Birthplace: Tuscumbia, AL
Location of death: Easton, CT
Cause of death: Natural Causes
Remains: Buried, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC
Helen Keller was an American lecturer, author, and activist. Deaf and blind since early childhood, and
living in an era where most individuals similarly afflicted were consigned to an asylum, Helen Keller
overcame her disabilities with the aide of mentor Anne Sullivan and rose to international renown. Keller
used her fame to educate others about the blind and to raise funds for related charities. But her
commitment to social change was extensive. She was a personal friend of controversial birth control
advocate Margaret Sanger, donated money to the NAACP(National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People) in 1916, and was a founding member of the ACLU (American Civil
Liberties Union)Her legacy has inspired books and films, notably The Miracle Worker (1962) and The
Miracle Continues (1984), and her name and likeness repeatedly crop up in everything from children's
picture books to episodes of South Park. Banal jokes about Keller and her disabilities are common among
schoolchildren and on the Internet.
Helen Adams Keller was born 27 June 1880 on a plantation called Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Helen's mother, Kate Adams Keller, was a relative of John Adams and a southern socialite. Yet the
economic depression that swept the South, on the heels of the Civil War, soon mired her in a life of toil.
Helen's father, Captain Arthur H. Keller, was according to some who knew him, "a man of limited ideas
and ability" who "loved to direct rather than work." He had served the Confederate Army in the war, and
believed Negroes to be subhuman. After the war he became was a gentlemen farmer and served as editor
of the local newspaper. Twenty years Kate's senior, he had two adult sons from an earlier marriage. Both
boys bitterly resented Keller's relationship with Kate.
Into this southern drama came Helen Adams Keller. An intelligent and unusually pretty child she had near
perfect features, beautiful pale blue eyes, and golden curls. Up until the age of 19 months she also had
normal, healthy eyesight and perfect hearing. But in February of 1882 Helen was suddenly struck down
with a severe congestion of the brain and stomach, what doctors of that era called the "brain fever", now
suspected to have been either scarlet fever or meningitis. Helen was not expected to survive, so when she
miraculously pulled through, her family rejoiced, believing themselves truly blessed.
Tragically, the illness had cost Helen both her hearing and her eyesight. Understandably, communication
with her came to a sudden standstill. Unable to see or hear what was around her, little Helen spent her
early years clinging frantically to her mother's skirts. Meanwhile, any moral instruction or behavioral
guidance seemed impossible (short of cruel beatings) so her emotional and social development foundered.
In time she grew to be an unruly child, frequently throwing raging tantrums. She would smash anything
within reach, and thrash, kick and bite whenever she felt thwarted. At meals she routinely helped herself
to food off other people's plates, groping and mashing the food with her fists. At least one family relative
suggested that she be locked away in an institution, as she was "unsightly" and seemed unlikely to ever
change for the better.
But Kate Keller gained renewed hope for her daughter after reading an article about the rehabilitation of
another deaf/blind girl, Laura Bridgman. Perhaps, Kate reasoned, even Helen could be helped. So she
consulted a physician who in turn put her in touch with Alexander Graham Bell. In addition to developing
the telephone, Bell was involved various education reform movements, including the oralist movement,
which sought to reintegrate the deaf into society by teaching them to read lips and even speak. They had
even taught deaf/blind persons to read lips by touch, that is, by laying their fingers against the lips and
throat of the speaker. Sign language was used as the basis of instruction, sometimes "spelling" words into
the hands of the deaf/blind with the manual alphabet.
To Kate's delight, Bell believed that Helen really might be helped, and he referred her to the Perkins
Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. It was this institution's director, Michael Anagnos,
who in selected a young teacher and former student, Anne Sullivan, to serve as Helen's tutor. Partially
blind herself and a former ward of the state, Anne was well aware of the kind of life that awaited Helen,
were she banished to an institution. But because of her own triumphs over adversity, Anne was also aware
of the miracles that might be wrought through persistence and disciplined effort.
With this in mind, when she arrived at the Keller home, she persuaded Captain Keller to let her have
complete charge over Helen, with no interference to her methods. She and Helen moved into the little
cottage behind the main house, and instruction began. Although her initial focus was to mold Helen's
behavior into something considerably more civilized and tolerable, Anne immediately introduced Helen to
finger spelling and the manual alphabet. But Helen made no apparent connection between this "finger
game" and the objects the signed words were supposed to represent.
It is worth noting that contrary to popular belief, Helen was not entirely ignorant of symbolizing -- or
rather, of using hand signs to represent real world actions or objects. In fact she already used dozens of
gestures of her own devising. These she used to represent various things and persons in the family,
employing them routinely in order to communicate her wishes. Meanwhile, despite Helen's obvious
failure to realize the true purpose of the finger spelling, Anne persisted, routinely spelling words into
Helen's palm -- and refusing to do so when Helen misbehaved.
But on 5 April 1887, after a month of no progress, the now famous moment arrived when the two were
down at the water pump. Anne was spelling "water" into Helen's palm while letting the water run over the
girl's other hand when suddenly, Helen got it. Frantic with excitement Helen spelled it back to Anne: w-a-
t-e-r. Soon, she was urging Anne to show her the names of all kinds of things, learning at least thirty new
words within a few hours. When she asked for a name to call Anne, Anne spelled back "teacher" -- the
name Helen would call her by for the rest of their lives together.
With this breakthrough, things changed rapidly now. Re-immersed into the world of communication, after
more than five years of isolating silence and darkness, Helen's ability to learn proved simply astonishing
in its speed and breadth. In fact it wasn't long before she was able go to school, moving to Boston with
Anne to attend the Perkins Institution. Rapidly Helen learned to read Braille, use a typewriter (both Braille
and conventional), write words using a ruler as a reference point, and even to lip-read using her fingers.
