Helen Keller: A Life


Dorothy Herrmann's powerful biography of Helen Keller tells the whole story of the controversial and turbulent relationship between Helen and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Herrmann also chronicles Helen's doomed love affair, her struggles to earn a living, her triumphs at Radcliffe College, and her work as an advocate for the disabled. Helen Keller has been venerated as a saint or damned as a fraud, but Herrmann shows her to have been a beautiful, intelligent, high-strung, and passionate woman whose life was ...
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Dorothy Herrmann's powerful biography of Helen Keller tells the whole story of the controversial and turbulent relationship between Helen and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Herrmann also chronicles Helen's doomed love affair, her struggles to earn a living, her triumphs at Radcliffe College, and her work as an advocate for the disabled. Helen Keller has been venerated as a saint or damned as a fraud, but Herrmann shows her to have been a beautiful, intelligent, high-strung, and passionate woman whose life was transformed not only by her disabilities but also by the remarkable people on whose help and friendship she relied.

"Fascinating. . . . Stripping away decades of well-meaning sentimentality, Herrmann presents a pair of strong-willed women, who struggled to build their own lives while never forgetting their dependence on each other."—Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

"We meet an entirely unexpected Helen Keller—a woman with deep if concealed ambivalence toward her self-sacrificing teacher; a political radical; and a woman longing for romantic love and the fulfilled sexual life of a woman."—Joan Mellen, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Herrmann's portrait of Keller is both fully embodied and unflinchingly candid."—Mary Loeffelholz, Boston Sunday Globe

"This well-proportioned biography of the deaf and blind girl who became a great American crusader rescues its subject from the shackles of sainthood without destroying her as an American hero."—Dennis Drabelle, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Herrmann's engrossing biography helps us see beyond the public's fascination with how Keller dealt with her disabilities to discover the woman Keller strived to be."—Nancy Seidman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Perhaps the most intimate biography [of Helen Keller]. [Herrmann] gives her back her sexuality [and] imbues her with a true humanity. . . . Helen Keller: A Life has some of the texture and the dramatic arc of a good novel."—Dinitia Smith, New York Times

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Editorial Reviews

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Using previously unreleased memoirs, veteran biographer Herrmann...paints an intimate and moving portrait of one of the century's most inspiring figures.
Mary Loeffelholz
Herrmann's portrait of Keller is both fully embodied and unflinchingly candid.
Boston Sunday Globe
Dinitia Smith
. . .[P]erhaps the most intimate [Helen Keller] biography. . .offers few new facts about Keller, but it does give her back her sexuality. . . .Keller lived through her fingers, and there were moments when her relationship with 'Teacher' seemed to have an almsot sexual intensity. . . .[the book] has some of the texture and the dramatic arc of a good novel.
The New York Times
Stephanie Zacharek
Herrmann is a master at weaving crucial details of this varied and energetic life into a seamless story.
Library Journal
Biographer Herrmann takes us beyond the image of Helen Keller portrayed in 'The Miracle Worker' to unearth a passionate, politically radical woman whose inspiration and teacher, Annie Sullivan, is equally fiery and brilliant. Herrmann brings us into the everyday lives of the famous pair, but the story is hardly mundane. The quasi-sexual undertones of Keller and Sullivan's relationship are present, but psychological motives are always offered. Sullivan forsook the attention of men while consciously or unconsciously turning Keller from a 'monster' into a 'grateful, helpless child' and then the 'utterly dependent woman [who] would never desire to be free of her.' Herrmann gives us fascinating details via archives and unpublished memoirs to show how society's view of disabled people was greatly shaped by Keller and Sullivan. . .Herrmann's work can stand alongside Keller's famous autobiography The Story of My Life. --Kay Meredith Dusheck, Univeersity of Iowa
Dinitia Smith
. . .[P]erhaps the most intimate [Helen Keller] biography. . .offers few new facts about Keller, but it does give her back her sexuality. . . .Keller lived through her fingers, and there were moments when her relationship with 'Teacher' seemed to have an almsot sexual intensity. . . .[the book] has some of the texture and the dramatic arc of a good novel.
New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
This biography ably chronicles the long, remarkable life of the deaf/blind prodigy, mystic, and socialist Keller and her longtime teacher and helpmate, Anne Sullivan, who taught her to communicate with the world. Keller, born in 1880 in rural Alabama, developed at age 19 months a grave case of what Herrmann says was probably scarlet fever or meningitis. She recovered but lost total hearing and sight, becoming increasingly frustrated and unruly in the ensuing years. Herrmann recounts the thrilling story of Sullivan's 'breaking through' to the wild child (a tale familiar to viewers of the 1962 film 'The Miracle Worker'). 'By the end of their first year together,' writes Herrmann, 'Annie was spelling into Helen's hand stories from 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey'.'

