  • Surprisingly, Keller and Sullivan became part of the vaudeville circuit as a way to earn money. While Keller liked the excitement, Sullivan hated being on the circuit, and eventually they gave it up: "In vaudeville, it isn't so bad, although we have so many appearances a week" Keller wrote in 1924. "We are on stage less than an hour, and we are always back in our room before 11 o'clock."
  • She preferred to use Braille rather than having things finger-spelled to her.
  • Alexander Graham Bell was a father-figure to Keller and supported her financially.
  • Her autobiography became a bestseller and gave Keller the hope of unlimited opportunities and financial stability, though she struggled for money much of her life.
  • In 1929, she published "Midstream" but, as Nielsen writes, "the book received some attention but the reading public cared less about her adult life than her dramatic childhood acquisition of language."

  • Keller and Sullivan became part of a vaudeville act in the 1920s. Read Kathi Wolfe's poem, Helen Takes the Stage.

  • Keller fell in love with a man named Peter Fagan and when their plans to marry became public, her extended family forced the two to end the relationship. "I corresponded with the young man for several months; but my love-dream was shattered. It had flowered under an inauspicious star. The unhappiness I had caused my dear ones produced a state of mind unfavorable to the continuance of my relations with the young man. The love which had come unseen and unexpected departed with tempest on its wings," Keller wrote.
  • Keller bristled when others tried to make decisions for her, or run her life. She wrote, "A gust of irritability is blowing through me just now because there has been a recurrence of a tendency in some people to try to run my affairs."
  • Keller was devastated when Anne Sullivan died in October 1936. Not only had she been her teacher and mentor, Sullivan had also been her best friend. Without her, Keller felt lost and lonely. For the six months after her death, Keller kept a journal that documented the depth of her grief. From the entry dated Nov. 5, 1936: "A day dreadful beyond words. I am beginning to come out of the stupor of grief, and every nerve is acquiver. It does not seem possible that the pain flooding through my heart can ever be stilled...."
  • Ironically, Keller's social, private and political worlds opened up after Sullivan died because, as Nielsen writes, "others sought to provide friendship and intellectual camaraderie."
  • She exchanged letters with both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and, according to Nielsen, "in August 1944, indicated to The New York Times that she would, for the first time, cast a ballot and that it would be for President Roosevelt," though people surrounding her tried to dissuade her from voting for FDR.

There is so much richness, so many surprises in Keller's writings that it feels as if we are discovering her for the very first time.

Putting The Miracle Worker and Keller's legendary status aside, I'd say that thanks to Nielsen, we finally have a chance to know the woman who paved the way for my generation, and all that follow.

Posted 8/22/2005

Susan LoTempio is an assistant managing editor at The Buffalo News, Buffalo, NY. She writes about disability and participates in seminars around the country on how media cover disability issues.

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