At the age of seven, Helen Keller was described my family members as a little monster. She threw temper tantrums, attacked people and had terrible personal habits. Yet, within a year, the deaf and blind girl had been transformed. She became teachable and that teaching untapped a level of genius – and determination – which saw her overcome her disabilities and achieve unimaginable success . In this week’s Biographics we explore how Helen Keller beat incredible odds to become an inspiration to the world.
A ‘Normal’ Beginning
Helen Keller was born on June 27th, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small town in northern Alabama. She was a perfectly healthy baby with the ability to see and hear. Her mother Kate, just 23 years old, was a pampered Southern belle who doted on her first child. Helen’s father, Arthur, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, was 42 when his daughter was born. Kate was his second wife and he had two grown sons from his first marriage.
The birth of Helen was a relief to Kate, who now had a child of her own to shower love and attention upon. Helen was a quick developer, speaking her first words at six months and and taking her first steps on her first birthday. However, in February, 1882, at the age of nineteen months, she became severely ill with what doctors at the time called ‘brain fever.’ Modern researchers believe she may have had Scarlet Fever or, possibly, meningitis. Whatever the cause of her illness, the local doctor was convinced that the child would not survive.
A World of Darkness and Solitude
Helen did survive – but the illness had robbed her of her hearing and her sight. Her bright, happy world was now filled with silence and darkness. As an adult, Helen recalled coming out of her illness . . .
I was too young to realize what had happened. 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.
For the first few months after her illness, a terrified Helen would do no more than sit on her mother’s lap and cling to her dress as Kate tried to do her daily chores. Then she began to venture out on her own, first crawling around the room and feeling her way forward. She discovered that her hands could, in a small way, do the job of her eyes, helping her to identify objects and areas of the house.
With Kate’s patient assistance, Helen also developed a crude system of communication; a shake of the head for ‘no’, a nod for ‘yes’, a pull on her mother’s dress for ‘come’. Before long she had incorporated pantomime actions into her ‘vocabulary’ – if she wanted ice-cream she would pretend she was working the freezer while shivering. He ever-attentive mother would then rush to give her what she wanted.
Helen proved to be a very determined child. If she set her mind on a task, she would keep at it until she was successful. Her greatest desire was to improve her ability to communicate with others. Making simple signs with her hands was not enough. The inability to make people understand what she was thinking and feeling led to a level of frustration that welled deep inside her. This led to outbursts of temper, screaming fits and violent outbursts.
Helen’s temper tantrums terrorized the family. She would smash lanterns, thrust her fist in plates of food and claw and pinch whoever was close by. Relatives referred to the child as a ‘monster’ and strongly urged Kate and Arthur to put her in an institution.
In 1885, Kate had a second child, Mildred, a baby sister for Helen. With her mother’s doting attention now being shared, Helen became intensely jealous. Once she knocked over Mildred’s cot, causing the baby to fall out. A desperate Kate was at her wit’s end, unable to control or help Helen. But she was determined not to send her away.
When Helen was six, her father learned of a doctor in Baltimore, Maryland, named Julian Chisholm who had helped restore sight to blind people. The family took the trip to consult with Dr. Chisholm only to be told that there was nothing medically that could be done to fix Helen’s eyesight. But the doctor did hold out a ray of hope. He told the Kellers about a man who specialized in helping deaf children to communicate. His name was Alexander Graham Bell.
Although best remembered as the inventor of the telephone, Bell’s passion was helping the deaf. His mother and his wife were both deaf. In fact, he had met his wife, Mabel, when he had taken on the job as her private tutor, teaching her through a system of signing that he had developed. The Keller’s traveled to Washington to meet him.
Helen felt comfortable with Bell right away. At that first meeting he sat her on his knee and handed her his pocket watch. She was delighted with the vibrations she felt when the watch struck the hour. Bell suggested that the Kellers write to the Perkins Institute For The Blind in Boston, requesting a tutor for Helen. The Institute trained teachers who could go out and work with deaf and blind students. The director of the Institute looked over his list of recent graduates, settling upon his star pupil, a twenty year old who was, herself, partially blind from suffering trachoma as a child. Her name was Anne Sullivan.
Enter the Miracle Worker
Anne Sullivan arrived at the Keller house on March 3rd, 1887. Helen stood in the doorway as she approached. The child knew, from her mother’s scurried activity that morning, that something important was happening, but she didn’t know what. Years later, however, she would write . . .
The most important day I remember in all my life is the one in which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. Helen Keller
Helen could hear footsteps approaching. Assuming it was her mother, she held out her hand. Anne took the girl’s hand and pulled her in for an embrace. But when Helen realized that this was a stranger, she struggled to break free. This was the first of many temper outbursts that Anne would be confronted with. The very next day, in a fit of rage, the student knocked out one of her teacher’s front teeth.