Herrmann charts how various powerful men, including Alexander Graham Bell, facilitated, perhaps out of mixed motives, the creation of Helen's public persona, both before and after the celebrated young Keller's entrance to Radcliffe College. Later, with publication of her autobiography (the first of many books), Keller achieved lasting international fame. A theatrical agent, around the time of the 1918 film about Keller, 'Deliverance (in which Helen played herself in some of the scenes), observed that 'after Helen's release from silence and darkness, nothing dramatic happened to her.' This, of course, will be part of the problem with any biography of Keller. Her post-collegiate years included a never-ending round of lecture tours, and even a stint with Sullivan as a vaudeville regular from 1920 to 1924, activities supported by her popularity but also necessitated by economics.

For that and other reasons, the widely reveredKeller, who lived to age 88, comes off as something of a sad if stoic figure. A fairly lively slice of American social history, but lacking in its later pages much inherent excitement.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226327631
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 414
  • Sales rank: 844,951
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Dorothy Herrmann is the author of several biographies, including Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift for Life and S. J. Perelman: A Life. She lives with her husband in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 19

Helen Without Annie

I ache all over as I remember how she grew thinner and thinner," Helen later recorded in the journal that she had started keeping after Annie's death to discipline her mind back to regular work. "I was glad she could not see my swimming eyes as I massaged her and noticed skin and bones where I had once felt the firm softness of her chest and shoulders.

"I live over the last few minutes of her earth life: the death rattle after an eight-hour struggle for breath . . . her darling hand growing cold in mine . . . the smell of opiates heavy in the room . . . sorrowing friends who drew me away so that her body might be prepared for the funeral . . . the Gethsemane I passed through an hour later when I touched, not Teacher's blessed face, but fixed features from which expression had fled. I feel again the recoil, the cry that escaped me, 'It is not Teacher, it is not Teacher!' . . .

"When she breathed no more, somehow the faith she had wished she could hold with me rose up stronger than ever and, leaning over, I said, 'You know, dearest, don't you, that life is beginning over again, glorious with light and peace.' Then it came over me that she was thinking of the joy of being reunited with her little brother, and I talked about him, feeling his nearness vividly. I wonder if her mind answered mine from afar. There was such a surge of memories sweeping over me, and I remembered the first joyous days of release when we spelled winged words to each other, and life was a continuous great discovery. . . . As I murmured to her I still felt the indefinable response of the spirit in her face. The changeI sensed afterwards was more than I could bear. Everything was blurred. It seemed as if I should henceforth tread paths that led nowhere, climb steps that would lead to nothing because they could not bring me to her."

As Helen was communing with Annie's soul among the books that she had cherished, her grief gave way to ecstasy. "The body," she was convinced, "was only a shadow of the soul," and she knew that Teacher would never be far away.

On November 3 Helen traveled to Washington, where, at the National Cathedral, Annie's ashes were placed in the columbarium in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. At the time of Annie's death Helen had received word that the bishop of the cathedral "will consider it a privilege to offer the right of sepulcher in the cathedral for Mrs. Anne Sullivan Macy . . . and that the privilege of sepulcher at the cathedral should also be offered to Miss Keller."

Annie Sullivan was the first female offered this distinction for her own achievements. "Among the great teachers of all time," the bishop of Washington referred to her in his address, "she occupies a commanding and conspicuous place."
At the committal service Helen spoke a few words that were recorded by a friend: "Blessings upon the receptacle of the precious dust which my heaven-sent Teacher wore as a garment as she wrought her miracle of liberation through Him who is the Lord of Life and Love."

In the hope of adjusting herself to her loss as well as escaping from the interference of well-meaning friends, she decided to visit Polly's family in Scotland. Two days after Annie's service, she and Polly, who had immediately applied for citizenship, sailed on a German ship, the S.S. Deutschland, for England. On the first night of the voyage Helen was plagued by dark thoughts and insomnia. Although Polly tried to break her mood of melancholy by reading to her with her fingers, as she used to do with the blind Annie, Helen could not concentrate. She regarded herself as a "somnambulist, impelled only by an intense faith." The following day was "a day dreadful beyond words" as she began to emerge from "the stupor of grief, and every nerve is aquiver. It does not seem possible that the pain flooding through my heart can ever be stilled but I know it is a sign of returning spiritual health."

Helen's despondency lifted when Polly, on their walks up and down the deck, described the gulls circling the ship and the white sea swallows that were capable of flying several thousand miles. The next day, however, she was again plunged into a deep depression. "What earthly consolation is there for one like me, whom fate has denied a husband and the joy of motherhood?" she mourned. "At the moment my loneliness seems a void that will always be immense." But then she remembered her work for the blind and the deaf-blind, as well as her unshakable belief in immortality and an afterlife in which she would be able to both see and hear, and her faith sustained her.

