Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller

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Biographers had shortchanged Anne Sullivan Macy, a woman remembered primarily as a miracle worker. Kim E. Nielsen's biography, the first to focus on Macy in nearly fifty years, tells Macy's life as her story-not Keller's-presenting a new, gripping tale about a wounded yet determined woman and her quest for a successful and meaningful life.

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Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller

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Biographers had shortchanged Anne Sullivan Macy, a woman remembered primarily as a miracle worker. Kim E. Nielsen's biography, the first to focus on Macy in nearly fifty years, tells Macy's life as her story-not Keller's-presenting a new, gripping tale about a wounded yet determined woman and her quest for a successful and meaningful life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

After writing two books about Helen Keller, historian Nielsen (The Radical Lives of Helen Keller) vowed she "would never again write anything even remotely related to her." Fortunately, she couldn't help herself: upon reviewing the letters of Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, Nielsen "became convinced [we] had shortchanged the woman known only as the teacher of Helen Keller." Through Sullivan's correspondence and notes, Nielsen remedies this lack with a "lightly fictionalized" autobiography drawing on the written impressions of Keller and others. Nielsen devotedly chronicles Sullivan's emergence as an opinionated and intelligent if troubled woman who was born poor, afflicted early on with a debilitating eye disease and abandoned to an almshouse after her mother's death. Luck and innate ability plucked her out of the asylum and placed her in the classroom. But Nielsen concedes that Sullivan's relationship with Keller took center stage in both the public consciousness and private life. Citing historical uncertainty, Nielsen self-consciously skims over Sullivan's early teaching methods, including that iconic moment at the water pump-the very moment we all wonder about. 4 b&w photos. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The lives of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, were so entwined that it is impossible to write about one without the other. Nevertheless, in this concise biography Nielsen (history & women's studies, Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; The Radical Lives of Helen Keller) succeeds admirably in keeping the focus on Macy, adding to our understanding of Macy's tragic childhood in the Tewksbury, MA, almshouse, her schooling at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, her marriage to and separation from John Macy, and her struggles to hide the extent of her own disability. Macy's complexity is revealed, particularly in her struggle to remain the guiding force in Keller's life amid efforts by educators at Perkins and other schools to gain control of Keller and to benefit from her fame. This book will join works such as Lorena A. Hickok's The Touch of Magic, Joseph P. Lash's Helen and Teacher, and Dorothy Herrmann's Helen Keller: A Life as essential reading for those interested in Macy or Keller. Suitable for most public libraries and for academic libraries with strong collections in biography, special education, or the history of disabilities.
—Linda V. Carlisle

Kirkus Reviews
A largely unsuccessful attempt at a full-scale biography of the difficult, unhappy woman whose life story is inseparable from that of Helen Keller. Called "Teacher" by Keller and popularly known as "The Miracle Worker," Anne Sullivan was born into poverty in the late 1800s and suffered intense psychological and physical miseries during a lifetime in which she was mostly dependent on others. Sent to an almshouse by her widowed father at age ten, she lived in the grimmest of conditions until admitted to the Perkins Institution, a famous school for the blind in South Boston. She was not completely blind, but her eyes required numerous surgeries and her sight was always precarious. Her life with Keller began after her graduation from Perkins, and from age 20 until her death she remained with the famous deaf-blind woman. "They lived intricately intertwined lives," writes Nielsen, "were deeply dependent upon one another, and loved one another profoundly." Sullivan's initial role as governess and teacher is well known, but as Nielsen (History and Women's Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; Helen Keller: Selected Writings, 2005, etc.) demonstrates, that role evolved over time. It was a painful process, as the stubborn, defensive and proud woman struggled to establish herself as a serious and capable educator. As an adult, Keller became the duo's breadwinner, supporting them both financially for many years. Marriage to the much younger John Macy came late in Sullivan's life, and just how it worked for the threesome is unclear. Eventually the Macys separated, but Sullivan and Keller stayed together until the end. Unfortunately, many of the details are murky, and Nielsen is forced to acknowledgethat no record of events exists and that her subject's reactions can only be imagined. A sympathetic account hampered by inadequate and often contradictory source materials.
From the Publisher
“Kim E. Nielsen’s richly textured biography provides a more interest­ing and complex narrative of Macy’s early years and the later life that she and Keller shared…Nielsen writes about disabil­ity and America’s past as well as any scholar today, and she does so unsentimentally and with subtlety, sensitive to the nuance and ambiguity that characterize the best history and biography.”—Journal of American History 
A remarkable story of a vulnerable woman in a culture that allowed women neither freedom nor power. Still, somehow Anne, an almost blind orphan living in a poorhouse, managed to secure an education and carve out an independent life for herself and her student, Helen Keller. Anne Sullivan Macy is a feminist hero.—Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and Seeking Peace

"A considerate yet equitable biography of a complex woman whose singular contributions to the burgeoning field of education for the blind have often been misjudged."—Booklist

"Nielsen overcomes all the obstacles her recalcitrant subject throws in her path, and creates a portrait of Sullivan's life that is complex with all its contradictions and inconsistencies."—Georgina Kleege, Disability Studies Quarterly

