LEARNING FROM HELEN KELLER
Facilitated Communication Institute
Helen Keller is probably the most universally recognized disabled person of the twentieth century. (Others such as Franklin Roosevelt were equally well-known, but Keller is remembered primarily for her accomplishments which are disability-related.) Those of us who have grown up in the last half of this century have only known Keller as a figure of veneration. We know her primarily through popularized versions of her life such as the play “The Miracle Worker,” or through her autobiographical works such as The Story of My Life (Keller, 1961 1902) and The World I Live In (Keller, 1908). Most of us have come away with the image of a more-than-human person living with the blessed support of an equally superhuman mentor, Annie Sullivan Macy.
There is little wisdom, however, to be learned from the stories of superheroes. It is from observing the struggles, losses and compromises in both Keller and Sullivan’s lives that we are likely to find parallels to the everyday experiences of ourselves and our friends. Dorothy Herrmann’s recent biography of Keller, Helen Keller: A Life (Herrmann, 1998) creates a much more complete picture of the costs of Keller’s celebrity and iconic status, and of the tensions present in her life-long relationship with the woman whom she always referred to as Teacher. In this paper, I will discuss two important themes from Helen Keller’s life in terms of their implications for those of us who are also part of a community of people engaged in the enterprise of finding their voices in the world.
The “Frost King” Incident
Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880, and became deaf and then blind following an illness when she was 19 months old. Annie Sullivan came to Alabama to work as Helen’s teacher in March, 1887. Scarcely a month later, on April 5, 1887, came the well-known moment at the water-pump, where Helen first associated the objects she experienced with the words being spelled into her hand. Within the next year, Helen began keeping a journal, and was studying the poetry of Longfellow, Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. By the time she was ten years old, Helen Keller was literally world-famous. As early as October, 1888, she was writing letters such as the following one to Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins’ School for the Blind:
Mon cher Monsieur Anagnos,
….I hope you will go with me to Athens to see the maid of Athens. She was very lovely lady and I will talk Greek to her. I will say, se agapo and pos echete and I think she will say, kalos, and then I will say chaere. Will you please come to see me soon and take me to the theater? When you come I will say Kale emera, and when you go home I will say Kale nykta. Now I am too tired to write more. Je vous time. Au revoir.
From your darling little friend,
HELEN A. KELLER
Anagnos, the man responsible for connecting Annie Sullivan with the Keller family and an eager promoter of the interests of the Perkins’ School, where Sullivan had been both a student and a teacher trainee, was effusive in his description of Helen Keller in the Perkins’ School’s 1888 annual report, published little more than a year after she began to communicate:
…as if impelled by a resistless instinctive force she snatched the key of the treasury of the English language from the fingers of her teacher, unlocked its doors with vehemence, and began to feast upon its contents with inexpressible delight. As soon as a slight crevice was opened in the outer wall of their twofold imprisonment, her mental faculties emerged full-armed from their living tomb as Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus. (Quoted in Herrmann, 1998, p.64).
In subsequent years, Anagnos wrote at length of Keller in the School’s annual report, with each report more glowing and, it must be said, more exaggerated than the last — 146 pages were devoted to her in the 1889 annual report:
…She is the queen of precocious and brilliant children, Emersonian in temper, most exquisitely organized, with intellectual sight of unsurpassed sharpness and infinite reach… (quoted in Hermann, 1998, p.75).
These are heady words to describe a nine-year-old child, even one of Keller’s remarkable accomplishments. Although Keller and Sullivan were developing a wide circle of influential friends among the rich and famous of Boston, resentment was growing over the preferential treatment Keller received at the Perkins’ School. Morever, suspicions were growing of how real Keller’s accomplishments were, since no teacher of deaf-blind students had ever showed the same success that Annie Sullivan had seen in her brief time with Helen.
In November, 1891, Helen sent Anagnos a birthday gift: “The Frost King,” a fairy tale she had written for him on her braille slate. Anagnos was delighted with the story, and reprinted it in The Mentor, the Perkins’ School’s alumni magazine. It was soon reprinted to great acclaim in a weekly publication of the Virginia Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind; however, the editors of that journal were soon informed that Helen’s story was remarkably similar to a story published in a book of fairy-tales by Margaret T. Canby. Anagnos looked into the situation, and discovered that, during the previous year, when Helen had been visiting at a friend’s home, she had probably been read the story in Annie Sullivan’s absence. When he questioned Helen through an interpreter, however, she told him that when she had written “The Frost King,” she believed it to be an original story. Ten years later, in The Story of My Life, Keller would write:
…how could it possibly have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about the frost that I had read before I wrote “The Frost King;” but I could remember nothing, except the common reference to Jack Frost, and a poem for children, “The Freaks of the Frost,” and I knew I had not used that in my composition. (Keller, 1961, p. 65.)
