Helen Keller: A Life

"Herrmann's portrait of Keller is both fully embodied and unflinchingly candid."—Mary Loeffelholz, Boston Sunday Globe

"We meet an entirely unexpected Helen Keller—a woman with deep if concealed ambivalence toward her self-sacrificing teacher; a political radical; and a woman longing for romantic love and the fulfilled sexual life of a woman."—Joan Mellen, Philadelphia Inquirer

"This well-proportioned biography of the deaf and blind girl who became a great American crusader rescues its subject from the shackles of sainthood without destroying her as an American hero."—Dennis Drabelle, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Herrmann's engrossing biography helps us see beyond the public's fascination with how Keller dealt with her disabilities to discover the woman Keller strived to be."—Nancy Seidman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Fascinating. . . . Stripping away decades of well-meaning sentimentality, Herrmann presents a pair of strong-willed women, who struggled to build their own lives while never forgetting their dependence on each other."—Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

"Perhaps the most intimate biography [of Helen Keller]. [Herrmann] gives her back her sexuality [and] imbues her with a true humanity. . . . Helen Keller: A Life has some of the texture and the dramatic arc of a good novel."—Dinitia Smith, New York Times

An excerpt from
Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann


In a sunlit, sound-filled room, the deaf-blind Helen Keller sat inconsolably beside the deathbed of Annie Sullivan, her teacher and virtually lifelong companion. Annie had died minutes before, and Helen was consumed with grief. Annie had been more than her friend; she had been her "other self," the woman to whom she owed her very life. Fiery, intemperate, and above all, indomitable, it had been twenty-one-year-old Annie, a dark-haired Irish orphan raised in a poorhouse, who had transformed a wild child who smashed plates and kicked people into one of the most celebrated women of her time, an embodiment of hope and courage to millions of disabled people around the world.

Since that moment at the wellhouse at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887, where Helen was transformed from something a little more than a beast into a human being, both women had become world-famous. Immense crowds gathered whenever they lectured or appeared on the vaudeville stage, and even presidents, kings, queens, and popes deferred to them. For many persons, meeting Helen Keller was akin to having a religious experience. It was like an encounter with an angel. And almost invariably people were moved to tears.

Helen had sat beside her teacher for the past eight hours, her sensitive fingers on Annie's emaciated chest, painfully aware of her labored breathing. And then of her death rattle. And finally, when it was all over, of the sudden drop in temperature in her hand. For almost half a century, that hand, which had been her warm, pulsing lifeline to the world, was now cold and lifeless.

Her friends drew Helen aside so that Annie's body could be prepared for her funeral. But there was another reason they desired her out of the room as quickly as possible. They feared for her sanity. For years, people were aware of Helen's dependence on Annie and wondered if she would be able to survive without her.

An hour later, as Annie Sullivan's body was to be removed to a funeral parlor, Helen was led back into the room for her last farewell to the woman whom she still reverently called "Teacher," even though by this time she was fifty-six.

She was still, in the opinion of many, a beautiful woman. She was tall and shapely, with regular, almost perfect features and blue eyes that were the color of the sky on a perfectly clear day. Her eyes, which from the time she was nineteen months old had never seen a sunrise, a rainbow, or a human face, were luminous, as if they fathomed the inmost secrets of life and death. But Helen's family had lived in dread that the public would discover that her eyes were artificial. For medical and cosmetic reasons, they had been removed and replaced with glass ones.

In her youth, before the advent of her prosthetic eyes, she was considered even more fetching. Her porcelain complexion was clear and smooth, and she had a luxuriant mane of chestnut hair that cascaded down her back. Her figure was voluptuous; she had large breasts, small hips, and lovely, shapely legs. Because of her severe disabilities, her physical attributes, which were considerable, were usually not mentioned. People, when they met her, were quick to point out her spiritual beauty, comparing her to "a religious figure imagined by some Italian primitive or a Cimabue virgin, infinitely touching in her simplicity." "Physically she was large for her years, and more fully developed than is the every-day girl of her age," wrote a man who met her when she was fourteen, quickly adding that "she had come straight from the hands of God, and for fourteen years the world and the flesh and the devil had not obtained possession of her."

With her hands outstretched, Helen began to grope her way toward the body of her beloved teacher. Or rather she lurched forward, her body constantly broken by shivers and convulsive movements that appeared to be caused by nothing that was apparent to those present. The strange quivers and jolts corresponded to the world of vibrations and sensations to which she was acutely sensitive.

Reaching Annie's body, she bent down and reverently stroked the face that she had worshiped but never seen. Instantly she knew it was not the same. The features were fixed, waxen. All of Annie's warmth and vitality were gone. She recoiled in horror,

"It's not Teacher!" she cried in the broken, metallic, and mechanical voice that few people could comprehend. "It's not Teacher!"

