“I rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light”: The Miracle named Helen Keller

A scene from the movie, ‘The Miracle Worker’ in 1962 | Courtesy of TheFilmExperience

Kate gave Helen a piece of candy in order to stop Helen’s tantrum. Helen stopped and walked away from Kate and went over to her newborn sister’s cradle and tipped it over, knocking the baby to the floor. Helen’s mother began to scream and pulled Helen from the baby. Helen placed her hand on Kate’s mouth. Helen could feel her move her mouth and the vibrations coming from her yells, but could not hear a single word she was saying. They had no way of communicating with her, and neither did Helen. Helen was living her life in total darkness and silence.1

When Helen Keller was born, she was a vibrant, intelligent baby. She was born June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama.2 Helen began to speak at only nine months old, and her parents, Captain Arthur Keller and Kate Keller, could not be any happier with their daughter. When Helen was nineteen months old, she suffered an illness that left her deaf, blind, and eventually mute.3 The illness Helen contracted was Brain Fever, which we call Scarlet Fever today.4 As the years passed, the Kellers tried to do everything to help Helen. As Helen’s condition became worse, Kate had less time for her newborn baby, Helen’s younger sister, Mildred, and Captain Arthur’s relationship with James, Helen’s half-brother, became almost nonexistent. Helen’s grandmother could see how frustrated her parents were becoming every time Helen would hit them, and throw tantrums, leading to putting Helen’s younger sister in danger when Helen tipped over the cradle and Mildred fell out. After this incident, Helen’s grandmother would constantly urge them to place Helen in a mental asylum where she could be cared for. Kate and Arthur refused to give up on their daughter and send her away.5 The Kellers were a very wealthy family, so maintaining Helen in their home did not financially challenge them. In fact, they hired Alexander Graham Bell, who taught deaf people, and who also  invented the telephone, to help Helen.6 Bell informed them that there was no way to improve Helen’s deafness and blindness. Bell did suggest that they contact the director of Boston’s Perkins School for the Blind, Michael Anagnos.7

When Helen was six years old, Michael Anagnos sent his most successful student, and recent graduate, Anne Sullivan, to the Keller home. Anne was an Irish immigrant, who, at about five years old contracted trachoma, a bacterial infection that damaged her ability to see. When Anne was nine years old, her mother contracted tuberculosis and died, which left Anne and her younger brother Jimmie in the care of their father, who was an alcoholic. Jimmie suffered from a tubercular hip, and Anne trachoma, which in turn led their father to send them to the Tewksbury Almshouse.8 Tewksbury was an asylum for the poor and disabled. This institution was infamous for its unsanitary living conditions. Such institutions were made for refuge and assistance, but the physicians there viewed their patients as disordered beings, not actual human beings9 They would use practices that were known worldwide for being inhumane on helpless patients, whether they were classified as insane or disabled. These practices included shock therapy, and gags, as well as less commonly known practices such as ovarian compression, which was “forcible pressure on the ovaries by the hands, fists, body or with a specially designed compression belt, in order to prevent, terminate, or initiate an attack of hysteria.”10 Unfortunately, Jimmie died in the institution because he was too much to care for in the eyes of the caretakers of the Tewksbury Almshouse. Anne was left alone, scared, and almost completely blind.

Picture of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan | Courtesy of bio.com

Upon Anne’s arrival to the Keller home, Kate informed Anne that Helen did have some form of communicating with people when she wanted something or someone by using hand signals that Helen had come up with. For example, when she wanted her mother, Helen would place her hand on her face; when she wanted her father, she would make the motion of putting on glasses.11 Anne had a fear that Helen was going to be a seriously disabled and delicate child, but was relieved to see that she was a strong but disobedient child.12 Anne began her lessons with Helen immediately to see what she was going to be up against. Anne’s method, in order for Helen to be able to communicate with people again, was to have Helen feel something, then spell the item in Helen’s hand, in the hopes of her being able to connect the two things and know that she was spelling what she was feeling. Anne gave Helen a doll as a gift, and Helen fell in love with it because this doll had eyes, a mouth, nose, and everything else like Helen. Anne grabbed Helen’s hand and spelled D-O-L-L , Helen’s first word. Helen raised her hand and repeated the same movements as Anne. Anne then grabbed a piece of cake to give to Helen as a reward. Anne let Helen smell the cake and let her have a bite. She then spelled C-A-K-E in Helen’s hand, and once again Helen raised her hand and imitated Anne’s movements. Anne was already very pleased with Helen, even though it was their first lesson together. Anne then tried a different approach and took Helen’s doll away from her. Helen began to throw a major tantrum, demanding Anne to give her the doll back. Helen grabbed things and threw them across the room and yelled trying to get her doll back. Anne grabbed Helen and spelled D-O-L-L again in her hand, Helen refused to spell again, and kept yelling and kicking. Anne grabbed Helen’s hand and made her spell the word doll and then gave her the doll back. Helen took the doll, still angry, and hit Anne in the face, knocking out one of her teeth. Helen ran out of the room and locked Anne inside the room, leaving Anne trapped with no way out. At dinner time, Anne was nowhere to be found. Thankfully, Captain Keller found her, and helped Anne out of the room through the window.13