By the ninth day at sea, after a hearty lunch of frankfurters and sauerkraut, one of her favorite dishes, she noted, with pleasure, that her interest in philosophy, poetry, and travel was returning. Although she was deeply concerned about "the demoniac forces like Hitlerism" in Europe, her loathing of the Nazis did not prevent her from appreciating the "home-
like atmosphere" of the Deutschland and "the German love of beauty that greets my fingers." She was especially delighted by the bouquets of small and large chrysanthemums that seemed to be omnipresent, and her cabin, which even though it was small and "cozy," boasted every modern convenience.

Still, Annie's presence seemed omnipresent. On the tender to Southampton, she strongly felt her spirit, "tantalizing almost beyond endurance." Several nights before, on shipboard, she had a wonderfully comforting dream in which Teacher had kissed her, and "literally her face against mine breathed youth, sunshine and flower-sweet air. Since then I have had a sense of following, following, following her, and I keep expecting to find her somewhere—in London or up in the Scottish highlands that her Celtic soul loved."

On the train from England to Scotland, Helen had difficulty believing that it was just she and Polly who were in the compartment. Teacher had accompanied them on their previous trips to England, and Helen fancied that she was merely asleep; otherwise, she would be spelling into her hand "the charm of light or color of flying cloud." She consoled herself by the thought that Annie, for whom teaching had been "her work and her glory," was instructing "the sensorially crippled" in heaven. "My soul was so conscious of her presence I could not—I would not—say she was dead, and I do not now."

As the days went by, fresh life pulsed through her. She began reading André Maurois's Life of Disraeli, which, as a biography written in French by a Frenchman about one of Britain's most distinguished political leaders, appealed to her as an internationalist. Closing the book, she marveled for "the millionth time" at the freedom that literature had given her.
Politics and world affairs again began to deeply absorb her. Although she believed that world peace would triumph over the insuperable evil that was Hitler, her heart sank when she learned that forty million gas masks were being prepared for use in Britain and Scotland alone.

Her hatred of Hitler, "a Mephistopheles," intensified in late December when she received a letter from her German publisher informing her that he was going to delete her admiring views of Bolshevism and Lenin from the German edition of Midstream. The publisher, Otto Schramm, wrote, "I must today emphasize that I hope you meantime have become convinced of your error of judgment, and therefore feel obliged to let me know that your attitude now towards Russian Bolshevism has entirely altered since you have learned about the evil and monstrous destruction to which this world doctrine tends."

But Helen's views of Soviet Russia had not changed. Although she was becoming increasingly disturbed by the totalitarian government of the Soviets, she refused to believe, as Schramm asserted, in the Soviet purges and that millions of Russian people had been slaughtered; otherwise "that country would not now be emerging, as we know it is, stronger than ever from its age-long fight against hunger and ignorance. . . . No doubt Russia has committed blunders, grave ones; but so has National-Socialist Germany, and now it has reverted to the darkest of the Dark Ages. . . ."

She wrote Schramm an angry, impassioned letter, saying that she had no intention of deleting her views, as she knew about "Germany's anti-Semitic atrocities, fear-clamping state control over lives and homes, and imprisonment of thousands without trial," and that she planned to withdraw her book from publication in Germany.

Other world events also aroused a fiery response. When King Edward VIII abdicated to marry the American divorcée Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, she had no sympathy with his plight. "I doubt whether His Majesty will reap from his decision the happiness he anticipates," she wrote in her journal. "There is a love of the people surpassing the love of a woman. . . . Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. . . ."

Clearly the king's decision to give up his throne to marry Mrs. Simpson rankled Helen, perhaps because she herself had never been permitted to relinquish her public image as a handicapped icon for personal happiness. "Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved," she continued. "Most of the men and women honored in history for their services to mankind were acquainted with 'the uses of adversity.' They triumphed because they refused to be turned aside by difficulties or opposition."

In Bothwell they stayed at the manse of Polly's brother Bert, who was a minister, and his wife and children. Although Helen intended her visit to be a quiet one, free of the constant interruptions that plagued her at home, it proved stimulating. Visiting a mine, she felt thrilled as she was placed in a cage and then lowered nine hundred feet down a shaft. Swaying from side to side and feeling the drippings from a well as she descended were almost as powerful tactile sensations as flying, which she loved, because it released her from the physical restraints that constrained her in her house and on the street. As she traveled through tunnels that she was told were lighted only by safety lamps, Helen was reminded of her own condition.

"Airmen flying blind in a fog and miners quarrying in a deep pit are among the few who can imagine what blindness means," she noted. A far different type of delight was provided by the minister's children, who knew the manual finger language. They watched with curiosity as Helen typed her correspondence—it was her habit to write at least eleven letters a day—and their presence made her feel less weary and restless. Like Annie Sullivan, she loved all children, comparing them to "sunshine"—their companionship made her feel young again.

Although Helen was an adept typist, she could not keep up with her recent correspondence. There were hundreds of sympathy letters to answer, and she was beginning to worry about her hands. She felt that she was using them too constantly for writing, reading, and listening to conversation, as well as reading people's lips. If they became injured or crippled with arthritis, she would become truly helpless, completely isolated and shut off from human society. Quickly she reminded herself that she had to keep on using her hands, as "work is the only sure bulwark against despair."