For nearly fifty years the two women had enjoyed a friendship that was as all-encompassing as the most passionate love affair between a man and a woman. Commenting on their affinity for one another, friends compared the duo to Romeo and Juliet or Orpheus and Eurydice. Richard Watson Gilder, a famous poet and critic of the period, upon reading Annie's account of her first meeting with Helen in Tuscumbia, remarked that it would take a William Blake to paint the picture of those two souls rushing toward each other. Like the relationship between most couples, their alliance had been a complicated interplay of power and dependence. Although Annie came to rely on Helen's fame to provide their livelihood and on her seemingly tranquil disposition to lift her out of her dark moods, it was Helen, with her afflictions, who appeared to the world as the helpless one.

As her hands mournfully explored Annie's face for the last time, Helen feared that she could not survive without the woman who had been her savior and bridge to the world.

The vivid smell of bananas, the strangely comforting warmth of a burn, the vibrations from an object failing suddenly--even the eternal grayness and silence--meant nothing to the child who had no sight or hearing, no thought or language.

Helen Adams Keller did not always inhabit this strange, unreal world. She was born a normal, hearing-sighted infant, on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, a small rural town in northwestern Alabama. For almost two halcyon years, her childhood was like most other people's. Some years later, when she was in her early twenties, she made an attempt to reconstruct that period of her life, her account embellished by an editor who had been employed to make her peculiar existence understandable to the hearing-sighted public. It was filled, she said, with the light of long summer days and the chirping sound of birds, of feeling lost "in a great green place, where there were beautiful flowers and fragrant trees," and of "seeing flakes of light flitting among the flowers," which perhaps were birds or butterflies. But the truth was that Helen Keller never remembered seeing even a sliver of light or hearing birdsong. What she recalled privately to a friend was rubbing her distraught young mother's face until the skin sloughed off in patches.

An account of Helen's first months must come from her mother, Kate Adams Keller, and other relatives. It was reported that at six months she could say "How d'ye" and "tea, tea, tea." She also knew the meaning of the word "water," which she pronounced "wah-wah." When she was a year old, she took her first steps, attracted, she was told later, "by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor." Her vision was excellent. She could spot needles and buttons on the floor that no one else in the family could find. She was a precocious child, with soft golden curls, pale blue eyes, and a quick intelligence that she had inherited from her mother.

Kate Keller, then twenty-three, doted on her young daughter, and her intense maternal absorption was perhaps not surprising, given that by the time of Helen's birth, she had realized that her marriage was a mistake. A tall, statuesque blonde with periwinkle blue eyes and a porcelain complexion, Kate was twenty years younger than her husband, Captain Arthur Henley Keller, with whom she had little in common. A friend once bluntly described Captain Keller as "a gentleman farmer who loved to direct rather than work" and "a man of limited ideas and ability." But these lacks seem to have been offset by the fact that he was a raconteur as well as a good-natured, hospitable neighbor who was respected in the community. He was also a hunter, who, as Helen admitted later, "next to his family, loved his dog and his gun." Above all, Captain Keller was a loyal Southerner who had proudly served as a captain in the Confederate Army. He believed all things southern were noble, and that Negroes, although he would never be deliberately unkind to them, were not human beings.

Captain Keller had two grown sons from his first marriage, to Sarah E. Rosser of Memphis, who had died in 1877 at age thirty-eight. Kate got along fairly well with the younger boy, William Simpson, who was a teenager, but she had difficulty coping with James, who was in his early twenties and bitterly resented her. Only nine years older than him, she sensed that he was furious with his father for marrying her only a year after his mother's death.

Before her marriage to the captain, Kate had been a Memphis belle who had been pampered and protected by her father, Charles W. Adams, who was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. But Kate, unlike her husband, was not a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner. Although she seldom mentioned them in the provincial postbellum society of Tuscumbia, she had illustrious northern roots. Her father had been born in Massachusetts and was related to the famous Adams family of New England. Later he moved to Arkansas and fought on the side of the South when the Civil War broke out. Her mother, Lucy Helen Everett, was related to the celebrated New England clergyman and orator Edward Everett, who had spoken on the same platform at Gettysburg with Abraham Lincoln, as well as Edward Everett Hale, the famous author of "The Man Without a Country," which strengthened the Union cause, and to General William Tecumseh Sherman. When the Civil War ended, Kate and her family had moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