Later that night, Kate went to Anne to talk to her about Helen. Kate was eager to learn how to teach Helen, and assist Anne in whatever she needed. Kate was hopeful that whatever Anne was teaching Helen would help her become the vibrant child she used to be. Kate was curious to see how Anne was going to teach Helen. Helen was in Anne’s room with her, sitting across the room rocking her new doll in a cradle. Anne grabbed Helen’s hand and placed a pen in the other. She let Helen feel the pen, and then spelled P-E-N. Kate watched attentively as Helen spelled, C-A-K-E. Anne and Kate were confused as to why Helen did not repeat what she had spelled as she did successfully earlier. Nonetheless, Kate was pleased with seeing Helen spell the word. Anne then tried to take the pen away from Helen, and she began to struggle. Helen then poked Anne’s hand with the pen and Kate pulled her away from Anne, as Helen began to kick and scream. Anne then watched Kate try to control Helen, but failed, until she put a piece of candy into Helen’s mouth. Anne was now more confused as to why Kate gave her a reward for poking Anne with the pen. Kate had no answer for Anne and took Helen from the room.14

The next morning, Anne walked into the dining room for breakfast and was in shock. She sat down in her chair and watched Helen walk around the dining room table grabbing food off of everyone’s plates with her hands, and stuffing her face like an animal. Anne was amazed by the entire Keller family because they were behaving as if everything was normal. Anne grew more and more upset as Helen kept walking around the table as no one did anything to stop her. Anne asked Kate if she and the rest of the family could leave the dining room. Captain Arthur stared at Kate with anger, as Kate remembered her saying she wanted to assist Anne with anything she needed, so they all left. Anne locked all the doors, hid the keys, and sat down to eat. Helen walked around the table feeling the chairs completely empty. Helen began to scream, kick, and punch Anne, throwing glass vases, and pounding the table. Anne would grab Helen, sit her on a chair, and placed a spoon in Helen’s hand, but Helen would throw it across the room. Anne kept attempting this and did not stop even though Helen would spit in her face, and hurt Anne. Finally, Helen gave in and began to eat eggs off of her plate. Anne finally unlocked the doors of the dining room, and Helen ran to her mother. Anne was satisfied to report to Kate that Helen ate from her own plate with a spoon, and folded her napkin. The entire family walked into the dining room to see the entire room wrecked and food thrown everywhere.15

Once again, Kate went up to Anne in her room to talk to her. Kate told Anne that Captain Arthur wanted to let Anne go, but that she insisted that she stay. Anne told Kate that Helen was never going to be the vibrant child that Helen used to be as a baby if they kept spoiling Helen and letting her get away with everything, always giving her whatever she wants. She informed Kate that Helen was just angry and frustrated with everything because she had no way to speak or see. Helen was trapped in her own mind with no way out. Then Anne told Kate more about her past, and how much pain that past brought to her on a daily basis. Anne urged Kate to know that she has to act everyday as if she were not disabled, and that is how she also needed to treat Helen, as if she were not disabled.16

After a few months, Anne could spell anything to Helen and she would imitate her movements with ease. The only issue was that Helen did not know what she was spelling and the Kellers were still doing nothing to control Helen’s spoiled behavior. The Kellers then agreed to let Anne take Helen to a cottage house nearby, in order for Anne to have full control over Helen. This way Helen would not have anyone to spoil her, nor would she be able to run away to her mother whenever she did not want to be around Anne. Helen was going to have to depend on Anne for everything that she did. When the Kellers left Helen with Anne, Helen began to throw everything across the room, scream and kick for hours. Anne eventually was able to make Helen understand that Anne was now in charge of her. For a few weeks, Anne and Helen would go on walks together as Anne would spell things into Helen’s hand. Anne taught Helen how to eat properly, and she even taught her how to sew. Kate and Captain Arthur would visit Helen, but Helen could not know they were there. They were very satisfied and content with the progress Anne was making with Helen, but Anne was not. In fact, Anne was filled with more pain every day that Helen went on without knowing what the world was.17