But Helen was quickly to realize that Miss Sullivan was not about to let the petulant child get away her outrageous behavior, as had been happening up until then. When, at the breakfast table, Helen reached across to grab food from Anne’s plate, as she was accustomed to doing with her family members, Anne grabbed her hand and pushed it away. This sent Helen into a fit of rage – she flopped on the floor and exhibited a full on tantrum. Sullivan asked the other family members to leave the room and lock the door. She then proceeded to continue eating her breakfast, completely ignoring Helen’s performance. Finally, the exasperated child got off the floor and felt for Anne’s body to see what she was doing. When she discovered that Anne was calmly eating her food she again began to grab at the plate. But, each time, Anne would slap her hand away. Helen then began pinching Anne’s hand, something she was allowed to do with impunity to her family members. Again Anne slapped the hand. Finally, Helen sat back on her chair and began eating her own food.
Anne soon came to the realization that Helen’s family members had been enabling her bad behavior. She knew that to make any progress, she would have to separate the child from her parents. The Kellers agreed to let Anne and Helen live in a small cottage not far from the main house. Anne wanted Helen to think that they had traveled a long distance from the family, so the two of them set out on a carriage ride that, unknown to Helen, circled back to the cottage.
Helen wasn’t happy to be packed off with her strict new teacher. She spent the first day screaming and throwing things around the cottage. That night, Anne had to hold Helen down for hours just to keep her in bed. The child’s strength and determination were incredible. But Anne’s was just that little bit greater.
As the days and weeks passed, Anne was able to slowly bring Helen under control. The change began when Anne started spelling out words on Helen’s palm. The first word was DOLL. The finger play intrigued Helen and she proved to be an excellent mimic. Soon she was spelling out a dozen three letter words with her fingers – but she still didn’t know what they meant.
The breakthrough came on April 5th, 1887. That morning, Anne had been trying to get Helen to understand the difference between the words ‘mug’ and ‘water.’ She took her to the water pump outside the cottage and had the girl hold out a mug. Anne then worked the pump so that water filled it and began to overflow. Then she began to spell the word WATER on Helen’s free hand.
Suddenly the light went off in Helen’s mind. She later wrote . . .
That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope joy, set it free.
Now, that she had a taste of word meanings, she couldn’t get enough. She wanted Anne to spell out everything around her. She managed to add dozens of new words to her vocabulary that day.
As her understanding of the world grew, Helen’s personality began to mellow and the temper tantrums became less frequent. She came to understand that people would treat her with greater empathy if she displayed a kind, caring personality.
With the key to knowledge – understanding word meaning – now unlocked, Helen was able to learn with amazing speed. In just a few months she was reading books in Braille. Anne was no longer spelling only simple words into Helen’s palm. Now she was signing portions of Shakespeare and the Bible. By the time she was nine, Helen was ‘reading the works of such great poets as Shelley, Longfellow and Oliver Wendell-Holmes. This made her far more advanced, in a literary sense, than most other children of her age.
Anne quickly came to the realization that Helen’s ability to comprehend complex ideas was highly advanced. Writing a report to the director of the Perkins School for the Blind, she spoke of Anne’s near-genius level learning ability. But she added that that director must not show the report to anyone else. She didn’t want Anne to be turned into a prodigy. However, the director, Michael Anagnos, saw Helen’s story as an opportunity for reflected glory. He titled the 56th annual report of the Perkins School ‘Helen Keller: A Second Laura Bridgeman.’ In the report he embellished Helen’s story, making it even more irresistible to the press.
Before long newspapers all over the country were writing gushing stories about the child genius who was reading Shakespeare, despite not being able to see or hear. Helen’s story even reached across to Europe, where Queen Victoria was intrigued to hear of the brilliant little deaf and blind girl.
By age ten, Helen Keller was an internationally renowned figure. When a policeman shot her dog, Lioness, the news was picked up by the papers. People began sending her money to buy another dog. Helen was reported as saying that she didn’t need a new dog, but she would like to use the money to help a poor blind, deaf and mute boy name Tommy Stringer to attend the Perkins School for the Blind. The public responded and Tommy’s tuition fees were paid for. This inspired Helen to want to help more children so, she began writing letters to people who were willing to donate money.
Learning to Speak
By the time she was ten years of age, Helen had not spoken a clear word in her life. But then, in March 1890 she heard about a blind / deaf girl in Norway who had learned to speak with her mouth. She now became obsessed with doing the same thing. Anne Sullivan knew just who could help – Sarah Fuller, the director of the Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, Massachusetts. Fuller decided to teach Helen herself. She took hold of Helen’s hand and placed it over her mouth to allow the girl to feel the movement of her lips and tongue as she spoke. Helen then copied the motions with her own speech organs. After an hour of intense concentration and effort she was able to speak her first sentence . . .
It is too warm.
The sound of Helen’s voice, however, was raspy and almost impossible to understand. Her untrained vocal cords would need a lot of practice before she was able to make legible speech. In later years, she would train for three summers under the guidance of a famous music teacher to improve her speaking voice.
Back home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen and Anne continued to work on speech development. They also developed a method of ‘hearing’ what others were saying. She would place her thumb on the throat of the speaker, her forefinger on their lips and her middle finger on their nose, allowing her to translate the vibrations into sound.