The strain of having to reply to the sympathy notes of concerned friends and relatives, as well as strangers, became so overwhelming that she considered renting a room at a quiet hotel where she could live like a recluse. This was impossible, and on a single afternoon, for three hours, Polly was forced to spell letters of condolence into her hand. Exhausted, Helen inadvertently said something thoughtless. As high-strung as Annie and Helen, Polly reacted emotionally, and a bitter exchange occurred between the two women. For several minutes they sat in stony silence, with tears in their eyes, biting their lips in frustration. Then they broke down and embraced each other, as they remembered the last wishes of Annie Sullivan that someday they all might be reunited in harmony.

Another time, as they were looking through a pile of letters and business papers, Helen realized what she had been spared when Annie sorted the mail and conveyed the necessary information to her with expert brevity.

They departed for the United States on board the S.S. Champlain on February 2, 1936. A fellow passenger was the English author Hilaire Belloc, who was planning to lecture in America. It was a rough voyage. Helen spent most of her time reading and thinking deeply about the soullessness of modern life and its impact on present and future generations whose imaginations, she feared, unlike her own, intensely vivid one, were becoming stunted.

This repels me—a future civilization likely to be hard, practical, monotonous. I feel fortunate indeed that it has been possible for me to be a barbarian, to enjoy sculpture, the flow of graceful lines on surfaces, poetry, happy make-believe in bleak corners of my limitations. It also seems to me more urgent than ever to foster in the present young generation a spiritual philosophy and imagination that shall keep the morning dew in their souls when an age arrives that knows not the muses or the graces.

The present generation is losing the capacity of enjoying life from within. They are sacrificing the delight in handicrafts born with every child to machine products. They want machines to sing, play, talk and read to them. They demand to be amused instead of amusing themselves.

Although Helen knew that people were surprised that a deaf-blind person could get any pleasure from the cinema, she liked to attend films and the theater regularly, perhaps because it made her feel like other people. One evening on shipboard, she attended the film Camille, with Greta Garbo starring as Marguerite. But as Polly's facile fingers described the dialogue as well as Garbo's cool beauty and her magnificent costumes, Helen regretted exposing herself to this tragic tale only three months after Annie's death. She saw similarities between Teacher and Marguerite—like Annie, Dumas's courtesan was an unconquerable spirit who rose from her sickbed and put on her sunniest face for the lover who refused to give her up. Helen began to weep as she recalled the small party Teacher had planned at their Long Island cottage during her final illness. Before the guests arrived, she struggled to put on her shoes with Polly's help; then, suddenly, she was seized with a violent pain. A doctor was immediately summoned and put her into the hospital the next day. As she dressed herself in street clothes for the last time, she silently gripped Helen's hand, and Helen sensed her imminent death when she spelled, "Dear, there is the ambulance," and Polly supported her downstairs.

Although she cheered up the following day when the captain invited them to tea in his cabin, her grief intensified as their ship approached New York. Friends sent her radiograms aboard the ship, but there was none from Teacher, and "this finality about our earthly separation seemed more than I could bear."

Her homecoming was not as sad as she had imagined. On her arrival, the dogs greeted her, wagging their tails against her and kissing her face. As she walked through the rooms, her hands lovingly felt Teacher's desk and the chair where Annie used to sit when she could see enough to read to her. To her relief, her teacher's bed, on which she had endured months of darkness and anguish, had been taken away. But when Helen touched Annie's books, she was again overcome with grief. "I had watched the darkness descending upon the eyes she had used during half a century to assist me and enrich my happiness. Only by the hardest work could I shut out that mournful memory and the heart-stabbing loneliness that pursued me every moment."

Hoping to console Helen, a friend who was a sculptress presented her with a cast of Annie's hand that she had made before Annie's death. It took all of Helen's composure to touch its delicate, familiar outline, with the thumb and index finger forming the letter L, which suggested love. But as Helen traced each line in the palm, "a likeness snatched, as it were, from death's relentless waves," she succumbed, in spite of herself, "to the old heartbreak . . . my tears fell; and I could not speak."
She was not alone in the world, of course. She still had Polly, on whom she could rely to communicate the beauty of a flower or a sunset, even though her new companion's descriptions ran to such clichés as "Pink! . . . Blue! . . . Mauve! . . . Green! . . . Gold! . . . Lavender! . . . Oh, Helen! The water is one sheet of burnished gold! . . ." But, one morning, as Polly's hands coolly informed her that her favorite coat from Scotland was now "too shabby" to wear into town, Helen lost her temper. It was clear that this fashion-conscious, thoroughly unimaginative Scotswoman could never take her beloved Teacher's place.
With the death of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller had met her severest crisis with immense courage and fortitude. Although after Midstream she had vowed that her literary career was over, in the years following Annie's death she would write three more books and numerous magazine articles. When the first one, Helen Keller's Journal, was published in 1938, she demonstrated to an admiring public that she was capable of a fine literary effort without Teacher at her side.