Helen Keller’s college graduate picture | Courtesy of SpartacusEducationa

Only two weeks after Helen was taken to the cottage house, she returned home because Kate could not stand to be away from Helen anymore. Upon arriving home, Helen seemed to be well behaved as she was when it was just Helen and Anne. Before having lunch, Anne pulled Kate aside and asked her to not destroy what Anne had achieved with Helen. Kate understood and vowed to help Anne keep Helen the well-behaved child she was when she was not home. The Kellers invited Helen’s grandmother to lunch to show her how well-mannered Helen had become, thanks to Anne. Anne placed Helen’s napkin on her neck as she always did, served her a plate of food, and placed her utensils in her hands. Once Anne sat down, Helen threw her napkin to the floor and her utensils. Anne glared at Helen and picked up her napkin and utensils. She grabbed Helen’s hand and spelled “N-O,” over and over again. She placed the napkin back on her neck, and the utensils in her hands. Again, Helen threw them on the floor and began to eat with her hands. Anne stared at Helen as she got up from her chair and began to walk around the table eating off of everyone’s plate. Anne glared at Kate because she was not helping Anne. Anne stood up and grabbed Helen forcefully and placed her back in her chair, and Helen began to scream and kick. Helen grabbed a pitcher of water and threw it at Anne. She picked up Helen and the pitcher and marched outside. The family sat in their chairs confused as to where Anne was taking Helen, so they followed them. Anne took Helen to a pump outside of the house and made Helen refill the pitcher of water. Anne placed Helen’s hand under the streaming water, and spelled, “W-A-T-E-R,” repeatedly into Helen’s hand. Suddenly, it seemed as if Helen came into the light, and spelled, W-A-T-E-R back to Anne. Anne was in shock and kept spelling the word to Helen and Helen would repeat, but the difference now was that Helen understood Anne. Helen understood that water was the thing she was feeling.18

Soon after Helen’s breakthrough, she quickly learned how to read, and by the age of eleven, she learned how to type.19 Once Helen mastered manual lip-reading, handwriting, typewriting, Braille, and basic vocal speech, she was sent by her parents to attend the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. Helen graduated from Gilman’s preparatory Cambridge School for Young Ladies and Radcliffe College with honors.20 Helen went on with Anne Sullivan as her teacher for the rest of Anne’s life. Helen worked the rest of her life for improvement of the education of the disabled.21  She raised funds for many agencies that were serving the disabled, as well as show America how to prevent gonorrheal blindness in newborn babies. She earned many humanitarian awards and citations for all her contributions.22

Helen lived in a time where the world did not understand that disabled men and women were capable of doing the same things as everyone else. People like Helen never had a chance in society like Helen did. In turn, Helen was not significant in history because of all her contributions; she was significant because she was able to do all that she did despite the fact that she was disabled. Helen broke all the stereotypes and challenged the expectations of a disabled woman. Helen changed the world by showing that disabled or not, you can still do extraordinary things.

Helen Keller reading to blind children | Courtesy of LearnodoNewtonic

 

  1. Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (New York: Cosmico, 1903), 15.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2014, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Donna G. Willams.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2014, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Donna G. Willams.
  4. Encyclopedia of Alabama, March 2007, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Kim Nielsen.
  5. Encyclopedia of Alabama, March 2007, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Kim Nielsen.
  6. Jane Sutcliffe, Helen Keller (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2003), 12.
  7. Encyclopedia of Alabama, March 2007, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Kim Nielsen.
  8. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2013 s.v. “Anne Sullivan,” by Amy Sisson.
  9. Mary de young, Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750-1950 (North Carolina: McFarland), 52.
  10. Mary de Young, Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750-1950s (North Carolina: McFarland), 52-75.
  11. Jane Sutcliffe, Helen Keller (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2003), 8.
  12. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2013 s.v. “Anne Sullivan,” by Amy Sisson.
  13. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2013 s.v. “Anne Sullivan,” by Amy Sisson.
  14. Anne Sullivan to Sophia C. Hopkins, March 11, 1887.
  15. Gary DeMar, “What You Probably Didn’t Know About Helen Keller,” October 2009, https://americanvision.org/3038/what-you-probably-didnt-know-about-helen-keller/.
  16. John Vickrey Van Cleve, “Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller,” Journal of American History Vol. 97 (March 2011): 1135.
  17. Anne Sullivan to Sophia C. Hopkins, March 11, 1887.
  18. Anne Sullivan to Sophia C. Hopkins, April 5, 1887.
  19. Marta L. Werner, “Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan: Writing Otherwise,” Textual Cultures, Vol. 5 (2010): 14.
  20. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2014, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Donna G. Willams.
  21. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2014, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Donna G. Willams.
  22. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2014, s.v. “Helen Keller,” by Donna G. Willams.
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68 Comments