Anagnos at first believed Keller had made an innocent mistake. Some months later, however, in response to an accusation by one of the Perkins’ teachers that Helen had told her the story had been read to her very recently by Annie Sullivan, Anagnos decided to convene a “court of investigation.” The court was composed of eight school officials, four of whom were blind, and Anagnos. Keller described the circumstances: with Annie Sullivan out of the room, Keller was
…questioned and cross-questioned with what seemed to me a determination on the part of my judges to force me to acknowledge that I remembered having had “The Frost Fairies” read to me. I felt in every question the doubt and suspicion that was in their minds, and I felt, too, that a loved friend was looking at me reproachfully, although I could not have put all this into words…. As I lay in bed that night, I wept as I hope few children have wept. I felt so cold, I imagined I should die before morning, and the thought comforted me. I think if this sorrow had come to me when I was older, it would have broken my spirit beyond repairing (Keller, 1961, p.66).
At the time, Helen was 12 years old. The support of those who could be forgiving of a child’s confusion about the nature of plagiarism was of little avail.
Miss Canby herself wrote to me kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many.” But this kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling of terror, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. Had it not been for the persistent encouragement of Miss Sullivan, I think I should have given up trying to write altogether (Keller, 1961, p.68).
The mystery was eventually “solved” when it was determined that Keller had very likely been read Canby’s book more than two years before she wrote the story down, during a brief period when Annie Sullivan was away recuperating from an illness.
The events surrounding this episode left a long-lasting mark on Keller. She wrote in her autobiography that, a year later,
…I was still excessively scrupulous about everything I wrote. The thought that what I wrote might not be absolutely my own tormented me. No one knew of these fears except my teacher. A strange sensitiveness prevented me from referring to “The Frost King”; and often when an idea flashed out in the course of conversation I would spell softly to her, “I am not sure it is mine.” At other times, in the midst of a paragraph I was writing, I said to myself, “Suppose it should be found that all this was written by someone long ago!” An impish fear clutched my hand, so that I could not write any more that day. And even now 1903 I sometimes feel the same uneasiness and disquietude (Keller, 1961, p.71).
Why was this young girl subjected to such an inquisition? Was she the only young student at the Perkins’ School to ever produce writing which closely copied someone else’s work, claiming it for her own? Very likely she was not; any teacher knows such an event is common in children her age. However, she was the only student described in the Perkins’ School’s reports as the “personification of goodness and happiness” (Herrmann, 1998, p. 75). Clearly, the energy which had been used to celebrate and lionize her far beyond her actual accomplishments was quickly turned against her when she did not fully live up to those unrealistic expectations, expectations which were neither hers nor those of her teacher.
According to Herrmann, Keller may also have been a secondary victim of jealousy and ill feelings directed toward Annie Sullivan by other teachers at the Perkins’ School. Sullivan was not a “team player”; she was a proud woman who claimed sole responsibility for the breakthroughs she had achieved with Helen Keller, to the annoyance of teachers and administrators at the Perkins’ School. This isolation of both Keller and Sullivan from the broader school community may also have contributed to the vehemence of the investigation directed against them both.
Helen and Annie’s Life-long Interdependence
Annie Sullivan came to work with the Keller family in Alabama in 1887. She and Helen were almost constant companions (except for a five-month period in 1917 when Sullivan was recuperating from chronic illness in Puerto Rico) until Sullivan’s death in 1936. Their close connection continued through the entire duration of Sullivan’s marriage to, and separation from, John Macy, a socialist author and political activist. It survived deep differences in personality between Keller’s even-tempered nature and Sullivan’s irascibility and mercurial mood swings. Keller became an active participant in both the Swedenborgian church and radical politics, both of which Sullivan viewed with distaste.
During this time, Keller remained a well-known public figure; she was a major spokesperson for the American Foundation for the Blind, and the subject of a 1918 movie based on her life, Deliverance. With Sullivan at her side, Keller was a popular performer on the vaudeville stage from 1920 to 1924, billed as “The Star of Happiness.” Although Keller wrote that she enjoyed her life in the theater, it was apparently an ongoing ordeal for Sullivan.