Marriage at age twenty-two to the forty-two-year-old captain ended Kate's luxurious existence. No longer did she live the carefree life of a pampered southern lady. Instead, this once indulged beauty was plunged into a rugged and primitive existence that was not unlike a pioneer woman's. As she discovered to her dismay, her jovial husband, like most of the southern gentility, during the tumultuous postbellum period, was struggling to make ends meet. Although a member of a distinguished southern family, Captain Keller, a former lawyer, was forced to earn a living both as a cotton plantation owner and as the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian. In 1885 his fortunes had taken an upturn when President Grover Cleveland appointed him U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Alabama. Still money was scarce, and Kate had to raise her own vegetables, fruit, and livestock. There were black servants to help run the plantation, but she did most of her own work, starting at dawn. To further cut down on expenses, she made her own butter, lard, bacon, and ham. She never complained publicly about her husband's shortcomings, attempting to sublimate her regrets about the marriage by becoming an ardent woman suffragist and finding refuge in books and other intellectual pursuits. She also found the time to cook and tend her flower garden, of which she was intensely proud. It was said that she raised the most beautiful roses that people had ever seen outside of a greenhouse. It was also said that she went for days without speaking to her husband.

Even Helen's name became a matter of dispute. When she was born, Kate wanted to name her "Helen Everett," after her mother. The name Helen means "light," and the frustrated Kate liked to imagine that her little girl's life would be unlike her hard, frustrating one, full of the brightness of the day. The obstinate captain would not hear of it. He wanted to name the baby "Mildred Campbell," after a cherished ancestor, but finally he relented. At the baby's christening, however, he conveniently forgot the name that his wife wanted to call the child and told the minister that she was to be named "Helen Adams."

The house where the Kellers lived in Alabama was a simple, white clapboard house that was built in 1820 by Helen's grandparents, David and Mary Fairfax Moore Keller. David was the son of Caspar Keller, a native of Switzerland who had immigrated to Maryland and owned large tracts of land in Alabama. (Ironically, another of Helen's Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich. He later wrote a book about their education.) Helen's grandmother Mary was a daughter of Colonel Alexander Moore, one of Lafayette's aides who was present at Lord Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, and a second cousin of Robert E. Lee.

The Kellers' house, which was the second to be built in Tuscumbia, was of Virginia cottage construction. Located on a 640-acre tract, its grounds included English boxwood trees, magnolia, mimosa, and a magnificent water oak with a crepusculated trunk that would become Helen's favorite tree and provide her with a thrilling tactile experience every time she climbed it. The house itself, as well as many of the surrounding trees and fences, was covered with an abundance of English ivy, inspiring its owners to call it "Ivy Green."

In the South it was a practice to build a cottage near the main house as an annex for occasional use. After the Civil War, the captain built such a small dwelling forty feet from the house; he used the cottage as an office to keep his plantation books. To his son James's dismay, no sooner had his first wife, Sarah, died than he had the office refurbished as a bridal suite. After their marriage, he and Kate lived there for a while. For the as yet undisillusioned Kate, it was a secluded, romantic place, the couple's privacy ensured by a screen of climbing yellow roses and honeysuckle.

It was in this structure, known as "The Little House," composed of one large room with a lovely bay window and a smaller room, that Helen was born and where she lived with a nurse until the time of her illness.

In February 1882, when Helen was nineteen months old, she developed a severe congestion of the stomach and brain. The nature of her ailment, which was called "brain fever" by the doctors of the period, remains a mystery to this day. Some modern doctors believe it was scarlet fever, a contagious disease that is caused by a hemolytic streptococcus, while others are of the opinion that her symptoms were more indicative of meningitis, an inflammation of the delicate membranes that cover the spinal cord and brain. In any event, for several days the family doctor thought she would die. But the fever gradually subsided, and the child fell into a deceptively quiet sleep. Her eyes, however, continued to pain her. They felt "so dry and hot" that, as she later recalled, she kept them turned "to the wall, away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day." Believing their little daughter cured, the Kellers rejoiced. Only when Kate passed her hand before the baby's eyes and they did not close and she rang a dinner bell and Helen did not respond, did they realize that the illness had left her deaf, blind, and mute. She was living in a world where there was neither light nor sound. Medical tests would later reveal that she could perceive neither light nor objects and that she was completely deaf, possessing neither bone nor air conduction in either ear.

"I was too young to realize what had happened," she wrote many years later. "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."

Helen Keller's severe handicap was rare. It has been estimated that since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been only fifty men and women in the world who have completely lost their sight and hearing in infancy or early childhood. Fewer numbers of blind-deaf mutes have been recorded in previous centuries. The great majority were killed in infancy by their relatives, a practice that exists today in many areas of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa.

For centuries, the blind, as well as the deaf-blind, were regarded as monsters, to be killed as quickly as possible. In ancient Greece, blind children were taken to mountaintops and left to starve to death or be eaten by wild animals. In Rome, a parent of a sightless child could buy a small basket in the marketplace in which to put their visually impaired offspring before throwing him or her into the Tiber. Other early societies sanctioned the selling of blind children into slavery or prostitution, and in the Orient, blind women were routinely forced to become prostitutes. Even in Europe, blind children were often thrown into the streets by their parents to beg for a living.