  • Nice article. Helen Keller was quite an extraordinary woman. It is sad that she got scarlet fever, and lost many of her senses. It must have been terrible for her because she could not communicate with her family because she was deaf blind and mute. I do not know if I would have the strength to carry on if I was faced with those disabilities. However, Helen not only carried on but she thrived in a this world and became an icon.

  • The story of Helen Keller is a very famous one. She made history by being a disabled person who defied expectations in a time when almost nothing was expected of people who were not ‘normal’. She suffered much to eventually learn to function even with almost her entire conventional perception of the world and reality severed, and through it she created a legacy dedicated to the actual assistance and understanding of disabilities and the people who had them. While not everyone knows who she is, her story has been adapted into plays, film, literature, and this article tells a fantastic story more focused on her early life, as opposed to her later humanitarian work. Both are important, but the details of her early life are often lost on people who do know who she is, and the story of her situation after her lost of sight and hearing, and the struggle to help her find her way out of her own mind is not only an incredible one, but one that is done justice here.

  • Helen Keller was always an inspiring person to learn about in my younger years in school. Helen was immensely bright for being able to find a way to communicate when becoming blind and deaf because of an illness she got when she was not even two years old yet. I admire Anne for being able to patiently work with Helen under almost impossible circumstances, and admire her parents for not giving up on Helen because of the hard time she was having. Giving her the chance to show what she was capable of greatly impacted the view of disabled people.

  • I actually learned about Helen Keller because of an old movie I had watched of her with my mother. The movie had left an impression on me and I had wanted to learn more about Helen. Although being blind, deaf, and mute, she proved to be a top role model for people with disabilities that they can do anything they can with their heart into it. Helen Keller is an inspiring and a admirable person to people of all disabilities.

  • I’ve always been so amazed by Hellen Keller’s story, and I learned so much more about her story from this article. I always thought she had been born deaf and blind, I had no idea it happened when she was 19 months old from an illness. I also had no idea that her parents hired Alexander Graham Bell to try to teach her, or that he even taught the blind. I’m really glad I read this article because I was able to get a more detailed version of her story and learn more than I already knew, which was just the broad version.

  • Helen Keller is one of my role models that I wrote about and did a project on how great she was in sixth grade. Although Keller was blind, deaf, and mute, she proved to society that people with disabilities are more than capable of doing what a normal person can do. I believe that with the help of Anne that Keller received and the confidence she had to strive and learn about the circumstances that she faces.

  • I remember seeing a movie on Helen Keller when I was in elementary and remember the famous “W.A.T.E.R” scene where Helen Keller was finally able to connect with Anne. I did not know however, that the grandmother wanted the parents to put her in an mental institutions because they saw no progress. I am glad her parents were wealthy enough to do whatever they could to help Helen and her disabilities. I applaud Anne for the patience she had with Helen not many people can teach someone who is not able listen in the beginning. We need more people like Anne to help children who are in need of help. This was a very good informative article.

  • I love Helen Keller. Reading this article helped me to understand her life better and the challenges she went through. I am glad that Helen had Anne to help her understand and navigate her way through life. Despite Helen being blind, mute, and deaf she strove and broke the view of society on disable people. She proved that even though she was disabled she could do anything. I feel like more children need an Anne. Anne was able to help Helen and withstand her temper tantrums and ultimately made Helen the woman she was today. Children these days are struggling to learn and have confidence because they don’t have anyone to teach them. If they had someone like Anne, they would be able to strive and learn to do their best despite their circumstances.

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