Undoubtedly, Keller lived a life of widely varied experience, pursuing her own interests beyond those of her teacher. However, her connection with Sullivan remained the central “fact” of her life. This joining of lives seemed in many ways to be tremendously fulfilling for both of them. It is instructive, however, to read of the course of Keller’s life following Annie Sullivan’s death.
Polly Thompson was part of their shared household since 1914. However, she became Helen’s trusted companion only by default, as, during the 1930’s, Annie Sullivan’s health and remaining vision declined. After Sullivan’s death, Polly Thompson assumed the role of Keller’s constant companion until she, too, died in 1960. However, whereas Annie Sullivan had usually allowed Keller to take the lead in determining the course of their shared existence, Thompson tended to be far more controlling. And whereas the habit of relying on a single person as her primary connection with the wider world had served Keller well for most of her life, it placed her in a position of great vulnerability when Sullivan was no longer there.
By the mid-1950s it had become obvious to their friends that Polly’s behavior toward Helen was “bordering on madness.” For years it had been Polly who dressed Helen, a long and tedious job because Polly was such a perfectionist about Helen’s public image. Lately, Polly had become even more fanatical about Helen’s appearance. Because she insisted that Helen look her best, even with her closest friends, it was now a burden for them to have company. Spur-of-the-moment visitors, whom Helen might have enjoyed seeing, were told that Polly and Helen could not see them. As a result Helen was even more isolated…What deeply disturbed members of their intimate circle, however, was that even though Nella, Katherine Cornell, Nancy Hamilton and Lenore Smith all knew the manual finger language, Polly would not let them spell to Helen when anyone else was present. Still a prisoner in her old age, Helen was cut off from contact with anyone but her senile, possessive companion (Herrmann, 1998, p. 312).
Lessons from Keller’s Life
As we search accounts of Keller’s experiences for guidance in negotiating relationships among facilitated communication users, their facilitators and other supporters, and the broader community, it is possible to err in both the direction of over- and under-identification. Certainly the major differences between the circumstances of Keller’s life and those of anyone growing up disabled a century later must not be overlooked. However, there are instructive, sometimes disturbing resonances between Keller’s life and those of people today who rely on some level of support for their communication.
1. Responsibility for one’s words. Many people who write through the use of facilitated communication, as well as those who communicate in other atypical ways, often find themselves in situations where their authorship is doubted, or, in school settings, where the extent of their contribution to a project in which they took part is questioned.
The scrutiny under which their words comes may be related to the novel means by which the communication takes place, or to the presence of support people. However, it may also be related to the cognitive dissonance experienced by people in authority whose categories of people do not yet include “somebody who (looks/acts/grew up) like that and writes like this.” One example of this is the African-American, Phyllis Wheatley, whose book of poetry published in Boston in the 1770’s was widely seen as a hoax by people who could not conceive of a former slave writing classical poetry (Shevin, 1993). Keller represents another such example, and many individuals within the community of facilitated communicators have found themselves under similar scrutiny.
Another side of this issue, however, can be seen in Keller’s acknowledged ongoing confusion over the “Frost King” story. At the time of the story’s wide dissemination, Keller was eleven years old; she had been a part of the broad community of communicators for less than four years, and her access to that community had been mediated almost exclusively by a single person, Annie Sullivan. Since Sullivan had been Keller’s near-constant companion throughout that period, she was presumed to be in a position to easily confirm whether Keller had ever seen the book from which “The Frost King” was apparently plagiarized. Under these circumstances, we can guess that Keller may never, until the time of this incident, have been required to assume responsibility for that which she wrote. Taking responsibility for one’s words is a skill learned so early by most people that we sometimes give it little thought, but it is a learned skill. Being able to say whether something actually happened to me or whether I imagined it; saying whether I wrote something myself, wrote it with another’s help, or heard it elsewhere; and being clear whether I am reporting my own experiences, thoughts and desires, or those I think my listener wants or expects to hear — all of these forms of responsible communication are established over time. The lessons may be learned though observation and conversation, or by trial and error; they are sometimes learned through punishment and tears. But to truly learn these lessons, one needs an element which Keller lacked: multiple communication partners.
Sullivan was a constant in Keller’s life, and could always be relied upon to coach and correct Keller in grammar, polite address, accuracy of fact, and so on. I would argue, however, that Sullivan’s consistent presence prevented Keller from learning to take responsibility for her own words.