“The Frost King”
In November, 1891, 11-year old Helen sent a birthday present to Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute. It was a short story that she had written on her Braille slate called ‘The Frost King.’ Anagnos was impressed with the quality of the prose and published the story in the Perkins Alumni magazine. Helen was overjoyed to become a published author. But her joy was short-lived.
Reports reached Tuscumbia that there was a book in print called The Frost Fairies by Margaret T. Canby. The story was uncannily similar to Helen’s story, The Frost King. Accusations started to circulate that she had plagiarized the story. When this was explained to her, she was horrified. Reading Canby’s book, she realized the similarities were striking. But she was adamant that she had written her own, original story.
The reality was that Helen had become a voracious reader. She would digest one book after another, with no thought for who had written them. Ideas became jumbled in her mind and she was unable to remember if they came from herself or from what she had read. So, when she enthusiastically produced her story, she believed that the ideas were her own. However, a worker at the Perkins Institute had, indeed, read the Frost Fairies to her over a year before. The story had become lodged in her subconscious and was clearly the inspiration for The Frost King.
This incident caused deep embarrassment to Helen. She wrote in her diary . . .
It made us feel so bad that people thought we had been untrue and wicked. My heart was full of tears, for I love the beautiful truth with my whole heart and mind.
Michael Anagnos was also humiliated by the incident. He had to print a retraction to explain the mix-up. After questioning Helen, he believed that no deliberate plagiarism was involved. But then one of his teachers reported to him that Helen had ‘confessed’ the wrongdoing to her. The truth was that this manipulative teacher had twisted Helen’s words to make her sound guilty. It was enough, however, for Anagnos to turn against Helen, and his former star pupil, Anne Sullivan. He set up a formal hearing in which Helen was interrogated by an 8-member panel. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of the 11-year-old’s life. After a day of tough scrutiny, the panel was split down the middle as to whether deliberate plagiarism was involved. In the end, Anagnos split the stalemate, coming down on the side of Helen.
The Fisher King experience haunted Helen for many years to come. Whenever she wrote a sentence from then onwards, she would check it repeatedly to make sure that it was her own, original work.
The World At Large
In March, 1893, Anne and Helen attended the Presidential inauguration of Grover Cleveland. From there they went to Niagara Falls where Helen was astounded at the power of the vibrations caused by the massive pounding waters. They then went to Chicago to attend the World’s Fair. They were escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, who was featuring his telephone at the great exhibition. But the famous deaf-blind girl who had conquered her handicaps was just as much a drawcard as the renowned inventor.
The exhibition, which featured exhibits from all over the world, thrilled Helen. She was the only one of the millions of visitors who was allowed to run her hands over the exhibits. This gave her a far greater appreciation of the world round eher than anything she had read in books, wetting her appetite to learn more.
At the age of 16, Helen began studying at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was now in a class alongside and competing with, girls who could see and hear. Ann Sullivan attended every class alongside Helen, interpreting the lessons. She made rapid progress, completing her first year’s study with honors in German and English. In her second year, however, she struggled, especially at mathematics. The decision was made to withdraw her from the School and provide her with a private tutor. A year later she was ready to take the entrance exams for Radcliffe College, the women’s division of Harvard University. Passing with distinction, she became the first person with major disabilities to enter an institution of higher learning.
Helen found the pace at Radcliffe frenetic. Again she had Anne alongside to spell out the lessons on her fingers, but even she had difficulty keeping pace with the fast talking lecturers. Despite the harried pace, Helen did well, especially in English. During her second year her literacy teacher encouraged her to write her life story so that the world could get an insight into the struggles she had gone through.
Helen worked on the manuscript while also studying, which placed an almost intolerable strain on her. Finally, in March, 1903 The Story of My Life was published. Sales were slow at first but it has gone on to become a beloved classic and was recognized by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th Century. It was the first of 15 books that she would go on to write.
Helen graduated from Radcliffe on June 28, 1904 to become the first person with a serious disability to earn an undergraduate degree. She now found herself in demand for speaking engagements where people flocked to hear her inspirational story. In 1905, Anne Sullivan married John Macy, who had helped Helen publish her autobiography. The three of them lived under the same roof, with Macy and Helen developing a special bond.
Helen devoted the rest of her life to helping the blind. She wrote extensively on the subject and worked tirelessly for a uniform system of Braille. Along with Anne, and sometimes her mother Kate, she travelled internationally, giving lectures in sold out halls everywhere from Canada to Australia. When Anne died in 1936, former housemaid Polly Thomson became Helen’s constant companion. During World War Two, Helen was a ray of hope for the thousands of servicemen who were blinded or deafened in combat. During 1943, alone, she visited 70 army and naval hospitals up and down the United States.
In her later years, Helen Keller was widely regarded as the greatest living American woman. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Four years later she suffered a heart attack. She died on June 1st, 1968 at her home in Westport, Connecticut. She was 87 years of age.