"Engaging and excellently researched . . . Nielsen shows how tragic Annie's 'secret' and 'shameful' past had been-a drama worthy of Dickens. . . . The extraordinary story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller is an exemplary reminder that perseverance in the face of obstacles can yield miracles."—Sidney Callahan, America

"How remarkable it is to learn about the complicated, flesh-and-blood person behind the feisty legend at the water pump. Kim Nielsen's biography reveals so much about one of the greatest teachers of all time, and her compassionate and honest writing made my heart go out to Annie Sullivan."—Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister

"Fascinating and beautifully crafted, Beyond the Miracle Worker reinterprets Macy's life, challenging the mythology of her work with Helen Keller to reveal a powerful, rich, and surprising personal story. . . . Conveying the complexity and humanity of Macy and her world, this is an appealing biography for general readers and scholars alike."—Susan Burch, author of Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II

"Rejecting hagiography, Nielsen offers a complex portrait of the woman Helen Keller called 'Teacher.' Especially interesting are Nielsen's reflections on Sullivan's own vision impairment and her lifelong struggle to support herself. It's time we all move beyond the sentimental trope of the 'miracle worker' as we consider the actual predicaments of those who care for and instruct people with disabilities."
—Ralph James Savarese, author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption

"Kim Nielsen's absorbing biography of Anne Sullivan Macy not only captures the complexity of Sullivan's character, but also offers fresh insights into her relationship with her famous pupil. Thoroughly researched, persuasive, and readable, Beyond the Miracle Worker is both a compelling story and an important contribution to women's history and the history of the disabled."—Elisabeth Gitter, author of The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl

"Nielsen's engaging and comprehensive account of Annie Sullivan reveals a woman of great intellect and complexity who overcame many challenges in her own right. This book will irrevocably change what you thought you knew about the 'Helen-Annie' story."—Judith Heumann, Disability Rights Advocate and former U.S. Assistant Secretary Department of Education

"A significant contribution...Nielsen has provided a learned, readable narrative of Macy, one that succeeds admirably in foregrounding a woman who, during her own life, stood in the shadow of Keller. Their relationship was complex and fluid, but nothing if not tender, and Nielsen's careful scholarship does justice both to the intricacies and to the warmth of the friendship." —Daniel S. Goldberg, H-Disability: An H-Net Discussion Network

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807050460
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Chapter 1 Feeding Hills, 1866-1876 1

Chapter 2 Tewksbury Almshouse, 1876-1880 13

Chapter 3 Perkins, 1880-1886: Part One 37

Chapter 4 Perkins, 1880-1886: Part Two 57

Chapter 5 Becoming Teacher, 1887 73

Chapter 6 Tuscumbia, 1888-1891 93

Chapter 7 The Battle for Helen, Round 1, 1891-1894 111

Chapter 8 The Battle for Helen, Round 2, 1894-1900 135

Chapter 9 Radcliffe, 1900-1904 163

Chapter 10 John, 1904-1914 179

Chapter 11 On the Road, 1914-1924 201

Chapter 12 The American Foundation for the Blind, 1924-1930 225

Chapter 13 Concluding 1930-1936 249

Conclusion 267

Acknowledgments 269

Notes 271

Index 295

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

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    First solo biography of Anne Sullivan Macy in decades

    Maybe it seems counter-intuitive to write a solo biography of Anne Sullivan Macy -- who would have heard of her if not for Helen Keller, right? Even for someone who's as nutzoid for Annie as I am, it's odd at first to read a biography in which Helen Keller gets so obviously sidelined. However, much as I value Joseph Lash's dual biography, Helen and Teacher, and as much as the two women's lives were intertwined, reading Nielsen's solo examination of Annie reveals just how much of a distraction keeping up with Helen Keller creates for those of us interested the intricacies of Annie Sullivan.

    Without the focus constantly swinging toward the details of Helen's existence, vital elements like Annie's disabilities and mercurial personality virtually become characters in their own right. In fact, Nielsen shows that Annie's wavering eyesight, chronic pain, recurring illnesses, and lifelong bouts of melancholy were more debilitating than Helen's blindness and deafness -- though no one who spent 40-odd years standing next to a deaf-blind icon would dare draw attention to that fact. Not even saucy Annie Sullivan.

    While many biographers tend to frame the hardships in Annie's early life as a rags-to-riches buildup to her successes as Helen Keller's famous teacher, Nielsen details the lingering effects of Annie's childhood traumas on her adult relationships and behavior. The truth of the matter is that Annie Sullivan was damaged goods, and even the salve of Helen's decades-long friendship never fully closed those wounds. No matter how much Helen loved and venerated her, Anne Sullivan Macy was not an easy woman to live with. Fortunately for the rest of us, all the extremes that made her such a trial and a delight make for a fascinating read under Nielsen's steady gaze.

    Contrary to Publisher's Weekly's review, NONE of Nielsen's writing in this biography can be characterized as "lightly fictionalized." Nielsen used Anne Sullivan Macy's own lightly fictionalized autobiographical writings as a source for her work, but clearly indicates between documented facts and the autobiographical stories of 'Johannah [Annie] and Jimmie Dunnivan' culled from Macy's unpublished memoirs.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2009

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