Is this an inevitable occurrence in the lives of people who require support or mediation for their communication? Probably not — Keller herself clearly mastered such responsibility later in her life, though not before she had been scarred by the effects of its early absence. In hindsight, we can speculate on approaches which might have helped Keller gain such mastery early on; early attention to these issues, and explicit instruction in the rules of discourse appropriate to someone in the public eye both might have helped. Most important, however, would have been both ongoing contact with multiple support persons, conversational and instructional partners, and practice in the communication of accurate information to and among multiple communication partners. “Message-passing” is not just a tester’s tool; it is also a skill whose use is a mark of a responsible citizen of the community of discourse.
1. The downside of interdependence. Was Keller the beneficiary or the victim of her lifelong relationship with Annie Sullivan? Nobody reviewing Keller’s long list of accomplishments and accolades, famous friends and unique experiences could doubt that Sullivan devoted herself wholeheartedly to opening doors for her student and intimate companion, or that Keller was immeasurably enriched by the experience. However, that unique intertwining of two lives became the only way Keller would know of being in the world. She came to experience the world only in partnership, and seemed powerless to step back from such a partnership, even when, as during her years with Polly Thompson, the partnership had become a prison. Far from being interdependent with, and a full participant in, a community, Keller had become interdependent with a particular person. As a result, her life experiences expanded or shrank depending on that specific person’s situation and inclinations.
Was this degree of exclusive interdependence inevitable? Although we cannot judge the participants in this encounter or the times they lived in by current standards, we can draw on Keller and Sullivan’s experiences as we reflect on our own.
One question worth exploring is this: who was responsible for the exclusivity in Keller and Sullivan’s relationship? Clearly, both women sought it out through most of their lives together. Not only was Sullivan Helen’s only teacher, Helen Keller was Ann’s only student. Each defined themselves in relation to the other. Sullivan’s marriage was followed by separation after a few years; Keller, though once caught up in a tempestuous romance which nearly led to an elopement, apparently turned away from that moment in her life with few regrets. Both women chose the relationship, but in a real sense, Sullivan can be said to have been responsible for it. It was at least theoretically within her power to expand Keller’s access to a wider range of readers, signers and teachers; to become a transparent conduit, a “non-player,” in Keller’s interactions with others; and to systematically welcome interactions in Keller’s life in which she did not participate, rather than viewing such events as dangerous moments to be avoided.
Although the habits of both women created a stable life for both Keller and Sullivan during Sullivan’s lifetime, Annie Sullivan may have already come to doubt their wisdom before her death.
A short time before Annie died, a friend, meaning it as a compliment, had told her, “Helen would be nothing without you.” “Then my life has been wasted,” Annie said (Herrmann, 1998, p.257).
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For facilitated communicators, their facilitators, friends and allies, these observations may point toward an exploration of our own habits. Each of us might ask ourselves: are we settling into a comfortable symbiosis with our communication partners, in which communication not only coexists with friendship and intimacy, but relies on it? If so, what steps can we take to disentangle these two important features of our lives? For although it is important for each person to have intimates with whom we can trustingly share our dreams and heartaches, it is no less important to be able to communicate impersonally with our physician, our congressional representative, or the person from whom we are ordering a pizza.
It is within the power of both facilitators and the family members or supervisors who oversee them to help create more expansive, rather than symbiotic, communicative relationships. Continually recruiting novice facilitators into a person’s life is far preferable to a reliance on a stagnant pool of limited resources. When new facilitators are added to a foundation of already existing facilitator support, most facilitated communicators come to welcome, with confidence, the challenges presented while breaking in new staff. And for facilitators, the partnership with either newer or more experienced facilitators, other communication partners and allies is a significant part of keeping our skills honed, our direction clear and our efforts sustainable. Individual facilitators can take the initiative in expanding the circle; the effort is helped immeasurably when it becomes a priority of those who train facilitators, for administrators who provide access to enriched staffing resources, and for allies involved in connecting an individual with his or her broader community.
The world will never see another Helen Keller. Those visible people with disabilities of our generation do not stand alone and unique — increasingly, they are powerful members of a powerful community, in control of those who support them rather than controlled by them. Those of us who are supporters and allies of facilitated communication users can play an important role in helping our friends come into possession of their power and full citizenship in our community. The most powerful acts — and often the most complicated and painful ones — by which we can support movement in this direction, are those acts by which, a piece at a time, we become less and less indispensable.
Herrmann, D. (1998). Helen Keller: A Life. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
Keller, H. (1961 1902) The Story of my Life. New York, Dell.
Keller, H. (1908). The World I Live In. New York, Grosset and Dunlop.
Shevin, M. (1993). “Editorial: Who are our Phyllis Wheatleys?” Facilitated Communication Digest 1(3): 1-2.