The deaf-blind, in particular, were regarded by their parents as pariahs, a retribution for their own sins. Even for a loving mother and father, they were almost impossible to handle. As a result of their intense frustrations at not being able to communicate, deaf-blind children, or "children of the silent night," as the blind commonly refer to them, throw temper tantrums, scratching, biting, hitting, and pinching other people. Helen Keller was no exception. No one had the heart to discipline her. She was willful and quick-tempered by nature and tyrannized the household. She smashed dishes and lamps, plunged her hands into people's plates. On one occasion she dashed into the parlor in her red flannel underwear and pinched her Grandma Adams, chasing her from the room. Helen could neither see nor hear other people's reactions and had no idea of the pain she inflicted. Her parents' tears and recriminations had no effect on her. She was regarded by her relatives "as a monster," and at least one of them suggested to Kate Keller that she was "a mental defective" who would be far better off in an institution. But Kate would not hear of it. Helen clung to her mother's skirts all day, and Kate's intense suffering was obvious to her friends and family--she had the most sensitive mouth they had ever seen, as if every line of her tragedy were etched upon it.

"Fate ambushed the joy in my heart when I was twenty-four and left it dead," Kate once confided to a friend.

Kate Keller was in an excruciating position. She had adored the darling Helen who could speak and hear, but after her daughter's defects were confirmed medically, she experienced a bewildering array of emotions: hurt pride, guilt, sadness, and often a wish for the child's death. She felt helpless about how to deal with Helen's destructive behavior.

Kate Keller continued to resist the idea of putting Helen away, even though she was getting harder to handle with each day. The Kellers by then had a second child, a girl named Mildred, who was five years younger than her sister. A jealous Helen overturned the cradle. The baby might have died if Kate had not caught her before she fell on the floor. A short time later, Helen locked her mother in the pantry for several hours and cut off the black corkscrews of the child of the family cook who had been instructed to keep her entertained. Once Helen's wet apron caught flame as she held it in front of the fire, and a nurse quickly threw a blanket over her, putting out the fire.

By this time Helen, who felt a need to communicate with other people, had learned a primitive way to communicate by crude signs: To say "no," she shook her head; "yes" was indicated by a nod. If she wanted her mother to make ice cream, she mimicked the motion of the freezer and shivered as if she were cold. To indicate her father, she made the motion of putting on glasses; for her mother, she laid her hand against her face; and for her sister Mildred, she sucked her thumb.

"I cannot recall what happened during the first months after my illness. I only know that I sat in my mother's lap or clung to her dress as she went about her household duties," she later wrote in The Story of My Life. "My hands felt every object and observed every motion, and in this way I learned to know many things."

Before her illness Helen had made signs for everything, and although she could say a few words, such as "wah-wah" and "tea, tea, tea," Kate Keller thought this habit was responsible for her slowness in learning how to speak. After the illness, when the family was dependent on signs to communicate with her, this natural tendency to gesture stood Helen in good stead. How much she could understand from this method of communication is difficult to determine, but at five she could sort and fold the laundry after it was ironed, distinguishing her own clothing from the other family members'. She knew when Kate was dressed to go out and begged to accompany her. By this age she also had realized that she was different from other people and that her mother and other people did not use signs as she did but spoke with their mouths. "Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips," she later recalled. "I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted."

The frustration at not being able to express herself intensified as Helen grew older. Her outbursts increased to the point where they were occurring hourly. The Kellers were mystified. Helen was almost six, and if they could not manage her at this age, when she was still a little girl, how would they handle her when she reached her full growth and sexual maturity? She would be capable of doing real physical harm to herself and others, and Kate Keller brooded that her child's severe disability would make her especially vulnerable to a sexual assault, as she recalled with horror the stories about southern women who had been raped by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Kate's attitude toward sex could be considered fanatical. Whether it was because of her own disappointing marriage, in which she was forced to bear children for a man she did not love, or her guilt at having produced a severely disabled daughter, she was puritanical about sex to the point of obsession.

One day, as Kate was cradling her exhausted child in her arms, she remembered a piece she had once read by Charles Dickens, her favorite author. It was about Dickens's own experience of visiting America and meeting Laura Bridgman, an ethereal deaf-blind young woman who had become educated. The solution to Helen's problem, if one existed, might lie with a young woman who had once shared her child's cruel fate. But was Laura as severely afflicted as Helen? Kate Keller wondered. And how, precisely, had her teachers broken through to her? Would their methods work with a child who was as violent and intractable as Helen?


Copyright notice: ©1998 Excerpted from pages 261-67 of Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1998 by Dorothy Herrmann. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Dorothy Herrmann
Helen Keller: A Life
©1998, 414 pages, 65 halftones
Paper $20.00 ISBN: 0-226-32763-9

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Helen Keller.

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