In death Annie Sullivan had answered her critics. Despite her dominating, irrational, and impulsive personality, she had enabled Helen to function without her. Far from creating a dependent, helpless woman, she had made a strong, resilient one who was more than capable of dealing with life's inevitable traumas and losses.

Although it was clear that Helen Keller could live without Annie Sullivan, her disability prevented her from living on her own. Even though she was now fifty-eight years old, she was forced to rely on Polly and other people for her needs. That she was able to adapt quickly to different people and situations was to her credit. Many of her blind contemporaries, particularly those who attended some schools for the blind where they were oversupervised, were haunted by the persistent feeling that they were being watched even in the privacy of their own rooms. Amazingly, Helen never became wary and suspicious of those around her. This woman, who had lived perhaps one of the most observed and documented feminine lives in history, continued to greet the world with characteristic sincerity and optimism.
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Table of Contents

1 Helen
2 Laura
3 Annie
4 Helen and Annie
5 "The Eighth Wonder of the World"
6 "Angel Child"
7 "It Took the Pair of You"
8 "A Born Schemer"
9 "Half-Rome"
10 John
11 The World I Live In
12 A Fiery Radical
13 "More of an Institution Than a Woman"
14 "A Little Island of Joy"
15 Separation
16 Hollywood
17 "The Star of Happiness"
18 "The Dreadful Drama Is Finished"
19 Helen Without Annie
20 Polly and Nella
21 "A Source of Embarrassment"
22 "In a Black, Silent Hole"
23 "A Witness of God"
24 "I Am in Agony"
25 The End of a Friendship
26 "A Fragile Porcelain Lady"
27 Helen's Legacy
Works by Helen Keller
Selected Bibliography
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First Chapter

Chapter One


    In a sunlit, sound-filled room, the deaf-blind Helen Keller sat inconsolably beside the deathbed of Annie Sullivan, her teacher and virtually lifelong companion. Annie had died minutes before, and Helen was consumed with grief. Annie had been more than her friend; she had been her "other self," the woman to whom she owed her very life. Fiery, intemperate, and above all, indomitable, it had been twenty-one-year-old Annie, a dark-haired Irish orphan raised in a poorhouse, who had transformed a wild child who smashed plates and kicked people into one of the most celebrated women of her time, an embodiment of hope and courage to millions of disabled people around the world.

    Since that moment at the wellhouse at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887, where Helen was transformed from something a little more than a beast into a human being, both women had become world-famous. Immense crowds gathered whenever they lectured or appeared on the vaudeville stage, and even presidents, kings, queens, and popes deferred to them. For many persons, meeting Helen Keller was akin to having a religious experience. It was like an encounter with an angel. And almost invariably people were moved to tears.

    Helen had sat beside her teacher for the past eight hours, her sensitive fingers on Annie's emaciated chest, painfully aware of her labored breathing. And then of her death rattle. And finally, when it was all over, of the sudden drop in temperature in her hand. For almost half a century, that hand, which had been her warm, pulsing lifeline to the world, was now cold and lifeless.

    Her friends drew Helen aside so that Annie's body could be prepared for her funeral. But there was another reason they desired her out of the room as quickly as possible. They feared for her sanity. For years, people were aware of Helen's dependence on Annie and wondered if she would be able to survive without her.

    An hour later, as Annie Sullivan's body was to be removed to a funeral parlor, Helen was led back into the room for her last farewell to the woman whom she still reverently called "Teacher," even though by this time she was fifty-six.

    She was still, in the opinion of many, a beautiful woman. She was tall and shapely, with regular, almost perfect features and blue eyes that were the color of the sky on a perfectly clear day. Her eyes, which from the time she was nineteen months old had never seen a sunrise, a rainbow, or a human face, were luminous, as if they fathomed the inmost secrets of life and death. But Helen's family had lived in dread that the public would discover that her eyes were artificial. For medical and cosmetic reasons, they had been removed and replaced with glass ones.

    In her youth, before the advent of her prosthetic eyes, she was considered even more fetching. Her porcelain complexion was clear and smooth, and she had a luxuriant mane of chestnut hair that cascaded down her back. Her figure was voluptuous; she had large breasts, small hips, and lovely, shapely legs. Because of her severe disabilities, her physical attributes, which were considerable, were usually not mentioned. People, when they met her, were quick to point out her spiritual beauty, comparing her to "a religious figure imagined by some Italian primitive or a Cimabue virgin, infinitely touching in her simplicity." "Physically she was large for her years, and more fully developed than is the every-day girl of her age," wrote a man who met her when she was fourteen, quickly adding that "she had come straight from the hands of God, and for fourteen years the world and the flesh and the devil had not obtained possession of her."