With her communication skills forged, she next attended the Wright-Humasen School in New York City,
and the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. With Anne at her side, as ever, she even attended Radcliffe
College. She graduated in 1904, cum laude, the first deaf/blind person to receive a college degree.
Meanwhile she was quickly becoming a major celebrity. She met a number of influential and famous
people, including author Mark Twain, industrialist Henry Ford, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill,
and Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, and U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover and, later,
John F. Kennedy. Heralded as a "miracle" child, she was the subject of numerous articles that publicized
the difficulties facing the deaf/blind and their ability to live meaningful fulfilling lives. Helen soon
became an important figurehead to raise funds for related causes, especially the American Foundation for
the Blind, which she joined forces with in 1924.
But too intelligent and independent to remain merely a cherished figurehead, Helen soon began branching
out, speaking out not only for the rights of the handicapped, but for others that she saw as oppressed. She
became radically left wing, joining the Socialist party, supporting the rights of laborers as well as equal
rights for women and blacks. She gave personal comfort and encouragement to blind and impoverished
African Americans, was a founding member of the ACLU, and participated in rallies and marches. She
was a vocal supporter of women's right to vote and their right to birth control. She even convinced Israelis
to stop segregating the blind and disband a village set aside for their use. Public reaction to these
developments was surprisingly mild -- she was still just "poor Helen Keller", terribly afflicted with
multiple handicaps, and practically a saint for having overcome such adversity.
But it was also suspected that she was merely a dupe, a puppet that spouted, or perhaps only appeared to
spout, the pro-leftist rantings of Anne Sullivan and of Sullivan's husband, John Macy. Certainly it was true
that Macy had introduced Helen to socialism, during their work together on one of her books. But
according to Helen, her adoption of that ideology was both heartfelt and inevitable, for it represented, as
she put it, a "struggle that resembles my own". At any rate, the expression of her political views brought
her under lengthy surveillance from the FBI. In 1933 the Nazis burned a collection of her political essays.
Meanwhile, accusations of plagiarism were not entirely new to Helen. A story that she wrote as an eleven
year old, "The Frost King", later turned out to be a retelling of a story by Margaret Canby, "The Frost
Fairies". Unfortunately Helen had offered the story as a gift to Perkins Institute director Michael Anagnos
whose public praise of the work backfired when the similarity was discovered. Helen was crushed. Not
only was she roundly criticized -- and henceforth cold-shouldered by Anagnos -- but she also fell into
terrible self-doubt. If "The Frost King" was merely the product of a tale read to her earlier, then forgotten,
how could she be sure that any of her ideas were really her own?
Years later, Helen's friend Mark Twain was so deeply touched by reading of this incident in one of her
published works, that he wrote to her of his outrage over the chastisement. Referring to her detractors as
"a collection of decayed human turnips" Twain pointed out that he himself had committed just such an
incident of unwitting plagiarism in penning the dedication of his Innocents Abroad. Twain went on to
argue that all human thoughts and writings were but repetition of earlier thoughts held by others, strung
together in new variations. In fact, he added, her highly educated critics had themselves learned to parrot
other people's knowledge by attending college.
In addition to her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Keller published some dozen other books. Among
these were Light in my Darkness, which focused on the work of philosopher and theologian Emanuel
Swedenborg. (Keller was a member of the Swedenborgian religion founded on his writings.) She was also
the author of numerous essays, articles, and speeches. She toured widely, delivering her speeches in favor
of various groups and causes. For a time she also performed on the vaudeville stage, reveling in the
limelight and the press of humanity.
In all these endeavors, her constant companion was Anne Sullivan, interpreting the visual and auditory
world for Helen through finger signs, and explaining Helen's signed words to the world. In later years,
many of Anne's duties were subsumed by assistant Polly Thomson, who assumed the role entirely after
Anne's death in 1936. With Polly at her side Helen continued to as an active speaker on social issues,
traveling all over the world to carry her message and meet influential people until shortly before her death
on 1 June 1968. After her passing, her work on behalf of the blind was continued through the various
institutions that she helped to found and fund, including Helen Keller International and the Helen Keller
National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults.
The central facet of Helen's story -- an astonishing transformation brought about through compassion,
hard work, and creative innovation -- continues to abide, much cherished, in the public awareness, via the
various books, movies, and plays generated about her life. Although films about Keller run the gamut
from documentaries like Deliverance (1919) and The Unconquered(1954) to made for TV films like The
Miracle Continues (1984), the most famous treatment was the 1962 big screen film version of The Miracle
Worker. Starring Patty Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan, the film was based on the
popular stage play of the same name written by author William Gibson (not to be confused with the
cyberpunk author). Both Bancroft and Duke had starred in the play as well, and both won Oscars for their
film portrayals. In 1979 Patty Duke transitioned into the role of Anne Sullivan in a made-for-TV version
of The Miracle Worker, with Melissa Gilbert stepping into the part originally played by Duke.
Despite Keller's enduring popularity, most people know little about her life beyond that famous
reawakening by the water pump. Her later educational accomplishments, her time on the vaudeville
circuit, and even her tireless social activism have dropped away before the legend of the little deaf/blind
girl who learned to communicate. Few realize, for example, that she had taken out a marriage license with
one-time secretary Peter Fagan, but that her parents forcibly removed her from the relationship. Few know
that, at her family's urging, she had her eyes surgically removed at age 30, replaced with more
cosmetically appealing false eyes. And of course now, with her life story mostly trotted out to inspire, few
are aware of her controversial friendships and politics. She has become in death, even more so than in life,
Saint Helen -- an icon to inspire whiny schoolchildren and those with disabilities. In the end, as with so
many human icons, her image and existence have become a figment of popular imagination.