The Hidden Side of Helen Keller
A Book Review by Steve O'Keefe
Executive Director of the Staunton Media Lab
Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision
by Helen Keller
Kessinger Publishing Rare Reprints
ISBN 1437234704, 282 pages, hardcover
Originally published in 1920 by Doubleday, Page & Company
Picture of Helen Keller in 1920 courtesy Wikimedia Commons
If you only know Helen Keller as the deaf blind girl who learns language at the water pump, you don't know Helen Keller. That willful little girl grew up into a willful woman suffragette who spoke with her hands loudly enough to be heard around the world. This book reveals the hidden side of Helen Keller which has nearly been erased from history.
The Miracle Worker is the name of a book, a play and movie about the young Helen Keller. The miracle worker of the title is not Helen Keller but her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who taught Keller to finger spell and sign, and to write and read Braille. Sullivan was herself blind for a number of years but regained her sight. The Miracle Worker doesn't tell what happened after Helen Keller learned to read.
The Wikipedia version of the Helen Keller story is that she went on to graduate from college, became an advocate for the blind and eventually a much-loved worldwide ambassador for the disabled. The hidden story is quite a bit different.
I had heard that Helen Keller had become a radical Socialist firebrand who was a thorn in the side of several U.S. Presidents. I had heard that she wrote books later in life that were banned and are now unavailable. I searched online and only found hints about Helen Keller's Socialist writings. One day, passing through Alabama for the 45th time, I decided to visit the Helen Keller Home at Ivy Green -- including the famous water pump where she learned to talk using the tingling of her palms -- and to find out more about these forbidden texts.
I should have known it was a fool's errand. Tuscumbia, Alabama, is not the place one would expect to find works by the beloved matriarch of the disabled on the subjects of economics, politics and the labor struggle. Let me make this shockingly clear: The Helen Keller Home does not display any of the books Helen Keller wrote herself, except for The Story of My Life, which was co-written by Keller and Anne Sullivan while Keller was in college. The only books in the Helen Keller Home gift shop and book store are by other people, such as The Miracle Worker, and books about her interpreters, Anne Sullivan (until 1936) and Polly Thompson (until 1960). Keller died in 1968 at the age of 88, outliving both her beloved companions.
Helen Keller was a genius. Having lost her hearing and sight as an infant, she regained a connection with the world through sign language. That was just the beginning which is, unfortunately, all that most people know about Helen Keller. From fingerspelling in the hand, Keller quickly moved to signing words, not letters. She then rapidly learned to read Braille (the language of raised dots), to write in Braille, and to type on a standard typewriter.
Helen Keller then learned Latin, French, German and Greek. Stunned by her accomplishments, the writer Mark Twain launched a campaign to send Keller to college. She attended Radcliffe and graduated around the time the essays in this collection begin. Included is a letter to Mark Twain with one of Keller's most famous lines,"opportunity is the torch of darkness."
SIDEBAR: ON LEARNING BRAILLE
Braille is a more interesting language than many people realize. All the letters in the alphabet, plus numbers and punctuation, can be expressed using only a "six pack" of cells -- two columns with three cells each column -- each cell either turned on (bump) or off (flat). There are 64 possible unique combinations. It's like being able to express the entire alphabet and everything in math with only six dots! But it gets better.
Because there are left over dots, a "grade two" or "type two" Braille has taken hold that uses word signs (contractions) rather than letter signs. Consequently, reading and writing in Braille can be considerably faster than reading or writing alphabet. Just as Helen Keller went from fingerspelling to sign language, she also went from Grade 1 to Grade 2 Braille. Don't be surprised if the deaf and the blind find normal people to be, well, a little slow. But it gets even better.
When a student learns to write Braille, they emboss each letter with a stylus pushed into a "six pack" grid. However, since you read the bump in Braille, not the hole on the other side of it, you have to emboss each letter backwards. No fooling! So you have to mentally see each letter both frontways and backways to be an efficient embosser of Braille. The mental dexterity required to mirror each letter as you write possibly results in unique capabilities for manipulating symbolic language.
Eventually Helen Keller learned to read faces by spreading the fingers of her left hand across the jaw of the speaker, and she could recite what she "heard" word for word in her awkward dialect. She was a good friend to Eleanor Roosevelt and read the first lady's face as well as those of nine U.S. Presidents, ending with John F. Kennedy.
If this is all true -- and there's good video evidence it is -- Helen Keller was a genius. She didn't just figure out how to use the alphabet, she used it better than almost anyone. The volume at hand is all short pieces from 1904 to 1913 and cover the transformation of Helen Keller from an adorable poster child for overcoming adversity to a crusader for the rights of workers and women.