    With her hands outstretched, Helen began to grope her way toward the body of her beloved teacher. Or rather she lurched forward, her body constantly broken by shivers and convulsive movements that appeared to be caused by nothing that was apparent to those present. The strange quivers and jolts corresponded to the world of vibrations and sensations to which she was acutely sensitive.

    Reaching Annie's body, she bent down and reverently stroked the face that she had worshiped but never seen. Instantly she knew it was not the same. The features were fixed, waxen. All of Annie's warmth and vitality were gone. She recoiled in horror,

    "It's not Teacher!" she cried in the broken, metallic, and mechanical voice that few people could comprehend. "It's not Teacher!"

    For nearly fifty years the two women had enjoyed a friendship that was as all-encompassing as the most passionate love affair between a man and a woman. Commenting on their affinity for one another, friends compared the duo to Romeo and Juliet or Orpheus and Eurydice. Richard Watson Gilder, a famous poet and critic of the period, upon reading Annie's account of her first meeting with Helen in Tuscumbia, remarked that it would take a William Blake to paint the picture of those two souls rushing toward each other. Like the relationship between most couples, their alliance had been a complicated interplay of power and dependence. Although Annie came to rely on Helen's fame to provide their livelihood and on her seemingly tranquil disposition to lift her out of her dark moods, it was Helen, with her afflictions, who appeared to the world as the helpless one.

    As her hands mournfully explored Annie's face for the last time, Helen feared that she could not survive without the woman who had been her savior and bridge to the world.

The vivid smell of bananas, the strangely comforting warmth of a burn, the vibrations from an object failing suddenly--even the eternal grayness and silence--meant nothing to the child who had no sight or hearing, no thought or language.

    Helen Adams Keller did not always inhabit this strange, unreal world. She was born a normal, hearing-sighted infant, on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, a small rural town in northwestern Alabama. For almost two halcyon years, her childhood was like most other people's. Some years later, when she was in her early twenties, she made an attempt to reconstruct that period of her life, her account embellished by an editor who had been employed to make her peculiar existence understandable to the hearing-sighted public. It was filled, she said, with the light of long summer days and the chirping sound of birds, of feeling lost "in a great green place, where there were beautiful flowers and fragrant trees," and of "seeing flakes of light flitting among the flowers," which perhaps were birds or butterflies. But the truth was that Helen Keller never remembered seeing even a sliver of light or hearing birdsong. What she recalled privately to a friend was rubbing her distraught young mother's face until the skin sloughed off in patches.

    An account of Helen's first months must come from her mother, Kate Adams Keller, and other relatives. It was reported that at six months she could say "How d'ye" and "tea, tea, tea." She also knew the meaning of the word "water," which she pronounced "wah-wah." When she was a year old, she took her first steps, attracted, she was told later, "by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor." Her vision was excellent. She could spot needles and buttons on the floor that no one else in the family could find. She was a precocious child, with soft golden curls, pale blue eyes, and a quick intelligence that she had inherited from her mother.

    Kate Keller, then twenty-three, doted on her young daughter, and her intense maternal absorption was perhaps not surprising, given that by the time of Helen's birth, she had realized that her marriage was a mistake. A tall, statuesque blonde with periwinkle blue eyes and a porcelain complexion, Kate was twenty years younger than her husband, Captain Arthur Henley Keller, with whom she had little in common. A friend once bluntly described Captain Keller as "a gentleman farmer who loved to direct rather than work" and "a man of limited ideas and ability." But these lacks seem to have been offset by the fact that he was a raconteur as well as a good-natured, hospitable neighbor who was respected in the community. He was also a hunter, who, as Helen admitted later, "next to his family, loved his dog and his gun." Above all, Captain Keller was a loyal Southerner who had proudly served as a captain in the Confederate Army. He believed all things southern were noble, and that Negroes, although he would never be deliberately unkind to them, were not human beings.

    Captain Keller had two grown sons from his first marriage, to Sarah E. Rosser of Memphis, who had died in 1877 at age thirty-eight. Kate got along fairly well with the younger boy, William Simpson, who was a teenager, but she had difficulty coping with James, who was in his early twenties and bitterly resented her. Only nine years older than him, she sensed that he was furious with his father for marrying her only a year after his mother's death.

    Before her marriage to the captain, Kate had been a Memphis belle who had been pampered and protected by her father, Charles W. Adams, who was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. But Kate, unlike her husband, was not a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner. Although she seldom mentioned them in the provincial postbellum society of Tuscumbia, she had illustrious northern roots. Her father had been born in Massachusetts and was related to the famous Adams family of New England. Later he moved to Arkansas and fought on the side of the South when the Civil War broke out. Her mother, Lucy Helen Everett, was related to the celebrated New England clergyman and orator Edward Everett, who had spoken on the same platform at Gettysburg with Abraham Lincoln, as well as Edward Everett Hale, the famous author of "The Man Without a Country," which strengthened the Union cause, and to General William Tecumseh Sherman. When the Civil War ended, Kate and her family had moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

