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:
A Letter to My Hands
Reading, again and again,
Touching throats and lips,
Threading a needle in the dark,
You'd go on strike
* * *
Q & A: Palace Theater, 1920