Kathi Wolfe

Helen Keller: Obsession and Muse

Growing up with low vision, I wanted nothing to do with Helen Keller. Helen, I knew from "The Miracle Worker" and public service ads on TV, was an "inspiration"-a saint. I was an ordinary kid, who never did her math homework, never cleaned her room and didn't, even if I could have, want to be saintly. There was no way that I would ever want to or be able to hang out with Helen. She was Wally and the gang: I was the Beaver.

"The Miracle Worker," the Academy Award winning film glued "inspirational" images of Helen Keller and her story into the public consciousness. Based on William Gibson's play of the same name, "The Miracle Worker," is Hollywood's version of how 21-year-old Annie Sullivan, herself visually impaired, taught the meaning of language to 7-year-old Helen Keller, who became deaf and blind at age 18 months. The film ends with the iconic image of Helen, her hand under the water pump, saying "Wa! Wa!"

The other image of Helen that is widely known is that of Helen as a saintly, (presumably) sexless, elderly women, urging people to help blind people in public service ads. I remember vaguely seeing these ads when I was a child. Helen (who lived from 1880-1968) appeared quite old then.

Because I didn't want to be lumped in with the "inspirational icon," the tantrum throwing child, or the saintly, sexless elderly woman, I tried to keep my distance from Helen.

Not that this was easy.

For as Kim E. Nielsen notes in The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, Keller is the most famous person with a disability in history, and how people perceive Helen impacts how they perceive all of us with disabilities.

When I was a teenager, my grandmother came into my bedroom. "No one will marry you," she told me, "but you can be another Helen Keller."

Years later, I was at a gay bar in New York. "I love Helen Keller!" a woman exclaimed to me, "but what are you doing in a place like this?" (The implication of her question was that Helen Keller did many good works, but that people like Helen, like me, wouldn't or shouldn't be looking for romance or sex.)

I became interested...then obsessed with Helen Keller, when I was a graduate student at Yale. Looking at books in the library, someone pointed out a book to me called Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years. That got my attention.

I learned that Keller graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904, at a time when few women, let along non-disabled women (or that many men) went to college. Keller, I discovered, was an early feminist, an author and vaudeville star. While she did not have a drinking problem, Helen enjoyed a drink (especially scotch).

In 1916, Keller and Peter Fagan planned to get married; but Keller's family nixed their plans. Keller loved dogs, Japan, hot dogs and at age 74 danced with Martha Graham and her dance troop. Helen was one of the earliest supporters of the NAACP and without pity or condescension, she comforted wounded soldiers after World War II. She read and wrote in Braille, knew several languages (English, French, Greek, German-among others), and communicated by finger spelling or reading lips.

Over the years, I've written about Helen Keller as a journalist and essayist. About 3 years ago, I mentioned my Keller obsession to Laura Fargas, one of my poetry teachers at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. The more I talked, the more Laura, encouraged me to write a series of poems about Helen. If I came to class without a poem, Laura (a dog-lover) would (jokingly) tell me that I wasn't getting "a biscuit." Since I'm a Labrador retriever (in another life), this hit me where I live. I started to write poems about Helen.

Now, though my chapbook is nearly complete, I'm still writing poems about Helen. Helen was a complex, vibrant personality who was mentality active from her childhood in the late 1900's until (and during) the 1950's. Sometimes I feel that I want a vacation from her, but I don't feel I'll ever be bored with Helen.

Among the many published biographies of Helen Keller, I recommend the following to anyone, wishing to know more about Kellerís life:
Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Hermann (The University of Chicago Press)
The Radical Lives of Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen (New York University Press)
Helen and Teacher by Joseph P. Lash (Addison Wesley Publishing Company)
The World I Live In by Helen Keller (New York Review Books)
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (W. W. Norton & Company)
Helen Keller Selected Writings edited by Kim E. Nielsen (New York University Press)

A Letter to My Hands

Reading, again and again,
the Bible, the papers,
Karl Marx, Shakespeare,
letters from my mother,
you exhale the dots of Braille.

Touching throats and lips,
you eavesdrop.
I've gotten too fat!
No more potatoes or cake,
whispers a movie star at Sardi's.
I haven't eaten in a week,
I stole a loaf of bread,
a woman says on the stoop
of a Brooklyn tenement.

Threading a needle in the dark,
holding my glass to keep
the wine from spilling,
you seldom rest.
Even in my dreams,
you're on call waiting to stifle
the horrors of my night.

You'd go on strike
if I were the factory boss
and you the union.
Who knows
why you stick with me?
I only know,
apart from you,
I couldn't even breathe.

* * *

Q & A: Palace Theater, 1920
       a found poem from Helen Keller's vaudeville show

What is the greatest human afflcition?

Can you feel moonshine?
No, but I can smell it.

What is your definition of a Bolshevik?
Anyone whose opinions you particularly dislike.

What do you think of Mr. Harding?
I have some fellow-feeling for him,
he seems as blind as I am.

Can you suggest any tax that people would willingly pay?
Yes, a tax on millionaires.

What is the greatest obstacle to universal peace?
The human race.

What is the slowest thing in the world?

Do you think women are men's intellectual equals?
God made woman foolish so that she might be a suitable companion to man.

Q & A: Palace Theater, 1920

Do you desire your sight more than anything else in the world?
No! I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than walk alone in the light.

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. Her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Breath & Shadow, and other publications. She has received a Puffin Foundation grant and been featured on the public radio show "The Poet and the Poem." Wolfe is writing a chapbook of poems on Helen Keller.