    Marriage at age twenty-two to the forty-two-year-old captain ended Kate's luxurious existence. No longer did she live the carefree life of a pampered southern lady. Instead, this once indulged beauty was plunged into a rugged and primitive existence that was not unlike a pioneer woman's. As she discovered to her dismay, her jovial husband, like most of the southern gentility, during the tumultuous postbellum period, was struggling to make ends meet. Although a member of a distinguished southern family, Captain Keller, a former lawyer, was forced to earn a living both as a cotton plantation owner and as the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian. In 1885 his fortunes had taken an upturn when President Grover Cleveland appointed him U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Alabama. Still money was scarce, and Kate had to raise her own vegetables, fruit, and livestock. There were black servants to help run the plantation, but she did most of her own work, starting at dawn. To further cut down on expenses, she made her own butter, lard, bacon, and ham. She never complained publicly about her husband's shortcomings, attempting to sublimate her regrets about the marriage by becoming an ardent woman suffragist and finding refuge in books and other intellectual pursuits. She also found the time to cook and tend her flower garden, of which she was intensely proud. It was said that she raised the most beautiful roses that people had ever seen outside of a greenhouse. It was also said that she went for days without speaking to her husband.

    Even Helen's name became a matter of dispute. When she was born, Kate wanted to name her "Helen Everett," after her mother. The name Helen means "light," and the frustrated Kate liked to imagine that her little girl's life would be unlike her hard, frustrating one, full of the brightness of the day. The obstinate captain would not hear of it. He wanted to name the baby "Mildred Campbell," after a cherished ancestor, but finally he relented. At the baby's christening, however, he conveniently forgot the name that his wife wanted to call the child and told the minister that she was to be named "Helen Adams."

    The house where the Kellers lived in Alabama was a simple, white clapboard house that was built in 1820 by Helen's grandparents, David and Mary Fairfax Moore Keller. David was the son of Caspar Keller, a native of Switzerland who had immigrated to Maryland and owned large tracts of land in Alabama. (Ironically, another of Helen's Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich. He later wrote a book about their education.) Helen's grandmother Mary was a daughter of Colonel Alexander Moore, one of Lafayette's aides who was present at Lord Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, and a second cousin of Robert E. Lee.

    The Kellers' house, which was the second to be built in Tuscumbia, was of Virginia cottage construction. Located on a 640-acre tract, its grounds included English boxwood trees, magnolia, mimosa, and a magnificent water oak with a crepusculated trunk that would become Helen's favorite tree and provide her with a thrilling tactile experience every time she climbed it. The house itself, as well as many of the surrounding trees and fences, was covered with an abundance of English ivy, inspiring its owners to call it "Ivy Green."

    In the South it was a practice to build a cottage near the main house as an annex for occasional use. After the Civil War, the captain built such a small dwelling forty feet from the house; he used the cottage as an office to keep his plantation books. To his son James's dismay, no sooner had his first wife, Sarah, died than he had the office refurbished as a bridal suite. After their marriage, he and Kate lived there for a while. For the as yet undisillusioned Kate, it was a secluded, romantic place, the couple's privacy ensured by a screen of climbing yellow roses and honeysuckle.

    It was in this structure, known as "The Little House," composed of one large room with a lovely bay window and a smaller room, that Helen was born and where she lived with a nurse until the time of her illness.

    In February 1882, when Helen was nineteen months old, she developed a severe congestion of the stomach and brain. The nature of her ailment, which was called "brain fever" by the doctors of the period, remains a mystery to this day. Some modern doctors believe it was scarlet fever, a contagious disease that is caused by a hemolytic streptococcus, while others are of the opinion that her symptoms were more indicative of meningitis, an inflammation of the delicate membranes that cover the spinal cord and brain. In any event, for several days the family doctor thought she would die. But the fever gradually subsided, and the child fell into a deceptively quiet sleep. Her eyes, however, continued to pain her. They felt "so dry and hot" that, as she later recalled, she kept them turned "to the wall, away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day." Believing their little daughter cured, the Kellers rejoiced. Only when Kate passed her hand before the baby's eyes and they did not close and she rang a dinner bell and Helen did not respond, did they realize that the illness had left her deaf, blind, and mute. She was living in a world where there was neither light nor sound. Medical tests would later reveal that she could perceive neither light nor objects and that she was completely deaf, possessing neither bone nor air conduction in either ear.

    "I was too young to realize what had happened," she wrote many years later. "When I awoke and found that all was dark and still, I suppose I thought it was night, and I must have wondered why day was so long coming. Gradually, however, I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been day."

    Helen Keller's severe handicap was rare. It has been estimated that since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been only fifty men and women in the world who have completely lost their sight and hearing in infancy or early childhood. Fewer numbers of blind-deaf mutes have been recorded in previous centuries. The great majority were killed in infancy by their relatives, a practice that exists today in many areas of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa.

