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Monday, July 1, 2013

Forgotten women: Helen and teacher

by Jamie Lutton
Women who were movers and shakers get written out of history. Some are just forgotten, some are overlooked, many are turned into cliches.  Helen Keller is one of the those women who were turned into a cliche, someone who  jokes are made about, as she was blind and deaf,  but 'somehow' famous. 
Her real story is generally forgotten. 
      
And, tragically the miracle wrought by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, has also been forgotten. What she accomplished with Helen Keller was once one of the marvels of the 19th and early 20th 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 reprised her role in the Broadway play, and  Patty Duke played  Helen Keller. The film follows the first few months of Helen Keller's meeting Anne Sullivan, and  her struggle to teach Helen Keller sign language. Helen Keller had been stuck blind and deaf at age 19 months, from an infection, perhaps meningitis.   
Anne Sullivan, a young Irish-American teacher raised in a 19th century pest house, and  half blind herself, had to fight both Helen's strong resistance and her parents spoiling her to get through to her. 
           
Only when Helen connected the sign language letters  for water, spelled into her hand, with water itself, was there a break-through. I would recommend this film, first, before reading Helen Keller's autobiography My Life, which this film was based on. Helen Keller wrote this book while in college at Radcliffe in her early 20s, with Anne Sullivan at her side to translate the lectures; the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.  The book Helen and Teacher  by Joesph Lash is the book I read first, and this book covers her entire life, and all that she accomplished. 
One key aspect of her life is generally overlooked;  Helen Keller was an ardent advocate for civil rights for people with disabilities. She worked tirelessly for this cause, lecturing in America and Europe in speaking tours. She was a pacifist and radical  socialist, writing for the Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the I.W.W., for several years. She was a suffragette (a woman who agitates for the right to vote and full civil rights). She advocated the right for women to use birth control, which then as now, is a 'controversial' subject. 
And she did all this, with Anne Sullivan by her side, as her interpreter, assistant and best friend till Anne's death in 1936.    She made many lifelong friends, including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell.   She trained herself to speak aloud, and learned how to 'hear', by putting her hands on peoples lips as they spoke, an amazing feat. She did not stop her work till shortly before her death at the age of 88. She also made many enemies with 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! 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.
     
She lived a very long life, and was active till nearly the end; dying at in 1968 at the age of 88 
  
I have gotten  copies of Helen and Teacher in my bookshop for years now, and would hand it to people who wanted a good biography; their eyes would glaze over, even when I would entreat them to try it.   Her story, which so fascinated people of her time, seems to have been forgotten, with only a vague cliche remaining lurking about..   It is perhaps the fact that as long as she lived, Helen Keller was out in the world, refusing to let her disability define her.  But her story is not taught in the public schools, so the memory of her is fading away. This is a great pity.
When I read Helen and Teacher, as a teenager, I found her story to be personally inspiring because of Helen's cool wit, intelligence, and her 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 also recommend Helen Keller's Selected Writingswhich includes some of her poetry, and some of her anti-war writings.
    
Unfortunately, there is no complete collection of all of her writing; and some of the books she wrote have gone out of print. 
Joesph Lash is known for his excellent biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which sells well, but this book, and this subject, has generally been forgotten.  I would like to see Hollywood, which is always searching old movies to rip off and remake, remake The Miracle Worker. The black and white version is very worth watching, though, for those who can handle a black and white film. and for those who are disinclined  to read long biographies.  The actress Patty Duke, who at age 15 in this role played a convincing 8 year old,  struggled in her own life with bipolar disorder, was an excellent choice to play Helen Keller as a child. The wild, sometimes violent; intelligent. crafty mind that Helen Keller had as a child is brilliantly portrayed in this film.   
The film and play ends just when Helen's life gets interesting, however, when the light of reason comes on in Helen's mind at age 8; when she makes the connection between sign language spelled in her hand, and what they meant.   And Anne Sullivan, the half-blind Irish-American teacher, who fought her way out of a horrifying poverty, growing up in a 'pest-house', should be remembered and honored as one of the greatest teachers of all time, of any age. People before her taught blind and deaf students to sign, but only Helen rose up, with her encouragement, 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 Helen Keller's side was her Teacher. Both women should be remembered. Helen and Teacher is  the one book to read to learn their full story.

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