The pieces are not in chronological order and it requires some puzzle work to see Keller's development. In 1904, fresh out of Radcliffe, her writing mostly concerns how she copes. A few years later, Keller is writing about how to prevent disabilities and educate those who are afflicted. By 1912, she's blaming capitalism as the cause of blindness. She first saw blindness as a medical condition; she came to see it as largely the result of ignorance and poverty, which she ultimately blamed on capitalist economics.
The contrast between early Keller and mature Keller is most obvious in the last two pieces in the book, both about Christmas. The first piece, written for Ladies Home Journal in 1906, is a memory of a wonderful Christmas with other blind children at the Perkins Institute. Here's Keller explaining how she does things:
I distributed all the gifts myself and felt the gestures of delight as the children opened them. Very pretty gifts they were, well suited to sightless children. No disappointing picture-books, or paint boxes, or kaleidoscopes... p. 269
Contrast this with Helen Keller's writing seven years later in 1913 for The Metropolitan Magazine. She is 33 years old and suddenly not so patient to wait for rewards in the next world but instead seeks to "bring that life into [our] earthly days."
Hear! Today the bells and I call you to the Christmas of mankind. For it has begun, and we shall not falter nor turn back until every man and woman and child in this land and in every land has a chance to live happily and to develop his mind and do the best of which he is capable. p. 277
Helen Keller lent her name to many strikes and other efforts to improve the condition of workers, which caused her name to get run through the mud by the mainstream media of her day. She was accused of being the puppet of Anne Sullivan and Anne's husband, John Macy. If anything, the two of them were awed by Keller's amazing mind and in service to it.
Long after these essays were written, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan took their show on the road as a sort of Vaudeville act that circumvented the press which was hostile to her message. They brought people in with a water pump reenactment, then pumped them full of crazy ideas about women's liberation and equality.
Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, Helen Keller was suddenly back in favor. Her longtime companion Anne Sullivan died in 1936, and Polly Thompson took her place for the next 24 years. Keller continued to travel America as a representative of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) for whom she raised funds, and to travel the world as an ambassador for the disabled. She became one of the most well-known persons of all time.
And yet I'm still waiting to locate books written by Helen Keller after 1920. Her biography online jumps from 1916 to 1966 as if nothing happened between. The bio on her birthplace website stops at 1906! It's maddening. One of the most misunderstood geniuses of the modern era and we have little access to her most important works. If you are looking for the real Helen Keller, start your search with this stunning collection of pieces hand-picked by the author herself.
©2017 by Steve O'Keefe, Executive Director of the Staunton Media Lab, a media arts program for the deaf, blind and uniquely able.
Selected Quotations from Out of the Dark:
Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision
by Helen Keller
"Study the hand, and you shall find in it the true picture of man." p. 6
"The way to help the blind or any other defective class is to understand, correct, remove the incapacities and inequalities of our entire civilization." p. 40
"Some of those [women] who have suffered most cling to the ideal [of womanly purity] and pass it on to their daughters, as slaves teach their children to kiss their chains." p. 50
"The riches I sought [by attending college] consisted in learning to do something, and do it well. I felt, and still feel, that the demand of the world is not so much for scholarship as for effective service." p. 85
"People are too prone to think that the actual is the limit of possibility." p. 86
"A happy spirit is worth a library of learning." p. 104
"The ideal of college education is not to give miscellaneous instruction, but to disclose to the student his highest capacities and teach him how to turn them to achievement." p. 106
"[The blind] want to work and support themselves.... We want them to be apprenticed to trades, and we want some organized method of helping them to positions after they have learned these trades." p.128
"He who is content with what has been done is an obstacle in the path of progress." p. 135
"When a man loses his sight he does not know himself what he can do." p. 138
We have a "sacred duty to raise the adult blind from dependence to self-respecting citizenship." p. 140
"What the blind workman needs is an industry that will enable him to produce something that people will buy, not out of pity for him, but because it is useful or beautiful." p. 158
"Our worst foes are ignorance, poverty, and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society." p. 185
"A new sense must be developed that shall bring back the [blind child's] stimuli and set aglow again the joy of his heart. The new sense is touch." p. 191
"Opportunity is the torch of darkness." p. 211
"The heaviest burden on the blind is not blindness, but idleness." p. 214
"He may try to be cheerful; but happy [the blind person] cannot be, unless he finds occupation." p. 228
"The blind require special teaching to enable them to use the senses of hearing and touch in the place of sight." p. 223
"Swedenborg says that 'the perfection of man is the love of use,' or service to others." p. 260
"We shall not falter nor turn back until every man and woman and child in this land and in every land has a chance to live happily and to develop his mind and do the best of which he is capable." p. 277