    For centuries, the blind, as well as the deaf-blind, were regarded as monsters, to be killed as quickly as possible. In ancient Greece, blind children were taken to mountaintops and left to starve to death or be eaten by wild animals. In Rome, a parent of a sightless child could buy a small basket in the marketplace in which to put their visually impaired offspring before throwing him or her into the Tiber. Other early societies sanctioned the selling of blind children into slavery or prostitution, and in the Orient, blind women were routinely forced to become prostitutes. Even in Europe, blind children were often thrown into the streets by their parents to beg for a living.

    The deaf-blind, in particular, were regarded by their parents as pariahs, a retribution for their own sins. Even for a loving mother and father, they were almost impossible to handle. As a result of their intense frustrations at not being able to communicate, deaf-blind children, or "children of the silent night," as the blind commonly refer to them, throw temper tantrums, scratching, biting, hitting, and pinching other people. Helen Keller was no exception. No one had the heart to discipline her. She was willful and quick-tempered by nature and tyrannized the household. She smashed dishes and lamps, plunged her hands into people's plates. On one occasion she dashed into the parlor in her red flannel underwear and pinched her Grandma Adams, chasing her from the room. Helen could neither see nor hear other people's reactions and had no idea of the pain she inflicted. Her parents' tears and recriminations had no effect on her. She was regarded by her relatives "as a monster," and at least one of them suggested to Kate Keller that she was "a mental defective" who would be far better off in an institution. But Kate would not hear of it. Helen clung to her mother's skirts all day, and Kate's intense suffering was obvious to her friends and family--she had the most sensitive mouth they had ever seen, as if every line of her tragedy were etched upon it.

    "Fate ambushed the joy in my heart when I was twenty-four and left it dead," Kate once confided to a friend.

    Kate Keller was in an excruciating position. She had adored the darling Helen who could speak and hear, but after her daughter's defects were confirmed medically, she experienced a bewildering array of emotions: hurt pride, guilt, sadness, and often a wish for the child's death. She felt helpless about how to deal with Helen's destructive behavior.

    Kate Keller continued to resist the idea of putting Helen away, even though she was getting harder to handle with each day. The Kellers by then had a second child, a girl named Mildred, who was five years younger than her sister. A jealous Helen overturned the cradle. The baby might have died if Kate had not caught her before she fell on the floor. A short time later, Helen locked her mother in the pantry for several hours and cut off the black corkscrews of the child of the family cook who had been instructed to keep her entertained. Once Helen's wet apron caught flame as she held it in front of the fire, and a nurse quickly threw a blanket over her, putting out the fire.

    By this time Helen, who felt a need to communicate with other people, had learned a primitive way to communicate by crude signs: To say "no," she shook her head; "yes" was indicated by a nod. If she wanted her mother to make ice cream, she mimicked the motion of the freezer and shivered as if she were cold. To indicate her father, she made the motion of putting on glasses; for her mother, she laid her hand against her face; and for her sister Mildred, she sucked her thumb.

    "I cannot recall what happened during the first months after my illness. I only know that I sat in my mother's lap or clung to her dress as she went about her household duties," she later wrote in The Story of My Life. "My hands felt every object and observed every motion, and in this way I learned to know many things."

    Before her illness Helen had made signs for everything, and although she could say a few words, such as "wah-wah" and "tea, tea, tea," Kate Keller thought this habit was responsible for her slowness in learning how to speak. After the illness, when the family was dependent on signs to communicate with her, this natural tendency to gesture stood Helen in good stead. How much she could understand from this method of communication is difficult to determine, but at five she could sort and fold the laundry after it was ironed, distinguishing her own clothing from the other family members'. She knew when Kate was dressed to go out and begged to accompany her. By this age she also had realized that she was different from other people and that her mother and other people did not use signs as she did but spoke with their mouths. "Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips," she later recalled. "I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted."

    The frustration at not being able to express herself intensified as Helen grew older. Her outbursts increased to the point where they were occurring hourly. The Kellers were mystified. Helen was almost six, and if they could not manage her at this age, when she was still a little girl, how would they handle her when she reached her full growth and sexual maturity? She would be capable of doing real physical harm to herself and others, and Kate Keller brooded that her child's severe disability would make her especially vulnerable to a sexual assault, as she recalled with horror the stories about southern women who had been raped by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Kate's attitude toward sex could be considered fanatical. Whether it was because of her own disappointing marriage, in which she was forced to bear children for a man she did not love, or her guilt at having produced a severely disabled daughter, she was puritanical about sex to the point of obsession.

    One day, as Kate was cradling her exhausted child in her arms, she remembered a piece she had once read by Charles Dickens, her favorite author. It was about Dickens's own experience of visiting America and meeting Laura Bridgman, an ethereal deaf-blind young woman who had become educated. The solution to Helen's problem, if one existed, might lie with a young woman who had once shared her child's cruel fate. But was Laura as severely afflicted as Helen? Kate Keller wondered. And how, precisely, had her teachers broken through to her? Would their methods work with a child who was as violent and intractable as Helen?

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